by Geoff Rand
Barbells. We use them almost everyday in the Box, but have you ever stopped to think about the piece of metal in your hands, what its parts are, and the reasons behind how it functions? Well I did.
Weightlifting is one of the original sports of the modern Olympics, and barbells have been a part of those games from the beginning. However, the barbell we use today has evolved quite a bit from its ancestors of long ago.
Before we dive too deeply into what makes up a barbell, you should know that there are essentially two types of barbells, power lifting barbells and Olympic lifting barbells (the type we primarily use). Throughout this article I’ll touch on the differences of the two bars.
Whip. This is the ability of the bar to flex and store elastic energy. Olympic bars have a great deal of whip; powerlifting bars are more rigid. The reason for this is the Olympic lifts of the snatch and clean and jerk involve dynamic movement. Trained athletes use the flexion of the bar to their advantage to assist in making these lifts.
Power lifters don’t want flex in their bars. Their movements of the squat, bench press, and deadlift don’t require dynamic energy to be stored, and in fact, too much flex on their bars could make the lift more difficult. The rigid powerlifting bars are sometimes a bit thicker, allowing more weight to be put on them.
Knurling. For me, knurling is the cheese grater that scrapes the skin off my shins on deadlifts. Its real purpose is to give you a better grip. There’s actually smooth sections of the bar without knurling designed to not tear you up, so maybe my stance is a bit off. One key difference in Olympic bars and powerlifting bars is the lack of center knurling on Olympic bars. We don’t need center knurling for our lifts. Can you imagine the damage it would cause to our necks and chests during cleans? Yikes!
Powerlifting bars often DO have center knurling. Some say it is a throwback to the old days when the one hand snatch was an event. Center knurling can be favored by athletes doing back squats as the knurling is supposed to keep the bar from sliding down your back under heavy load. Whatever the reason, if you are in the market for a bar for CrossFit-type exercises, stay away from ones with center knurling.
You’ll see in most bars, including our Olympic bars, notches in the knurling (see photo above), or a sort of two thin stripes in the middle of the knurled sections. These are to allow you to reliably and quickly find your proper hand position for the lift.
Sleeves. The sleeves are the ends of the barbells we slide the weights on. A key feature of Olympic bars is a rotating sleeve. The sleeves rotate on a washer or ball bearing system. The reason for the sleeves rotating is to allow the lifter to get under the bar quickly on the snatch and clean and jerk, without having to change their hand position. In the early days, bars did not have this feature, and lifters had to essentially reverse curl their bars into position, resulting in wrist and arm injuries.
Powerlifting bars still spin, however the need for them to spin as freely as Olympic bars is not as great, so they use cheaper bushings, rather than ball bearings.
Whether you are using an Olympic bar or a Powerlifting bar, it is important to remember to never drop a bar that is not loaded with bumper weights. Dropping an unloaded bar or one with metal plates on it can easily bend the bar or damage the sleeves and their rotating system. Bars are expensive. Please don’t contribute to their need for early replacement.
If you’d like to know more about bars, specifically finishes and varying dimensions, Rogue has a great video about them.
While they may seem like just simple pieces of steel, there is a lot of technology and purpose built into bars. Hopefully you understand your barbell a little bit better now.