Get the Basics...
  • Buying your first barbell is a momentous occasion for any aspiring lifter.
  • One size does not fit all, so know the different kinds of barbells.
  • Barbells may have different weights for genders, but ultimately use what works for you.

Ah, those key moments in life: first day at school, first kiss, first love, first car—memories to treasure! But if your idea of “a drink at the bar” is more “protein shake at the squat rack” than “beer and pork rinds at the bar,” there is another epic day that you will always remember: buying your first barbell.

Buying your first barbell is a momentous occasion for any aspiring lifter.

I’ve been there. You truly have the weightlifting bug. You want to focus, go after it, chase the passion, perfect the technique, and lift BIGGER and better. But you need more than what’s offered at the gym.

Before you rush off, all guns blazing, to Google “oly bar, best price,” you must choose. And, like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, you must choose wisely, my friend.

The right bar will help you nail that technique and score those PBs; it will become a comfy and trusted ally for years to come. But choose poorly, and you will end up with the wrong bar, which, far from being your friend, will hinder your progress and, worse still, be unsafe.

To avoid an “all the gear, no idea” scenario, here are the top five things you need to know before you buy your first barbell.

#1 – Bar, Bar, Black Sheep

– Inexpensive, generic barbells

If you need a long, straight metal bar to attach plates to for general beginner weightlifting, there are tons on the market. But, without meaning to belittle them too much, if Tomy made a “My First Barbell” range, these bars would be it.

Generic barbells are useful for those who are just starting out or for those who want to lift LIGHT weights at home or in a group exercise class.

However, if you’re serious about lifting, you want to look for a heavy barbell that won’t snap during a lift. So, please rule out these cheap, lightweight metal sticks at the outset.

These beginner bars usually have 1” thick holes for plates, whereas the more substantial bars (referred to below) have 2” holes. Although I felt obliged to mention generic barbells, please put them to the back of your mind for the rest of this article. In fact, just put them out of your mind altogether.

– Olympic lifting bars

The name gives it away really. Olympic lifting bars are designed for Olympic lifts, such as the clean and jerk and the snatch.

Due to the aggressive movement of throwing the bar into the air, Olympic lifting bars have a certain amount of flex. This flex allows elastic energy to be stored and used by the lifter (known in lifting circles as “whip”). They are also designed to be able to withstand the constant abuse they get from being dropped at a height.

– Powerlifting bars

Powerlifting bars, or “power bars,” are designed specifically for the three main powerlifts: deadlift, squat and bench press. If you prefer to focus on these slower, less explosive yet heavy lifts, a powerlifting bar is your man.

In order to allow for extra weight, powerlifting bars are usually thicker and longer than Olympic lifting bars. Additionally, they are less flexible, which makes them unsuitable for Olympic lifting.

– Non-specialized, dual-purpose barbells

The final type of bar is a hybrid bar. A hybrid bar is flexible enough to be used for Olympic lifting but also strong enough to be used for powerlifting.

These general lifting bars are great for beginner to intermediate lifters and are popular with Crossfit and other commercial gyms.

#2 – Know Your Knurls

Knurling is the grooved marks on a barbell that serve as a guide for hand positioning.

The knurling on a barbell differs between powerlifting bars and Olympic bars. Powerlifting knurls are 32” apart, so they are closer to the midline of the bar than Olympic knurls, which are 36” apart.

If you see a bar described as “dual marked,” the bar has markings for both powerlifting and Olympic lifting. The description also indicates that the barbell is probably a non-specialized, general lifting bar.

Some bars also include center knurling — a throwback to the one-armed Olympic lifts that are no longer featured in lifting competitions. The International Weightlifting Federation requires center knurling for standard men’s competition bars, but you’ll find that most non-competition bars don’t include it.

When choosing a bar, the importance of center knurling really boils down to personal preference. Will you find a center knurl useful or not? For example, some powerlifters use center knurling for back squats.

Women’s bars have no center knurling, which brings me seamlessly onto point number 3.

#3 – Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus

There is a big difference between a men’s bar and a women’s bar. A men’s bar weighs 44 lbs, and a women’s weighs 33 lbs, but the difference is about more than just weight.

A women’s bar is shorter in length (6.6 ft compared to the men’s 7.2 ft) and isn’t quite as thick as the men’s version (25 mm for ladies, 28 to 29 mm for men).

Despite the labels, there’s no shame in using whichever bar you are more comfortable with, unless you’re competing. I’m a girl, but I actually find that men’s bars provide a comfortable grip (on account of my not-so-dainty, spade-like hands). But I usually stick with a ladies’ bar as I prefer the length.

There is also a youth bar which weighs about 22 lbs, is the same thickness as a ladies’ bar and measures between 60 to 67 inches in length. Again, there is no shame in using this, even if you’re a fully-grown adult.

At the ripe old age of 33, I started my Olympic lift training with a youth bar! Having said that, you’ll soon outgrow it, like your first pair of Clarks Magic Steps, and want to play with the bigger boys.

#4 – Bushes and Bears

Barbells have rotating sleeves (the bit at the end of the bar that you put your plates on), which allow the plates to remain neutral while performing lifts. This feature reduces stress on the hands and wrists, which is particularly important for Olympic lifting.

You’ll see that some barbells use bearings and some use bushes to achieve this rotation.

Bearings allow a much smoother and quieter rotation, but they do add a significant cost increase to the bars. Many Crossfit, powerlifting, and dual bars effectively use bearings.

Bushes are usually reserved for the higher end, superior quality bars.

#5 – Strong as an Ox and Twice as Smart

Finally, you need to think about how much weight you will need your barbell to handle.

The tensile strength of a barbell, which tells you how much weight the bar can take before it breaks, is given in pounds per square inch (psi). As a minimum, you’ll want about 150,000 psi. Competition quality bars, like the Elieko bar pictured below, go up to 215,000 psi, but 180,000 psi is fairly standard.

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Barbell Comparison

Now that you have your head around the basic differences, let’s take a look at some examples. For comparison purposes, all the barbells listed below are men’s bars.

Neo is a personal trainer and freelance writer from Yorkshire. Believe it or not, she image00used to be a lawyer but ditched the pinstripe to pursue her passion for fitness. She’s now much happier in trainers and trackies, pushing tires around and writing about all things fitness. You can read more of her stuff at Savage Strength.