A Brief History of the Barbell

While most professional gyms are filled with many different kinds of specialized and technical machinery, there is a more simple object that they all tend to have in common: a barbell. This humble piece of gym equipment is really just a metal bar with weights on each end, but it is a key piece necessary for a wide variety of exercises. 

Before we get into how it’s used, let’s take a look back at the origins of the barbell and how it became so popular today.

The original design

Barbells were first found in European gymnasiums around the 1860s. These original designs were essentially just oversized dumbbells with fixed weights on either end. Early barbells were made only in certain weights, so it was difficult for amateurs to use them.

These barbells became popular with “strongmen” all over Europe, and eventually made their way to the United States as well. Many may recognize this early design from iconic circus posters and other images of vintage bodybuilders.

The evolution

While some innovators in Germany were able to adjust the weight of the barbell by adding or removing sand from the globes on either end, this method of weight adjustment was not very efficient. The sand would often spill, and the weight could be unevenly distributed on either end. 

Alan Calvert, an American inventor, changed the game with his Milo Triplex barbell in 1908. His design allowed for weight plates to be easily taken on and off the bar to adjust the weight. This allowed even novice weightlifters to start light and progressively lift heavier as they gained strength. 

Calvert’s design truly paved the way for modern weightlifting equipment and helped bring the sport of weightlifting to the mainstream. 

Barbell improvements

While these new designs were markedly better than previous versions, they still had room for improvement. One of the most notable improvements was the introduction of the barbell collar. 

Also known as clamps or clips, these handy devices help ensure that those adjustable plates don’t slip off the end of the bar. While the origin of the barbell collar is hard to pin down, these simple devices are still used today to keep athletes safe as they lift. 

Brand name barbells

As weightlifting began gaining traction in the fitness community, different brands of barbells emerged. York Barbell was founded in 1932 and quickly gained fame with its Olympic lifting teams. York is still a popular brand today and even houses the official Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Museum in its corporate office in York, Pennsylvania. 

In the 1950s, people began complaining that the barbells would break if too much weight was put on either end. Serious weightlifters needed a more heavy-duty barbell system. An electronics company named Eleiko surprisingly stepped up and took on the challenge.

The company’s factory supervisor was an avid weightlifter, so he convinced the company to build a better barbell. Using a specially-formulated steel, they made a barbell that outperformed all the rest. Since they came onto the scene around 1963, Eleiko has been a go-to brand for dozens of World Championships and 5 Olympic Games. 

Put it all together

While the term “barbell” refers to the actual bar, this piece of equipment isn’t complete without the weighted plates on each end. These plates come in different denominations that can be stacked together to create a heavier load.

Besides different weights, these plates also come in different materials. The ones commonly found in most gyms are made of cast iron. Bumper plates are used for Olympic weightlifting, and they are made of resilient rubber that can withstand repeated drops.

Specialty designs

The original barbell design is still popular for many weightlifters, but other specialty designs have emerged. 

One variation is the curl bar, which uses a metal “W” shape instead of a straight bar. This bar is useful because it allows for a variety of different hand positions. Using different grips can help isolate certain muscles and keep joints stable.

Another is a Buffalo bar, which features a slight curve to the bar to help those with shoulder injuries. The curve allows for some of the weight to be taken off the shoulder joints.

A trap bar, also known as a hex bar, is a very unique shape that allows athletes to actually stand in the middle and lift the weight around them. This helps take some stress off the spine and allow for deeper activation of the lower body. 

Watch your weight

We’ve already noted that not all barbells look the same, but we should also note that not all barbells weigh the same. It’s important to know the weight of your bar when you’re adding weight plates so you can accurately calculate how much you’re lifting.

The standard weight for most barbells is 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds. The women’s Olympic weightlifting barbell, however, only weighs 15 kilograms. Safety squat bars are much heavier at around 32 kilograms, while curl bars can be much lighter at around 5 or 10 kilograms.

Popular barbell exercises

Since the barbell is such a simple yet effective piece of equipment, it can be used for so many different movements. While the possibilities are endless, the most popular are deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and overhead presses. 

Deadlifts and squats target the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. With both of these exercises, it’s very important to keep your core engaged and back flat to avoid any back strain.

Bench presses and overhead presses work mainly your shoulders, but they can also build up your triceps and biceps. To help avoid injury, add weight slowly and have a friend spot you if you’re lifting heavier than normal.

Next time you step in the gym, maybe you’ll look at the simple barbell a little differently. From its origins as a flashy prop for professional strongmen, to the unique and customizable piece of equipment it is today, the barbell has evolved considerably throughout the years. It’s amazing to think that something invented hundreds of years ago is still a piece of equipment that some people use every single day.

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