“I want to buy an Olympic bar for my home gym.” If this is you, then you already know an Olympic bar is one of the most important pieces of equipment a gym can have.
If you’re unsure which is the best bar to go for – arm yourself with some info before making a hasty decision.
You need to get this right.
The quality of your training experience will depend on the kind of bar you buy.
There is a whole range of bars in the market place, from the cheap ones claiming to be Olympic bars, to Power Bars (or Powerlifting Bars) and Olympic Weightlifting Bars.
Within each category, there are different bar configurations – bare steel, stainless steel, and coated.
On top of that, you have varying thicknesses and grips (knurls). Soft knurls – easier on the hands, and aggressive knurls for extra grip on the bar.
Finally, there’s the sleeves of the bar that use either bushings or bearings.
- This article will help you identify the key features of an Olympic bar according to the intended exercise. Match the features of the bar with the kind of use (and abuse) it will be put under – and you can make a purchasing decision with confidence.
- To read about the basic characteristics of an Olympic bar see Olympic Bar Dimensions – Anatomy of an Olympic Bar.
Purchasing an Olympic bar can be a shrewd investment – especially if you splash the cash on a good quality one.
In those cases it should last a lifetime.
However, there’s little point buying an expensive Olympic weightlifting barbell, if it’s primary use is for bench presses and squats.
Think carefully about the types of exercises you are going to use it for. Let’s go through some various training scenarios, and delve into the corresponding features that the bar should have.
Use: Chest Exercises/Casual Use
If your primary goal is to build a bigger chest and you want a bar strictly for a bench press set-up, then you could get away with buying a cheap bar.
‘Great – then what am I waiting for?’
But before you make a beeline for your wallet, consider that a cheap ‘Olympic bar’ comes with its limitations, namely the maximum weight that can be placed on its ends, before it starts to deform.
This means, you’ll have to train accordingly to avoid bending it. There’s few things more annoying than training with a bent barbell.
However, if you’re a beginner or you don’t press too much weight – then this shouldn’t be an issue.
Sure, you could use it for deadlifts and squats, but only with relatively light weights. A cheap bar is never designed to withstand heavy loads nor is to be used for Olympic lifts (see later).
If you go this route, then for your own safety – don’t overload the bar.
With the bar loaded, take care that you don’t drop it on the rack or throw it to the floor, otherwise it will bend or worse – break.
The biggest issue with cheap bars is bending of the bar. How long could you put up with a bent barbell? If you’re serious about your training – then not long.
The cost of replacing a cheap bar will cancel out the initial saving you made when you bought it. Opting to buy better quality equipment from the start, can save money in the long run.
Characteristics of an ‘Economy’ Bar
In terms of bar configuration, there’s not many options when it comes to buying cheap Olympic barbells.
Most are chrome plated along the whole length – which makes them look nice and shiny, but the plating can eventually chip or flake off – which isn’t so good.
Also, with the steel covered by the chrome plating, the knurl-depth on the bar is reduced, which can make the grip feel more slippery.
The moving parts at each end of the bar, are called the sleeves.
At the cheaper end of the market, their quality of engineering isn’t great. Typically they’ll exhibit poor rotation due to the quality of the bushings (if they even have bushings!) – making them totally unsuitable for dynamic Olympic lifts.
For bench pressing, the opposite is true – you don’t want rotation of the sleeves to occur as it affects the stability of the bar. So don’t buy an Olympic weightlifting barbell for bench presses!
On cheap bars, the ends of the sleeves may be secured with an allen bolt, which over time, can work itself loose – meaning occasional re-tightening on your part. Also a ‘noisy’ bar may rattle a lot when in use.
Because the steel in cheaper bars is not as strong, the diameter is increased to compensate somewhat, so it’s common to see these bars with thicker diameters – typically between 30-32mm.
Compare that with high-quality bars which are in the range of 28-29mm in diameter.
Another issue with cheap bars is the actual weight.
Some economy bars claim to be 20kg (44lbs) but can be considerably less.
If you have your own weighing scales and you’re buying a bar from a shop – bring the scales and check the actual weight yourself.
Also be aware of the product’s description. If it’s advertised as an Olympic 7′ barbell (with no mention of the weight) – maybe the manufacturer is hiding the fact that it weighs less than 20kg (44lb).
Typical prices for cheap Olympic barbells range between $70 to $150.
If you’re interested in buying a highly-rated economy bar, Amazon are currently selling the Body Solid 7ft Olympic Bar in chrome and black finishes. The bars weigh in at 44lb, with a shaft diameter of 30mm. The chromed version costs just a few dollars more than the black bar pictured below.
(Sold and shipped by Amazon)
Economy Bench Press Bar – Summary
- Cheap. Good for beginners or for “casual workouts” at home – while you perform your proper lifts at your gym.
- You get what you pay for. Limited range of use – i.e. not for Olympic lifting or powerlifting.
- Shouldn’t be loaded with heavy weights. The bar will limit your progress if you aspire to train with heavier weights or wish to perform challenging squats and deadlifts.
- Not a piece of equipment you can “use and abuse” without bending occurring over time.
PowerLifting – Bench Press/Squats/Deadlifts
Use: Heavy-loads/Strength Training/Bodybuilding
If you’re thinking that the term “Powerlifting” doesn’t apply to you – and it’s only for “strongmen” who lift ridiculous amounts of weight – think again.
Powerlifting simply refers to the bench press, the squat and the deadlift – three classic exercises that are part of many a workout – regardless of level.
If you perform these exercises regularly, then you’re in the market for a Powerlifting bar.
The Powerlifting exercises are “slow lifts” when compared to the “fast, dynamic” Olympic lifts like the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch. With a dedicated ‘power bar’ you’ll be able to perform your bench presses, squats and dead-lifts more effectively.
Remember – they’re not the ideal bars for Olympic lifts.
Characteristics of ‘Power’ Bars
The most important feature for a good power bar, is the strength of the steel.
The stronger the steel, the more stress it can be put under, and the less chance it will bend. The ability to withstand more abuse means a loaded bar can be dropped to the floor.
So if you think you’re going to be throwing your bar around a bit – you better get one with stronger steel. That said, it’s never a good idea to drop a loaded bar directly onto a rack or bench.
This scenario is known as the bar hitting first (see Olympic bar section – later on).
The “tensile strength” and the “yield strength” ratings are used to measure the strength of an Olympic bar and are measured in pounds per square inch (PSI).
The “tensile strength” is the amount of force needed to break the bar apart, while the “yield strength” is the amount of force needed for it to develop a “permanent bend” (i.e. not break – but be left bent).
As a customer, it’s a key indicator of quality when you read through the list of specs of a bar.
Ideally, these two figures should be close to each other. Manufacturers commonly quote the tensile strength, but are a lot less forthcoming with the yield strength figure.
Knowing both values will help you truly rate a bar.
You will also see “pound test” figures for bars. These are considered to be more of a marketing gimmick – always go with the tensile strength.
So what’s a good PSI figure?
Average bars rate between 130-150,000 psi.
Better quality bars rate between 160,000-180,000 psi. The strongest bars (competition and commercial-gym quality) will have a PSI rating of 190,000-220,000.
The shaft diameter of a power bar is officially 29mm – slightly thicker than the 28mm of an Olympic bar.
However, power bars can come in 28mm, 28.5mm, 29mm and 30mm diameters – so you have a choice when it comes to grip. Thinner shafts are made of better steel and are usually more expensive.
What about the knurling (grip)?
The knurling on power bars is generally more aggressive.
This enhances the grip when lifting heavy weight. Too much of an aggressive knurl can cut up the hands. If that bothers you, look for a bar with a softer knurl, that feels just right. However, this can mean a higher price for superior machining of the knurl.
Most power bars will have a center knurl. This is for squat purposes. It prevents the bar from sliding down the back – making it feel more stable for the lifter.
Another desirable characteristic of a good power bar is its stiffness.
During bench press, squats, and deadlifts – the bar shouldn’t oscillate or have much “whip” to it – this is a characteristic of weightlifting bars.
If you only do powerlifting, general strength training or bodybuilding workouts – you don’t need an Olympic weightlifting bar.
As well as impacting on the look of a bar, the finish has an effect on the feel of the knurl and the maintenance required to prevent the bar from oxidizing.
With no finish, an uncoated bar needs to be looked after – to prevent rust. If you want a “low-maintenance” bar or plan to use it outdoors or store it in a garage – consider getting a coated bar.
- Bare steel – some like the feel of a bare steel bar. Without any coating, the raw knurling, machined onto the steel is in direct contact with your skin. It rusts over time and develops a “patina effect” along the shaft – although this can be managed with cleaning.
- Stainless steel – a bar made of steel and chromium has anti-corrosive properties, and doesn’t need a coating. Usually more expensive, but looks great and the knurl should feel really good. Needs a little cleaning now and again to maintain it’s pristine look.
- Bright zinc – a high quality finish and looks nice and shiny. It provides good anti-rust protection – but can scratch.
- Black zinc – provides good anti-rust protection and is the preferred choice for those who like the look of a black bar. The steel is first coated with bright zinc, with the black zinc layer put on top. Over time, scratching can occur as the underlying bright zinc layer is exposed.
- Black oxide – a cheaper coating method. It only offers mild corrosive protection, so if you plan to use the bar in damp or humid areas – it’ll be more prone to rust.
Price – Powerlifting Bars
These bars can vary widely between $250 – $600, but you can get excellent quality bars in the $300-$400 range. The more expensive power bars will have the highest PSI ratings, typically with a stainless steel finish, excellent quality knurling and tested to the highest standards for defects.
Power Bar Summary
- Designed for heavier loads. Wide range of bars available for different budgets. Variety of coatings and knurl depths available.
- Not the best option if you want to perform dynamic lifts. Large choice of bars can be overwhelming – so more “research” required before making a purchase.
Olympic Lifts – Clean and Jerk/Snatch/CrossFit
Use: Specific/Fast Dynamic Lifts/Heavy-Duty
Dynamic lifts include the Olympic lifts; the clean and jerk, and the snatch. If you intend to include a significant amount of these exercises in your workouts, you really need an Olympic barbell.
Here are the reasons why a dedicated weightlifting bar is a sensible choice:
#Reason 1 – Life of The Bar
Quality Olympic barbells are thoroughly tested. They’re put under incredible stress to ensure that they can withstand a lot of abuse without deforming permanently.
Static tests involve bending the bar at its middle and ends to see if the bar returns straight and true, within a certain allowed tolerance.
Dynamic tests involve dropping a loaded bar to the floor from a height, to simulate real use in a gym or competition.
Top of the range barbells are also tested for microscopic defects in the structure of the steel. They usually come with some sort of warranty, guaranteeing the life of the bar, meaning you should never have to replace it.
Despite the impressive strength of the steel and its ability to re-straighten, this doesn’t mean you can recklessly drop a loaded bar onto a rack or narrow bench. If the shaft hits the rack first, this can throw the PSI rating of your bar out of the window!
Dynamic tests are done with the weight plates hitting the floor first.
Keep this in mind and your bar won’t be left with a permanent bend.
#Reason 2 – Reduces The Chance of Injury
Top of the range weightlifting bars have quality engineered bushings or needle bearings in the sleeves.
This allows for a nice, smooth and even rotation of the sleeves and reduces the torque on your wrists – minimizing injuries. When doing cleans – your wrists need to rotate rapidly and get under the bar, and bearings absorb a lot of the high radial load.
Bearings are more expensive, but good quality brass bushings perform a similar function, and are an excellent choice.
#Reason 3 – Enables Good Technique
The steel in Olympic weightlifting bars is manufactured to be more elastic. They have “whip“, which a strong and skilled lifter can use to his advantage, especially with heavy weight. This extra flexibility also helps to minimize stress on the joints and body, during demanding lifts.
The housing that contains the bearings at either end is narrower. This allows for the weight plates to be placed closer in to the lifter, meaning you can maximize your center of gravity as you lift the bar from the floor.
#Reason 4 – More Comfortable
Better machining of the knurl means it’s softer on the hands. On top of it, the chrome or zinc coating reduces the coarseness of the knurled steel underneath.
Center Knurl – Yes or No?
The main benefit of the center knurl is the friction it creates between the bar and your back when doing squats.
Also for those who do front squats or cleans, the bar is ‘racked’ across the front of the shoulders and rests across the neck or sternal notch. A center knurl will give that little extra stability as it grips onto the neck.
With no center knurl, a bar may feel a little ‘slippery’. If you perform a lot of squats, then you may want a center knurl on your bar.
Competition Olympic bars all have center knurls. Does that mean you should buy a bar that has one?
One scenario where a center knurl can prove to be a disadvantage is if you do high repetitions of cleans/power-cleans or multiple clean and jerks as part of CrossFit training.
With the constant racking of the bar against your neck/sternal notch – within short periods of time – the knurling can graze your skin and things can get painful very quickly.
“Tearing up your neck” is the common phrase associated with center knurls.
For occasional cleans and traditional low-rep weightlifting – this isn’t too much of an issue.
Some “hybrid” bars have no center knurl, and are a good choice if you do high-repetition lifts or CrossFit training.
Many bars are chrome plated (see Eleiko’s range) but there are alternative coatings such as bright zinc/black zinc.
Price – Olympic Bars
There is a wide range of prices. Good quality bushing bars come in around the $300-$400 mark, while the pricier bearing bars are typically $500-$600. Top of the range bars made by Eleiko and Ivanko can easily cost around $1000.
Although you may pay an initial hefty price for the bar, over the years the cost of owning a quality piece of equipment, built to last, and engineered to the highest standards, can work out cheaper.
Olympic Weightlifting Bar – Summary
- Designed specifically for fast, dynamic lifts. Can withstand a lot of abuse.
- Reduces the torque on your wrists, minimizes stresses on the body and aids technique.
- Not ideal for bench pressing, serious squatting and deadlifting – although “hybrid” bars are available as a compromise.
- Best bearing bars will be pricey.
Think long-term when choosing your Olympic bar – ideally, it should be a one-off purchase. Do your research. Go for the best quality you can afford – since you will be using it every time you train.
Hybrid bars can be a good solution if you mix up your training with slower powerlifts and fast Olympic lifts. Alternatively, you could get two bars – one dedicated powerlifting bar and one for Olympic weightlifting.