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The Anatomy Of An Olympic Bar

As many of you may know, Weightlifting is one of the original sports of the modern day Olympics, and since the creation of the sport it has involved some version of the barbell. Back in the day it was just a solid steel bar with a stone or other weighted apparatus attached at both ends. Over the years we have seen an evolution that has lead to the bar we have now, the magnificent revolving piece of steel that rules many of our lives. I’d like to go over the major features of the Olympic bar, and explain exactly why it is such an amazing tool to aid us in our pursuit of greatness.

We know the basics, the men’s bar is 20kg, the women’s bar is 15kg, but what do you really know about your most valuable piece of equipment? When walking up to an Olympic barbell, the first thing you will probably notice is the knurling. The knurling is obviously designed to add additional grip to the bar, which earlier forms of the barbell did not have. One thing you might not know though, is the reasoning behind each of the smooth portions of the bar. First of all, the center of the bar generally contains two smooth points which are in place to reduce friction against the thigh and shin of the athlete during a pull and on their shoulders and traps when the bar is on the athletes back. This seems entirely logical, but there is more, these notches are also used to help the athlete know precisely where to grab the bar in the clean position. What you probably aren’t aware of, is the reasoning behind the center strip of knurling. This is actually a remnant of past lifts, such as the one handed snatch. 

 Nowadays the center knurling is only put on the bar as part of a long standing tradition. Next time you grab a bar you can feel that this section the knurling is generally less emphasized and is smoother than the rest of the knurling on the bar. Some cheaper bars produced today don’t even have the center knurling because it just adds to the cost of production with no real functional purpose. Another notch in the knurling you should be aware of is the outside notch, this is used as a marker for individuals to easily and consistently grab the same part of the bar in the snatch. Beyond this last notch, or smooth area, there is even more knurling that extends all the way to the end of the bar. Many standard bars don’t have this knurling, I know the ones at my college didn’t, especially bars designed for bench press. In reality this section of knurling serves no purpose to the average athlete. However, for an Olympic lifter, this is extremely critical because without this portion of knurling it would be nearly impossible for most lifters to hold the bar. This is critical in the snatch because your hands are spread so far apart that the angle of the grip makes it very difficult to maintain. Now imagine you were holding this same grip on a slippery piece of steel, it sucks, trust me.

Another feature that is immediately identifiable on the modern Olympic bar is the spinning outer portion that holds the weights. Within these housings (or sleeves) are a series of cylindrical bearings, called roller bearings, that allow the bar to rotate and spin freely, even when hundreds of pounds of force is being applied to the bar. This is crucial because it allows the lifter to quickly and easily get their elbows through in the clean, and position themselves under the bar in the snatch and jerk without having to release their grip at any point. Back when bars weren’t capable of rotating, lifters essentially had to reverse curl the weights which lead to strained wrists and other issues.
 On the opposite end of this evolution, Eleiko once released a bar with a new type of sleeve mechanism (one that provided very little friction) which allowed the weights to freely spin even after the lifter had completed the movement. This lead to lifters standing up with cleans while the weights on either side spun in opposite directions, spinning the lifter and making the lift more difficult (if not impossible) to complete. This issue was quickly corrected and the previous bar was reinstated. 

One last major feature of the bar, which is often not focused on, is the bars ability to flex and recoil without being permanently bent. Currently, Eleiko bars are tested by being placed in a vice and bent with a hydraulic jack subjecting them to a force of 1500kg. This is a much more prominent bend than any bar will see in competition or training. Then the bar is released and springs back to an exact straightness within a maximum deviation of no more than 0.5mm. They then repeat this same stress test on the outer sleeves. It seems like a lot of mumbo jumbo but what this equates to is the ability for the athlete to load a lot of force into the bar and create an almost spring-like action. This concept is best illustrated in the squat when the athlete will utilize the flexion of the bar to help them bounce out of the bottom position, or in the jerk when the athlete will dip and accelerate up creating flexion in the bar. 
This flexion is very beneficial when harnessed properly by an experienced athlete. If the bar was created with a thicker diameter like a thick squat bar, (or power bar as some people like to call them) this flexion is much less effective. Without the bars natural ability to flex they become susceptible to permanent bending, which pretty much makes them useless, so be careful when you are purchasing your bar. Make sure you don’t try to buy something that is too cheap, or won’t be beneficial for your purposes. 

Next time you head in to lift heavy things, take a look at the most important tool for your workout, your barbell. Sure weights and everything are important, but if you don’t have a legitimate Olympic bar, you simply aren’t doing it right. Know your bar.
Article written by Fletcher Pierce for
Source for Eleiko statistics:

8 thoughts on “The Anatomy Of An Olympic Bar

  1. what about the center knurl being useful for those fo us who squat low bar? I know from experience a smooth center bar it terrible to hold on my back, where a bar with the center knurl will stay in place much better.

  2. Olympic lifters generally don’t low bar squat, so that is not really a consideration. The center knurling is also fairly smooth, so the added benefit in the low bar squat is beneficial but not to a great degree. Now squat specific bars may have deeper knurling in the center, but we tape the center of our squat bars, so I don’t know.

  3. Olympic lifters dont low bar squat, or at least they shouldn’t, but thats a different topic.

  4. Very informative piece. Thank you.

  5. I have not had the luxury of choosing my own bar yet, I just use whatever is handy in the gym I’m at. Do you change what bar you use for power lifts vs Olympic lifts? Or does that only come into play in a competition environment? By the way,I love one handed snatches.

  6. We train on Olympic style bars because we are an Olympic style team, with our entire focus centered around the snatch and clean and jerk. Some assistance lifts can be done with other bars, but it is best to train with equipment designed for your style of lifting. That being said, a standard bar will work in a pinch. I trained with really cheap benching bars for almost a year in college, which was limiting,(especially with no knurling on the outer edges of the bar) but it worked.

  7. One of the benefits of the spring in the bar, not mentioned above is the added safety it provides for Olympic lifters.
    The ability of the bar to bend under heavy load dampens the force transferred onto the lifter at the point of contact when catching the bar in a clean.
    Power bars or thick bars that do not bend transfer more force into the clavicles and anterior deltoids of the lifter, and come with a higher risk of injury; One reason that, especially at higher levels or under heavier loads, the higher quality Olympic bar becomes an essential piece of kit.

  8. Agree with Phil for maybe psychological reasons as well. The center knurl, although slightly smoother than the rest, feels much better for keeping the bar in place than having nothing there.

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