In our day and age the barbell is the most iconic piece of strength training equipment around. A muscular man (or woman) lifting a long apparatus loaded with giant plates on each side is the general image of “strength” in most of our heads. The Olympic sport of weightlifting involves a barbell, as do the popular sports of powerlifting and CrossFit. And athletes from every sport (including golf) have gotten performance benefits from the working with a barbell.
I bought my first barbell when I was 14 years old, as many young men do, since I wanted to be muscular and strong. While I am certainly not a world record holder I more or less achieved that goal, and have maintained it into my mid 30s. Having spent years using all types of different training equipment including kettlebells, TRX straps, dumbbells, and machines, I have a special place in my heart for the barbell.
In fact, I still have that exact same barbell in my current home gym set-up, almost 20 years later! A “decent” barbell is something that will last you a very long time.
Benefits of Barbell Training
Barbell training is unquestionably the best tool for building (or testing) strength. And strength is the master quality of movement. That being said, it is not the only tool and it is not for everyone. But if you are looking to burn fat, add muscle, increase your power, or build real world functional strength, this is one of the best tools available.
Using a barbell is also very time effective. You can get a full body functional workout with only two or three exercises. Additionally, you can do barbell complexes which are a great way to torch stubborn fat from your body.
Best of all, they are relatively cheap! A few hundred bucks will get you everything you need to set up a home gym, and the equipment requires no maintenance and lasts effectively forever.
A Short History of Barbell Training
Barbells as we know them are a very recent invention. However, the tool they are based on (the dumbbell), goes back a few thousand years to ancient Greece. The barbell was invented in the 1800s for strongmen who wanted bigger implements than dumbbells. But these often were a set weight, until models were eventually designed that were hollow and could be filled with iron shot or sand. Later in the early 1900s plates and collars were developed for faster and more consistent adjustment and the modern barbell was born.
The barbell eventually made it to the big time, the Olympic Games, where the sport of Olympic weightlifting is still contested to this day with the person who can lift the most weight being crowned the champion (in both genders and multiple weight classes). The current lifts contested are called the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, but a variety of lifts have been part of the Olympics over the years.
Additionally, another popular barbell sport was developed called Powerlifting. The current lifts contested in Powerlifting are the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. These have also changed over the years.
Last, there is one more popular sport that involves using a barbell during competition–CrossFit. It is fundamentally different from the others because it also incorporates many events that don’t involve a barbell at all. But in CrossFit all of the Olympic lifts and Powerlifts appear in various forms. Another major difference in CrossFit is that the lifts are often used endurance events, with how fast you can do a certain number of repetitions being the contest, versus lifting the largest amount of weight one time.
Other Uses of the Barbell
Another place where barbells are heavily used is in improving body composition or strength for performance in other sports. This is probably most well known in bodybuilding, but in this day and age athletes from almost all sports incorporate barbells into their training programs. The applications for every sport and person are individual and use an infinite number of exercises.
Even regular “non-athletes” who work out use barbells as a tool to improve their general fitness, and short smaller versions of the barbell have even made their way into popular group fitness classes.
Types of Barbell
Our modern barbell is effectively a pole weight with weights on either end that is designed to be used with two hands. Sometimes, however, it is used with one hand at a time.
The most standard (and common) barbell is the men's Olympic barbell which is 2.2 m (7.2 ft) long and weighs 20 kg (44 pounds). But in most American gyms the bar is modified slightly to weigh 45 lbs since it is easier to do plate math with that number when you are using pounds. The handle has a diameter of 28 millimeters.
The women's version is a little shorter at 2.01 m (6.6 ft) and lighter 15 kg (33 pounds). American versions of this bar are often 35 pounds, with a smaller 25 mm diameter.
As a beginner it is important to know that the two factors which have the biggest influence on how hard the barbell is to use are the weight (obviously) and the diameter. Smaller diameter grips are easier to hold. Some barbells exist with thick handles to provide an additional challenge (for a great story about that you should learn about the Inch dumbbell).
Barbells do come in many shapes and sizes, sometimes as short as 4 feet or having special designs to help with different exercises. For example an ez curl bar is angled to lower the wrist pressure while doing curls and a trap bar is designed as a trapezoid so you can be in the middle of the bar, making it easier to do deadlifts.
Remember, any change in shape changes the physics of the lift, which will change the way the bar works. I recommend you get comfortable with a bar close to standard size as this is what is found in most gyms and is generally easiest to find while traveling.
Other Important Equipment
A barbell is not designed to be a single piece of equipment. There are other important items that are often or always used with it.
Plates allow you to add weight to the bar. They come in all weights that you can imagine. In most gyms the “big” plates will be either 20 kg (or 45 lbs in the US). The smallest are usually 1 kg or 2.5 lbs.
Remember that you want to keep your bar even so if the smallest plates you have are 2.5 pounds it means you can make changes in increments of 5 pounds to the total weight of the bar (a plate on either end).
There are two common types of plates: iron and bumper. Iron plates are made of metal and tend to be different diameters so only the “big” plates bring the barbell to the proper height for exercises where the barbell starts on the floor, such as deadlifts or cleans. So if you only put 10 lb plates on either side the bar will probably be too low for you to use with proper form.
On the other hand, bumper plates are usually the same diameter and the height the bar sits on the floor will be the same whether you put on 45 lbs or 10 lbs. But the increments smaller than 10 lbs (or 5 kg) are often made smaller in diameter. The assumption is that once you put on one plate that is the proper size it doesn’t matter if the other plates are smaller because it will never lower the height. These plates are usually made of a rubberized material so that you can drop them and they bounce, which is certainly important if you are doing Olympic lifts.
Less common are concrete or plastic weights. I have never seen one sized for an Olympic bar, but shorter bars for general fitness sometimes have plates made from these materials.
Because the plates can slide on they can also slide off. To stop them from falling off mid-set you should always put collars on the bar to keep them in place. Even if the plate doesn’t fall completely off the bar its moving will change the physics of the exercise making it more difficult.
The various collar types secure the weights in different ways (i.e., how they clamp to the bar), so keep this in mind for the lifts you plan to do. In particular, with the Olympic lifts, it is important to have the most secure type of collar.
The most popular exercise done with a barbell is a bench press. This involves laying on a bench holding the bar above yourself, lowering it down, and pressing it back up. The bench is different from the floor because it allows your elbows to move behind your body so that you can move the bar all the way to your chest.
The flat bench is one of the competitive power lifts. But many benches adjust to different angles so that you can do incline and decline presses as well.
If you want to start an exercise with the barbell anywhere not on the ground you need a way for it to be held in the air at the proper height. The equipment that holds it is called a rack. Racks are almost always adjustable so that you can choose the right height, which is important because different exercises require starting at different heights and even for the same exercise different people need different starting positions (for example, a rack set for a tall person to squat may be impossible for a short person to reach).
The rack is sometimes attached to a bench, part of a “cage” that has strong pins that will catch the weight if it falls. They are sometimes bolted down, and sometimes moveable.
In addition to using bumper plates, a special floor is often used to absorb the impact from dropping weights. But this is not the only function of a platform. It is also used as a space that demarcates where only the lifter should be for safety reasons, allowing them to focus on the lift they are about to perform.
Your hands are going to get sweaty when you workout. To keep a firm grip on the bar chalk is usually used. Some gyms provide this, at others you need to bring your own. If the gym has a rule against traditional chalk, new liquid chalk will do the same thing without making a mess.
And no, gloves will not do instead of chalk. Notice “gloves” did not make the equipment list.
There are two ways that you can choose to get started. You can think about how you want to use the barbell and then find the proper equipment for that method, or look at what equipment is available and then pick a system that fits your options.
For example, say you decided that you want to give Olympic weightlifting a try. At a minimum, you need to find (or purchase) an Olympic barbell, bumper plates and collars. If you are a member of a gym and they don’t have one of these you will need to switch gyms or purchase your own equipment. If you just need collars bringing them in is not a problem, but buying your own bumpers, driving them to the gym and bringing them inside is usually frowned up (I know from experience!).
On the other hand, you could look around your gym to see what they have and then find a way to use whatever barbell is available.
You also need to consider how much equipment the gym has and how crowded the gym is. If you go to a big commercial gym at 6 pm and they only have 3 barbells, they may often be taken at your preferred training time.
I would argue that the best way to get started is to find a qualified instructor. There is a governing body of Olympic weightlifting in the United States that certifies instructors who become USAW Sports Performance Coaches. These instructors are taught (and tested) on their ability to perform and teach the Olympic lifts (as well as assistance exercises which include all the power lifts and more) with proper and safe form (full disclosure–this is the barbell certification I maintain).
Other great organizations certifying barbell instructors are StrongFirst (full disclosure–I maintain my kettlebell certification through this organization), Westside Barbell and CrossFit.
If you want to get started by yourself I recommend that you start with a good book.
To learn the power lifts I recommend Marty Gallagher’s The Purposeful Primitive (full disclosure: I have trained with the author) or Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
To get started with Olympic weightlifting I recommend Greg Everett’s Olympic Weightlifting.
In general, the worst option is to begin by randomly watching YouTube videos about certain lifts. If you do go this route, please find someone who is qualified and experienced and stick with one or two channels. It can be very confusing and sometimes seem contradictory when you information from two different sources. Add to this the fact that many sources out there aren’t good and that can negatively impact your training.
The $20–$50 you spend on the book will be worth every penny. Though of course you will have to read it, so if you are looking to avoid effort then barbell training is not for you.
Barbell training can seem intimidating or dangerous, and it can be if you don’t know what you are doing.
But if you take some time to learn proper technique it can transform your body and give you amazing results. And even if you never get into any official competitions (which I never have) you still have the opportunity to compete against yourself while you grow and learn.
If you have any questions feel free to send me an email.
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