There are numerous types of barbells designed to be used in multiple different ways depending on the lifter’s goal. Whether you're using barbells for compound movements like squats or isolation exercises like preacher curls.
Different types of barbells are suited for different types of lifts. To choose the perfect bar, it is crucial to first match one’s training goal with a specific style of lifting. Physique and level of experience should also be considered.
The different types of barbells cater to different styles of lifting for weight and strength training (bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Olympic weightlifting). Each barbell type also has variations in their features.
Major Styles of Lifting
Bodybuilding is popular both as a recreation and a sport. It simply means to build muscles in order to exhibit highly defined muscular size and shape.
Bodybuilders use different bars to fulfill different goals. To better enhance certain features of their body's, they need to perform a wider range of exercises. These exercises concentrate on developing smaller muscles in order to achieve a more defined physique.
The sport of powerlifting involves three lifts: the deadlift, the bench press, and the squat. Powerlifters use strength training barbells that are much heavier and have longer strips of center knurling for improved grip.
Olympic weightlifting, or simply weightlifting, is a sport that incorporates only two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Olympic lifters use barbells that have a larger diameter and rotating sleeves on either end which hold weight plates, also referred to as bumper plates.
Main Types of Barbells
Olympic Weightlifting Barbells
Olympic barbells have key features that differentiate them from other types of barbells. An olympic barbell is thinner and more flexible. It includes a mild knurling, a smooth center, snatch marks, and a more expensive bearing.
Since the sport is built on the snatch and the clean and jerk, olympic barbells usually have a thinner diameter (28mm) compared to multipurpose barbells (28.5mm) and powerlifting barbells (29mm). A difference of approximately one millimeter makes a difference to one’s grip strength. This also allows for better shock absorption when being thrown and caught.
A mild knurling helps to prevent the barbell from grazing the lifter’s hands, while a smooth center prevents scraping of the collarbones when the shoulders catch its weight. Olympic barbells also use needle bearings that help the weight plates spin unrestricted at all loads. It also has snatch marks instead of knurling marks.
Powerlifting barbells are ultimately used for strength training. It has several unique features that aid in building muscle size and strength. Powerlifting barbells are extra thick and have an aggressive knurling, center knurling, bench press marks, and relatively cheaper bush bearings.
As previously mentioned, a standard power barbell is thicker (29mm) than an Olympic barbell (28mm) and a multipurpose barbell (28.5mm). Its additional thickness makes it more durable and rigid.
Compared to an Olympic barbell which has mild knurling, a power barbell has an aggressive knurling that prevents it from slipping out of one’s hands and a center knurling that prevents it from scraping one’s shin when doing exercises such as deadlifts. The disadvantage is that most people usually find powerlifting barbells uncomfortable due to their rough texture.
Powerlifting barbells also have bench press marks and cheap bush bearings. Unlike Olympic lifters, powerlifters do not have to worry about the weights spinning freely when thrown.
Powerlifting barbells are best for powerlifting and bodybuilding as it aids in strength and hypertrophy training, respectively. Lifters whose goal is to build muscle strength and size are apt to use a powerlifting barbell.
Multipurpose barbells are mostly used for weight training. Beginners and intermediate lifters often use multipurpose barbells because they have characteristics that accommodate both bodybuilding and strength training. Multipurpose bars have a medium knurl, a smooth center, medium whip, and standard bushing.
The dimensions of men’s barbells and women’s barbells vary. Women’s barbells are usually 201cm (9.1in) in length, have a diameter of 25mm, and weigh 15kg (33lbs). Men’s barbells on the other hand, are usually 220cm (6.6in) in length, have a diameter of 28-29mm, and weigh 20kg (44lbs).
Contrary to popular belief, these so-called “women’s barbells” are not designed only to cater to women but also to those of smaller stature. It is important to note that choosing a barbell depends not only on the exercises a lifter will be doing, but also their physique and experience level.
Other Specialty Barbells
Specialty barbells are not necessary per se, but they do make lifting more enjoyable for some. They add variety to one’s training, and can be used to target specific areas of the body and help stimulate smaller muscles.
Curl bars or EZ curl bars are relatively easier to use (hence the name EZ) and are shorter and lighter than most barbells. Designed to allow for a more comfortable bicep curl, curl bars ease pain in the wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Safety Squat Bars
One of the most beginner-friendly barbells is the safety squat bar. Shoulder pads are attached to the bar, giving more comfort and stability.
The trap bar, also known as hex bar, is a four-sided bar that one can stand in the middle of. Trap bars are used to diversify the lifter’s deadlift form and progress. These bars are quite expensive, but can take pressure off the lower back.
Swiss bars are rectangular-shaped and have multiple grip widths which make it great for isolation exercises. Swiss bars are not used in strength competitions, but they can be used for a variety of exercises.
Features of a Barbell
Whip of the Bar
The “whip” pertains to the ends of the bar that bounces. It occurs as the lifter becomes stationary, but the bar continues to move as the momentum carries. The whip of the bar is useful to lifters when they transition between a clean and a jerk.
The barbell sleeves determine how much spin the bar will have. The bearings or bushings permit this spin. Bushings have low friction, while bearings offer a faster spin albeit more expensive.
Finish on the Bar and Sleeves
The barbell’s finish has several purposes. Aside from affecting the overall feel of the bar in the hands, the finish also affects the grip and aids in protection against rusting. Bar finishes can be made of bare steel, black oxide, zinc finish, chrome finish, or stainless steel, each with its own pros and cons.
The knurling is the crosshatch pattern cut into the barbell that digs on the hand when held. The width and depth of this pattern determines whether a knurling is “mild” or “aggressive.”
Knurling is primarily done to increase grip especially for certain kinds of exercises (e.g. deadlift). Additionally, aggressive knurling on the bar may cause callusing on the hands, which may prompt some weightlifters to wear gloves.