March 25, 2022
Weightlifting bars come in all shapes and sizes. This is something you don’t think much about, but different workouts require different pieces of equipment. Even the straight barbell used for exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench press can have slight variations weight and dimensions. From Olympic lifters to Crossfitters, powerlifters to bodybuilders, there is a special barbell for everyone. While they may all look similar, there are subtle differences, like thickness, rigidity, knurling, and grip markings. These features are designed for specific purposes and can have a dramatic difference on the performance of a given exercise, especially for more experienced lifters.
The well-informed lifter will be able to spot these differences and know how and when to use each type of barbell. This knowledge will set you up for success in your workouts, particularly as you become more advanced, and in this you will see why.
This article will specifically define the straight barbell and its functions. Then we’ll discuss the various types of straight barbells and all their applications (there's a barbell weight & size comparison chart at the end).
Again, we’ll only be discussing straight barbells, as seen here:
A barbell is a straight metal bar designed to support compound movements with heavy weighted plates (deadlift, squat, OHP, bench press, snatches, cleans, etc.).
The barbell dates back to the mid-1800’s, making it a relatively recent invention compared to dumbbells and other equipment (note: forms of a "dumbbell" date back as far as 5th century BC!).
The barbell, frankly, is arguably the most versatile and valuable piece of exercise equipment, and should be suitable for most exercises and populations. As such, it's important for lifters to know as much as possible about it.
Here are the most commonly encountered straight barbells. We’ll discuss these in detail shortly:
The modern barbell is generally 7 feet in length and weighs 44 pounds. A barbell consists of a long, thin shaft, about 28mm (~1”) thick. The shaft has knurling, or engraved crosshatches, that increase grip, as well as grip markings which are defined to know where your hands should be for certain exercises. On either end of the shaft are two thick sleeves that hold weighted plates. The sleeves are commonly 2” in diameter and spin independently of the shaft. This spinning is intentional and allows excess torque to dissipate through the plate and not transfer to the limbs.
Barbells share similar properties, but differ in a few key areas:
These attributes are not easy to spot unless you know what to look for, but they are crucial and determine a barbell’s application. You should keep in mind that, despite these differences, the sleeves remain consistent across barbells. They are all 2” and support a variety of different weight plates (iron, rubber coated, etc.). Weights are similar to barbells in that they vary in construction and materials, which has to do with the application.
Note: For beginners, pretty much any straight barbell will be suitable, but the nuances in design become more important as you lift heavy and/or explosively.
Below we will take a closer look at the above barbell types and summarize their features and uses. You can read this for a very in-depth look at different types of barbells, materials, applications, and so on.
A standard barbell is the smallest and least practical barbell on the list. You will not find a standard barbell in any commercial gym. These are mainly used for beginner home gyms.
Standard barbells cannot accommodate traditional plates (they need 1" plates), and they can only support up to ~250 pounds. They are ideal for low intensity workouts and confined spaces, but should not be used to perform complex, heavy power movements (e.g. deadlift, squat, cleans, snatches).
The Olympic barbell is among the most common and versatile barbells. Many smaller gyms will simply be stocked with just Olympic bars, but big commercial gyms will have a variety of barbells, of course, including plenty of Olympic barbells.
That said, unless you are lifting quite heavy, an Olympic bar will be perfectly fine for the general population who do exercises like deadlifts, bench press, and squats. Most people won't be able to notice any whip as they simply aren't lifting heavy enough for it to come into play.
Olympic barbell specs:
Make note that a lot of people just call any straight barbell with 2" sleeves an Olympic barbell, as opposed to the 1” sleeve of standard bars. This isn't technically true as an Olympic bar will have the specific weight, dimensions, knurling and whip mention above. There are other types of barbells with 2" sleeves as you are about to read.
Powerlifting barbells are designed specifically for powerlifting, e.g. deadlift, squat, bench press (the “Big 3 Lifts”). Power bars resemble Olympic bars, but there are a few important differences for powerlifting. Powerlifting bars are manufactured to adhere to guidelines set by the International Powerlifting Federation. The following specs are based on those guidelines:
The key differences between Olympic and powerlifting bars are the whip and sleeve properties. These allow the lifter to generate and use momentum to lift effectively and safely.
In reality, beginners and even intermediates will use an Olympic bar or power bar to the same effect. So, it's not going to be a big deal if you pick up an Olympic bar for lifts like squats. That said, pay attention to how the whip feels when doing exercises like squats and if you notice the bar is bouncing too much as you rep, it's time to find that powerlifting bar.
Note: Power bars are best used for heavy squats, bench and OHP, where no flex in the bar is best, but deadlifting is actually a little different as some flex in the bar can be good for the lift (if you want to max out your PR).
A multi-purpose (MP) barbell is actually the most common and versatile barbell in gyms. It is based on the Olympic barbell dimensions and is the most common barbell stocked by local gyms. The stiffness, knurling, and sleeve rotation are in the middle performance range - meaning, it's sort of like a hybrid of the power bar and Olympic bar.
Multi-purpose Barbell Specs:
Multipurpose barbells have medium flex, so they are strong and sturdy when needed yet can also accommodate some more dynamic exercises like snatches. They also have bushings for the sleeves that allow them to work well for both fast and slow lifts. On top of that, they usually have double grip markings, meaning they will have the powerlifting grip markings and the Olympic bar grip markings. This is the easiest way to spot a multipurpose barbell - it will have double rings on both sides of the handles.
Squatting is a movement that requires a longer and more rigid than normal barbell. Olympic bars are suitable for squatting, but new bars have emerged that are more suitable for the squat.
On squat barbells, the biggest enhancements are the knurling and shaft diameter. In combination, these create a stiffer, more stable bar.
Squat barbell specs:
As with squat bars, deadlift bars come in a few different varieties, of which we’ll focus on two common types.
A deadlift-specific straight bar is based on a traditional powerlifting bar, with some key differences for deadlifts, primarily the knurling and shaft length and thickness.
Deadlift bar specs:
You can learn all about deadlift bars here.
Any women’s barbell is a shorter, lighter version of the men’s Olympic multi-purpose bar. The knurling pattern and shaft length generally remain the same. Women’s Olympic bars do not have center knurling.
Women’s bars measure 6.5 feet long and weigh 15kg (33 pounds) and have a 25mm diameter shaft. These are not as common as men’s bars even at your local gym, so inquire with staff if you require a smaller bar.
Women’s bars are not made exclusively for women; they can be used by individuals with smaller stature or mobility issue.
The safety squat bar is a modified barbell designed to support the shoulders and provide a more secure grip. This bar will have handles at shoulder length that protrude perpendicular from the shaft. They are usually thickly padded. This helps the lifter achieve a better grip and more stability across the shoulders. It also reduces sheer forces on the spine and increases range of motion.
Another modification is the cambered ends (sleeves). This feature pushes the weight slightly forward. This changes the center of gravity and effectively promotes a better range of motion.
Let’s summarize what we’ve discussed. There are several types of straight barbells - standard barbell, Olympic, powerlifting, deadlift, squat, and women’s sized barbells.
Since some of these are specialized, you’re not likely to find them all at your local big-box gym. Most gyms will have multipurpose, Olympic and power bars (or just multipurpose barbells exclusively). That said, most will have safety bars and hex bars. Very few, and typically only private or specialty gyms, will have women's, deadlifting and squat bars - the latter are specialized bars that are expensive and require a certain skill to use.
That said, here is a breakdown of the bars we discussed:
Note: Barbells within the same category will also come with different coatings (or no coating at all), but that doesn't change any of the above weight or dimensions.
|7.2-7.8 feet||2 inch||28-32mm||Low|
|7.5 feet||2 inch||27mm||Medium-High|
|Women's||33lbs (15kg)||6.5 feet||2 inch||25mm||High|
|5.5-6 feet||1 inch||25mm||n/a|
This summarizes the different types of barbells and their uses. The multi-purpose bar is sufficient for most lifters and is the one you’ll find in most gyms. Olympic and power lifting require specialized equipment designed to maximize form and economize range of motion. You will find these types of bars at specialty gyms.
For more information, refer to the related links below. Don’t forget to add on a few reps!
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