December 16, 2021 6 min read
Chances are you've worked with a barbell for strength training before, whether it's to do deadlifts, bench press, power cleans, etc. The options for barbell exercises are seemingly endless. When you're lifting heavy weights, you've probably noticed how important grip strength is, after all, you can only lift as much as you can hold.
What you may not have noticed is the different grippy patterns on the barbells. They’re not just there for decoration or to look cool. They serve important purposes that shouldn’t be overlooked.
This cross-hatched pattern is known as barbell knurling, and its main purpose is to keep the bar from slipping. But did you know there are multiple different kinds of knurling? And how and what you're lifting is important in choosing the right barbell? Whether you're weightlifting competitively or just looking to spruce up the garage gym, knowing the types of barbells can make or break a workout.
You can find barbell knurling on any men's and women's barbell. It's the part of the bar that has tiny diamond-like shapes etched into it. The pattern may look different depending on which barbell you choose, they can even feel different too. The knurling patterns vary in shape, size, and aggressiveness.
Barbell knurling exists to create friction between your hand and the bar, so which exercise you're performing or where you intend to grip will be important in picking the right barbell.
Imagine you're weightlifting, and you've warmed up, you’ve eaten a good breakfast, you're feeling ready to deadlift a PR today. You get up to the bar, you get set, and as soon as you start to pull, the bar slips right out of your hands. Barbell knurling helps to prevent this from happening.
No matter which barbell exercise you choose, knurling is important, but it is especially important in pulling exercises like row variations or cleans. It becomes essential to lifters when more and more weight is added on.
Types of Knurling
Let's get into the nitty-gritty of barbell knurling and break down the types of knurling and their purpose. You'll want to know the best option for you, so you can grip the bar without it slipping or ripping your skin off.
In the standard gym, you're more likely to find passive knurling on a barbell. Passive knurling refers to a smoother, flatter surface and may be more comfortable to grip, but it also lessens the friction. This type of knurl is better for beginners because it's not too hard on the hands, and typically commercial gym owners will stock these.
In strength sports like Olympic lifting, you're more likely to find aggressive knurling, which as you've probably guessed, is the opposite of passive. The pattern of aggressive knurling is sharper and pointier, which makes it easier to grip, especially with an immense amount of weight, but it can also tear your hands up because of the rough surface.
A fine knurl isn't about the shape or sharpness of the pattern, rather how many and how close the shapes are. When there are more diamond-like shapes that are packed tightly together, it makes a fine knurl. This type of knurl makes it easier to grip and sometimes even more comfortable, making it an ideal barbell for home gyms.
A coarse knurl is the opposite of a fine knurl, meaning there are fewer diamond-like shapes that are spaced further out. This is typically the less preferred option due to the lessened ability to grip.
The shape of the knurling pattern can be just as important when choosing the right one. There are three different shapes that each provide benefits depending on your sport.
The hill looks like it sounds. It's a passive knurling with a flatter surface and shallower grooves, which makes it less painful to hold but lessens the ability to grip. This type of pattern is beneficial for beginners but should be avoided by more advanced or competitive athletes.
The volcano provides more of a medium ground and is one of the more popular, multipurpose options. Shaped like a mountain with the tops cut off, it makes for a smooth enough surface that still provides the necessary grip for lifting heavy. This type of knurl can still have more passive or aggressive characteristics depending on how it's cut, so it can be good for intermediate or more advanced lifters.
As you may have guessed by the name, this shape is the most aggressive one because of the pointed tops that resemble mountains. This pattern is beneficial for Olympic weightlifting and is often seen on power bars and deadlift bars because of the extra grip provided. This knurling should be used by advanced and competitive lifters.
Now that we know the types of knurling, it's time to talk about placement. Where the knurling is placed on the barbell is important to what kind of lift you're doing.
The placement of the center knurl is in the middle of the barbell and can either help or harm a lift. Powerlifters can benefit from the center knurl because it assists in the front squat and back squat by helping keep the barbell from slipping. In weightlifting competitions, the men's bar is required to have a center knurl, whereas the women's bar is not.
Bars that don't have the center knurling are beneficial for CrossFit and Olympic lifters, especially when performing thrusters or cleans. With the bar resting on your chest and close to your neck, you risk the chance of scraping up your skin. If you only have access to a bar with no center knurl, you can easily manipulate it by simply wrapping tape where the knurl would be. It may not be ideal, but it does the trick.
Also on the barbell, are what are referred to as knurl marks. These are the small rings of the Olympic bar that have no pattern on them. One of their purposes is to help the lifter with hand placement, so it is even gripped on either side of the bar.
Some barbells have one set of knurl marks and others have two. This depends on the sport requirements, such as there is a difference between placement in weightlifting and powerlifting.
The two standards for hand placement on the bar are determined by IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) and IPF (International Powerlifting Federation). For the IWF, the one set of rings is used to determine a wider grip requirement for moves like the clean or the snatch. For the IPF, the two sets of rings allow for a slightly tighter grip for moves like the bench, squat, and deadlift.
If you're looking to buy a barbell, you'll want to think about why you're using it. You may think any Olympic barbell will do, but as you can tell, there are plenty of reasons to choose the right one wisely.
If you're a total beginner looking to build your home gym, a training bar could be your best bet, however in your standard box gym, you'll most likely find Olympic bars.
Rogue is one of the more popular makers of gym equipment and weightlifting barbells, and their Rogue Ohio Power Bar has had several great reviews for home gym owners and commercial gym owners. It's stainless steel with a center knurling, which is a more popular quality to have.
Rogue also has the popular Ohio Bar Cerakote, which has all the qualities of the Ohio Bar but with a more durable coating and the ability to customize its color.
Keep in mind, if grip is crucial to how you're lifting, you'll want to purchase a bare steel bar. Barbells that have finishing on them can fill into the knurling grooves and affect your grip.
If you've finally found the perfect barbell, you'll want to take care of it to help avoid wear and tear. Cleaning may be an afterthought, but it is essential for the health and longevity of your equipment. Especially if you're using chalk, the chalk can settle into the grooves and cause corrosion. Not only that, but your sweat, the oil from your skin, and your skin itself can clog it up.
One of the best ways to clear the grooves is to use chemicals like WD-40 or 3-in-1 oil. You won't need any more than a light coat of oil and a bristled brush to clean the knurls out.
Barbells aren't cheap, so take care of your's now to avoid wasted money in the future.
You may be looking at barbells in a whole different light now. Even though you may not be able to control which barbell you get at the gym, you can now pick out the perfect one if you're building a home gym--at least impress your friends by how much you know about barbells.
Knurling shapes, depths, and marks all contribute to a bigger and better lift and could make or break a workout. Barbell knurling is there to help with grip, but remember that ultimately it's your grip strength doing the heavy lifting. Practicing your grip strength combined with the perfect barbell could be just the thing you've been missing.