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Not everybody who wants to train for strength can fit a gym membership into their lifestyle. Scheduling problems, the cost, travel problems from home or work, the absence of an adequately equipped facility in the market, or simply the dislike of a commercial gym environment motivates many people to invest in a home gym.

A serviceable home gym for barbell training need not be a gigantic investment, and in fact should be very simple. A bar, some plates, a rack of some type to facilitate the squat and the pressing exercises, a simple flat bench for the bench press, and a platform for deadlifts are all that is absolutely required. For power cleans and snatches, a few bumper plates are quite useful but not absolutely necessary.

The equipment is simple, and need not be expensive, but there are a few tricks.

1. The Bar

This is the wrong place to save money. Of all the pieces in the gym, the quality of the bar is the most critical. The plates just hang there, the platform just lays there, but the bar is your connection to the force against which you lift — gravity.

Saving money is a good idea. Generic drugs are cheaper than the name-brand products, and they are essentially the same product. This is not true of Olympic barbells. In most cases, you get exactly what you pay for. Unless you get lucky — and these days of rapid expansion in the interest in barbell training, such luck is hard to come by — and find a good used bar cheap, expect to pay around $300 for a good bar.

Why? Because steel is expensive, competent manufacturing is expensive, and warehouse space costs money. A cheap bar will bend, and a badly bent bar is junk. A bar within about 3mm of perfectly straight is useable as a straight bar, while a bar bent more than 4-5mm out of straight is considered bent. When loaded with plates, a badly bent bar will rotate to a position of stability — it will “right” itself, with the ends of the bar pointing down and the bend in the middle pointing up. This is fine for a squat, if you have marked the bar so that you can take it out of the rack in this stable position. But if you unrack the bar for a squat, press, or bench press, or pull it from the floor in its unstable configuration, the bar will spin in your hands or on your back to right itself. This is not good, and can cause safety problems during the lift.

Most commercial gyms have a few bars, and usually all of them are bent, because they bought cheap junky bars not knowing any better or not caring about it. Bars get bent in commercial gyms by being dropped on benches, or inside the rack by jackasses that aren’t invested in the equipment. Even expensive bars will bend when 315 pounds is dropped across a bench. But cheap bars will bend if left loaded in the rack overnight.

You can check a bar for straightness by placing it on the floor and spinning it in the middle with your foot (if the revolving sleeves aren’t frozen, which is also bad). If it wobbles, it’s not straight. Or, you can see the wobble when you rotate it in the rack — the end of the bar will describe a circle in the air larger than the diameter of the sleeve, and the middle of the bar will move back and forth, the greatest deviation being at the point of the bend. One of the advantages of a home gym is that you get to work with a straight bar every time you train.

Bars are available in several diameters. The Olympic weightlifting federations specify a 28mm bar, while the International Powerlifting Federation wants the diameter to be between 28 and 29mm. The standard bar length is a little over seven feet, has “2-inch”/50mm diameter sleeves for loading the plates on, and weighs 20kg/44.1lbs. The thicker the bar, the stiffer the bar, so Olympic lifters doing the faster snatch and clean & jerk like the whippiness of a 28mm bar, and powerlifters need a stiffer bar because they handle heavier weights more slowly. Olympic lifting uses a 25mm bar for the women’s division (smaller hands need a smaller bar), and a competitive lifter will need one of these. For home gym purposes, a 28.5mm or 29mm bar will be the most durable and provide the best service over time.

Never buy a 32mm bar. They are either junk, or a specialty squat bar that a home gym doesn’t need. Usually they are junk. Scrap metal.