The Ultimate Barbell Guide
Ahhhhh barbells. I love and value all types of equipment, from kettlebells to bands to dumbbells to everything in between, but my absolute favorite piece of equipment in the whole wide world is barbells. Why? Barbells allow the user to add a significant and balanced amount of load by adding bumper plates, metal plates, or smaller “change plates” to each end, and are truly one of the most effective ways to lift heavy. While heavier ones are not easily accessible nor the best tool for all goals, if you are fortunate enough to have the resources, experience, and desire to use one, this blog is for you!
Beyond the standard straight multi-functional bar you see in most gyms/home setups, barbells come in a variety of shapes, sizes, lengths, and purposes. While some barbells are definitely suited for a variety or tasks, it is very important to use different types of barbells for their intended purpose to ensure effectiveness and safety. Don’t worry, that will all make sense when you see the list! There is so much more out there in the barbell world than just a straight 45lb power bar, and I truly believe that there is something for everyone if you are interested!
If you’ve ever seen any of the bars below at the gym or online and thought “huh, I wonder how that works?” this list should clear that up for you. For those of you with access to a gym, many facilities carry at least some of these bars, and having knowing exactly how to get the most out of each kind is going to be key to introducing a variety of strength work into your workouts. For those of you with a home gym, I have included links to purchase each kind of barbell online if that is in your budget and space allows. Happy barbelling! (not a word, I know)
Standard Multi-Use Bar/Powerlifting Bar
If you’ve ever been to a simple gym or high school weight room, chances are you have seen or used one of these before. This is your general, straight barbell that can be for anything from an overhead press to a squat to a deadlift and everything in between. A large variety of plates can slide on to each end, making it super versatile with whatever you have access to. Power bars generally tend to be more rigid and have stiffer sleeves (endcaps) than a Weightlifting barbell used for the Olympic lifts, which makes them safer and excellent for all three Powerlifting lifts (squat, bench, dead). Here is where it gets confusing; sometimes they are called Olympic bars even though they are not made for the Olympic lifts, because they normally have the same length measurements that are the international standard. SO, how the heck do you tell them apart? If you look for a powerlifting online, search “bushings barbell” and you will get one that’s stiff enough for all your lifting needs! If you are in the gym, all you have to do is spin the end caps. Little to no spin and you are good to go. Bars that spin a lot are ideal for Olympic Weightlifting, but all of that spin makes for an unstable grip on heavy/slower pressing exercises. These bars usually come in roughly 45lbs, sometimes 35lbs (the one I found that is simple and affordable is listed in kilos, but you can absolutely find them in lbs as well).
Olympic Weightlifting Bar
This is another bar that you'll find across many box gyms, weightlifting clubs, and home gyms. With the rise in popularity in the sport of Weightlifting and the sport of Crossfit, more and more large scale corporate gyms are adding Weightlifting bars to their equipment. This bar was specifically designed for the Olympic lifts, i.e. the snatch and clean & jerk. If you are ever interested in learning these two lifts in any long term capacity, it is well worth investing in a quality barbell that caters to the movements. Weightlifting bars can also be used for squatting and overhead pressing. The sleeves have a much looser spin than any type of Powerlifting bar (due to the bearings in the sides), and should only be loaded with bumper plates and/or small change plates, not large metal plates, especially if you’re deadlifting, that damages the bar. In addition to the spin (which is essential for the turnover portion of snatches and cleans), they normally tend to be more “whippy” and flexible than a Powerlifting barbell. They come in 20kg mens bars and 15kg womens bars (roughly 44lbs and 33lbs). The diameter is slightly smaller on the women’s bar, which makes it much easier for us ladies to properly hook grip the bar (a grip technique that wraps your thumb around the bar and underneath your other fingers).
Have you ever looked in the corner of a lifting area, seen a hexagon shaped bar, and thought “what on earth is that?” Well, that’s a trap bar or hex bar. Trap bars can be used with all kinds of plates just like the multi purpose bar mentioned above. These kinds of barbells are mainly used for trap bar deadlifts, which is a more upright and full lower body based lift that a standard straight bar deadlift. They are also excellent for farmers carries, lunges, and even something unexpected such as overhead pressing. Because of their design, you can really load a ton of weight on them without risking any flexion or damage to the bar itself. Some trap bars tend to run a bit heavier than a straight barbell, but many companies make them in a variety of weights and sizes!
Hollow Straight Bar
If you want a barbell that's smaller, lighter, and adjustable, consider getting a lightweight bar with matching plates. While you won’t be able to load as much weight as a standard barbell, these bars can still be adjusted to a heavier weight that a majority of dumbbells and kettlebells, making them an awesome piece of equipment to have in your home gym. They are also super easy to store since they are a smaller length, which is an excellent choice if you are low on space. Most hollow bars come between the 10lbs-20lbs range, and usually come in a set with their own plates. THIS IS IMPORTANT, TOO...these bars typically take 1in diameter plates, while all of the other bars in this blog take “Olympic sized” plates, or 2in diameter plates. So if you’re buying both a bar and plates, make sure they match! Here’s a full set:
The axel bar is less common in commercial gyms, but can be found in many strength clubs and strongman gyms around the country. Unlike a regular bar, axel bars are smooth and are much thicker, which makes it more challenging to grip (in a good way). You can do alot with an axle bar, especially if you want to try or compete in Strongman. If you’ve ever seen the sport on TV with the big guys throwing kegs and picking up large atlas stones, you were watching Strongman. Although the axel bar is commonly used for the continental clean and press, you can get creative with these and use them for rows, deadlifts, presses, and any exercise where you desire to add in some extra grip strength work. These can be loaded with bumper plates and change plates which add extra load as needed.
Safety Squat Bar
Although they may seem massive and a bit daunting at first, these kinds of bars are excellent for building up your squat. The padded portion rests on the back of your neck like a standard bar, and the handles come down in front of your shoulders. Due to handle placement and weight distribution, most individuals can load up more weight with a safety squat bar than with a regular straight barbell. From box squats to regular squats and narrow stance to wide stance squats, if your main goal is to build a stronger back squat, I would recommend trying these out if accessible. Safety squat barbells may also be incorporated as accessory work for anyone training in strength sports such as Powerlifting, Strongman, Olympic Weightlifting, or any other type of sport that requires the ability to move a lot of mass. Most safety squat bars run anywhere between 45lbs all the way up to 70lbs, which contributes to their higher price.
Also known as E-Z Curl Bars, these are the shorter, wavy bars you see in many gyms and home setups that are specifically designed for bicep curls and similar exercises that isolate the upper body, such as tricep extensions. The “waves” allow for a solid and comfortable grip as you curl. I personally would not consider these types of bars a necessity, since they are not as versatile you can do curls just as effectively with a different bar or free weight. However, curl bars are one of the cheapest types of barbells out there, so if you are interested in adding them to your own home definitely go for it!
While there are other types of barbells out there, such as camber bars and farmers carry handle bars, the ones listed above are going to be the most accessible for you all out there at the gym or at home. If you have always been curious about barbells but were unsure of which ones are right for you, I hope this list serves its purpose as a helpful guide! As always, be sure to reach out to us for options on how we can help you use your bars to the best of your ability in a safe, effective, and progressive manner.