LRFotS Robert W is in the market for a new barbell (that’s his kid in the picture, by the way – joking), and asked for some opinions on the subject in a comment on a post from a few days ago, when I ranted about the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad, awful, miserable, stupid new gym that I signed up for:
Barbell question for the ironmongers here:
I bought a kit with a 500lb rated bar a few years back. The most I’ve ever put on it was 380lb. It’s got a bend to it now and it forces itself to ‘bottom’ out whenever I do a squat. Obviously that 500lb rating didn’t hold up over several years.
A. It’s not that bad, I can keep using it.
B. It’s annoying and I’m looking at replacement bars.
C. There are a lot of replacement bars.
D. Budget is up to $300.
Any perspectives on a good investment bar? Stainless steel? Cerakoted? Problems to avoid?
As I stated in my response, the best barbell that you can get for that kind of money is, in some ways, THE best barbell out there for any money. And that is, of course, the Rogue Fitness Ohio Bar.
Nonetheless, it is worth going through a few different alternatives to see what’s out there, at different price points.
Points to Consider
Before we dive straight into the issue of which barbell is best, let’s talk about what a powerlifting barbell should be and do.
There are generally two different types of 20Kg (or 45lb) Olympic barbell – general-purpose bars, and specialised deadlifting bars. (I am really generalising here, but for our purposes, this is more or less accurate.)
The former are usually thicker, around the 28/29mm range in diameter, and are designed to have very little “whip” or “bend. They come both with and without centre knurling.
The latter, however, are designed specifically to have a little bit of flex or “whip” in the middle, with a thinner diameter (around 25-27mm) and no knurling in the centre. The thinner bar makes gripping the bar significantly easier, while the lack of knurling in the centre makes the bar a lot easier on the shins. These things combine to make deadlifting just a little bit easier – remember that competitive deadlifting is a game of centimetres and even millimetres, and the easier you can bend the bar before the weights themselves move off the ground, the better.
Cerakote or Stainless
With respect to the issue of cerakote, that is essentially a polymer-ceramic coating added to an already hard surface (like, say, a gun barrel or body) to make it resistant to abrasion, corrosion, chemical burns, and oxidation. So a cerakoted bar is, basically, rust-proof. But, inevitably, such bars are also more expensive. However, in the context of powerlifting, cerakote is used primarily to add colour to the bars – if you don’t care about having a pretty-looking barbell (and I sure as shit don’t – the barbells that I use in my local gym are butt-ugly grey and black-zinc beasts) , then I don’t see any reason to shell out extra shekels just for what amounts to an extremely durable coat of paint.
Generally speaking, if you look at barbells, the MOST expensive bars, by far, are fully stainless steel – this is because of the chroming process that makes the bar completely rust-proof. Next down in price are cerakoted bars, and at the bottom are bare steel bars.
In my personal opinion, you should NEVER buy a new barbell that costs less than $200, with maybe one exception, and we’ll get to that. If you pay less than that, you’ll get a shitty barbell made from cheap, low-quality steel, which simply will not last longer than a few years at most, and which will either rust, or warp under excess weight, or both.
So our friend’s $300 budget is entirely reasonable for a new barbell.
If you want to buy a used barbell, that’s a different matter entirely. Buying used barbells is even more tricky than buying used cars, because you have no idea how frequently a barbell has been used, and with what kinds of weights. So you simply have no clue what you’re getting.
Again, purely in my own opinion – and you are free to challenge this – I would not recommend buying a used barbell for less than $150, especially if it is from a brand not listed below. Before you buy a used barbell, ask the guy selling it how many times a week he uses it, what kinds of weight ranges he uses, and what kinds of lifts he does.
That latter point is important because barbells used for CrossShit will experience a lot of dropping and dumping. By contrast, barbells used for deadlifting will have undergone more weight stress-fatigue, but less drop-fatigue.
If the guy selling a used barbell engaged ONLY in powerlifting, and he’s selling you a barbell for $150 or less from a good brand, then you’re probably safe. But if he was doing Olympic lifting or CrossShit, then that barbell went through A LOT of drops and dumps.
Strength & Longevity
Finally, with respect to how much weight these barbells can carry and how long they last – barbells can actually take a hell of a lot more weight than most people realise:
The “hardness rating” of a barbell determines both how easily it flexes, and how long it lasts. This is called the “F-Rating”, and you can see the scale above. Generally speaking, you’ll want a bar rated between F4 and F8. And you’ll want a bar that is relatively resistant to corrosion, which means you’ll want a chrome or zinc bar, unless you want to pay top-dollar for a stainless steel bar.
To Knurl or Not to Knurl
We are almost there, but we have one more factor to consider:
Should you buy a bar that has a centre knurling, or not?
The answer depends on two factors – how you squat, and how you tolerate flexing in the bar when you squat.
First, let’s talk about squat style.
If you do high-bar squats, the bar sits higher up on your traps and you squat much more upright into the hole. This means that the centre knurling is likely to feel a bit unpleasant as it grates against the base of your neck. A high-bar squat also means that the bar is less likely to roll forward, so grip is less important at that point of contact.
But if you squat low-bar, as I do, then that point of friction is VERY important. I find that the bar tends to roll forward on my back a little bit when I get into the hole, which makes balance tricky – though this is likely due to my imperfect form. The grip of the bar against the shirt on my back steadies the weight considerably, which is why I don’t like squatting with bars that have no central knurling.
Second, let’s talk about deadlifts.
Remember what I wrote about general-purpose versus deadlift-specific bars above. The deadlift bar is specially optimised for that purpose, and feels much easier to use when deadlifting. If you like deadlifts – I sure do – then you’ll want a bar that allows you to deadlift easier, and thus has a bit more “whip” in the bar and no centre knurling.
If I had my ‘druthers, I would buy two barbells – one thick chrome or zinc bar with centre knurling, and one thinner deadlift-only bar in black.
But, if you can only buy ONE barbell, then buy the barbell that does EVERYTHING – a thick bar with a centre knurl and no whip. Simple as that.
Right, now we can finally get down to steel tacks, as it were.
The Best a Man Can Get
The best powerlifting bar you can get, for the money, is indeed the Rogue Fitness Ohio Power Bar – the version that I have linked has:
- Centre knurling
- 29.5mm bar circumference
- F8-R rating
- No whip
In bare steel, that costs $290 – and $305 in zinc coating. Stainless steel jacks up the price quite a lot.
(I want to make it clear that I don’t have an affiliate relationship with Rogue Fitness – so I don’t get paid for my recommendations, which is good for you and bad for me.)
The Price of Steel Keeps Going Up
It IS possible to get Rogue Fitness barbells for less than full price, direct from Rogue themselves. See, when you create a barbell, sometimes they don’t always turn out as well as you might like. So when Rogue makes a minor mistake, they put those blemished or incorrectly finished barbells into what they call The Boneyard. And there, you can find really good deal for, in some cases, less than $200. They’re every bit as good as their main products, but the knurling might be a little unbalanced or not perfectly straight at the edges, for example.
Another option from a relatively recent company is Bells of Steel. Their Barenaked Powerlifting bar has the following characteristics:
- Centre knurling
- 29mm bar circumference
- F2 rating
- Good whip
You get all of that for $200. And that is a DAMN good deal.
A Bar Too Far
There are some bars on Amazon that you might find really tempting – like the CAP Barbell:
That thing comes in at $190 or so. Seems like a steal, right?
Always read the reviews before you buy, because quite a few of the reviews talk about how sharp metal splinters flake off the sleeves of the bar over time, and how the coating is actually painted on.
The old adage, “you get what you pay for”, applies to barbells just as much as it does to anything else. Buy from well-established brands like Rogue Fitness, Titan Fitness, Hammer Strength, and a few others – leave the rest behind.
The Bottom Line
It is good and right to setup a home gym with good equipment for the price. I don’t believe in spending thousands of dollars on bars, racks, benches, and heavy bags – I believe anyone could setup a really good basic, simple home gym for $1,500 or less. All you need is a barbell, a bench, a squat rack, weight plates, and (in my case) a hanging heavy bag – most of which you can buy second-hand, except for the barbell.
Now, that price might sound steep, until you realise that this is approximately the cost of a year’s worth of membership at any CrossShit box in any big shitty anywhere in the USA.
And, if you setup a home gym, you have the added benefit of not dealing with the entitled and downright irritating personalities of the fat chicks in yoga pants, the gym bros who think that ERR’ DAY IS CHEST DAY, BRAH!, and the lazy old dudes who barely manage quarter-squats in the rack while taking 15 minutes between sets.
Most importantly, though, if you have kids, especially boys, you can get them started lifting early. The first time that I did an actual squat with a barbell, I was 26 years old – I should have started at least 10 years earlier.
Finally, get a bar that is built to last – don’t just go for the cheapest deal you can find. When it comes to powerlifting, quality tends to pay for itself over many years.
Now shut up and squat.