What sets a great home gym apart from a good one? The ability to perform all the exercises you want without ever having to go elsewhere to train.
In other words, you have everything at home you need, making a trip to your local big box gym unnecessary.
In other words, you have everything at home you need, making a trip to your local big box gym unnecessary.
That’s why the centerpiece of many great home training centers is a power/squat rack and a set of weights. It’s a big day when your cage or rack finally arrives (see my guide here). What a glorious time when all of your weight training needs are just a room or two away in your very own, fully equipped home gym!
At the heart of your new weight training set up is the piece of equipment that ties it all together. The one thing without which your new cage and weight plates are unusable. The humble barbell. When you think about it, it’s often the only thing you actually touch when working out. Or should I say things…
In reality, if your goal is to build a truly great home gym, you won’t just have one type of barbell. You will probably have 3.
For those of you that don’t want to read the full list of whats and whys, I’ll give the short answer here. If you are going to include weight training in your home gym, there are 3 different bars you’ll want to have.
For a long time, I worked out in my home gym almost exclusively with dumbbells. I had neither a spotter nor a cage. You need at least one of those to safely lift heavier weights using a full size barbell and plates.
I stuck with dumbbells for a long time not just for safety reasons, but I simply didn’t have the room or the budget to get anything else. I’m a firm believer that if all you have room for is a bench and a set of adjustable dumbbells, you can be incredibly effective for an indefinite amount of time. Those two things have served me well for years.
That said, it’s really hard to get the most out of a lot of weight training exercises if you don’t have some basic weight lifting equipment. The most basic of that is a barbell and plates.
That may seem like a dumb question, but I’m surprised at home many people I run into that don’t really know. The most common answer is “some weights”. I think we should be a little more specific than that.
For starters, “some weights” is actually a good beginning. The question is how many and what kind. I wrote two articles that will help you if that’s a decision you find yourself faced with at this point in the construction of your home gym.
One article, about the type of weight plates I recommend, is here.
The other, on how many of each weight to start with, can be found by clicking here.
Another part of a great weight set is have some variation of a squat rack or power cage. It just so happens that I’ve written a very in depth article on selecting this piece of equipment too! You can see that by clicking here.
Because of both the investment level and how long they’ll be kept, weights and the cage are gear that people tend to put a good deal of thought into. They shop and check reviews and consider their options. This is how it should be. Both of those pieces of gear will end up costing a decent amount of money.
Once people do all their research on those two, they tend to almost throw in a barbell as an after thought. That’s crazy to me. You can’t use the first two without a barbell. As I stated before, it’s the only thing you actually touch during training. Not to mention, it can significantly add to the effectiveness of your work outs. If you have the right assortment, that is.
In my experience, a full weight training regimen is best accomplished using three very different types of barbell. We’ll start with the most well known…
The first bar most people get is the traditional straight bar. It’s the king of the weight lifting barbells. You’ll most likely use it more than any other bar you own. It’s what you will use to squat, deadlift, and press your way through your weight training regimen. In fact, if your set up only has one barbell, this will be what you have.
It might seem strange at first, but there are actually several key parts of a barbell that you should be familiar with. There are a surprising number of options to pick from and knowing your way around a traditional barbell will help you decide on the right one for you. Let’s begin with the shaft.
The shaft is the central part of the bar. It typically comes in 28-29mm diameter for men’s bars and 25mm diameter for women’s. This is to accommodate the generally different hand sizes of men and women. But let’s reassign this definition. One is for larger handed folks, the other is for smaller handed lifters. Get what works for you regardless of your gender.
One side note on bar diameter. For pressing exercises, one of my all time favorite lifting accessories is a set of fat gripz. These attach to the bar and you grip them instead of directly gripping the bar. They provide a few benefits.
First, I am 6’6” and have giant hands. Lifting with these is simply more comfortable. I love them for this reason.
Their second benefit is that they work to improve your grip while you are lifting. Instead of having to train grip separately, these will help you do that without adding additional exercises.
Finally, they help protect your elbows when pressing. By making the bar fatter, they reduce stress on your elbows. At 47 years old, I can use all the joint protection I can get! I highly recommend a set of these for anyone working with a traditional barbell. They will quickly become one of your favorite low cost additions you’ve made to your training.
Another thing that will vary from bar to bar, aside from size, is the knurling. That’s the rough textured area that provides grip. Some bars have a lot, some only a little. I recommend getting a bar that has a good amount of the shaft covered with knurling. This allows a variety of grip widths and will provide you with a more versatile bar. Some bars are made with a very small area of knurling designed to put your hands in the “correct” position for lifting. This isn’t a great idea as what is “correct” for one person may cause injury in another. The more flexibility you have, the better.
Speaking of “correct” hand positioning, most bars will also have rings inside the knurling that indicate preferred hand position. There are typically two indicated positions. One for Olympic lifting (snatches, cleans, etc.) and one for power lifting (deadlifts, squats, etc.).
For me, I like to have a bar that has at least one set of rings. I use them as guides so that I can be consistent in my lifts.
A last note on the shaft is the coarseness of the knurling itself. I prefer a medium textured bar, but you can also find options for light and heavy. I’ve found that medium gives great grip while not tearing up my hands.
The next stop on our anatomical tour of the barbell is the sleeves. These are the wider areas attached over the ends of the shaft. On most bars they spin independent from the shaft itself. This spinning action is facilitated by either bushings or bearings.
The diameter of most sleeves is consistent at 50mm. That’s because weight plates have a standard opening of 50mm. One slides easily over the other without binding, but with a tight enough tolerance that they don’t shift or wobble.
The sleeves spin for a very specific reason. When lifting a barbell loaded with weight, the bar will rotate with your hand as it moves through space. You don’t want the weights to rotate along with the shaft. If the sleeves were fixed, the weights would spin with the bar and create inertia that would literally rip the bar out of your hand. Not a very desirable thing to happen. Especially with a lot of weight on a bar that you might have over your head or chest!
You’ll read about some bars that tout high end bearings which allow the sleeves to spin with ease. Those same marketing blurbs will disparage bars that use nylon bushings. If you are training to be a competitive lifter, you may want to look at higher end bearing models. For the rest of us, a barbell that uses bushings will work great and be more affordable at the same time. Bushings will allow the collars to spin freely under weight and will work great in almost all applications.
When you add the sleeves to the shaft, you get an overall bar length. Men’s bars are usually 2.2 meters (7.2 feet) long while women’t bars are 2.01 meters (6.6 feet). If you look, you can also find shorter bars made with the larger men’s diameter. This is great in garage or basement gym applications as it saves some space. A power/squat rack takes up a good amount of room to start with. Having a shorter bar can sometimes make the difference between being able to have a traditional barbell in the first place, or not.
One last thing to note when shopping for a barbell is that you’ll often see two general types for sale. One is made for Olympic lifting and the other for power lifting. The basic difference is in how much flex there is in the bar. A power lifting bar will be very stiff with almost no give. An Olympic lifting bar will have much more flexibility.
Which one is right for you will depend on the type of lifting you do. If you are a hard core Olympic lifter or CrossFit athlete, an Olympic bar will probably be the right choice. For everyone else, I recommend a power lifting bar. I find them to be more versatile and safer for the average lifter.
A third option, which is what I personally prefer over the first two for multi use home gyms, is a “hybrid” bar. That’s a bar with a little flex, but not too much. For recreational lifters like myself, it works great for both power and Olympic lifting.
After looking at countless bars and trying quite a few of them, I have a couple of favorites.
I really like the basic bar made by Body Solid It has all the features I want in a bar and is available at a reasonable price. You can check current pricing here on Amazon. It has everything I describe above, is tested to 600 lbs, and will serve you well for years.
I also really love this bar that’s sold by Onnit. I have yet to buy anything from them that I haven’t absolutely loved and this bar will be no exception for you. It is tested up to 1200 lbs. and will work great for both Olympic lifting and power lifting. If you think you’ll be surpassing the 600 lb capacity of the Body Solid, it’s worth the extra money to go with this option.
While this article is about the three “must have” bars for your home gym, I will note that if all you ever get is a traditional barbell, you’ll be very happy. I’m a minimalist at heart and there’s something satisfying about making due with just one bar. The gear head that lives in me will sometimes argue with that, though, and for that reason I recommend two more bars for your home gym. They aren’t necessary, per se, but they are extremely useful and very nice to have! We’ll take a look at both of those now.
The first few times I read about a “trap” bar, I was totally confused. Why would someone need such a contraption (see what I did there?)? I’d never seen one in a commercial gym and it seemed like a gimmick to me.
Then I hurt my back and couldn’t deadlift. At first I just did without, but I missed it. My results in the gym missed it too. To address this problem, a friend of mine suggested using a trap bar. I really wanted to start deadlifting again, so I figured, why not?
If you’ve never seen or heard of a trap bar before, it’s like no other barbell you might have come across. Imagine a straight barbell. Then, instead of a single shaft between the sleeves, replace that with a hexagonal shaped bar that has two handles welded to it (or just look at the picture below!).
This allows the lifter to stand inside the bar, placing the weights directly on either side of their body. Since the weights are centered on the lifter’s body, there is no forward or rearward shear force on the spine. Everything is loaded evenly front to back.
There are two particular ways this can benefit you. First, it allows squats and deadlifts that can be much safer and easier on the back. You can squat straight down and stand straight up. No unnecessary bending under load.
Second, it allows you to walk while carrying a heavily loaded barbell. This is really great for another of my favorite exercises, loaded carries (aka farmer’s walks).
Using a trap bar turned out to be one of the best things I’d done in a gym. I asked the gym I was using at the time if they would buy one and they actually did! I started light and worked with the trap bar for quite some time.
I currently use a trap bar for a variety of things when working out. It’s become a staple in my weight training life even though I no longer use it for heavy deadlifting. I use it to warm up for both squats and deadlifts. I use it when I don’t have time to do both squats and deadlifts. It’s a really nice hybrid of both movements.
I use it for high rep, lighter weight squats and deadlifts. And, my absolute favorite, I use it for heavy farmer’s walks. If you aren’t doing heavy loaded carries as part of your training routine, you are missing out! If you are, there really isn’t a better way to do them than with a trap bar.
There are couple of variations to the trap bars you’ll find on the market and I think they can make a big difference in the overall usability of the bar.
Those two variations vary by handle position. One type has the handles welded directly inside the “trap” (hexagonal) portion of the bar. The other type has the handles raised above that section. I’ve used both. Both work great.
In the end, I much prefer the type that has the raised handles. At 6’6”, it makes it a lot easier to deadlift this type of bar from the floor. Having those handles just a bit higher also makes it feel a little safer for my back. I even think it feels more stable when doing heavy loaded carries.
One last functional benefit of the raised handles comes when loading the bar. It’s much easier to pick the bar up off the floor to put weights on when you can easily grab the handle that is raised off of the ground. It might sound minor, but for me it makes a noticeable difference. Noticeable enough so that my personal choice of trap bar is the raised handle version
One caution, and something you’ll see me reference time and again here on Gym Crafter, is to avoid complexity. When looking at trap bars, you’ll come across some pretty fancy stuff. Revolving grips. Raised collars. Grips of varying thickness and materials. Raised platforms on the bottom of the bar. The list goes on.
In my opinion, complexity is often the enemy of effectiveness. Especially when it comes to weight training. While you want a quality bar, it needs to be simple. Don’t get woo’d by the fancy extra features that come with a correspondingly higher price tag. Stick with a basic trap bar by a quality company that has the raised handles. For me, it really doesn’t get much better than this model by CAP barbells that you can find over on Amazon. That will more than get the job done, last you for years to come, and not break the bank in the process.
A common theme you’ll find here on Gym Crafter is a consistent consideration of injury prevention. At 46 I’ve done my share of damage to my body. Much of it due to carelessness and impatience. Other injuries have been due to a simple lack of knowledge.
One thing I didn’t know about for a long time was how small angle changes when lifting can either prevent or cause injury. Something like using a slight incline when bench pressing made a huge improvement in my shoulder health.
In addition to altering the angle at which I perform certain lifts, changing the angle in which I can grip the bar has made a significant difference as well. That’s where the addition of an EZ bar to my weight training arsenal has come into play.
I used to do everything with a straight, traditional barbell. That worked fine for a long time. Then my elbows started to hurt a bit. Followed by my wrists and shoulders. I figured maybe I was just lifting too often. So I backed off.
That helped for a while, but as soon as I started in again, the pain flared. The resulting pain, along with my desire to continue lifting, drove me to the internet for help. It didn’t take long to find a solution.
Those of you familiar with the EZ bar (also commonly called the EZ curl bar) will probably chuckle that I didn’t know about it. It’s a widely used barbell variation and it’s found in virtually every commercial gym on the planet. Unlike the trap bar, which isn’t all that common, the EZ bar is a ubiquitous piece of weight training equipment that has been around for years.
I had seen a lot of people using it, but I never thought to pick it up myself. I figured that the crazy wiggly shaped bar was just a gimmick. Besides, I really liked using the traditional straight barbell for everything.
When it comes to some exercises, though, a straight bar can actually cause damage to your elbows, shoulders, and wrists. Two in particular are curls and presses. In those two exercises, your wrists and elbows are not in a natural, and therefor safe, position when using a straight bar. The same can be said for a third exercise, the close grip bench press.
In all three of those examples, and quite a few more I won’t list here, the EZ bar is safer to use than its straight counterpart. Because of that, it only makes sense to add an EZ bar to your cache of training equipment.
Another important reason to consider this type of bar is its versatility. It’s not just a one trick pony. An EZ bar has a multitude of applications that allow you to add variety and effectiveness to your training through a ton of different movement patterns.
Curl variations like overhand curls are much better done with an EZ bar. French presses and other overhead tricep exercises are well suited to the EZ bar. The EZ bar can also be used for a wide variety of bench press variants. In fact, once you start integrating one into your training, you’ll find yourself using it on more days than you don’t.
Before I recommend an EZ bar for your home gym, I want to quickly address something I hear a lot. Many people will tell you that for curls, a straight bar is more effective at building muscle. That’s technically true.
If you are looking for maximum bicep activation through the entire range of motion, the fully supinated position that a straight bar places your hands in is more effective. The slightly turned position at which an EZ bar positions your hands doesn’t work the muscle as intensely or effectively. It’s a very slight difference, but it is a difference none the less.
That said, it’s hard to train when you are injured. That’s where the EZ bar wins. It doesn’t matter how effective something is if it leaves you injured and unable to train. Any incremental gains you might have made with the straight bar over the EZ bar will be more than lost while you are recovering from an elbow injury and you can’t lift at all.
Remember, the most effective methods and equipment are always those that allow you to train injury and pain free for years.
With that in mind, it’s easy to recommend that everyone have an EZ bar. For me, it’s a no brainer.
As with other types of barbells, I’ve used a few different types and brands over the years. In that time, I’ve developed a few preferences.
Some less expensive EZ bars don’t have collars that spin. I think that’s a mistake. For the same reason you want spinning collars on a full length Olympic straight bar, you want them on your EZ bar.
Another thing that I really like is a bar with longer, rather than shorter, angles segments of the shaft. Some bars I’ve tried are designed so that each angled part of the shaft you can grip is only about as wide as your hand. That gives no flexibility in hand placement. I have big hands and, at 6’ 6”, a large wing span. For that reason, I like my EZ bar to have a little wiggle room as to where I grip it. That’s why my personal choice in EZ bar is this one by Body Solid. You can check current pricing and availability on Amazon here. It gives me plenty of room to reposition my hands across the different segments and bends. And it’s available in black! (can you tell I like the black bars?)
As a final tip when buying an EZ bar, you’re going to need something other than bumper plates. In my article here, I recommended using bumper plates for most of your weight training. One of the benefits is that bumper plates are all the same diameter. That works great for trap bars or straight barbells. I’ve found it’s not ideal for an EZ bar.
For your EZ bar, you may want to invest in some smaller, traditional weight plates. I’ve written an article here about how many and what weight plates to start with if you are shopping for a full set. For my uses, I would buy the following:
That should cover most of your EZ bar needs if combined with a set of larger, bumper style plates. At the very least, it will get you started.