A decade ago, I worked in a leadership position at a company called The Burn Machine. We manufactured specialized rotating free weights that were in use by all of the top mixed martial artists in the world. The owner of the company, Norbert Wierszewski, was always seeking to develop innovative uses for his patented rotating-handle design, and he set about designing a 105-pound, steel-reinforced monstrosity with handles that could rotate freely or lock into any of seven different hand positions. Internally, we referred to it as “The Monster Bar.” It had a monstrous price tag to match, at a cost of right around $1,200 to have one custom built for your gym.
“We’re going to make this the new standard for gyms around the country!” exclaimed Norbert.
“That’s going to be very difficult to pull off considering how expensive and specialized this is,” I advised him.
“We just need to promote it!” insisted Norbert. “There’s nothing else in the world like it!”
Norbert was absolutely correct, but what he failed to understand — despite the undeniable brilliance behind his novel design — was just how standardized weight bars had become, what has driven that standardization process and what it means to the fitness industry that they have become so standardized. There is a reason as to why, when you enter a gym’s weight room, many people know the answer to the question “How much does the bar weigh?” without even looking at it. (At least they think they know; they’re usually one pound off… but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
So is the bar standardized?
Yes. In the gym, “the bar” always refers to a specific type of bar, and most experienced exercisers know what it weighs.
When gym goers typically refer to “the bar,” they’re generally alluding to the Olympic weight bar, which is the bar most commonly used in the areas reserved for lifters who are busy performing bench presses, squats, deadlifts, power cleans, military presses and more or less any gym exercise requiring the use of a barbell. In virtually all circumstances, the bar will almost always weigh exactly 44 pounds. (I can already hear a bunch of weightlifting know-it-alls screaming through their computer screens and phone screens at me, telling me that the bar itself weighs 45 pounds. You’re wrong, and I’ll get to why in a minute.)
For most home workout systems, the bar weighs substantially less — usually in the realm of 15 pounds — and it’s also typically far less thick than the standard gym bar. To top it off, many home weight bars don’t allow lifters to apply grips at nearly the width allowable on ordinary gym bars. Because of this, transitioning from lifting at home to lifting at the gym can involve a significant period of adjustment, with many home lifters struggling to replicate their home-based numbers in the gym.
Regardless of whether you’re lifting at the gym with a bar that weighs 44 pounds, or lifting at home with a bar that weighs a third of that amount, you should never make the mistake of thinking the bar is weightless or irrelevant. In situations where you’re lifting to total muscle failure with strict form, a single pound can mean the difference between the accomplishment of a personal best or an ice bath.
In short: It would be foolhardy to disregard the very real weight of the workout bar.
I get all of that, but why aren’t there several different bars of different weights?
This is one of those instances where standardization and uniformity is a strength of the fitness industry. It’s generally beneficial to be able to travel from gym to gym without having to check the weight of the bar each time you enter a new facility. However, there’s another reason for the precision of the weight bar.
The fact that powerlifting is a sport often flies under the radar, since only the merest fraction of the millions of people who lift weights on a regular basis have ever competed — or will ever compete — in a powerlifting competition. With that said, powerlifting is a very real sport, with a standard set of rules and practices, and one of those rules happens to involve the weights of the bars.
In powerlifting, the weight of the bar must be 20 kilograms (44.1 pounds) before its collars are affixed, and standard powerlifting collars are 2.5 kilograms each. Therefore, the standard powerlifting barbell-and-collar set weighs 25 kilograms (55.1 pounds) during a competition.
This only makes sense: Much of our recreational fitness activity takes place within the proving grounds of some very established sports. The lengths of indoor and outdoor tracks are standardized, and so are swimming pool lengths. When I enter a swimming pool with a lane line in place, there is an expectation that the lane will be 25 yards, 25 meters or 50 meters in length, because those are the standard competitive swimming distances. Anyone suggesting the construction of a 38-meter pool for lap-swimming purposes, even with the best of intentions, would be laughed straight out of the sweltering heat of the natatorium’s spectator area.
So, before we move too far away from the point I’ve been teasing, the standard Olympic weight bar itself weighs a shade over 44 pounds, and the standard weight collars at use in virtually every gym in the U.S. collectively weigh in at 0.9 pounds. That is where the extra weight comes from that transforms a 44.1-pound bar into a 45-pound bar.
It’s also worth mentioning that some of the smaller bars that fit Olympic plates, like the curl bars, are usually standardized at either around 15 pounds or 22 pounds, often depending on whether the bar was intended for use in North American or non-North American gyms, since 22 pounds converts tidily into 10 kilograms.
But standard weight bars are so boring! What if I want to change things up?
There are countless ways to adapt the standard Olympic weight bar to help you accomplish whatever you’re hoping to achieve with your lifts. There are T-bar attachments, landmine attachments, safety pads and even something called a viking press (whatever that is). Again, this is one of those occasions where standardization makes innovation easier, because the universality of the Olympic weight bar has allowed different fitness companies to invest big money in R&D with the understanding that there are a million weight bars that can make use of their new enhancement instead of just nine.
So the next time you enter your local gym and the meathead doing viking presses (whatever those are) tells you that the weight bar weighs 45 pounds, you’ll be able to set him straight. If he knows what’s good for him, he should thank you for gracing his life with your knowledge. After all, that one pound can make all the difference in the world.