At first glance a barbell seems like a pretty simple piece of equipment. It may appear to just be a long steel pole with no real parts at all. In fact, most beginner lifters won’t really notice the different parts of a barbell until they start comparing the one they’re using to other barbells.
Finally, once you start really researching barbells you’ll find yourself in a world with a language all it’s own.
Knurling. Tensile Strength. Sleeves. Whip. Bushings. Bearings.
This is all barbell terminology that is usually completely unfamiliar to most people. Then you add in the differences between length, weight and diameters and all of a sudden you realize that there is an almost infinite amount of different combinations of parts of a barbell.
In this article I’m going to give you a complete barbell education. Think of it as Barbell 101. By the time you’re done reading you’ll know the parts of a barbell, barbell terminology and the differences between bars. I’ll also explain why all this matters and what you should look for when you’re purchasing a barbell.
Standard Olympic Barbell Specs
Over the course of this article I’m going to refer to a “standard Olympic barbell” quite often. So I wanted to go over exactly what is a standard Olympic barbell before we go any further.
For starters, a standard Olympic barbell doesn’t necessarily mean that it is designed specifically for Olympic lifts. This often leads to a ton of confusion. Somewhere along the way the term “Olympic barbell” became attached to any bar that basically fits the standard size requirements.
One important note to make, is that a standard Olympic barbell generally refers to a Men’s bar. An official Women’s Olympic bar is a shorter, (2.02m / 6.6ft) lighter, (15kg / 33lb) and thinner in diameter (25mm).
A standard Olympic (Men’s) barbell is the bar you are probably most familiar with. It’s probably the bar you lifted with in high school and/or your local gym. It’s 2.2m (7.2ft) long, weighs either 20kg or 45lbs, has sleeves (the outer portion of the bar where plates go) that are 50mm (1.96inches) in diameter and has a shaft that is roughly 30mm in diameter.
The sleeve diameter is almost always referred to as 2″ though, which comes in very important when buying bars and plates that are compatible.
There are lots of small differences in the design of standard barbells, but they all fit this general template. For the purposes of this article, explaining and dissecting these smaller differences will be the focus.
There are other barbells that are generally referred to as technique bars or specialty bars. These can vary widely in regards to length, weight, diameters and sometimes complete makeup.
We’ll touch on these briefly as we go through, but our focus will be on standard Olympic bars. The reason is simple. Ninety-nine percent of the time the first barbell purchased for a garage or at-home gym will be a standard bar.
Parts of a Barbell – The Basics
The Major Parts of a Barbell
A barbell has three main pieces. The central part of the barbell, the two sleeves – one on each end and the bearings or bushings that connect them together.
The central part of the barbell is technically called the shaft, although in 20+ years I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard anyone call it that.
Generally, most people just refer to the bar between the sleeves as, well, the bar. The bar actually extends all the way into the sleeves which you’ll learn if you’re ever unfortunate enough to have a sleeve come off on you.
The sleeves are the pieces on the outer portion of the bar that holds the plates. Like I stated earlier, on standard Olympic barbells they are 2″ in diameter. This is critical because 99% of plates are made to fit a standard bar. If you get a cheap bar with a 1″ or 1 1/2″ diameter you’re going to be really disappointed when you go to add weight for the first time.
Finally, the shaft and sleeves are connected by either bearings or bushings. They are what allows the sleeves to rotate around the bar. More on those later.
How Much Does a Barbell Weigh?
A standard Olympic barbell weighs either 20 kilos or 45 pounds. For those who are about to ask Siri, 20 kilos is roughly 44 pounds.
Whether a bar comes in kilos or pounds is typically dependent upon where the bar is made. More often than not, bars made in America are, not surprisingly, made in pounds while bars made everywhere else in the world are made in kilos. However, there are quite a few companies now that make bars and plates in both.
Outside of standard bars, weight can vary. Women’s bars are 15 kilos. Technique bars, designed for youth and/or novice lifters are also lighter and can vary in weight from 5 to 15 kilos and 15 to 35 pounds. Specialty bars like multi-grip “football” bars, safety squat bars and curl bars can also range in weight from 15 pounds all the way up to 60-plus pounds.
What is the Length of a Barbell?
A standard Olympic barbell is 2.2m, or 7.2 feet, long from end to end. The distance of the center bar (in between the two sleeves) is 52″.
Why is this important? Where a bar is racked on a lifting rack is typically 48″ apart. This allows the bar to fit nicely on the rack without hitting the sleeves.
Non-standard bars can come in a range of lengths. Technique bars, which are also lighter, can come in shorter lengths as well sometimes 5 or 6 feet long. On the other hand, there are heavy duty powerlifting bars which can be longer allowing for more weight to be added to the bar.
What is the Diameter of a Barbell?
Have you ever lifted with a bar that you were convinced was slightly thinner or thicker in diameter? But, you thought you were crazy because all barbells are the same, right? Nope. You were probably correct. Barbells can vary in diameter. These variances are usually very slight, but still pretty noticeable.
The official diameter of a competition Olympic barbell (the ones actually used in weightlifting competitions) is 28mm. Powerlifting has a standard competition size of between 28 and 29mm.
While the large majority of standard barbells will be 28mm, you will find some bars that are slightly thicker and thinner.
Parts of a Barbell – Advanced
What is Knurling on a Barbell?
The knurling (pronounced with a silent ‘k’) on a barbell is the rough, textured part of the bar. It is created on the bar by a specialized machine that makes a zig zag pattern. The spacing and depth of the pattern varies and results in the aggressiveness rating of the knurling. (More on that in a second) The knurl is designed to help the lifter be able to grip the bar.
The knurling can be different from one bar to another in two different ways. First, the placement of the knurl on the bar can vary. The most obvious difference is that some bars will have a center knurling while others will not.
Barbells designed more for Powerlifting will have knurling in the center of the bar to help the bar grip the back for back squats.
Olympic barbells, designed primarily for snatches and clean & jerks will not have a center knurling. Whether you want a center knurling on your bar is completely dependent upon what type of lifting you’re doing and personal preference. Women’s barbells will also not have a center knurling.
Keep in mind, that these are not absolutes either. There are so many companies making barbells now, that you can find a variety of knurling placements on a variety of different bars.
The second difference in barbell knurling is the aggressiveness of the knurl. Aggressiveness is the term used for how fine or rugged the knurling is. This is dictated by the design of the knurl as I explained earlier.
In general, Olympic lifters tend to like a less aggressive knurling due to feel and because of the nature of the lifts an aggressive knurling can destroy your hands pretty quickly. Powerlifters tend to like a more aggressive knurling for maximum grip for deadlifts and to a lesser degree, bench press.
General lifters usually like a less aggressive knurling. They normally don’t lift as heavy and have less of a need for a really aggressive knurling.
Having said all that, how aggressive lifters like their knurling is probably more about personal preference than anything else. I would strongly advise against buying a barbell labeled with a super aggressive knurling unless you know for sure that’s what you want. When in doubt, go with a moderate or less aggressive knurling.
What are the Marks, or Rings, on a Barbell for?
If you were ever an athlete for me, you know those rings as snatch rings. Your grip for the snatch had to be outside those rings. In fact, on an Olympic bar that’s really all the rings are for. The two rings are 36″ apart and serve as a means to measure your grip width.
Personally, my snatch grip is a thumb length outside those rings. The rings make gripping the bar quick and very reliable.
On a Powerlifting bar, the rings are slightly narrower at 32″ apart. The rings on Powerlifter bars serve a more meaningful purpose. In competition, the rings dictate grip width on bench press.
I’ve actually ran into bars before that had both rings on the bar. As you can imagine, they were more of hybrid bar built for general lifting and not really specialized in one or the other.
Bushings vs Bearings
Ah, yes, bushings versus bearings inside your barbell. Now we’re getting into some real barbell nerd stuff. Inside the sleeve of the barbell is either a bushing or bearing.
So what do they do and what is the difference?
The center shaft of a barbell is 7 feet long. The sleeves are then slid onto each side of the bar. The bushings or bearings are essentially what hold the sleeve onto the bar. They allow the sleeve to rotate and move independently of the shaft without falling off.
Bearings are found in bars designed for Olympic lifting. They are generally made of ball bearings, thrust bearings or needle bearings. Without getting too technical, bearings allow the bar to rotate smoother and faster. They also make a barbell more expensive. But, if you plan on doing Olympic lifts you most likely want bearings in your bar.
Bushings are typically found in Powerlifting bars and general fitness bars. They allow for less spin and friction free movement. Spinning the bar to catch a power clean for example can be anywhere from slow to clunky.
However, the need, or even the want for that matter, for spin in Powerlifting is minimal. In this case bushings work great. Bushings are also typically cheaper which is especially useful for a general fitness lifter that just needs a bar to do shoulder presses and curls.
Parts of a Barbell – Barbell Qualities
What does Tensile Strength mean in a Barbell?
Tensile Strength is essentially the amount of force it takes for a barbell to break. This is typically measured is pounds per square inch or PSI. How can you use this information? Well, you don’t need to measure how much you lift and calculate speed to figure out if you’re going to break a bar so you can put your calculator away.
PSI is a pretty good indicator on the quality of steel of the barbell. Barbells measuring anywhere between 185,000 and 210,000 PSI are considered good quality bars. Anything less than that, especially if you drop below 160,000 PSI, is cause for concern.
What is Barbell Whip?
Barbell whip is the bend of a bar when performing heavy lifts. This is primarily seen in the clean and jerk and heavy squats moved at a high rate of speed. The higher the whip the more bend you can get out of the bar.
Why would you want barbell whip? On a lift like the Clean & Jerk, you can use the momentum of the whip to your advantage. If you time the whip up correctly coming out of the clean, you can use it to help drive the jerk off your shoulders.
It can also create a little bit of an advantage when deadlift as well. When you drive the deadlift off the floor, barbell whip will allow the bar to start to bend before the weights lift off the ground. Every little bit of height you can get before the weights leave the floor creates a mechanical advantage. It’s the same thought behind taking your shoes off.
Now feel free to casually drop all of your barbell knowledge to your friends. Just know that they’ll either be super impressed or look at you like a complete weirdo. (From personal experience I can tell you that it’s usually the latter)
In all seriousness, I hope this article has helped answer any questions you may have had over all the parts of a barbell, what they are and what they do. Who knew that what appears to be just a long piece of steel could be so intricate? Well, now that person is you.