How to Clean an Olympic Barbell

How to Clean an Olympic Barbell (Barbell Maintenance 101)

When is the last time you cleaned your Olympic Barbell? If you’re like most people, the word ‘never’ may be crossing your mind at the moment. Let’s fix that! Barbells are the life blood of every gym and the good ones don’t come cheap. Both great reasons to take care of that bar!

You may think of a barbell as just a big piece of steel that doesn’t require “cleaning” or “maintenance”.

That’s just not true though.

Chalk, dead skin, oil from your hands, sweat and even blood (if you’ve ever scraped your shins on the bar you know exactly what I’m talking about) can build up on the bar. It makes the grip from the knurling worse, it looks worse and worst of all, all that gunk along with moisture can lead to your bar rusting and corroding.

The good news is it doesn’t take much effort to keep your bar looking clean and new. Fifteen to twenty minutes once a month can go a long way to keeping one of the biggest investments in any garage gym looking and working great.

When I was an intern at the University of Tennessee I learned that you should always stay busy and find ways to contribute to the room. One of the ways I would do this is by pulling out the 3 in 1 oil and bristle brush and clean all the bars. Considering we had 30 plus barbells in that weight room, I got pretty good at it.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through when, how and with what you should be cleaning your Olympic Barbells.

Materials Needed

This might be the best part. You need basically three items and all three are cheap and easy to get.

  • 3 in 1 Oil
  • Nylon Stiff Bristle Brush
  • A Clean Towel or Cloth

You can pick up everything you need at Lowe’s or even Wal-Mart and should easily cost you around $10-$15 total.

If you do a little research you may run across a product called Bar Shield. I’ve never tried it myself, but $50 seems like a pretty hefty price when compared to how cheap 3 in 1 Oil and a nylon brush is.

Some people seem to really like it, but in my opinion, I don’t think you need to drop that extra cash. (If anyone from Bar Shield is reading this and you’d like to send me some – I’d be happy to try it out and share my results.)

When it comes to the brush, you want a nylon stiff bristled brush. A brush with soft bristles is not going to do a great job of getting in between the fine areas of knurling to get the bar really clean.

Nylon is also important as well. Nylon will do a good job cleaning, but is also not going to scratch up your bar like a steel wire brush might. Depending on the finish of the bar there are some other bristle materials you can use (like a brass brush bristle) and we’ll discuss those in more detail in a moment.

I emphasize nylon though, because nylon is a safe choice to use with your bar regardless of finish.

How Often Should You Clean Your Barbell?

Can we all be honest for a minute? I’m going to say you should shoot for once a month. In reality, if you give your bar a good cleaning every couple of months then you’re probably way ahead of the game.

This is all dependent upon a few factors as well. How often are you lifting? Are you using chalk? Is where you’re working out, in your garage for instance, humid? In other words, is your bar being exposed to a lot of moisture?

The more times you answered “yes” the more often you should be cleaning your bar.

The other variable when it comes to how often you should clean your bar is based on the finish it has. I’ll cover that in a minute.

How to Clean the Barbell Knurling

The knurling of your bar is going to be the dirtiest part of your bar and will be where you spend the majority of your time cleaning. All kinds of gunk, from chalk to skin gets lodged in the ridges of your knurling and needs cleaned out periodically.

Before you start, your bar should be propped up and laid horizontally. This way excess oil doesn’t run down into the bearings. Make sure to lay a towel or cardboard under the bar to catch excess oil dripping. Finally, make sure you’re in a well-ventilated area. Outside is a pretty good idea if you can.

When it comes to actually cleaning the knurling, work in small sections from left to right (or right to left if you’re a rebel – you do you). I like to work in sections of 8 to 10 inches. Pour some 3 in 1 oil onto the bar and let it sit for a few minutes. Then scrub with the nylon brush. Once you’re happy with your work, wipe all the excess oil clean with the cloth.

Now, rotate the bar and hit the other side. Once you’re done there move down the bar and literally rinse and repeat. If you have a section of bar that is particularly nasty, usually where you grip the bar, then you may have to go over it a second time.

How to Clean Different Barbell Finishes

While we are on the subject of knurlings, let’s talk about finishes. Once upon a time, almost all barbells were what are described now as bare steel. However, now bars come with various different finishes like Cerakote, Stainless Steel, Black Oxide, Zinc and Chrome.

All of these finishes have different pros and cons, but that’s a different article for another day. What you need to know in regards to cleaning is some finishes are going to be more resistant to rust. On the flip side, some are much less resistant to rust and therefore should be cleaned more often.

The other thing you need to know is while a nylon brush is safe to use for any finish, a brass bristle brush of may work better (or way, way worse) on certain finishes. Make sure to double-check the material brush you are planning to use. The last thing you want to do is damage your bar while trying to clean it.

FinishRust ResistanceBrush Material Options
Bare SteelVery LowBrass Bristle Brush / Nylon
Black OxideLowNylon Only
CerakoteHighBrass Bristle Brush / Nylon
ChromeMediumBrass Bristle Brush / Nylon
Stainless SteelHighBrass Bristle Brush / Nylon
ZincMediumNylon Only

How to Clean the Bearings

If you look around the internet (outside of this article) you’ll find someone telling you to shove WD-40 down into the sleeves of your bar to keep the bearings or bushings lubricated.

While this might not be the worst idea on some bushing bars, this is usually not recommended with many bearings. On some bars, WD-40 may downright be detrimental to your bar.

So how can you be sure what you should do for your bearings? Well, ask. I reached out to Uesaka to find out how to take care of my bar and within a couple hours I got a response from Matthew Adamcheck – Uesaka rep and Olympic Weightlifting Coach:

“The Uesaka barbell does not need any lubricant and is not designed in such a way where lubricant is needed. The quality of a barbell is not defined in its spin characteristics while at rest – our barbell is designed to keep the athlete in control of the weight at the apex of the lift so the weights do not keep spinning fast and throwing the athlete off in the “catch”.

We rarely have to do any maintenance to our product and the best way to clean a barbell if you feel it is “catching” or something like that is to use a rubber mallet and beat the ends straight down then blow out with compressed air.”

Maybe WD-40 is okay (To be clear, I would still never recommend it). Maybe an oil or other lubricant will work well.

As you can see above with a Uesaka bar you shouldn’t put any lubricant in it at all. The point here is that all bars are different when it comes to their bearings or bushings. There is no one-size-fits-all all. Before you potentially end up ruining your bar, check with the manufacturer to see what works best for your bar.

By the way, if you’re reading this wondering what the hell a bushing is – don’t worry – I got you covered here -> Parts of a Barbell

How to clean the Sleeves

Cleaning the outside of the sleeves is no different than the knurling. A little 3 and 1 oil and wipe down with a cloth. If you have any rust spots developing, you can get the nylon brush back out to work on those areas. The sleeves are usually pretty easy to manage.

Getting Rust off your Barbell

What if you’ve gone way too long without cleaning your bar or maybe you bought a used bar that has been neglected? How do you get rust off the bar?

Here’s the beautiful part. Do the exact same thing you’d do for cleaning the bar. Get out your 3 and 1 oil and a nylon brush. Is it going to be way more work? Yes. Are you going to have to go over some sections three and four times? Yes. Can you get all the rust off the bar? 99% of the time, yes.

I’ve never seen a bar that couldn’t be brought back to life with a little (or a lot of) TLC. This is of course assuming the bar is functional. If a bar is bent, broken or both then getting off the rust isn’t going to help with that.

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Final Thoughts

Most barbells are going to set you back at least a couple hundred dollars. If you opt for a high end bar like a Uesaka or Eleiko, you’re going to be spending even more.

However, a really good bar can literally last a lifetime IF you take proper care of it. It’s not even a huge time, labor or cost investment either. We’re talking 15 minutes every other month to keep your barbell looking and performing like new.

Bottom line – take care of your barbell and it will take care of you. Take pride in it looking great. After all, it’s the single most important piece of equipment in our gym. We should treat it as such.

Stay Strong!

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