Despite what some people think, there’s a huge amount of difference when comparing an Olympic barbell vs a standard barbell.
A men’s Olympic barbell is 7.2 ft (2.2 meters) long with 1.96 inches (50mm) sleeves. The shaft diameter is between 28 to 32mm (1.1-1.25″) and it weighs 44lbs (20kg). Whereas a standard barbell is usually 5-6 ft long (1.2-1.8m), weighs 15-25lbs (6.8-11.3kgs) and the diameter of the whole bar is 25.4mm (1″).
A gym is only as good as the barbell.
It’s the item of equipment you’ll use the most, so if you make a bad decision with the barbell, you’ll regret it forever. You can learn a lot more about the best Olympic barbells in our epic research study here.
So why should you listen to me?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I know more about barbells than most. I own an 8,000 square foot strength and conditioning gym containing upwards of 50 barbells. In my collection, I’ve got:
- Olympic barbells
- EZ bars
- Weightlifting bars
- Powerlifting bars
- Trap bars
- Safety squat bars
- Swiss bars
- (I could go on, but you get the point!)
I’ve bought and sold a LOT of barbells in my time, and I’ve written about them extensively. Here’s some of the range of barbells I own – note the differences in length, type, finish and shape…
For clarity’s sake, in this article, I’m going to be talking exclusively about straight barbells – not specialty bars such as hex/trap bars, EZ bars, or the like. Here’s what I’ll cover…
- Barbell Breakdown – the differences in barbell types
- Barbell technical information
- Knurling – What, Where, Why?
- How can you tell the difference between barbell types?
- Why would you need a specialist olympic barbell?
- Why would you need a standard barbell?
- How to pick a good barbell
- How to look after a barbell
- Pros and Cons of Olympic Barbells and Standard Barbells – Which Should You Buy?
Barbell Breakdown – the differences in barbell types
To the untrained eye, all straight barbells may look the same. Look a little deeper though and the differences become apparent…
Differences in barbell size
Length: Barbells come in different lengths – most commonly 5ft, 6ft, 6’6, 7′. The standard barbells can be 5’, 6’ or 7’ long. Olympic barbells are either 6’6” (women’s bars) and 7’2 (men’s bars).
Sleeves diameter: Sleeve diameters are different too. All Olympic barbells should have a 48mm-50mm (2 inch) sleeve for the plates to fit on. This is standard across the industry, regardless of the type of plate (bumper, iron etc.)
A standard barbell is 25mm along its shaft and sleeves and will have to be used with standard plates with a 25mm opening. Normal 2-inch diameter weight plates simply won’t fit.
Bar thickness: Men’s Olympic weightlifting bars are 28mm thick and powerlifting bars are 29mm thick. Women’s bars are 25mm thick. Some specialty bench press bars are 30mm thick to reduce the whip. And squat bars can be 32mm thick to make the bars more rigid and comfortable on your back.
Olympic barbells used for weightlifting are thinner because they are designed to be used with a ‘hook grip’, which allows you to engage the thumb in the grip too.
Standard barbells are 25mm (1 inch) thick all along their shaft length and the sleeve length! There’s no deviation from this.
Weight: The Olympic barbell weighs 20kg (44LB) for all 7’2 men’s bars. Women’s Olympic 6’6 bars are 15kg (33LB). The shorter (5’ or 6’) bars vary in weight depending on their thickness, but most are between 12.5kg (27.5LB) and 16kg (35.2 LB).
A standard 25mm barbell will vary depending on the length and materials used. Typically they’ll weigh between 5 and 12kg (11-22 LBS), but they don’t have to adhere to a standard.
Barbell technical information
Barbells vary depending on their intended use, with materials, construction, and strength offering different characteristics. A lot of these differences aren’t immediately apparent, so pay attention here – you’re about to learn a few things!
Bushings and bearings – what’s the difference?
The sleeves (ends) of an Olympic barbell will spin at different rates depending on how they’re constructed.
Olympic weightlifting bars tend to have bearings in the sleeves, which allows the sleeves to spin quickly because the bearings spin smoothly.
You generally have needle bearings or ball bearings – in all honesty, the difference is negligible for most users. But needle bearings will be more expensive and usually slightly smoother (the image below shows needle bearings).
Some Olympic bars allow the sleeves to rotate via bushings. These still rotate, but at a slower rate than the bearings. They’re a simple construction compared to the bearings, plus there are fewer parts so they tend to be cheaper. The best bushings are made from bronze as many are self-lubricating, making them spin well for longer without needing to oil them.
Olympic barbells with bushings tend to be better suited to bodybuilding, powerlifting, and general strength training when a fast-spinning bar isn’t important.
Why is a fast spinning barbell important?
It’s only really important in weightlifting movements, where a lot of rotational momentum is forced into the barbell (and therefore plates) because of the movement patterns.
If the barbell doesn’t spin, the torque can be a real problem, causing injury or throwing the lifter off balance.
Olympic barbells allow the plates to spin smoothly, which ensures technical proficiency and safety is achieved. Just see the short video below to see what I mean…
For standard weight training movements with a barbell (bench presses, bent over rows etc) you don’t need the barbell to spin particularly fast. Therefore, bushings are more than enough for most people and are often used in multipurpose Olympic barbells. Check out this link to see our buying guide and recommendations for the best CrossFit bar.
The tensile strength of a barbell is checked and a figure is awarded. It’s recorded as ‘PSI’, which is an abbreviation of ‘pounds per square inch’. The higher the PSI number, the stronger the bar.
In my opinion, you should avoid any barbell below 165K PSI. Instead, look for barbells at a minimum of 180K PSI. Ideally, you want 190K PSI and above. Even if you’re on a very tight budget you’ll find a barbell with a 180K PSI rating.
Check out our detailed guide to finding a budget Olympic barbell here with recommendations in it.
If you’re very strong, or a powerlifter looking for something capable of withstanding heavy training, don’t buy anything below 200K PSI. You can find the best power bars here. All of these will be able to withstand 500lbs of weight and many can handle over 1,000lbs without permanently bending.
Standard barbells usually have a much lower PSI and can only handle around 200lbs of weight. Which to be frank, isn’t anywhere near the quality you’ll want if you’re serious about your weight training. They’re far more likely to bend and break under load.
Barbell Whip and Stiffness
A barbell is described as having a lot of ‘whip’ when it flexes slightly when it is being lifted with a heavy weight, but returns to its original shape quickly.
Whip can be an advantage to an elite weightlifter, but a hindrance to a powerlifter.
Barbells bend and flex to varying degrees. The main factor in whip is how thick the shaft is. A thinner shaft will have more “whip”, which is why a 28mm diameter is used for Oly weightlifting bars.
Another factor on the whip is the tensile strength and yield strength. The tensile strength is how much pressure a bar can take before permanently damaging it. The yield strength is how much pressure the bar takes before starting to bend. Here’s Vulcan Sports testing the “whip” of their bars so you can see what I mean…
The yield strength is often not shared by companies. So an easier way to use this info is to look out for the tensile strength PSI score. Generally the higher the score, the less flex a barbell has. This is why higher (200K+) PSI bars are often stiffer and tend to make better powerlifting bars. They’re not as ‘whippy’ as the lower PSI bars.
Bars used for weightlifting tend to have a slightly lower (180K-200K) PSI, which makes them a little more flexible and better for power sports where momentum plays a role.
A standard bar isn’t very strong, plus they lack the whip required thanks to the solid construction and usually cheap steel.
Never try to perform heavy weightlifting movements with a standard bar!
Different Types of Barbell Finish
A barbell can be ‘finished’ in a number of different ways…
Raw steel is loved by the purists. It’s great for grip, but it’s prone to rust (especially if you live in damp or coastal areas). There’s more maintenance required, but some people love the feel of the bar.
Black Oxide barbells will require less maintenance than a raw steel bar, but more than the other types of finish. It’s a light oxidization process that offers extra protection compared to raw steel, but still needs a fair amount of TLC.
Chrome is the cheapest finish. It’s the most likely to chip and it’s not allowed in officially sanctioned powerlifting competitions, so if you’re serious about powerlifting look at other options. It’s fine for general training and weightlifting competitions though. This is a mid-range finish in terms of resistance.
Zinc and E-Coat are the next level up in terms of oxidization. They offer more protection than black oxide, but they’ll cost you a few bucks more. If you live in a damp or coastal area, it may be worth the investment.
Cerakote is a polymer-ceramic coating that offers an excellent level of protection. It’s a coating used in the gun industry and offers a very tough finish. Excellent if you’re putting your bar through a lot of work!
Stainless steel is the most damage-resistant finish on a barbell. It’s low maintenance, raw steel and is powerlifting competition legal. It’ll take a beating without damage, so ideal in damp and coastal areas. This is the creme de la creme type of finish as you get the benefit of feeling the raw steel and knurling, plus it won’t rust easily!
Most standard barbells will be finished in either chrome or black oxide. Whilst these are the cheapest finishes and will chip in time, you can’t expect to find a barbell that costs less than 100 bucks finished in cerakote!
Knurling – What, Where, Why?
What is knurling?
Knurling is an intentionally machined series of grooves in the bar. It comes in different depths and patterns. Knurling is designed to help the lifter grip the barbell better and the deeper the knurl, the better the grip.
It’s also potentially more uncomfortable depending on the knurl pattern.
Knurling types and distribution
There aren’t any ‘official’ names for the different types of knurling, but they’re known in the industry as…
- Hill – smooth knurling. Provides the least amount of grip.
- Volcano – deep knurling, but has the sharp points dented so doesn’t hurt the hands.
- Mountain – sharp, deep knurling that offers the most grip but can be painful for some!
The close-up picture above has volcano knurling – see the tiny indentations in the center of each diamond. Here’s the difference between hill and mountain knurling…
The type you go for is largely down to personal choice. Some prefer a sharp, grippy bar whereas others like the less aggressive knurl on a hill or volcano set up.
There are different distributions of knurling depending on the bar.
Some bars have a center knurl, others don’t.
All bars certified for weightlifting competition need to have a center knurl. If you’re not competing, just lifting at home then it’s largely a question of choice.
See the bars below – note the top one (a competition legal bar) has center knurling, where the bottom one doesn’t.
The benefit of having the center knurl is that it’s extra grip for squats and for the rack position. But the trade-off is that if you’re lifting bare-chested or in a vest, you can irritate the skin after a few reps.
Most non-competitive weightlifters I know train with bars without a center knurl. Or they put tape over the knurling to prevent it from irritating the skin when they’re performing lots of reps. Even some competing lifters will tape over the center knurl for training, only removing it when they’re going for very heavy lifts.
The advantage of this method is they don’t need to buy two bars for training – they simply expose the center knurling when they need to!
In the case of a standard barbell, it’s a non-competition bar so you may or may not have center knurling. The knurling overall will likely be the soft, ‘hill’ pattern because the grip isn’t going to be terribly important here.
How can you tell the difference between barbell types?
Once you know the different types of barbells, you can do it by sight and feel alone. Until that point, you can find out simply by looking at the ends.
A standard barbell is easy to spot because it’s noticeably thinner, with a 1-inch diameter along its length. There’ll be a ‘stopper’ section on the sleeve to prevent plates from sliding onto the shaft.
The sleeves will either have a ‘spinlock’ section where the weights will be held in place with a screw-on nut, or a clip end. They’re usually significantly shorter too, with most standard barbells between 5’ and 6’6”.
The Olympic barbell features will vary depending on its usage. Here’s what you need to be looking out for…
A general weight training Olympic barbell will have the standard 2” sleeve and a nut in the end of it. This bar isn’t designed for weightlifting – this is a general training bar. It can be used for weightlifting if it’s a 28mm shaft though, so check the specs.
A weightlifting bar will have additional information on – usually its weight, but sometimes also its diameter. This will be found on the capped end of the sleeve.
A specialist bar (a non-7’ bar) will often have some extra information on. Usually the length, weight, and diameter. Again this is found on the end of the sleeve.
A women’s weightlifting bar will be 15kg, 6’6 long and 25mm in diameter. As with all other Olympic bars, it’ll still have the 2-inch (48-50mm) sleeves.
See the images above to get an idea of what I mean.
Why would you need a specialist olympic barbell?
You need a specialist Olympic bar if you were performing Olympic weightlifting movements in your training. This means only weightlifters and CrossFitters will need an Olympic bar.
For the rest of us, it’s just a better choice because they’re nicer, stronger, and better-made bars.
The unique characteristics of the bar I explained earlier (fast spinning sleeves, narrower diameter, and the extra whip) are important in weightlifting. Those features simply aren’t there in a standard barbell.
Trying to get better at weightlifting or CrossFit whilst using a standard bar is like trying to get better at sprinting whilst wearing ice skates. You need the right tools for the job.
There’s a versatility argument too though – if you buy an Olympic barbell you can use it for weightlifting and general weight training. If you buy a standard barbell, you can only use it for general weight training.
Finally, although standard barbells may claim to have a weight limit of several hundred pounds, I’ve seen them bend like a banana when guys are deadlifting weights as light as 120kg (264LB). If you’re looking to put a barbell through any kind of work, you’d be foolish to not invest in an Olympic bar.
Why would you need a standard barbell?
If you’re only bodybuilding or general weight training, you don’t need a specialist Olympic barbell – a cheaper bar is possibly going to be OK. It’s just not very good!
If you’ve got no interest in ever weightlifting or doing CrossFit, you could in theory save the money you’d spend on an Olympic bar and buy other bits of kit, but if I gave you that advice I’d be doing you a major disservice. You should buy the best bar you can afford.
For children, the lighter weight and thinner grip of a standard barbell is a good introduction to strength training.
How to pick a good barbell
The information I’ll be providing here is relevant to all barbells, regardless of what type you’re buying. If there’s anything that’s more important for one type than another, I’ll let you know.
Here are the main factors to look for when buying an Olympic barbell (you can find all of this information in a lot more detail in our Olympic barbell buying guide here).
Don’t go for a barbell lower than 165KPSI rated – this applies to everyone.
- If you’re a weightlifter or CrossFitter, try to get one between 180K PSI – 200K PSI.
- If you’re a powerlifter, aim for over 200K PSI.
Pounds per square inch (PSI) is a measurement that shows you how strong the metal is. It is a good indicator of how long it will last without deforming. If it uses weak steel then it will permanently bend if too much weight is lifted on the bar.
If you are dropping the bar from CrossFit or Oly style lifts this can be even more important.
Rogue’s $2million study over 5 years found that the sweet spot for a bar is between 190k-210k PSI. Any more than this and the steel can become more “brittle” resulting in the bar snapping or fracturing under stress.
However, there are bars out there such as the Kabuki Power bar that uses a proprietary manufacturing process to design the bar at 258k PSI!
This is difficult to measure, so you have to go by feel or clues. If you get a chance, spin the sleeves and see how long they take to stop spinning. It should be at least 3 seconds.
If you’re buying online and can’t get your hands on the bar, find out what bushings/bearings it has. If it has bearings, it’s likely to be fine. If it has needle bearings, it’ll be fantastic.
If it’s bushings, bronze is best. But composite bushings are still pretty good (and good enough for astronauts getting into space!)
This is always a good place to start. What have fellow lifters said? What have genuine customers said? How many reviews does it have – it’s hard to fake a lot of great reviews!
Don’t always be fooled by the price – it doesn’t always represent value. There are lots of great companies out there who produce fantastic barbells at really reasonable prices. You certainly won’t need to spend the thousands of dollars that companies like Eleiko charge!
How to look after a barbell
Your barbell is likely to be the item of equipment you use the most, so you want to look after it. Get this right and it’ll last you decades. Here are a few simple tips…
- Don’t drop it without plates on – doing this will cause the bushings and bearings to work loose and become damaged. This will affect the spin and balance of the bar.
- Brush the chalk off it after use – use either a wire brush or a stiff nylon brush.
- Keep the end nuts tight – if you have a standard barbell with the nuts exposed, keep them tight. You’ll likely need a 12mm Alan key to do this.
- Store it well – especially if you live near the coast and you have a raw steel bar. Keep it in a sealed container and dry and sweat off it after use.
- Wash it regularly – some people will try to sell you ‘specialist’ barbell wipes, but in all honesty a plastic brush and some good old washing up liquid will do as good a job.
- Oil the spinning sleeves regularly – I’d suggest a couple of drops of 3-in-1 oil about once every couple of months to keep it running smoothly.
- If you have a raw steel bar – wipe it over with a VERY light coating of oil once a month or so to keep the rust away.
These simple jobs take literally a minute or two but will preserve the bar for a long time. You’ll likely spend hundreds of bucks on your bar, so it deserves some love and attention!
Pros and Cons of Olympic Barbells and Standard Barbells – Which Should You Buy?
An Olympic barbell is always a higher-performance barbell. It’s multifunctional as well. You can bodybuild, do Olympic weightlifting lifts or do general strength training with an Olympic barbell.
But you can’t perform weightlifting movements with a standard barbell. If you squat anything around 200lbs or more then you really shouldn’t be using a standard barbell.
A standard barbell is generally significantly cheaper, so there’s the benefit of saving money. The counter argument though is that although you’re saving money, you’re buying a far inferior product.
If you’re not particularly strong and are unlikely to be interested in getting stronger, you may want to opt for the standard bar.
My strong advice however is that you should go for the Olympic barbell because fundamentally, you’d be getting a better product. There’s generally more care and attention gone into them and there’s less poor quality on the market.
It’s more useful, better made, and will last you for years – decades even if you look after it.
For help on the best barbells on the market, look no further than our in-depth barbell guide. We’ve compared over 100 Olympic barbells across multiple different categories, so take a look. You’ll learn everything you need to know about the market leaders.