Whether you're entering a serious weightlifting competition and want to play by the rules or you're just looking for low-impact training methods that use only a small barbell, weight matters.
From the standard bar you'll find on your local gym's weight bench to specialty barbells, like the Swiss bar, you'll discover that there are tons of variations in barbell weight. That's why it's important to look beyond just the weight bench when you consider your next bar.
A standard bench press bar usually weighs 45 pounds, but you'll find plenty of variation among other types of barbells.
Why Barbell Weight Matters
Oftentimes, weightlifting competitions enforce standards for barbell weight (measuring that weight without the weight plates, of course). While that's a pretty specific reason to know your barbell weight, it's not information that should be exclusively of concern to competitive or professional lifters. Though it may sound obvious, the overall weight of your bar can influence how you perform an exercise and, in turn, affect the targeted muscle groups.
In a May 2017 study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the researchers used infrared cameras and a special device called a pantograph to monitor the biometrics of 20 healthy weightlifters, noting which muscles were prime movers and supportive movers during a flat bench press.
As the weight increased, different muscles became more or less involved. For instance, the pectoralis major went from being a prime mover to a supportive prime mover under heavier loads, with the deltoids taking on a more targeted role. If your barbell is pushing you into higher loads, you may be engaging different muscle groups.
A Primer: Barbell Jargon
Before you dive too deeply into selecting the right barbell weight, it helps to know the basic terms you'll hear thrown around the gym when discussing these bars. Here's a quick primer on some of the usual suspects, according to Stephen Bergeron, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist:
- Whip: This refers to a bar's ability to bend a bit as it rebounds from the movement of the weight. Whip isn't too much of an issue when you're dealing with small barbell weight, but it really factors in with heavier lifts. The whip of a barbell often depends on the quality of the steel from which the bar is made.
- Knurl: The knurled part of the bar is the bumpy, textured section that encourages better grip. In many cases, it also serves as a visual guide for hand placement.
- Power bar: No, this isn't talking about the protein bar (technically, that's a PowerBar). This is a slang term for a standard barbell. People sometimes call it a "power bar" because of the standard bar's use in old-school strength and power lifts.
The Standard Barbell
In most commercial gyms around the country, you'll find a flat, rigid barbell that's usually about 7 feet long, or a few inches longer. Commonly made from American steel, these bars usually weigh 45 pounds, or about 20.5 kilograms.
With just a bit of whip under heavy loads, your garden variety barbell caters to classic exercises like the bench press, overhead press, squat and deadlift. Though this can vary per manufacturer (always check before loading your bar), most consumer-grade bars can support up to 600 pounds of weight, while competition-grade bars can support up to 1,200 pounds.
Standards bars do come in a few common variations, with the differences mostly boiling down to knurling and thickness. Bear in mind that thicker bars may weigh more, sometimes reaching weights of about 55 pounds (a weighty 25 kilograms).
- Bench press bar: This is where that weight-bench bar comes in. Bench press bars feature little to no whip, which accommodates a more stable pressing motion. These bars commonly have a thicker diameter to really work your grip too.
- Squat bar: Squat bars feature knurled centers, a thick diameter and a very low whip. In this case, the knurling isn't for your hands — it actually helps the bar grip the back of your shirt so it doesn't slide around on your shoulders.
- Deadlift bar: Compared to bench press bars and squat bars, deadlift bars have a bit more whip, allowing for higher speeds when lifted from the floor. These barbells typically sport rugged, highly textured knurling and a narrower diameter.
Stepping Up: Olympic Bar
The Olympic weightlifting bar has a few variations that set it apart from even the specialized types of standard barbells. Perhaps most important, these steel bars have a lot more whip than a regular bar — a helpful feature for the common "catch" motions of competitive lifting, like the classic clean and jerk.
Similarly, bearings (known as "sleeves") on each end of the bar allow it to spin more easily than most, which helps prevent injuries to the athlete's wrists and arms.
Like the standard barbell, the Olympic bar caters to a variety of lifts, including deadlifts, squats and the barbell clean and jerk. Designed with front squats in mind, Olympic bars don't have center knurling (and the knurling, in general, is a bit finer than standard barbells). Also, like a regular barbell, a standard Olympic bar weighs in at 20.5 kilograms, or 45 pounds.
Due to generally sturdier construction quality, these bars are usually capable of supporting more weight than standard-variety weightlifting barbells — and that means they'll usually set you back a few more dollars too.
Small Barbell Weight: Curl Bar
Also known as the EZ-bar, the curl bar caters to small barbell weight and, as you probably guessed from the name, it's designed for biceps curls. The distinct shape of this barbell — which bends outward at the middle — allows you to pronate your wrists with less risk of injury, which also makes it a solid choice for triceps extensions and a popular option at the preacher curl bench.
Exact lengths vary per manufacturer and product, but in general, you'll find that curl bars are shorter in length than standard or Olympic barbells. Likewise, they weigh significantly less than most other types of bars, usually clocking in at about 15 pounds, or just under 7 kilograms.
The lighter EZ-bar also serves as a viable alternative to dumbbells. According to a July 2018 study published in the journal PeerJ, researchers found a higher activation of both the biceps brachii and brachioradialis muscles when exercising with the EZ-bar, compared to using a standard dumbbell. These results held true even when subjects performed three different varieties of curls.
Deadlift Ready: Hexagonal Bar
Though it's sometimes called the "trap bar," the hex bar gets its name from its hexagonal or trapezoidal shape, which forms a large open space in the middle of the bar. This striking shape works best for deadlifts as its middle handles help you get a sturdy grip while the open shape puts you right in the bar's center of gravity. These features also make the bar less stressful on the joints than using a traditional bar or deadlift bar while deadlifting.
For the most part, hex bars also weigh 45 pounds (that's just about 20.5 kilograms), but there are much heavier variations out there. For instance, the trap bar used in testing officiated by the United States Army Center for Initial Military Training (USACIMT) in its three-repetition deadlift trial is a chrome-plated variety that weighs 60 pounds (roughly 27 kilograms) when empty.
This bar's distinct shape and often greater weight do come with some positive perks, though. In December of 2017, research published in the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute's journal, Sports, found that heavier loads can generally be lifted through the same range of motion faster using a hexagonal bar when compared to a conventional barbell during deadlifts.
Other Types of Bars
Barbell variations that you'll find at the weight bench and elsewhere don't end with standard, Olympic, curl and hex varieties. Some other classic variations that span the range of bar weight include:
Cambered bar: Like other varieties, these arched bars most commonly clock in at about 45 pounds (20.5 kilograms). Unlike others, the low-hanging weight of this barbell presents a challenging lift for advanced exercisers, as its shape makes it difficult to maintain stability. This bar puts the focus on posterior muscles.
Safety squat bar: The most striking feature of the safety squat bar, also known as the yoke bar, is the thickly padded arms at the center. These arms go around the lifter's neck, allowing the lifter to grip the handles protruding from them. In addition to added comfort, yoke bars particularly activate the glutes, back and hamstrings. They usually weigh about 60 to 65 pounds (or 27 to 29.5 kilograms).
Swiss bar: Featuring an open rectangle shape in its center with a series of small, vertical bars, the Swiss bar works for all kinds of lifts with a neutral grip, such as presses, rows and curls. The Swiss bar is known for going easy on the shoulders and usually weighs a lighter 35 pounds, or just under 16 kilograms.
In 2018, the American Council on Exercise introduced the Axle, a weightlifting bar notable for weighing a relatively meager 11 pounds (just about 5 kilograms). Its small weight allows for greater portability. This barbell was designed to accommodate rollouts — an ab-targeting workout often helped along by an "ab roller" type device — though it supports standard Olympic barbell weight plates too.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institute of Health: "Effect of Barbell Weight on the Structure of the Flat Bench Press"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institute of Health: "Effect of a Hexagonal Barbell on the Mechanical Demand of Deadlift Performance"
- United States Army Center for Initial Military Training: "IOC Testing — ACFT Equipment List
- American Council on Exercise: The Posterior-Chain Workout
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institute of Health: "Differences in Electromyographic Activity of Biceps Brachii and Brachioradialis While Performing Three Variants of Curl"
- BuiltLean: 7 Different Types of Weight Lifting Bars
- American Council on Exercise: The Axle: An ACE Integrated Fitness Training Workout