Barbell Knurling: A Match Made in the Garage Gym

Ever rocked up to the gym and noticed an unfamiliar barbell in your favorite bench station or squat rack? If so, upon grabbing it, you may have immediately noticed that something felt…different about it.

The differences could have been subtle or, in the words of my wife “this barbell feels like I’m lifting with a chainsaw!”

…and you know what? There actually is a market for people who prefer lifting with bars that feel like chainsaws.

When you know about knurling and how the style of knurling can affect your lifting, you can start to understand why this is the case.

Today, we’re going to discuss barbell knurling in detail while also discussing the different types of knurling and what sports, disciplines, etc. each type of knurling is best for. By the time you finish, you’ll be one of those lifting dorks that unironically uses terms such as “Cerakote” and “hard chrome” in casual conversation.

…dork

What Is Barbell Knurling?

So…I’m pretty sure you have a pretty good idea of what knurling is, like, on a basic level. It’s the rough stuff on the bar that you hold onto (and, if you have a powerlifting barbell, it is the stuff that holds on to you). However, to be more specific and technical, knurling refers to the uniquely-shaped pattern etched onto the barbell’s surface. This isn’t just for aesthetics or to make the bar look “nice”; its primary goal is to create friction between the palms and the bar, preventing the bar from slipping. 

Knurling is especially crucial when hands become sweaty during a deadlift or a clean and jerk. If you’ve ever had your grip slip mid-lift (and if you haven’t, I would say “consider yourself lucky”, but at the same time, it’s going to happen at some point!), you know exactly how vital good knurl on your bar can be!

Factors Influencing the Feel of Barbell Knurling

Different bars have different knurling. Not all knurling is created equally and different knurling can create very different grip feelings. The factors influencing knurling feel include:

  • Depth: How deeply the pattern is cut into the steel.
  • Pattern: This can range from simple crosshatches to more complex designs.

When you start learning about barbell knurling you’ll often hear about mountain, hill, and volcano knurls. We’ll discuss each of these categories in more detail later on, but, at the most basic, fundamental level, the choice between aggressive or passive knurling comes down to your lifting needs. Do you want something that won’t chew up your hands, or do you need maximum “stickiness” to feel more grip security during heavy lifts?

Whether you’re a seasoned powerlifter or are just starting out with your home gym barbell collection, the knurling is something you should be paying close attention to. It directly affects your grip, enhances the durability of the bar, and ultimately contributes to your overall lifting experience.

What is the Importance of Barbell Knurling?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s explore why the knurling on a barbell is more than just a design…it’s important for lifting success. 

It Affects Grip

As we’ve briefly mentioned, the big thing about knurling is its affect on grip. When I’m lifting, especially during exercises like heavy deadlifts, having a bar with the right amount of knurling is key. It prevents the bar from slipping out of your hands, which is crucial for both safety and performance. Not only that, but a secure grip also helps me focus on proper form (less thinking about grip = more brain space to focus on form).

It Affects Comfort

So, the “more” knurling there is the better…right?

Not necessarily

Excessive aggressive knurling can dig into the palms, causing discomfort and calluses. On the flip side, a barbell with too smooth of knurling might feel “comfortable”, but doesn’t provide enough friction or grip which can lead to questions on whether there is “enough” knurling to help you maintain your grip throughout the lift.

Ultimately, it comes down to an easy comparison:

  • Aggressive Knurling: Might provide excellent grip but can be harsh on the skin, causing discomfort
  • Passive Knurling: Offers a more comfortable feel but may compromise grip security

It Affects Technique

The right knurling allows for a firm grip without the need to overly squeeze the bar (doing this can throw off your form). This balance allows for greater concentration on lift mechanics rather than worrying about bar slippage.

With consistent knurling, my hands have become accustomed to how the bar is supposed to feel in my hands, enhancing my overall lifting technique 

What Are the Different Types of Barbell Knurling?

Let’s look at the density, coating, and marking of the knurl patterns that affect your grip and lifts.  

Density

Knurl density is all about the number of knurls per square inch and how tightly packed they are. It determines the feel and grip on the bar:

Aggressive knurling has a high density (more knurls per square inch) that offers a strong grip which is great for heavy lifting but may be rough on the hands.

Passive knurling has a lower density, generally creating a more comfortable grip suitable for high-rep training. 

Coating

The type of coating on a barbell can significantly influence the knurling’s effectiveness:

  • Bare steel offers a natural and raw feel but is prone to oxidation. These bars can look really beat up rather quickly (even if they’re actually in pretty decent shape).
  • Cerakote is a ceramic-based coating that protects the steel while maintaining a good grip. It is also holds up pretty well to the elements and won’t rust to easily.
  • Chrome adds durability and reduces maintenance but can slightly diminish knurl feel.
  • Stainless steel provides excellent resistance to corrosion and maintains a consistent feel over time. These bars are generally the most expensive, though.

Knurl Patterns

If you look really close at your barbell’s knurling, you’ll notice rather distinctive patterns to it. These can generally be broken down into three categories:

  • Mountain Knurling: Aggressive knurling that resembles small mountain tops
  • Hill Knurling: Passive knurling that resembles small diamonds
  • Volcano Knurling: Middle-of-the-line knurling that resembles both mountains and hills

Marking/Rings

Knurl rings, or markings, are crucial for consistent hand placement. These rings don’t just guide your grip; they’re a subtle nod to the specificity of your training style. You don’t have to place your hands directly on these rings (and shouldn’t if you need a wider or more shallow grip), but being mindful of them can really help your grip setup on every rep.

When and Why to Select Different Knurling?

Choosing the right knurling on a barbell isn’t just about aesthetics—it’s fundamental for grip, performance, and comfort. 

Personal Preference

Have you ever picked up a barbell and immediately felt how it just seems “right” for your hands? That’s personal preference in action. The type of knurling varies significantly among barbells—hill, mountain, and volcano patterns each offer a distinctive texture that can make or break your comfort during a lift. New lifters often favor a gentler knurl to avoid discomfort, while experienced lifters may opt for a more aggressive pattern for a secure grip.

Despite any of the other items on this list, personal preference should always be the go-to indicator for the types of bars you’re using.

Intensity and Duration of Lifts

When you’re planning on pushing your lifting intensity to the next level or when you know you’ll be doing long workout sessions, proper knurling can be a game-changer. A deeper cut, like a mountain pattern, might be your ally during high-intensity training where the bar slipping is not an option. However, prolonged workouts with too aggressive knurling can be tough on the hands, sometimes leading to calluses, discomfort, or the most dreaded of all…torn hands. 

Ultimately, you need to find the sweet spot that comes the closest (because it will probably never be “perfect) to ticking all workout boxes.

Frequency of Lifts

How often do you train with a barbell? If you’re lifting multiple times a week, choosing the right knurling can help prevent overuse injuries to your hands. For daily lifters, I suggest a moderate knurl that provides enough grip without being overly harsh. Conversely, if your sessions are less frequent or revolve around high-rep sets, you might enjoy the security offered by a sharp, volcano pattern knurl that’s designed to lock in your grip, rep after rep.

For newer lifters, less aggressive knurling is likely your best bet. This is always preferable to getting in the habit of wearing lifting gloves…always.

Powerlifting vs. Olympic Weightlifting 

Your preferred discipline is likely to dictate the type of barbell knurling you opt for:

Powerlifting: Thicker and more aggressive knurling with closer rings helps to maintain a firm grip for controlled, heavy lifts.

Olympic Lifting: The smoother, shallower, and less aggressive knurl provides the necessary grip without hindering hand movement for rapid transitions.

What Are the Different Types of Knurl Rings?

We briefly hit on knurl rings above. Let’s take a closer look at their “true” purpose and utility.

Knurl rings serve as guideposts for exercises like the squat, deadlift, or snatch. The spacing of these marks varies to accommodate different training styles which generally use different weightlifting bars:

Powerlifting: The rings on power bars are typically placed 81 centimeters apart. This spacing aligns with the regulations set for powerlifting competitions and supports exercises focused on strength like the squat and deadlift.

Olympic lifting: These marks are spaced 91 centimeters apart, adhering to the standards for Olympic lifting. This wider grip is optimal for dynamic movements like the snatch.

Whether you’re powerlifting or Olympic lifting, those knurl rings should serve as reference points for consistent hand placement.

Frequently Asked Questions

Bet you never thought you’d come this far in a discussion about barbell knurling. Well…time to take things a little bit further and cover some of the most commonly asked questions about barbell knurling.

In Olympic weightlifting, where barbells are spun and re-gripped quickly, bars take on a finer knurling pattern to prevent hand ripping. Any type of constant re-gripping, whether on a barbell or a pull-up bar, creates A LOT of friction, contributing to hand tearing. As such, Olympic barbells made and marketed by such federations as the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) possess slightly less aggressive knurling.

This contrasts with powerlifting bars, which usually feature a more aggressive knurl (to include a center knurl which the next question will discuss) to secure the bar in place during heavy lifts. The more aggressive knurl can feel different for those unaccustomed to it, but is generally very appreciated...especially when the bar starts to get really heavy!

A center knurl is beneficial when executing back squats as it helps keep the bar more stable on the back (don't expect too much help when performing the bench press, though!) All International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) barbells have a center knurl.

On the other hand, if your workouts revolve around clean and jerks or other lifts where the bar is constantly being held in a front rack (or otherwise sliding against the chest) a smooth center can prevent discomfort and skin abrasions.

Don’t Get Barbell Knurl Analysis Paralysis!

I know we hit you with a lot today and you’re now probably frantically searching for the perfect knurling to make you a better weightlifter or to help you hit a new squat PR or something.

barbell knurling

While knurling does matter, think about how things play out when you’re watching the CrossFit Games or a powerlifting meet. Those athletes don’t get to choose their barbells; they just use what’s put in front of them!

While it is certainly nice to train with a bar that feels perfect in your hands, don’t make yourself crazy examining the knurl pattern of all of the training bars at the gym. Be aware of what it is, but, ultimately make sure you keep that whole, “training for the unknown and unknowable” mantra in mind at all times!

Want to dive deeper into all things “barbell”? Take a look at our article on the best barbells for CrossFit.

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AUTHOR

Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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