Over time, some gear just becomes synonymous with the activity it’s related to. It’s impossible to think about baseball gloves and not reminisce about your last league game or afternoon playing catch. Not the best example? Try picturing a socket wrench — and then try not to see it surrounded by grease monkeys working on their next project car.
Fitness has those iconic pieces of equipment, too, and the barbell is a great example. Whether loaded with a new PR at your favorite commercial gym or resting idly in the corner of your garage before your next training session, the barbell is a foundational, versatile workout tool that can give you a plethora of muscle-building opportunities. And just like the aforementioned baseball gloves and socket wrenches, barbells have been specialized throughout the years to help you get the most out of your specific lifts.
A Quick Breakdown of Barbell Anatomy
While each barbell type is specialized within its specs to better suit specific lifts and workouts, the anatomy of every barbell is the same. Beginning at the ends — where the weight plates sit — each barbell consists of two sleeves and two collars.
The sleeves house the weight, while the collars help keep the plates from sliding onto the shaft — the metal rod you grab with your hands. The shaft also features knurling, which is the cross-hatched pattern that provides grip, along with knurling marks for easier, more consistent hand placement. Bearings, fasteners and end caps round out the barbell profile, giving you a silhouette that’s sturdy and ready for the training task at hand.
While this might seem like a lot of moving parts — and as you’ll see, some components do, in fact, move — you won’t have to worry about repairs or building out your dream barbell, as they come pre-assembled with all the proper components.
The Standard/Hybrid Barbell
If you’re thinking of a barbell from your previous workout or trip to the gym, this is probably what you’re picturing. Typically 7 feet in length, roughly 29 millimeters in diameter and weighing either 20 kilograms of 45 pounds, standard barbells are widely popular for their versatility and use.
The knurling found on standard barbells is less aggressive than other barbell types, giving you a sense of grip without thrashing your hands. Some standard barbells also feature a knurling patch in the center to help with bar control and placement during squats, but not all brands include this spec.
Standard barbells also boast two knurling marks per the International Powerlifting Federation (32 inches apart) and the International Weightlifting Federation (36 inches apart), making them suitable picks for powerlifting, Olympic lifting, cross-training and more. If you’re new to lifting or just want to add a barbell to your home gym, this is a great Swiss Army Knife of a fitness tool.
The Power Barbell
If the standard barbell is a Swiss Army Knife of fitness, the power barbell is closer to a chef’s knife: it’s slightly more specialized but still more than capable of performing a multitude of tasks.
Power barbells are designed for powerlifting movements, namely, the bench press, squat and deadlift, but they can be used in other training regimens as well. The dimensions are similar to a standard barbell — 7-foot length, roughly 29-mm diameter and weighing either 20 kilograms of 45 pounds — but the true difference lies in two features: knurling and tensile strength.
Knurling on power barbells is more aggressive than other barbells, giving you a little more grip for heavier weights. Center knurling is also featured on power barbells for added security in the squat. You also won’t find weightlifting-centric knurling marks on power barbells; just the powerlifting rings. The rings on a power barbell provide a good visual cue for hand placement, but also double as a marker for where you can legally grip the bar in powerlifting competitions.
Finally, power barbells are rigid. Because powerlifting is all about controlling the weight from A to B — and due to the intense amount of weight being moved — power barbells offer a higher tensile strength than other bars, meaning then don’t bend as much when under load. If you want a higher-grade barbell that’s capable of serious weight, power barbells are a great option.
The Deadlift Barbell
Now we’re getting into the super specialists. Deadlift barbells are for deadlifts, naturally.
To give you more space between the plates, deadlift bars are typically longer than other barbells — up to 92 inches — and also feature a smaller diameter for easier gripping. A more aggressive knurling adds to your grip as well, although it may be a little aggressive for some. While deadlift barbells do feature power rings for hand placement assistance, center knurling patches are not featured, because there’s no need for it in the deadlift movement.
What truly sets deadlift barbells apart is their lower tensile strength, which allows the bar to bend easier, giving it that “whippy” feeling when pulling PRs off the floor. To be clear, the lower tensile strength is by design, and not just for showcasing how much weight you’ve loaded onto the bar; as the bar bends, this helps create a higher starting position for the lift before the plates begin to leave the floor, thus lessening the range of motion and giving you a little more juice to complete the lift. Physics.
While deadlift barbells aren’t for everyone — their usefulness really comes into play as weight totals surpass 500 pounds — they can be great for more advanced lifters or those training for competitions.
The Squat Barbell
Another heavy hitter in the specialized barbell world, squat barbells are used for, well, squats.
To identify a squat barbell, simply look at the center knurling patch. Squat bars feature a wider knurling patch for added grip and stability across your shoulder blades when squatting. Some squat bars feature a center knurling so wide, in fact, that they’re essentially fully knurled across the entire shaft.
Squat barbells are also longer than both power bars and deadlift bars, with some up to 95 inches. This gives bigger or less flexible lifters more room to grab the bar as they complete the lift.
Squat barbells don’t just cater to big lifters, but big weight totals as well. Thanks to a larger diameter — up to 32 mm — and higher tensile strength, these barbells are capable of holding some serious weight as you progress your way through new milestones. The higher tensile strength also makes it easier to “walk the bar out” of the rack, giving you more control of the weight without having to deal with a moving, whippy profile.
Typically, squat barbells are heavier than other barbells, weighing 25 kilograms or 55 pounds. As with deadlift barbells, squat bars aren’t for everyone, but those looking to take their squats seriously could benefit from training with this excellent equipment option.
The Olympic Barbell
The last barbell type you should know is the Olympic, or weightlifting, barbell. Designed for Olympic-style lifts like the clean and jerk or snatch, these barbells are often 7 feet in length, 28 mm in diameter and feature less aggressive knurling with weightlifting rings only.
Center knurling patches aren’t common with Olympic barbells, although some brands do include a finer patch that adds grip when cleaning without turning your chest into a cheese grater. Olympic barbells also feature a lower tensile strength than other bars, which is intended to help whip the bars through snatch or clean movements with as little friction as possible.
Speaking of friction, Olympic barbells are best known for how much their sleeves spin, which helps keep the weight on a consistent plane throughout Olympic lifts for more control and stability. The friction isn’t too much of a concern in other, more static movements like squats or deadlifts, but if you’re tossing a few hundred pounds up and pressing it over your head, you want to work with that mass rather than against it.
Lastly, because of their competition standards and specialized use, Olympic barbells are some of the most expensive barbells you can buy. To protect your investment, it’s best to save these barbells for Olympic-style lifts only. You don’t want to bend the shaft or damage the knurling on this bar by racking it on a bench or dropping it after a completed deadlift. There are other, more sustainable barbells for those purposes.
A Final Note on “Specialty” Barbells
While these barbell types are a good foundational understanding of the different equipment available to you, there are plenty of other barbells that cater specifically to certain movements or exercises.
For example, EZ curl barbells are shorter and feature a zig-zag contouring to the shaft for easier barbell curls. Safety squat bars add padding around the neck and shoulders, almost like a pair of shoulder pads to help with bar control throughout the lift.
There are other “specialty bars” that are easily categorized thanks to their shape and profile, but the above five barbell types are more difficult to distinguish on looks alone. Now choose your barbell and hit the gym. There’s PRs to best, and with the right tool at your side, no number is unattainable.
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