Selecting the perfect barbell for your garage or home gym can be a fun, yet daunting experience.
The choices seem endless…and how can you ever know if you’ve really selected the “right” bar?
There is always going to be a degree of personal preference involved with barbell selection. However, the power bar vs Olympic bar debate is one that you shouldn’t be left in the dark on.
Your training priorities will dictate whether you’ll want a power (or powerlifting) barbell or an Olympic (or Olympic weightlifting) barbell.
Or, as a wise woman once said
Over the years, I have lifted with all types of power bars and Olympic bars. I know what each bar feels like in my hands, in a front rack position, and on my back. Use my experiences to help you choose the “right” bar for you!
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Commonalities Between the Power Bar and the Olympic Bar
Before we dive into the power bar vs Olympic bar competition, let’s discuss some of the commonalities and similar traits. On a casual glance, it can be very easy to confuse the two types of bars.
Both bars are 2200 millimeters long for men (2010 millimeters for women) and weigh either 45 pounds (men’s bars) or 35 pounds (women’s bars). When compared to “standard bars”, power bars and Olympic bars are noticeably longer, thicker, and are much heavier.
Power bars and Olympic bars are both divided into three areas: a long central “shaft” region where the bar is gripped and two, book-end “sleeve” regions which are smoother and thicker, where the plates are loaded.
The smooth steel comprising large regions of power bars and Olympic bars gives them a clean and unique look. The rough and textured knurling on both barbells promise a large degree of grip and stability.
In a pinch, you could use your power bar for your Olympic lifts and an Olympic bar for squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. I currently use my Olympic bar for all lifts, get reasonably heavy, and haven’t experienced any major problems.
You’ll certainly find a lot of “barbell crossover” on the list of the best barbells for CrossFit.
However, if you want the best experience and results, do your powerlifts with your power bar and your Olympic lifts with your Olympic bar!
The All-powerful Power Bar
If you’ve ever done any type of powerlifting or similar lifts in a classic Globo Gym, you likely used a power bar to perform them. Patrons are much more likely to perform these lifts than Olympic lifts so every big box gym is loaded with these.
The easiest way to identify power bars vs Olympic bars is their distinct center knurl.
Knurling is the textured material you grip (either with your hands or with your hands and back on squats). This is in place specifically to provide extra grip on your back when you are performing squats. The knurling digs (slightly) into the body, keeping it more secure throughout the duration of the lift.
Power bar knurl rings sit 32 inches apart. This is a bit closer than Olympic bar knurls sit and these rings coincide more closely with common bench press grip widths. The knurls themselves are the two, narrow strips near the outer edges of the center section of the bar.
On close inspection, power bar knurling is rougher and more pronounced than Olympic bar knurling. The more extreme knurling of power bars makes them easier to handle for more grip-intensive exercises.
Power bars have “bushings” in between the shaft and the outer sleeves. These thicker, circular pieces separate the plates from the shaft and allow for the sleeves to moderately spin.
When the sleeves and plates spin, they prevent the shaft itself from spinning in your hands, greatly enhancing grip and control.
Less noticeable is the power bar’s larger shaft diameter. This diameter can be as thick as 32 millimeters, but is always at least 29 millimeters. The added thickness increases the power bar’s stiffness, making it easier to grip.
Bar “whip” is not noticeable by glance and is the least apparent aspect of the power bar. Powerlifting movements do not require the barbell to “flex” during pulling movements (like the Olympic snatch and clean and jerk).
Power bars are more rigid and are not overly flexible. They create very little “whip”.
The Olympic Bar – The Barbell of the Gods
Like their powerful brothers, Olympic bars possess a number of visible features that make them easily identifiable to the trained eye. Because of their relative rarity (you will be hard-pressed to find an Olympic bar in a Globo gym) their visual markings are even more distinctive.
Olympic bars do not have a center knurl. The middle portion of the shaft is completely smooth and is completely untextured. Neither the snatch nor the clean and jerk involve extensive bar-to-body contact (like the squat), therefore, a center knurl is not necessary.
Olympic bar knurl rings sit 36 inches apart. Like the knurl rings on power bars, this distance is significant. Olympic weightlifters generally use them as guides to dictate their snatch grip hand placement.
Olympic bar knurling is pronounced, but is not as pronounced as knurling on power bars. The Olympic weightlifting movements are not as grip-intensive making more intense knurling unnecessary.
Olympic bars possess “bearings” (as opposed to power bar “bushings”) in between the shaft and the outer sleeves. Bearings allow the bar sleeves to spin much more freely than bushings do. This makes the bar’s transitions in the wrist during the snatch and clean and jerk much smoother.
As with the power bar, the Olympic bar “whip” is not visually noticeable on a resting barbell. Olympic bar whip is generally much more extreme and violent than the power bar’s due to its increased flexibility. This whip aids in the initial pulling movements, helping to build momentum for the later pulls.
Power Bar vs Olympic Bar – Which is King?
I love the way a good Olympic bar spins. After using one for an extended period of time, walking up to a power bar and attempting a power clean is a…less than ideal experience.
I have attributed my hitting snatch and clean and jerk PRs in competitions to the superior Olympic bars that they wheel out for these events. The whipping is more intense and the spins are…spinnier!
I clean and/or snatch almost every day, rarely bench, and never go super heavy on my squats. Olympic bars simply “work” for me.
My workout regimen is also probably different from 90 percent of people hitting the weights in their garage or basement.
That being said…
In the power bar vs Olympic bar debate, the power bar wins in terms of overall practicality. Sure, the bar isn’t going to feel quite as smooth and controlled during a heavy clean, but you won’t mind the lack of flex in most other exercises.
If you’re regularly slamming your bar into the rack, the power bar is the undisputed winner of the power bar vs. Olympic bar battle. The power bar can take a bit more of this kind of abuse.
Related to the previous point, barbells are expensive. “Good” barbells can be VERY expensive. Relative to each other, though, power bars are generally significantly less expensive than Olympic bars.
If you foresee your bar crashing around, smashing into racks, or being used as a lance by your kids in their make believe jousts, a power bar provides much less shock to the system (and pocketbook) if it is damaged.
(I’ve been to CrossFit gyms before where only certain athletes were permitted to use expensive Olympic bars…with permission. They REALLY wanted to keep those bad boys in good shape!)
If powerlifting is your primary discipline, the power bar vs Olympic bar debate is a no-brainer.
Even if Olympic weightlifting is your sport, I would suggest investing in an Olympic bar AND a power bar. The power bar can be used for much of your supplemental work, to include back squats. You can bust out your Olympic bar for snatches, clean and jerks, and other exercises where bar spin and flexibility is key.
If you have both types of bars, it can be useful to clean or snatch with the power bar from time to time. If you are in a situation where you must perform these lifts on a non-Olympic bar, it’s good for your body to know ahead of time just how…interesting this feels!
Final Score: Power Bar – 1; Olympic Bar – 0.9534529
Power Bar vs Olympic Bar?
There is nothing like unboxing your first barbell (although getting out of the oddly-shaped box and tubing can be a bit of a chore!) At that moment, you know there is nothing stopping you from loading up a few plates and chasing the gains!
The feeling of lifting with the “right” barbell is even better.
A power bar will be the “right” barbell for just about everyone and you should make a home for one in your own garage or basement gym.
An Olympic bar is an excellent addition and should even be your first barbell if you’re an Olympic weightlifter.
However, the overall practicality of the power bar ensures that it “wins” the power bar vs Olympic bar matchup. It has a place in the gym of even the most accomplished Olympic weightlifters!