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Tools Of The Trade: The Barbell

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways:
  • The strength forward physical therapist must be familiar with strength training equipment
  • The barbell is widely available, affordable and flexible, which makes it the tried and true king of the strength training world
  • Knowing the specs of a regular olympic barbell familiarizes you with the consistencies of multiple specialty barbells
  • There is a barbell for everyone

In order to be a great strength forward physical therapist, familiarity with strength training equipment is a necessity. The bittersweet truth about gym equipment is that there is what seems like an unlimited amount to pick and choose from. The bitter part being that it makes your job as a strength forward physical therapist difficult as you need to constantly be learning about new equipment, but the sweet part is that there is so much cool equipment that there is always something that your patients can be using, despite their presentation.

Why you need to know about barbells

With the ever growing popularity of strength training, including barbell training, there is a growing number of folks that are becoming injured or symptomatic while using a barbell. This is certainly not to insinuate that barbell training is dangerous (in fact the injury rates for the weight training sports is considerably lower than many team sports)¹, but as the sample size increases, varying outcomes are inevitable. 

You can see how this will ultimately affect how many patients are coming through your doors with a desire to return to barbell training. I think we can both agree that being ignorant of the specifics of a patient’s goal is never a good feeling, especially while sitting in front of them. Knowing the intricacies of the barbell will only help to give you a leg up for when that barbell interested patient comes asking for help, and consider the amount of rapport “talking shop” will build with that patient. 

Why the barbell?

There are a few reasons that the barbell is becoming such a popular tool for strength training.It is widely available, the cost to acquire one is relatively low and you can load in concert with wherever your patient is on the strength continuum. Depending on the empty bar weight, you can go as low as 45 lbs (“technique bars” go down as low as 5 lbs) and a majority of the human population will never be able to lift more weight than you can fit on a barbell. 

Another reason that it’s so popular is that it can be used in a wide array of scenarios. Not only is it a great medium for loading the entire body at once, doing things like the deadlift, squat or snatch, but it can also be used in isolation, during curls for example. A majority of the lifts that utilize the barbell are also very easy to teach and scale in either direction. If you want a couple of examples of how few steps it takes to cue the barbell deadlift or barbell squat, check out our two guides on each lift. 

Barbell Specs

Now that we know how useful and important the barbell is, lets go over the basics of what makes one up. 

For our purposes, we are going to be sticking to Olympic Barbells. These are the most common and available, and while Standard Barbells have their place, it’s not in this article. 

Measurements:

  • Length
    • 7.2 Feet 
  • Weight
    • 20 kgs/44-45lbs
  • Diameter
    • 27-32mm
Knurling

Knurling’s main purpose is to increase the grip of the user when holding the bar. Grip is usually the first thing to go when holding the barbell, and when you add sweat into the mix, it can be very difficult to hold onto the bar without knurling. While there are different types of knurling, to have that discussion is to get more granular than what our purposes call for. 

Knurling normally spans the entirety of the barbell, but the pattern of the knurling will change depending on the purpose of the barbell. Some barbells that are more intended for squatting will have knurling right in the center of the bar to help the bar grip the upper back during squats. Some barbells will have no knurling in the middle as the bar is more intended for multipurpose uses, and leaving the center knurl out can save people from scratching their chest and shins during different lifts in which those areas would normally touch the center of the barbell. 

Knurling Rings

Most barbells will have smooth marks without knurling along toward the outer edges of the bar. On higher end barbells, these marks coincide with two different major lifting federations’ standards. 

The International Weightlifting Federation’s ring standard is 36” apart. 

The International Powerlifting Federation’s knurl marks standard is 32” apart

These marks are meant to be cues for hand placement approved by their respective federations. The IPF also specifies that the index finger cannot be placed outside of the knurling ring while bench pressing. 

Lower end barbells will have similar marks, but consistent gym goers recognize that these marks are usually not where the IWF and IPF intended them to be, but instead wherever the manufacturers decided they should go. 

Sleeves

Simply put, sleeves are where you put the weight plates. They are free spinning and higher quality barbells will have their sleeves ride along bronze bushings with a snap ring holding the sleeve on so that it can be serviced. Olympic sleeves are 2 inches in diameter, and coincide with olympic weight plates, which have a 2 inch diameter hole in them. 

Other Barbells

The world of barbells is vast, and luckily so. There is an ever growing market for specialty barbells, like the safety squat bar, the trap bar and the axel bar, to name just a few. While these will all deviate in their length, weight, diameter and spinning-ness of the sleeves, they will all have 2 inch diameter sleeves that mate with the olympic weight plates. 

If you think there is not a barbell for you or your clinic out there, think again. No matter what you or your patient population need, there is a barbell that will match it. You simply need to know what to look for. 

If you’re looking for a starter barbell, check out the shopping list I put together for physical therapists looking to build a gym in their clinic on a budget. I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how cheap it is to build a world class setup that will rival your local box gym and outlast you. 

References:
  1. Keogh, J.W.L., Winwood, P.W. The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports. Sports Med 47, 479–501 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0575-0