This past weekend I was in the student rec center doing once again some upper body speed work. While there training I happened to witness some super bros. doing what could only be referred to as a shrug, partial deadlift, and seizure hybrid lift by taking a bar in the power rack and lifting it from the safeties at mid-thigh height. Between their hyper extended spines and weird vertical and horizontal oscillations, I’m still confused as to what was going on, but glad no one died. At first glance it looked like they were doing this with an Olympic lifting barbell (due to the amount of whip) and I talked with the front desk worker about this. She corrected me that it was a Texas deadlift bar they were doing this with, but what they were doing was still not good for the bar.
Seeing this got me thinking about doing a basic piece about knowing your barbells. Not all barbells are the same, most bars that you use are 7 feet long and weight 45lbs. while empty (some people refer to these as the “big bars”), shorter bars when made of steel typically weight 35 lbs. and are not meant for the heavy lifts (exception women’s Olympic bars), but to help people learn the movements. It is even possible to get 15lbs. aluminum bars to do some lifting technique work with young children and weak adults. The rest of this will mostly center on talking only about the 45lbs. conventional barbell and some subtle differences between each bar you come across. Some have more focused uses and we can break them up over three basic components:
This is the grip the bar has, bars that feel sharper are typically newer bars and will do a better job of staying in your hands when doing different lifts. If you are doing max attempts at just about anything aim to use a bar with sharper knurling. With this being said be careful to make sure that you use chalk on your hands to avoid getting “rips” also known as painful removals of the top couple layers of skin on your hands. A bar with little to no knurling is not necessarily a bad thing since it will challenge your grip more and be useful for higher rep hypertrophy work especially after your hands have taken a bit of a beating from the heavy weights (I like this when deadlifting).
Where the knurling is at on the bar also effects what it is most useful for. If there is knurling in the center of the bar this is to set it in your shirt when you are squatting with it, typically that band is about six inches long, for a high quality squat bars this will be a foot or more wide which is great since it will really seat the bar on your traps/upper back when you are squatting, this is not optimal for deadlifting since it is a good way to donate more shin skin to the barbell. When there is no center knurling this is an indicator that this is a good bench press, deadlift, or Olympic lifting bar. How you know which of those three functions it is best for you learn from the next two details.
This is the collar or sleeve of the barbell where you put weights on. All barbells should spin a little bit here, how good they spin comes down to the quality of bearings, has it been oiled recently, and how well has it been taken care of. A good Olympic bar should spin freely and quickly if you flick it to do so. This is good so that when you are cranking the bar on the snatch or clean it is going to rotate to make it easier to catch. If the bar rotates slowly or not at all this is not a good bar for Olympic lifting since the momentum of the bar weights on the collars rotating might make the bar rotate in your wrists and risk hyper extending your wrists or otherwise (experience talking here hint: it hurts). However, this lack of rotation is great for pressing and deadlifting. You want a bar that won’t roll and stay static in your hands to make it easier to control with your wrists while you are pressing.
No, I’m not talking about my hair back and forth, this is how much the bar will oscillate under a heavy load. Some folks might not lift heavy enough to ever get a bar to do this, and that’s ok. Bar whip is useful when you are deadlifting heavy because the bar will actually flex before it will final leave the ground which makes it easier to start the deadlift (almost like pulling from blocks). For Olympic lifting this can be useful and allow you to ride out the lifts and allow the catch to be a bit gentler on the body. Whip in the bar is the last thing you want when weights are heavy in the squat and pressing since this makes the bar feel less stable and is rather uncomfortable to lift with.
Bonus point – Bend
This is not a good thing for just about anything aside from squatting. A bent bar can put the stress poorly on your wrists and hands when the weight gets heavy. Now putting the bend across your upper back when squatting actually feels better than a straight bar and in fact some specialty bars are made to do just that (I’ll write about specialty bars at a later date). In order to check for any bend in a bar put it in a rack and slowly spin it while watching the end of collar if it starts to move up and down as you rotate the bar, the bar is bent. At this point make the decision if this is acceptable for you.
Bonus Point – Diameter
Your typically barbell has a diameter of about an inch where you grip and two inches for the collars. Some bars will be slightly thinner than the typical bar width where you grip the bar, this is useful if you have small hands. Slightly thicker bars are made when they are designed for heavy squatting or are poorly made (fat bars are a specialty bar that I will talk about later). When in doubt put your hands on a bar and feel the diameter and when you have been lifting for long enough you will be able to just notice what is what.
This was a basic overview of components of barbells that effect training. I can definitely be a bit of a princess with lifting bars, but if you are lifting maximal weights having proper equipment is useful. You can play baseball with a wood bat or metal bat, but you probably won’t try to hit a baseball while using a wiffle ball bat. Overall my favorite bar to use is a Texas power bar (Texas Forever, Pruter and Jaked!), it just works well for everything but isn’t optimal for anything if that makes any sense. It is a great general bar. From there you can get Olympic lifting specific bars, deadlift bars, squat bars, and so on. If you are going to buy yourself a bar to lift with accept the fact that a good bar costs at least $300, this is something where you pay for quality. The Sears brand bars will bend with only 300 lbs. on them and if bars say they can handle 1500lbs. unless they are called a mastodon bar you are probably wasting your time.