This guide will hopefully shed some light on the differences between power bars, Olympic weightlifting bars, bars for CrossFit, and women's bars. At the end of the guide, you should have an understanding of what to look for when choosing a barbell, and what kind of bar is best for your training.
Olympic Bar Dimensions
First let's start with the dimensions of the bars. Men's versus women's.
IWF Spec Bar with Dual Knurl Markings
IPF Knurl Markings
As you can see from the pictures, the men's and women's bars are different lengths. 86.6” (2200mm) for men, 79.1”(2010mm) for women. The diameter of the bar will also be different, with men's bars ranging from 28-33mm (with 28mm generally preferred), and women's bars generally at 25mm. The difference in diameter allows women with smaller hands to be able to get a good grip on the bar. For men's bars, 28mm is the ideal diameter because it's the official International Weightlifting Federation(IWF) specification, however many cheaper bars are thicker because the steel is not strong enough to stay straight at 28mm. Adding thickness makes them harder to grip, but stronger.
One thing to note is that not all men's bars will have IWF or IPF specs. Many general purpose weightlifting bars will have different length sleeves, or different length knurled areas. However, almost all men's bars are between 86-87”, with the exclusion of some very specialized bars.
Men's bars will typically weigh 20 kg (44 lbs) and women's at 15 kg (33 lbs).
Bushing Versus Bearing Barbells
One of the main differences between bars is whether they have bushings or bearings in the sleeves. Bearings typically rotate more smoothly than bushings, and are preferred for Olympic weightlifting. A bushing bar is great for powerlifting, general fitness, and can be good for Olympic weightlifting too if it spins smoothly enough. The pictures below show what these parts look like inside of the bars.
The reason you want a smoother rotation for Olympic weightlifting is to allow your wrists to rotate under the bar with as little resistance as possible. If you encounter resistance, you could either fail on the lift, or injure your wrists.
Bushings are generally much easier to manufacture than bearings, which accounts for the higher cost of bearing bars. If you see a bearing bar that seems like an amazing deal at $199 or similar, it's very questionable how long that bar will last before the bearing seize up and it fails you on a lift.
Below is a video comparing a medium quality bushing bar, a high-end bushing bar, and a high-end bearing bar.
Knurl Depth and Markings
The markings for knurl are either International Powerlifting Federation or International Weightlifting Federation markings. These are a guide to help you place your hands consistently in the same place when performing the various lifts. A new trend is to include both markings on the bars, which is useful for mixed use bars. In the image below (which is our Excalibur bar specs), the inner knurl marking is the IPF, and the outer is the IWF marking.
Dual Knurl Spec Bar
Knurl depth refers to how “sharp” the knurl will feel in the hands, and generally how much grip it will provide. The deeper the knurl, the sharper it will feel and the more grip it will provide. Powerlifting bars will have the deepest knurl for the most grip, which is useful for deadlifts. Olympic weightlifting bars will have knurl that varies from medium to slightly stronger than medium, depending on the manufacturer. A bar for CrossFit or general purpose weightlifting will also be in that medium range.
Generally speaking, you do not want a bar with extremely deep knurl (also called “aggressive” knurl) for anything besides powerlifting. The reason is because sharp knurl will tear up your hands if you're doing anything beyond very low rep work. The more reps you put in, the more shredded your hands will get with a sharp knurl. This is why most bar manufacturers try to hit that medium range of providing enough grip to secure your hands to the bar, but not so much that you tear up your hands.
For CrossFit, there are enough high rep workouts that your bar should be on the medium/light side of knurl, and if you find that you need extra grip for a max effort lift, you can always use chalk.
Center Knurl Versus No Center Knurl
Center knurl is designed to help keep the bar on your back when doing back squats, and on your chest when doing front squats. All certified men's Olympic weightlifting bars have center knurl (women's do not). The drawback of center knurl is that it can rub your neck/chest raw if you do exercises like cleans or thrusters. Below are two bars, the top has center knurl, the bottom does not.
Top Bar with Center Knurl, Bottom Without Center Knurl
Many people prefer a bar without center knurl because it is more versatile for daily use. The knurl in the grip area of the bar is already making contact with the back and chest, so the addition of the center knurl is sometimes unnecessary. If you are doing any higher rep workouts with Olympic lifts in them, you will not want a center knurl. This creates a situation where, if you've got center knurl and want to do those lifts that leave the bar resting on your front shoulders, you will absolutely hate it. In contrast, if you're doing a back squat and don't have center knurl, you might prefer having a center knurl, but most likely will be just fine without it.
The limited usefulness of center knurl and major drawback is the reason why most bar manufacturers do not include it, even on Olympic weightlifting bearing bars. It is generally reserved for powerlifting bars, and Olympic weightlifting bars that are competition specs.
The diameter of the bar is going to affect the stiffness of it, and therefore how much "whip" you feel on a lift. During an Olympic lift such as a snatch or clean, a certain amount of whip is helpful for getting the weight up. That is why 28mm is ideal for Olympic weightlifting and is the competition spec.
Bars are sometimes thicker to make up for lower quality steel. A common bar diameter is 30-32mm when dealing with cheap steel that needs to be thicker to make up for lower quality. These bars will not have as much whip, and will be more difficult to grip.
Barbell Coating Options
Olympic bars come in a variety of coatings, including zinc, chrome, black oxide, manganese phosphate, nickel, bare steel, and more. The most popular coatings are the ones that provide the most rust resistance and thus the least maintenance. Those coatings are the zinc, chrome, and nickel, followed closely by manganese phosphate. Far behind those coatings are black oxide, which is not actually a coating but rather a treatment process that oxidizes the bar and provides minimal rust resistance. At the end of the line is bare steel, which will require regular maintenance and eventually acquire a brown patina from oxidizing.
When choosing a coating, keep in mind that the ones that provide the most rust resistance also add a bit of slickness to the bar. This is usually not a problem because the knurl makes up for it, as well as chalk if needed. However, some people prefer the more “raw” feeling of manganese, black oxide, or bare steel, particularly if you do a lot of low-rep work where you want maximum grip.
Strength Rating for Barbells
The strength rating for barbells is an area that confuses many people. There are 3 main ratings that are often used to measure a barbell's strength. Tensile strength, yield strength, and static rating. Tensile strength refers to the amount of pressure (measured in thousands of pounds per square inch) that can be applied to the ends of the bar before it snaps. Yield strength refers to the amount of pressure that can be applied before the bar will not return to straight. Static rating is a little more ambiguous, but it is a layman's term to simplify strength ratings for the masses, and generally refers to the amount of weight that can be loaded onto the bar before it does not return to straight. This number is often abused though, so it's the least trustworthy.
For general purpose bars, lower quality bars will be rated to 500-1,000 lbs and range from 28.5mm to 33mm in diameter. Tensile/Yield will generally be in the 90-130K (90-130,000 psi) tensile/yield range. Mid-range bars will be rated at 1200-1500 lbs, 28.5mm diameter, and be rated from 130K-160K tensile/yield strength. High-end bars will be 28mm, 1500+ lbs, 160K-215K tensile/yield.
The low-end bars will eventually bend if any significant amount of weight is used with them, or if they are dropped with bumper plates repeatedly. Thicker steel may offset the weakness of the steel, but your grip on the bar will suffer for it.
Mid-range bars are good bars that should last a lifetime without problems, and are suitable for daily use in commercial environments. Bars at the lower end of mid-range may become bent if very strong lifters use them, particularly with bumper plates.
High-end bars are capable of handling the highest loads and should last a lifetime with careful use. Dropping a bar on spotter arms, or onto a bench or box, will bend even a high-end bar. However, with normal use and using bumper plates when dropping it, a high-end bar should never bend.
Why Do I Need A Bar Rated Over 1,000 Pounds?
The area of confusion is when talking about the static rating of a bar, and why you might need anything rated over 1,000 lbs if you can't lift that much. A typical Olympic bar might be rated to 1,000 to 1,500 lbs of static load, and since very few people in the world can lift more than 1,000 lbs, most people don't think they need a bar rated any higher than that. Not so. The static rating of a bar shows what it can handle lifting very slowly and setting it down very slowly. If you do any Olympic movements and drop the bar with bumper plates, the dynamic load on the bar will equal a static rating much greater than whatever weight you have on the bar. This means that if you are lifting with bumper plates and dropping the bar from overhead with any significant amount of weight, you're going to want a bar that's as strong as possible.
How to Choose a Barbell
We recommend buying a bar that fits the type of training you are doing. The most versatile bar is a bushing bar without center knurl. If you're doing a lot of Olympic weightlifting, then a bar that spins extremely smoothly with 28mm diameter like our Excalibur Olympic bar is what you should look at. If you do primarily powerlifting (bench press, squat, deadlift), but occasionally do Olympic weightlifting, then the Sabre bar is going to be fine because it gets the job done on Oly lifts, but saves you some money since those lifts are not your primary focus.
A bearing bar is really a specialty tool for those that want to focus on Olympic weightlifting. However, that's not to say it can't be used for anything else, because it will perform well as an everyday all-purpose bar, you're just paying a premium for the superior performance on cleans, and snatches. A powerlifting bar is the one bar that you really should be sure about before you purchase. The knurl is so sharp that it will be unpleasant to lift with for any significant number of reps with other types of lifts or any CrossFit style training.
What Kind of Barbell is Best for CrossFit
CrossFit mixes a lot of different disciplines together, including powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, so we recommend a bushing bar like the Excalibur. There are enough high rep cleans and other movements that you will appreciate the smoother rotation.
If you're just getting started, limiting the amount of Olympic weightlifting you're doing, or want to save a few dollars, the Sabre bar will do just fine as well.
Other Signs of Quality in Barbells
There are subtle things to notice that separate a high quality Olympic bar from others.
Consistency of the knurl
When you look at the bar's knurl, does it remain even and consistent throughout, or does the depth fade in/out at various points? A high-end bar will have well defined start/stop marks at the IWF and IPF knurl markings, as well as at the end where the sleeve meets the bar.
Tightness of the Sleeve
When you try to move the sleeve side-to-side, does it rattle around, or is it quiet? When you drop the bar with bumper plates, a loose sleeve will be very loud, while a tight sleeve will remain quiet.
Length of knurl
A high-end bar will typically have knurl that extends to the sleeve, or very close to the sleeve. This allows a wide grip on the bar.
Smoothness of sleeve rotation
A high-end bar will spin smoothly and quietly. This is a sign of a well-designed sleeve with proper lubrication to ensure it continues to spin smoothly. The amount of rotations is not as important--it's easy to make a sleeve that spins forever by sacrificing the tolerances within the sleeve.
It's a lot of information to absorb, but hopefully this guide for barbells will point you in the right direction when it comes time to buy a bar. If you need any help figuring out which one is right for you and don't want to sort through the information above, we're always available by phone or email to answer any questions.