The first step in lifting a barbell is loading weight plates onto the bar. At some gyms, there’s only one type of bar, and it weighs 20 kilos, and that’s all you need to know. But that’s not the only type out there, and if your gym has different bars of different shapes and weights, it’s possible to get confused.
First, check for an easy answer
If you’re wondering about a bar, always check the end of it. Sometimes you’ll find a label with a brand name, a description of what the bar is, and its weight. For example, this one has a little endcap that says “The Rogue Ohio Deadlift Bar. 27mm. 20kg.” Now you know that it weighs 20kg and that it’s got a 27mm wide handle, which is very slightly thinner than a typical power bar. Great! Problem solved.
But on many bars, all you’ll see at the end is a rusty bolt. If the bar is two metres long, it probably weighs around 20kg. If you’re suspicious, though, trust no one. I’ve heard bystanders say “oh yeah, that one’s 25 kilos” for both a standard 25kg bar, and a monster of a 30kg trap bar.
There’s a simple way to find out how much any bar weighs: weigh it. Almost every gym has a bathroom scale kicking around somewhere, so you can weigh yourself holding the barbell, and then weigh yourself without it and subtract your own weight.
That said, these are the most common bars you’re likely to encounter:
Standard 20kg bars
If you see a bar at the gym that’s two metres long, with the part you hold about three centimetres in diameter and the parts where the weight plates go about five centimetres in diameter, you’re almost certainly looking at one of these. They are the most common type of bar you’ll see in most gyms.
Men’s Olympic bars are 20kg for the men’s bar, and 2.2 metres long. The collars (the wider parts on the ends) spin easily. If you load them up with plenty of weight, you will see that they are “whippy,” meaning the bar tends to flex or bounce easily. These are designed with the two Olympic lifts in mind, the snatch and the clean and jerk. But you can use them for any lift you like, so you’ll find them at gyms where nobody does any Olympic lifts.
Power bars, used for squat, bench, deadlift, and the like, are the same size and shape as men’s Olympic bars. They tend to be stiffer (less whippy) and the collars will probably not spin as easily.
Deadlift bars may be a bit longer than a typical power bar, and may be thinner and more whippy.
Squat bars are a wild card here. Normally, the bar in a squat rack will be a regular power bar. But sometimes, it will be a specialised squat bar that is thicker and stiffer, and that may weigh 23kg, or sometimes 25kg or more.
Women’s Olympic bars
Women’s bars are lighter and slightly thinner than men’s Olympic bars, but they are also noticeably shorter—about 20 centimetres shorter. They weigh 15kg.
Women’s Olympic bars exist for women to use when competing in the snatch and clean and jerk. They have two main advantages over a men’s bar (if you are an average sized woman):
They are thinner, making them easier to grip, especially with the hook grip that Olympic lifters typically use.
They are whippier, so that the bar doesn’t require quite as much weight on it to be able to bounce. This matters in Olympic lifting (for example, when you let the bar whip as you’re standing up from a clean) and means basically nothing for other lifts.
Because they’re specialised for Olympic lifting, you’re not too likely to see these bars in most gyms. But they’re out there, and can be a nice substitute for a deadlift bar if you want something extra thin and whippy. Just be aware of the weight difference.
Training bars and curl bars
These bars are smaller and lighter than the ones discussed above. The idea behind training bars (often 5kg or 10kg) is to give you something lighter to work with if you’re not ready for a full size bar.
Curl bars are what they sound like: shorter, smaller bars meant for doing bicep curls and other moves that don’t require a full size bar. At my gym, they’re not kept with the regular bars, but instead stored under the dumbbell racks.
Curl bars are often, but not always, 11kg or so. Check or weigh to be sure.
These are the wiggly ones. They’re used like curl bars, for exercises that use smallish amounts of weight. Their handles are designed so that you can choose the position that’s most comfortable for your wrists.
Trap bars and other oddly shaped things
There are a variety of other bars out there, with odd shapes and varying weights. One is the trap bar or hex bar, a hexagon big enough that you stand inside of it. (It’s mainly used for trap bar deadlifts, where your hands are at your sides and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to smack the bar into your shins.) Some trap bars are 20kg, but some are more and some are less.
There are also football bars, also called Swiss bars or multi-grip bars, that allow you to use a neutral grip for bench press or other pressing movements. Sometimes they’re 20kg, but again, sometimes they aren’t.
Unusual bars aren’t standardised, so the weight is just whatever it ended up being when the bar’s maker welded all the parts together. When in doubt, weigh it yourself.