By Eric Troy and Joe Weir
Most lifters who train at home and own their own barbell have a cheap barbell. I (Eric) have already written about a good quality but affordable barbell for home workouts. But, many are justifiably confused about what to look for in a barbell and are concerned that a less expensive bar will not be able to hold enough weight.
A cheap barbell will usually work quite well for an individual lifter. It doesn’t need to stand up to multiple users and it can still last many years. Besides chrome coatings peeling off, which creates a hazard for your hands, the question most often asked is how much weight can an inexpensive barbell handle? Am I going to reach the limit of my bar and have it permanently bend or something?
The easiest way to check some of the weight capacity estimates for inexpensive barbells is Amazon. These are brands like Body Solid, CAP, Weider, Champion, and Troy, and others, with very affordable price ranges.
What you’ll find is that the weight capacities are much more than you might expect. For example, the Body Solid 7′ Olympic bar with black coating has a 600 lbs capacity. Their other choices, with chrome or silver coatings, as you would expect, have the same rating. This barbell weighs 44 lbs instead of the standard 45, but I have found Body Solid products to be high quality. However, you’d be surprised, because of all the misinformation concerning barbells, about how well even a very chap barbell will perform. I still have an old Weider Olympic barbell that probably would have sold new for about 60 dollars. It is still just fine, for the most part. Sure, I’ve since bought a new barbell, but not because the old one was broken or could be used.
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Even the CAP “ECO” Chrome bar lists a capacity of 500 LBS.
In fact, what you’ll find is that what drives price is the coating on the bar, rather than the weight capacity. For example, the CAP economy bar as the same weight capacity as the more expensive CAP black-phosphate coated Power bar.
Even Cheap Bars are Still Steel
Although barbell price certainly has a lot to do with quality, even extremely cheap bars priced at less than one hundred dollars are still steel bars, after all. The only way to get a bar that handles less than around 300 lbs is to get a solid aluminum bar, and, oddly enough, those are not less expensive. So, why an aluminum bar? The bar weighs much less. The CAP Aluma-Lite Training Bar only weighs 15 lbs, the same as a standard bar (non-Olympic). It is rated for 150 lbs.
Weight Capacities of Cheap Barbells
Assuming you want a bar that can handle at least 500lbs (the coating on the bar is a whole other can of worms), does that mean the thing is going to snap in half if you try to deadlift 550 with it? Of course not!
The weight capacity estimates given with bars, you can bet, are conservative.
The bar will begin to bend at some point beyond 500, and perhaps that bend will not occur until the weight exceeds 600 lbs. The bend will come out once you put the weight down (or at least for the most part). But, the bar will probably hold well beyond that without snapping.
Amazingly Strong Cheap Bar!
In the fun video below from Beyond the Press, they put a cheap bar to the test and try to break it. I do not know what brand the bar is but it has had some use and is damaged already. They use an industrial lifter and scale. Watch it and you’ll be amazed at the resilience of this ‘cheapo’ barbell!
The first test shows the scale peaking out at 282 kgs or around 621 lbs. The bar bends, as expected, but holds up and comes back to straight once the weights are put down. The second test shows a whopping 550 kilos or 1212.5 pounds! Yeah, the bar is bent as hell it doesn’t break. The bar does retain some warp after this, it seems. The next test is “quite stupid and dangerous” and gets into the 800-kilo range. The locking nuts fail before the bar does, though. They changed the locks and tried again.
The problem was that in order to load so much weight on the bar they had to jury-rig all sorts of metal onto the bar using chains, which began failing, causing the weights to fall off.
So, the testers switched to using a forklift, with two huge metal cylinders strapped onto the bar with chains, weighing over a ton. The bar still held.
On the last test, they went well over a ton. The bar bent and bent, but refused to give up. That cheap bar was one fucking tough bar!
What’s the lesson here?
I think you can do the math. Your cheap bar will probably handle whatever you can throw at it, and much more, at least in terms of the bar itself. If you ever get to the point where you are concerned with the amount of bend in your bar, you will probably be a serious enough lifter that you’ll want to invest in a professional bar, and even those will bend at some point.
If you compare any number of cheaper home barbells, you’re not going to find much difference in the quality of overall strength of the bar. The bars are a large diameter steel rod, so even with poorer quality steel they are going to be quite strong and quite elastic (these are both related). So, what’s the difference? Why ever buy a more expensive bar?
Well, the quality issue really concerns other things besides the strength of the steel itself: finishes, bearings, tolerances, etc. If you really want to get into some heavy barbell reading, then check out this PDF, the Mechanical Properties of Weightlifting Bars. You’ll see that among the bars compared, there really is not much difference. The deformation of the various bars does not appear to be drastically different. But these were mostly high-quality bars so it makes sense that there is not much variation. If you compared a dozen very good quality bars with a dozen cheap bars, you’d find much more variation in the cheap ones. In other words, while on average, a cheap bar can still be a very good bar, if you bought two of the same cheap bars, you might find variances between them. If all you have is one bar to use at home, you really are not concerned with tolerances and variances. If you owned a gym and needed many barbells, you’d want the performance and quality of all those barbells to be consistent, thus, you’d want bars with better tolerances.
However, as mentioned, the weight capacity given for the bars will be conservative and since the material is poorer and more variable than that used for more expensive products, the safety factor should be increased to accommodate. Notice in the video where the bar started to permanently deform. It is doubtful that the general weight range where this occurs will differ much among less expensive bars.
You see, the reality is that a manufacturer is not going to test a bunch of bars and figure out exactly how much they can hold. They are going test a bunch of bars and figure out the range of weight they can hold, and then give you a capacity that is a very safe bet. So, let’s say they test 10 bars and find they range between 800 and 1200 lbs. They’ll list the weight capacity at 400lbs to be safe. Another maker may say 300 lbs. If a higher quality tested a bunch of bars and found they ranged between 1100 and 1200 (notice less variance), they will perhaps give you a weight capacity of 800 lbs.
What’s this all come down to? A cheap bar isn’t nearly as ‘crappy’ as the higher quality manufacturers would lead you to believe. You do not need a bar meant to be used by hundreds of people, and if you buy a bar rated at 600lbs chances are you’ll never need another bar in your life. Same with 500 pounds.
Check the Barbell Weight
Make sure the bar you buy weighs the standard 45 pounds and certainly not more than a pound less than this. If it weighs much less, there is a much greater chance that the shaft is hollow and the collars are thin metal with low-quality bearings. There are Olympic bars that weight as low as 28 lbs and I’ve seen some which weight between 33 to 38 lbs. Don’t purchase these. If the weight of the bar is not listed at all, be suspicious. And, don’t let the “shipping weight” fool you. That is not the weight of the bar, it is the weight of the bar plus all the shipping material.
Fit and Finish
The issue I’ve found to most effect owners of cheaper barbells, as mentioned above, is not strength but finish. Some have had cheap chrome platings peel off and even cause splinters of the plating to be embedded in their hands. Not fun!
However, among cheaper bars, you should not expect there to be a marked difference in quality or performance between on finish and the next. While chrome can chip off and rust, a light sanding will keep the splinters out of your hand and remove any new rust. While paint may seem an attractive option, it will not hold up to racking the bar on the pins of your squat rack and will wear like anything else.
For the home exerciser, there really should be no need to invest in an expensive, competition-quality or commercial-quality barbell. This is good news because good weight plates are expensive in their own right. You can make do just fine with cheap weight plates as well but keep in mind that such plates, especially the larger ones, will be off in their weights.
I know a lot of people think it is cool to drop barbells on the floor after a lift, especially when used with bumper plates. This is not good for any bar but when you have a less expensive bar, you need to be reasonable. Do not drop the bar and certainly do not throw it. When you do deadlifts with your bar, learn to return the bar to the floor properly and slowly enough that you bar does not come crashing down. If a cheap bar fails in any way after you treat it like this, it is not the manufacturer’s fault.