Your commercial gym may be filled with slick looking machines – with lots of pulleys, cables, and nice thick padded seats (most of them let you sit and workout.) But the honest truth is that there are much more effective ways to train that do not involve expensive machines (or sitting down). You can (and should) build outstanding strength and endurance using the same basic implements (such as an Olympic barbell and free weights) that were available 50 years ago. No machines needed. This advice applies to rank beginners, novices, and grizzled veterans.
In this article, we’ll continue the discussion about starting your own garage gym. We’re going to talk about what is probably the most essential piece of gear – the Olympic weightlifting barbell.
But first, a quick word about the garage gym. What are the benefits? Why turn your garage into a gym? Well, why throw away money on monthly gym membership fees, for a place you may be too busy to go to? Investing in good equipment for your home gym is something that pays dividends for years to come. Work out when you want, and how you want. That’s the beauty of the garage gym. You can also use it to supplement regularly scheduled workouts when the gym is closed.
What is an Olympic Weightlifting Barbell? It’s the 7.2 foot long weightlifting bar used as a standard in competitive weightlifting, including the Olympics. A men’s Olympic bar is a metal bar that is 2.2 meters (7.2 ft) long and weighs 20 kilograms (44 lb). The outer ends are 50 millimeters (2.0 in) in diameter, while the grip section is 28 millimeters (1.1 in) in diameter, and 1.31 meters (4.3 ft) in length. On both ends of the bar are rotating sleeves – these allow the weight plates to spin, which is an essential component of several of the lifts you can do with this equipment. There are also women’s and training versions of the Olympic bar that are sized a bit smaller, and lighter.
The Olympic barbell uses weight plates with a 2.0 inch diameter hole in the center. Beyond that you can choose metal plates (typically used for bodybuilding and powerlifting) or bumper plates (typically used for the Olympic lifts). What are bumper plates? They are plates made out of very dense rubber – and they are meant to be safely dropped from overhead.
An Olympic barbell for women is standardized at 25mm in shaft diameter – this makes the bar easier to grip for those with smaller hands. Consequently the bar is also significantly lighter at 15 kg (about 33 lbs) – compared to 20 kg (44 lbs) for a men’s bar.
You’ve probably seen these before – not only are they used for the Olympic lifts, such as the snatch and clean and jerk, but they are the standard equipment for any serious amount of weight – so powerlifters and bodybuilders utilize them as well.
But there are some subtle, but important, differences in the different types of bars used for different purposes. And that’s what we’ll discuss in this article. The goal will be to give you the information to select the right barbell for your home or garage gym – one that is robust, durable, and can help you achieve your goals.
And as a first step, let’s determine what sort of strength or power training do you wish to do? That will help determine which bar (and weight plates) we ultimately choose.
Olympic Barbell – How Do You Want To Train?
First, there are two inherently different kinds of lifts you can do with an Olympic bar – the quick lifts and the slow lifts. What’s a “quick lift”? These are represented by the lifts contested in the Olympics – the snatch and the clean and jerk. These are lifts that demonstrate and build power – force or strength applied quickly. There’s no way to clean a barbell to your shoulders slowly. There’s a lot of technique involved. These are also an essential part of CrossFit training.
In contrast, the “slow lifts” are the moves typically done by powerlifters and bodybuilders – the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, the overhead press – all these can be (and usually are) done slowly. You can “grind” out a tough squat. You can’t do that with the Olympic lifts – you either make it, or you don’t. The slow lifts train pure strength and hypertrophy (muscle size).
It’s also possible that you may desire to do some of both. Even pure Olympic weightlifters use slow lifts to build pure strength.
An Olympic bar has sleeves on the end which rotate. We need bushings or bearings to sit between the bar and the sleeve, allowing the sleeve to spin more freely around the bar, reducing friction and wear. Bushings are simpler, but don’t allow as much spin as bearings. Bearings are better for spin – but are more expensive – generally. A picture is worth 1,000 words – so let’s take a look.
Here’s a bronze bushing:
Here’s a ten needle bearing:
See the difference?
What attributes of the bar are desirable for the Olympic lifts? Here’s a list:
- Smooth bearings – you will need those revolving sleeves to spin smoothly. This makes a huge difference in your ability to clean the weight.
- You’ll want bumper plates. It’s not impossible to smoothly lower a barbell with steel plates from overhead – but it’s a lot less work and energy to be able to drop the loaded bar at the conclusion of the lift.
- Bar Whip – A good bar for Olympic weightlifting will have some “whip” – it will store some elastic energy and that will contribute to the total amount you can lift.
- No Center Knurl – The knurl on the bar can chew up skin, over the long term. In the Olympic lifts, you’ll be “racking” the bar at your shoulders a lot – and if that bar comes in contact with the upper chest area enough, you’ll know it.
How about the slow lifts? As it turns out, some of the desirable attributes run counter to that of the Olympic lifts:
- Weight is weight – For the slow lifts steel plates are fine. You are not (or should not)
be dropping them. Steel plates are generally cheaper than bumper plates. It’s hard to make a good bumper plate that will withstand years of drops from overhead.
- Whip is less desirable, no whip even better – For the most part you DO NOT want whip during the slow lifts. The stiffer the bar, the better.
- Expensive revolving sleeve bearings not a concern – For convenience the weights still have to spin, but this isn’t anywhere near as much of a requirement as for the quick lifts. In fact, you probably want more cost-effective and robust bushings of a simpler design, to save cost.
- Center Knurl for the Squat – You do want a centered knurl pattern on a slow lift bar – to help ensure that heavily loaded barbell stays in place on your upper back. Having a heavily loaded barbell slowly slide down your back as you squat is not fun.
Based on these criteria, read on for our top three choices. We hope we’ve armed you with the right knowledge to make the best decision for your needs.
Olympic Lifts – The Barbell We’d Choose
For a specialist in the Olympic lifts – hands down, we’d choose the Rogue Olympic WL Bar. Why? It’s got all the essentials we described above – It’s a bearing bar and it will revolve super smooth, there’s no center knurl, and it has great whip – as you’d expect because it’s purpose designed for the Olympic lifts.
Let’s focus on the bearings for a moment – the Olympic WL Bar features 10 sets of needle bearings (5 sets per sleeve) that produce a smooth, reliable spin across day-to-day use. What’s a needle bearing? See the picture to the right…
Slow lifts only – Barbell for Powerlifting and Bodybuilding
If all you do is the “slow” lifts – in the traditional fashion of powerlifters and bodybuilders worldwide – then your best choice is the Rogue Ohio Power Bar. It weights 45 lbs – because it’s not an olympic bar. It’s a little thicker (29mm vs 28mm) and has no whip. It’s also got an aggressive center knurl. This is the bar you want for big squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.
Dual Purpose – You’re Well Rounded and You Need Both
If you want to dabble in both worlds (and we highly recommend it), and you only want one bar, you want a good dual purpose bar. This would be our choice for any CrossFit trainees.
The Rogue Ohio Bar (note this is not the “Power” model recommended above) is a great all-arounder. It’s uses cost-effective bushings – but has no center knurl, and has good whip. How does Rogue manage this feat? From their product information: “We assemble the Ohio Bar with a snap ring design and quality composite bushings, which act as bearing surfaces between the bar sleeve and bar shaft, producing normal “whip” during Oly weightlifting but enough stiffness to hold for heavy powerlifting”.
So there you go. Some great choices. And there’s even more models and options on the Rogue website – such as bar finishes like Cerakote – an advanced ceramic polymer coating that is available in a variety of colors. We recommend you check out the detailed customer reviews as well – this is great intel to have before you make that purchase.
Looking for a cheap barbell (but a good barbell?) Before you look for a used barbell for sale – check this out. Rogue sells brand new, seconds quality barbell off of the standard production line as Boneyard Bars. These bars may have minor cosmetic issues such as finish blemishes or inconsistencies with the knurl, such as double tracking. However, the bars are brand new, and fully functional. This might be a way for you to pick up a good bar, at a discount, if you aren’t concerned with looks.
See Boneyard Bars in the Rogue Closeout section
In Summary – Garage Gyms and Olympic Barbells
Having bumper plates and a good bar isn’t an excuse to gratuitously drop them all over the place. Make no mistake, several hundred pounds is several hundred pounds – and you’ll get more life out of your gear (and your garage floor) if you treat if carefully. And to be clear, do not purposely drop a loaded barbell onto the safety pins or arms on a power rack. That will damage almost any bar, no matter how good it is.
In summary, serious strength training requires an Olympic weightlifting barbell. The right model will be a useful fitness tool for years – and allow you to fulfill your personal endeavors in fitness. Be sure to get a model that will accommodate the style of lifting or training you wish to undertake. Bearings or bushings, center knurl or no center knurl, and whip or no whip – those are the key criteria. Beyond that, it’s really just a matter of what fits your tastes and budget.
We hope this information has been useful, and in the next article, we’ll discuss further all the proper equipment needed for a well equipped garage gym. If you have any questions, please let us know.
Now that you’ve got a barbell picked out – you’re gonna need some Olympic weight plates, so be sure to check out that info too. You may want to review our article on ideal garage gym power racks, which should also be considered an essential piece of gear for your garage.
We’re a Rogue Fitness affiliate – so if you order equipment after clicking the links in this article we receive monetary compensation. But that’s not why we recommend Rogue. It’s because their equipment is tough, durable, well-made, and a lot of their best stuff is made in America. Their equipment looks good, and works even better. Their innovative designs and diversity of options make your training better – allowing you to reach your personal goals faster. And that’s why we love them.
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