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Whether you’re a regular at your local commercial gym or have a home gym, you’re likely to have made use of, or purchased, a barbell. However, something you may not have considered are the different types of barbells available and the main differences between each. In your local gym, they’ve probably got a few regular barbells, perhaps even some specialty bars for specific exercises.
In this article we’ll touch on the kinds of bars you may come across in your gym and focus on the major differences between the two most popular barbells, the Olympic barbell and the standard barbell.
To begin, let’s look at the different types of barbells and what they offer.
Different Types of Barbells and How to Use Them
Barbells are hugely versatile and allow for a wide range of free weight exercises. They can be used to target multiple muscle groups by undertaking exercises such as squats, bench press and the deadlift.
Aside from the usual multi-purpose bar, there are several bars specifically designed for certain exercises. What’s more, barbells come in various designs and weight capacities. Below are some of the most common types of bars you may come across in your gym.
Olympic barbells are specifically designed for Olympic weightlifting exercises, such as the snatch and clean & jerk. As such, they are typically used by competitive weightlifters. When compared to other barbells, they are longer and larger in diameter with a weight capacity of around 700-1500 lbs. This weight load capacity also makes them ideal for advanced lifters who tend to lift a heavy amount of weight.
Another feature found on Olympic bars is that of rotating sleeves. A bar sleeve that rotates will allow the plates to spin during the exercise. This limits the amount of force being exerted which in turn helps to reduce the likelihood of injury to the lifter. Olympic sleeves on a barbell are 50mm in diameter and designed to accommodate Olympic plates.
Standard barbells are shorter, thinner, and sometimes lighter than Olympic barbells, with a weight capacity of around 300-500 lbs. Standard barbells also tend to have a lower tensile strength. This means they are more susceptible to bending under heavier weights, hence why the weight capacity is lower. These are more generic and most common in commercial gyms and home and garage gyms. The diameter of the sleeves accommodate standard weights such as bumper plates.
Standard barbells are typically used by those lifting lighter weights and would not be recommended for heavy lifts.
EZ Curl Barbell
EZ curl bars have a unique shape that allows for a comfortable grip during curl exercises. They are a shorter bar with a W shape shaft allowing for multiple grip options. The shape of the bar helps to reduce strain on your wrists, forearms, and elbows as you perform an exercise such as the bicep curl. EZ curl bars are also ideal for isolation exercises such as tricep extensions and close-grip bench presses.
Hex Trap Barbell
These barbells are hexagonal in shape and are used in exercises such as deadlifts, shrugs, and farmer’s walk. The hexagonal shape allows for a neutral grip, which reduces strain on the wrist and shoulder joints. As the weight load is more centrally aligned to the body, this also reduces stress on the lower back.
A Swiss bar, sometimes called a multi-grip bar, offers various grip options for a wide range of pressing, rowing, and pulling exercises. They are typically shorter than standard weightlifting bars and have several neutral grips, making them ideal for reducing stress on your wrists and forearms during exercise.
There are many other types of barbells designed for specific exercises or training goals. These specialty barbells include trap bars, safety squat bars, and more. You can even get specific women’s bars, these are usually lighter and shorter when compared to a men’s Olympic barbell. Other examples include:
- Deadlift bars are typically designed for the deadlift exercise. These are longer and have more whip when compared to other barbells. This means they flex under load making the deadlift exercise easier to execute.
- Power bars are designed for explosive movements such as the squat, bench press, and deadlift. They are usually stiffer and have a higher load capacity than standard barbells.
- Technique bars are notably lighter than other barbells. Whilst not especially common, they are designed for beginners who are new to Olympic lifts and take the place of a standard Olympic weightlifting bar.
- Cambered bars get their name from the camber featured at either end of the barbell. They are specifically designed for squatting and help to keep stress away from the shoulders whilst also making the squat more challenging when compared to a regular front or back squat.
Olympic Barbell vs Standard Barbell
The main difference between an Olympic barbell and a standard barbell is that an Olympic bar is designed for Olympic lifting. Conversely, a standard barbell is a lower cost alternative that can be used for exercises involving lighter weight loads.
Below we look at the differences between these two barbells in more detail.
Weight Or Load Capacity
An Olympic barbell goes through a number of manufacturing processes that mean it can withstand heavier weight loads when compared to a standard barbell.
One of these processes includes case hardening, which is a form of heat treatment. All Olympic barbells will be heat treated. When a barbell is heat treated the tensile strength increases. This means it can withstand a higher level of bending before permanent deformity occurs. It also makes the barbell much stronger, thus making it more suitable for Olympic lifting.
In comparison, standard barbells will not be subject to case hardening. Whilst this make’s them a budget friendly alternative, it does mean they will be less durable with a shorter life span.
An additional process is that of precision straightening. This will also increase the durability of the barbell.
The way the bar is manufactured profoundly impacts its feel, grip, stability, and overall performance. For the most part, Olympic and standard barbells have the same components: shaft, sleeves, bearings or bushes, and knurling. However, the difference in manufacturing will differ, affecting their grip, stability, and overall effectiveness and durability.
Aside from the different manufacturing processes mentioned above (heat treatment and precision straightening), Olympic bars and standard bars will have different finishes.
Typically, most standard barbells are made from mild steel which is then coated with zinc or a nickel chrome to prevent rusting. On the other hand, Olympic bars are sometimes made from a better quality material, such as stainless steel. In the case of stainless steel barbells, they likely won’t be coated with anything as they have a higher tolerance to corrosion, depending on the grade of stainless used.
If an Olympic bar is manufactured from mild steel, this would be straightened, hardened, and finished off with something such as cerakote (a ceramic coating). Cerakote is more resistant to rust and has a better feel for the user, when compared to a finish such as zinc. It’s also available in a wide range of bright colours.
Another design difference not visible to the naked eye is that of the components used for the rotating sleeves. Whilst both types of barbells will have a sleeve that spins, Olympic bars will use bearings whereas standard bars will be manufactured with bushes. Both types are designed to facilitate movement of the sleeve with little friction.
When compared to a bush, a bearing is made up of multiple component parts. This means the sleeves on an Olympic barbell will have much less friction. This in turns allows for a smoother rotation of the sleeves during movements such as clean and jerk. By limiting stress on the wrists during these exercises means much less chance of injury.
Knurling refers to the textured, crosshatch pattern that appears on certain bars of the bar shaft, and it’s one of the most important features of a barbell. The purpose of the knurling pattern is to provide a secure grip and allow the weightlifters to maintain a firm hold on the bar during lifting exercises.
Knurling on Olympic barbells is more aggressive, with deeper and sharper diamond-shaped patterns that can provide a firmer grip on the bar. On the other hand, standard barbells are typically used for lighter lifting exercises, so the knurling is much more passive. The knurling on standard barbells is usually smoother.
Barbell sleeves refer to the sections of the bar where the weight plates are loaded. The difference in sleeve diameter will have a direct impact as to which plates can be used on the barbell.
Olympic barbells typically have a sleeve diameter of 50mm. This larger diameter allows Olympic barbells to safely secure Olympic weight plates, which have a 50.6mm centre hole.
Standard barbells are available with two different sleeve sizes, 50mm or 25mm. So, depending on the diameter of the sleeve would depend on whether you can use Olympic weights or standard plates. Standard plates have a 1inch center hold and cannot fit on Olympic barbells.
In barbell terms, whip refers to the amount of flex or bend in a barbell when you lift it. It can impact your lifting experience, including form, stability, and safety. However, it’s worth noting that bar whip really only matters when lifting a heavy amount of weight. Whip will help to generate more momentum essentially making the lift easier to execute.
Olympic barbells will have more whip when compared to standard bars. This is because an Olympic weightlifter will be lifting heavier weights and at relative speed. However, just because you may lift heavy weights, that doesn’t always mean you want to encounter bar whip. If you think of a powerlifter squatting a heavy load, excessive bar whip could cause a lot of unwanted instability.
Bar whip only really becomes important depending on the lifts you perform and how heavy the weight is. For the vast majority of people, bar whip will not be of much relevance, nor will it make a big difference to their training.
Due to the additional manufacturing processes undertaken in the production of Olympic weightlifting barbells, these do tend to carry a higher price tag when compared to standard barbells.
Precision straightening and case hardening have an impact on a bars strength and longevity. They are expensive processes which impact on the final cost of your barbell.
Olympic barbells are designed with serious weightlifters and athletes in mind, ideal for advanced strength training exercises like the snatch and clean and jerk. They’re often used in weightlifting competitions and can handle heavy loads.
On the other hand, standard barbells are a more versatile option and a great choice for beginner to intermediate weightlifters. They can usually handle a moderate amount of weight. While they may not be as heavy-duty as Olympic barbells, standard barbells are a great option for a wide range of exercises and are typically found in most commercial chain gyms.
Whilst Olympic bars and standard bars have their place in most gyms, which one you choose would really depend on your fitness goals. Olympic bars are certainly better quality and designed to carry more weight, but if you perform standard exercises such as squats and bench press with lower weight, a standard barbell would certainly suffice.