How much does a bench press bar weigh? Well, that depends on whether you are using a standard (also termed regular) bar or an Olympic sized bar. A standard barbell is the lighter of the two and usually weighs between 15 to 25lbs and can be between 5 to 6 feet long. I say usually because there are various makes and models of the standard barbell. The same can be said about what material the bench press bar (barbell) is made from. Most barbells are constructed from cast iron, but there are others made from stainless steel. Olympic barbell dimensions are standardized for men to be 45lbs and 7.2 feet long and for women to be 33lbs and 6.6 feet long.
As a good ground rule, if you are ever unsure about a barbell weight, a safe bet would be to assume it is a minimum of 45 pounds or 20 Kilograms. Both bars are a type of barbell and look similar, but there are some critical differences between the two types that you should be aware of before you start training, so you know how much weight you are lifting, maximize your workout, and above all, stay safe.
Everyone starts off just benching ‘the bar’ (barbell) as the saying goes. A barbell is a long and straight metal bar that you can use as part of your chest, shoulder, triceps, or legs workout. All barbells have a textured grip (knurling) wrapped around its central area to show you where proper hand placement is. The main difference between the standard and Olympic bars is the diameter of the barbell ends (called the ‘sleeves’) that are designed to hold the weighted plates.
A standard bar uses a 1” diameter constant throughout the entire bar (sleeves and all). The Olympic bar (for males and females) uses a 2” sleeve diameter and has a grip of about an inch around for handgrip on the interior. This reinforced structure enables significantly more weight to be lifted safely from an Olympic bar (over 1,000lbs) compared to a standard bar. There is another crucial aspect concerning the sleeves of standard and Olympic bars that you should be aware of. The sleeves on an Olympic barbell rotate or spin freely, so do not be alarmed! This is designed to ensure that under heavy weights, the wrists of the lifter are not put into uncomfortable or compromising angles during the movement due to directional pull. The sleeves of a regular barbell have the same 1” diameter as the rest of the barbell and do not rotate.
Ok then, what do I do with a barbell?
The barbell is housed on the ‘rack.’ The ‘rack’ is a term referring to a piece of gym equipment that holds a weighted barbell when not in use or between sets. When you do an exercise, let us use a ‘flat bench press’ as an example; each consecutive lift is termed as a ‘repetition.’ When you are done with consecutive repetitions, you put the barbell back on the equipment (re-rack the barbell), and what you just completed was your first ‘set.’ If you recently performed 8 repetitions in a row and racked your weight, you would say, “I just completed one set of 8 repetitions” in proper gym etiquette. There are many different programs of weight training, but a classical milestone would be to aim for about three sets of eight to ten repetitions using good form. Regardless of what exercise you are doing, if you cannot accomplish this feat with the amount of weight currently on the barbell, you should not add much more until you are comfortable.
When placing weighted plates on the barbell, make sure you push the plates all the way inwards until they are flat against the stopper. Always load the heaviest plates first and keep the weights in descending order for consistency. After putting equal weights on both sides of the barbell, you need to secure the weights in place using a clamp. Keep in mind when placing weights on or off the barbell that large weight imbalances on either side can make a barbell fall from the rack, so alternate sides after moving each weight. When you do start using weights on your barbell, make sure that you apply the largest plate first and that in the end, both sides of the barbell have an even arrangement and disbursement of weight. Weights that are not secured can shift or slide during your lift, causing an imbalance of load-bearing in either of your arms, which may lead to you losing control and dropping the weights entirely. The things that hold the weights in place are called clamps, collars, weight clips, or locks, but they all refer to an item with the same purpose. You can usually find them in the vicinity of barbells, near bench presses, on the floor, or maybe in a common miscellaneous equipment area in your gym. Collars, like barbells, can be constructed from various materials but typically are metal and can weigh up to 5.5lbs total for the pair. A common form of the clamp is the Olympic ‘spring collar’ variation. This collar opens when you squeeze two handles together, and after you place it next to the weights, upon release of your grip, tension will lock the weights in place on the barbell.
Barbells are generally termed ‘free weights’ because they are free from pulleys, cables, stacks of other weight, or devices using pins. Free weights also include dumbbells (small individual hand weights), medicine balls (large weighted balls), and kettlebells (considerable cast-iron ball-shaped weight with a handle). Chest press type machines have these attachments (pulley, cable, etc.) on a barbell and are not considered free weights. With these machines, you still lift the same weight; however, the machine takes on the burden of guiding your lift. This may seem trivial, but this aid may hinder you in the long run because such machines will not allow you to build your muscles evenly, creating imbalances, weaknesses, and potential injuries. Whatever your fitness goals may be to get back in shape, gain muscle mass, lean muscle, fat loss, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), military aspirations, social, or body-builder, you must develop your core and stabilizer muscles that many machines neglect.
I can rack the barbell now, how can I effectively use of this equipment?
Now that you have your appropriate barbell, and know how to manipulate it on the rack, what do you do next? Four of the most used applications are the incline bench press, decline bench press, military shoulder press, and the classic flat bench press. There are usually several flat bench presses in any gym, and there may be an incline and decline bench or two as well. Some benches are just one long flat surface, and others consist of two segments, one long flat surface (for your back) and one small angled padded surface to sit on. These multi-segmented benches are adjustable using spring-loaded handles underneath the padding so you can either raise or lower the back portion, depending on your exercise requirements. Some bench equipment (like incline or decline benches) may be set to only accommodate that specific activity.
For a flat bench press, you must lie supine (on your back facing up) upon the bench itself. The bench is adjusted, so it is flat, and you position yourself making sure your head does not extend over the edge of the bench itself. Your feet need to be comfortable, bent around 90 degrees at the knees and planted firmly on the ground. You need to ensure the barbell is directly over your eye level and that it is the centerline on your body, creating an equal length of the barbell on both sides. Your handgrip needs to be equal distance from the center of the body with both your left and right hands. A easy way to do this is to find a landmark (ridge or manufactured point) on the barbell and trace your hands upon it on both sides simultaneously or mark a set amount of your finger widths from a landmark to locate your ideal grip location. By establishing a routine and pattern in approaching any exercise, it helps establish continuity and let you feel out what is normal for you. Your grip itself on the barbell should feel natural and never painful on your wrists. Keep your wrist straight vertical under the barbell and try to wrap as much of your palms around the barbell as possible for increased surface area.
The incline and decline bench press apply the same principals as the flat bench. The incline bench press is angled so that you are in a semi-seated position. The difference is while you incline press, you are working out your upper chest (clavicular head of the pectoralis major), your anterior deltoid (front shoulder area), and your triceps (backside of your arms). The decline bench press does an excellent job of strengthening your lower chest. In this exercise, your body will be tilted with your head slightly lower than your feet (which are secured to the bench). Both incline and decline bench presses are staple activities for moderate or advanced gym goers but are not necessary or advisable for beginners. The military press is an innovative and fun use of the barbell that can be undergone from a seated rack (with back support) or with a rack while standing. It targets the deltoid muscles in the shoulders, triceps, core, legs, and stabilizer muscles. For this exercise, the barbell starts at a level slightly raised above the shoulders and is lifted straight up for a full extension (but do not lock out your elbows!). It is returned in a controlled manner down to slightly above its starting position.
I’ve seen people using barbells for strengthening their legs, how does that work?
The barbell is also used to strengthen your legs by doing squats. Most gyms have at least one squat rack. It is a large box-like structure usually paired with a mirror (for watching your correct form during the exercise). This squat rack will have customizable handles that you take out and reattach based upon how tall you are. Before you squat with a weight, you should be comfortable doing ‘air squats’ (just your body weight nothing else!). For squats, in a nutshell, you want to have your feet slightly to moderately over shoulder-width apart (there are many more advanced variations). The motion consists of you looking straight ahead at yourself in the mirror. While keeping your feet planted (they can be turned outwards for comfort or whatever is natural) and your upper body straight vertical (that’s the hard part!), you will bend at the knees and lower your body until your legs make an almost 90 degrees angle. By lowering your body correctly, you will be pushing your bottom away from you consciously, if you do this, you will feel the weight of your torso rest upon your upper leg (quadriceps). When you have gone all the way down, maintaining body alignment, you push upwards from your feet, and your legs will straighten you into a standing position.
That is a squat. For air squats, you can hold your arms out to the front of you parallel to the ground or cross your hands and place them on opposite shoulders. This exercise is a phenomenal one for your legs and overall health. Make sure you don’t rush, keep your alignment, and head facing forward. When you are comfortable doing air squats, you can try this exercise with a standard or Olympic barbell resting on your shoulders being supported by your hands. Make sure to use a suitable rack to your height if you are doing any form of weighted squats. If at any time you feel the weight bearing on your neck or back, then you are doing something wrong. If you are doing squats with weight and feel anything uncomfortable and need to drop the weight quickly, let it fall BEHIND you as you move forward and away from the barbell.
How do I know if my grip on the barbell is correct?
A common misconception about bench press leads many beginners to select a grip on the barbell about shoulder-width apart. This may work, but the press they are doing is much more intensive for the shoulders and triceps muscle groups rather than their chests. If you select a lightweight for you and experiment with several varying distance grips, you will see what I am talking about. The wider your grip is, the more you will feel it in your chest (pectoral) region. A good grip for a flat bench press focusing on your chest would be slight to moderately away from your shoulders. For all weight lifting, the concept of breathing is very important as well. If done incorrectly, there can be severe medical consequences. When you breathe blood flows to your brain, carrying Oxygen. Some lifters may hold their breath due to straining against a heavyweight during a lift, unfortunately. Unknowingly when they do this, they are restricting Oxygen to their brain, and they may pass out. To address this, you have probably heard many spotters in the gym encourage lifters by saying, “keep breathing,” or “breath.” Well, how do I breathe then? Proper breathing technique for weightlifting is easier than you think and exactly opposite of holding your breath. You breathe in deep when you bring the weight to your chest in a controlled manner, and you breathe out when you push the barbell away from you. If you follow this rule, you will circulate Oxygen with no problem and develop good habits that will take you far.
How far up and down do I go with the barbell?
The range of motion is also an essential part of conducting a bench press. After I lift the weight off the rack, what do I do next? Well, you breathe in as you slowly, in a controlled manner, lower the weight too, or close to your chest. Bring the weight close to your chest center (mid sternum) and not over your neck. As you breathe out, push the weight with your pectoral muscles directly up above them fully extending your arms, but do not lock out your elbows. Locking out any body part is a major taboo in the weightlifting world because it can create serious injuries. It is vital to utilize the proper range of motion during a lift meaning you go all the way down and up to accurately engage the muscle group. As a little ‘after the fact’ advice for beginners; the day (or two) after a workout you will be sore. If you do a chest work out and the next few days your arms (cough cough triceps!) are sore instead of your chest (pectoral muscles) than chances are some part of your mechanics are off and you were actually working out a different body part than the intended one.
This is a lot of information I know, but hey, you aren’t going to the gym to find something easy! Once you understand what exercises you are doing and why the process becomes a second hand, and you will appreciate a slow and steady progression to whatever your goals may be. There may be other lifters going a fraction of the range of motion suggested, not breathing correctly, or piling on obscene weights just to lift it up a fraction of an inch for attention in the gym. The gym is about self-improvement. Don’t cheat yourself by resorting to harmful or dangerous habits and choose a realistic and progressive routine. ALWAYS use a spotter (someone to watch you lift in case there is a problem) whenever possible. The gym is a fun, light-hearted place, and the people in it are some of the friendliest and knowledgeable folks you will meet. If you have a question, concern, need a spotter, or want a workout buddy do not be afraid to ask. Trainers and gym personnel are knowledgeable and can help you use the equipment correctly or point you in the right direction. On closing, there are many different works out plans, goals, etc. that we all have, and what works for one person may or will not work for you. Don’t do anything uncomfortable, painful, or for the wrong reasons, and you will be fine. We all ask questions, need assists and spotters, reach plateaus where we need advice and are there to better ourselves. Welcome to the community.