What, When, Why: Barbells

Today on WWW, we are going to tackle a piece of equipment that every CrossFitter will use with great regularity- the barbell. Normally on WWW, we talk about the What– what each piece of equipment is, since some of it is somewhat specialized, the When– what situations are appropriate for use, and the Why– why someone would choose to use the given piece of equipment and what advantages/disadvantages it offers. Barbells are incredibly common, used a lot, and their use case is pretty obvious- when the workout has a barbell movement in it!) With that in mind we will talk about the characteristics and differences between barbells, rather than if you should use one or not.

Barbell Composition

Barbells used in CrossFit are typically Olympic Barbells, which are (for men) 2.2 meters or 7.2 ft long and weigh 44-45 pounds (depending on if the bar was made to KG spec or not). The outer ends are 2 inches in diameter, while the grip section is 28 millimeters or 1.1 inches in diameter, and 1.31 meters or 4.3 feet in length. “Women’s” bars are shorter- 2.01 meters or 6.6 feet long and weigh less- 15 kilograms or 33 lbs (again, some American made bars will be 35 pounds). Most importantly, they have a smaller grip section diameter of 25 millimetres or 0.98 inches, which helps people with smaller hands (often but not always women) to grip the bar comfortably.

Bars vary in lots of ways, and most of them aren’t super important for the average CrossFitter. Olympic Weightlifters are concerned with things like “whip”- the flexibility and nature of rebound of the bar shaft. The barbell is really the only piece of equipment in their sport, so they rightly obsess over the little details. For most functional fitnessers choosing a barbell, the difference between the spin mechanism, how the bar is knurled, and what the bar is coated with is enough (possibly more than enough!)

Bushings vs. Bearings

On an Olympic barbell, the shaft and bar ends are independent pieces, and the end must spin on the shaft to dampen the centrifugal force of the plates spinning on the bar. To allow the bar to spin more freely and reduce wear, a third piece sits in between the shaft and bar end. These are typically either bushings or bearings, and make up the biggest difference in barbell types.


Photo: Fringe Sport

Bushings are one piece rings of brass or bronze. They are nice and smooth so that the shaft and end of the bar spin along them. Since they are one solid piece they are fairly durable, and are thus typically seen in CrossFit style barbells- they can be dropped, banged around, and used by lots of people while remaining functional without much or any maintenance. They tend to be cheaper as well.


Photo: Fringe Sport

Bearings are made of multiple little balls or rods that spin independently of each other, allowing the shaft and end of the bar to roll along very smoothly. There are different types of bearings (ball, needle, thrust) but for the purposes of this discussion we will treat them similarly. Bearings allow for a smoother and faster spin that bushings but since they aren’t one solid piece are more prone to wear and failure and can require more maintenance. Anybody doing dedicated Olympic lifting will want to use a bearing bar, but the technology is now popping up in more and more “general use” bars as well. Bearing bars are typically more expensive than bushing bars, sometimes astronomically so.

Knurling

The cross-hatched cuts on a barbell are known as “knurling” and bars will have different patterns based upon their use case. Different bars will have “rings,” or unknurled areas in slightly different patterns to help lifters set up their hands on the grip section of the bar. More important is the presence or absence of a “center knurl”- a knurled area in the very center of the bar. Powerlifting bars traditionally have a center knurl to help the bar “stick” to lifter’s backs when they squat, which Olympic bars typically don’t because the knurl will tear up your throat and shoulders when front racked aggressively in a clean. Some bars (like the Matt Chan bar from Rogue) have what’s called a “passive” center knurl, which means the area is only lightly cross-hatched in the middle, allowing some “stick” without being uncomfortable when the bar is held in a front rack position.

Finishes

Finally, bars can be coated or finished slightly differently. Traditionally bars have been chromed or zinc coated, which allow for some durability and rust/corrosion resistance at a low price. Stainless steel bars have nothing that can peel or crack and are naturally more rust resistant, but are (much) more expensive. Recently manufacturers have been using Cerakote, a finish often seen on expensive firearms, to good effect. Cerakote allows for great corrosion resistance as long as the surface remains unbroken (usually from hard metal-on-metal contact). Further, Cerakote is a baked on finish that takes color well, so bars can be made in cool colors and patterns with words or logos inscribed upon them.

So Which Should I Buy?

In the end, if you work out at an affiliate, the decision on barbell is made for you. If your owner is really nice or your box is big and established, you may have some “specialty” bars reserved for dedicated Olympic lifting. In my gym, CrossFit Lumos, I was able to find bearing bars (FringeSport Wonder Bars) at a good price, so we run all bearing bars.

In general, the hierarchy for how much a bar matters roughly goes Powerlifting < CrossFit < Olympic Weightlifting. Bars don’t move or spin much in Powerlifting, so pretty much anything with a center knurl will do. CrossFitters need some spin, so you may want to spring for a slightly nicer bar. Olympic lifters live and die by the barbell and, rightly, will invest some money in a good one.

If you live in a coastal or very humid climate, you may want to explore some more durable and rust resistant finishes. Sweet colors and designs are up to you- scientific results have not confirmed any correlation between a gangster matte black finish and increased gainz.

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