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How to Get Started With Barbells

Image for article titled What You Need to Know Before You Pick Up a Barbell for the First Time

Photo: Dusan Petkovic (Shutterstock)

So you survived your first day at the gym and you’re ready for the next step—or maybe you’ve mastered the dumbbells and machines but never quite figured out what to do with barbells. Either way, here are all the basic things you’ll need to know on your first day working with barbells.

What’s the difference between a barbell and a dumbbell, anyway?

The barbell is the one where the handle is a long bar.

The word “dumbbell” probably comes from the idea of using a weight that looks like a bell, but is silent. Other weights that have “bell” in the name are named after their shape. Kettlebells are shaped kind of like a teakettle, with a handle on top; barbells are a long bar with weights on both ends.

What lifts do people do with barbells?

There are tons, but the most common are the following and their variations:

  • Squats, in a squat rack
  • Bench press, on a bench press station (make sure you have safeties or a person to spot you)
  • Deadlifts, from the floor
  • Presses, usually from a rack
  • Rows, from the floor
  • Olympic lifts, like snatches

Are there different kinds of barbells?

So many! The common ones in most gyms are:

  • Olympic style barbells, about seven feet long, weighing around 45 pounds. You load whatever plates you want onto the ends. These are great for squats and deadlifts. You’ll probably find them on or near a squat rack or deadlift platform.
  • Smaller “fixed” barbells where the weights are permanently attached to the ends. These are convenient for curls and other exercises that require lighter weights. You’ll probably find them near the dumbbells. The total weight of the barbell will be marked on the end.
  • Smaller loadable barbells, also usually found near the dumbbells. These are also for curls and such. Weight will vary, but they’re often 25 pounds or less.

The two smaller kinds may be straight bars, or they may be shaped in a way best described as squiggly. The squiggly kind is called an “EZ-curl” bar, and it can be more comfortable to hold when you’re doing curls.

Fixed bars are pretty self-explanatory, so let’s talk about the kind where you load the plates on yourself.

How do I find a barbell and carry it through the gym?

Bars often live on the racks or platforms where they are used. If you can’t find one, it’s usually okay to borrow an empty bar from a different station (for example, taking the bar from an empty bench station when there isn’t one in the squat rack).

If you still can’t find a bar, look around the edges of the room to see if any bars are on the floor or hanging on the wall or—most likely—stored vertically in a rack somewhere. Bars that are stored vertically behind a squat rack can be the hardest to find.

And if you have to carry it somewhere, for pete’s sake watch both ends so you don’t smack a mirror or something. It’s usually best to have one end in front of you and one end behind you, or to hold it somewhat vertically if you can.

How do you get the plates on the bar?

They just slide on.

If you’re going to do squats or bench press, you’ll put the bar in a rack at an appropriate height. Test that it’s the right height by doing a few reps with the empty bar.

Then, with the bar on the rack, grab a plate and slide it on. Slide a matching plate on the other side.

How do they stay on?

There are collars or clips. They tend to get lost, so look for them on the hooks of the squat rack, on the floor near the squat rack, or in a little bucket of accessories somewhere.

One type looks sort of like a wire clothespin, and you pinch the handles together to slide it onto the bar. Another looks like a donut with a little lever on it; open the lever to slide it on the bar, then close the lever to lock it down.

Does it matter what order the plates go in, or which way they face?

In the grand scheme of things, no. It all still weighs the same and there’s no major safety issue if you load the bar wrong.

Still, people have strong opinions on how to properly load a bar. Here’s the protocol:

  • The largest, heaviest plates go on first.
  • Smaller plates go on afterward. This lets you make small changes to the weight without having to unload the big plates.
  • Use the biggest plates possible. For example, load on a 45 instead of a 25 and two 10’s. This way you’re not hogging all the small plates.

The direction to face the plates is a matter of contention between different types of lifters, and it depends a bit on the type of gym you’re in and the type of plates they have.

  • If the plate looks the same on both sides, load it however you want.
  • In a powerlifting gym with iron plates, face the side with writing inward, toward the bar.
  • Unless everybody is loading the first plate inward and all the rest outward. Then do that.
  • Or be a rebel and face them whatever direction you want.

How do I load plates onto a bar that’s on the floor?

Alright, deadlift time! Getting the first big (45-pound) plate on is easy. Clip that in. Now, to load a 45 on the other side, you’ll want to put the bar in the center of the plate, and then do this:

  • Straddle the bar or stand next to it.
  • Grab opposite sides of the plate (at 9 and 3 o’clock) and pull hard toward you.

This should get the second plate on. Now, if you’re adding smaller plates, they should easily slide on.

If you need to add more big wheels, you can use a deadlift jack if your gym has one, or use the tiny plate trick. Set a small plate (like a 2.5 or 5 pound plate) next to the plate you have loaded, and roll it up onto the small plate. Now you have enough clearance to load more plates on without them rubbing against the floor.

When it’s time to unload the bar, use the tiny plate trick again. And to pull off the second-to-last plate, grab it at 9 and 3 like you did to load it.

One last trick: Once you’ve unloaded all the plates from one side, do what I call the “Excalibur” to make short work of the other side. Remove the clip, then grab the empty end of the bar and tip it up until it’s vertical. Then you can pull the empty bar out of the stack of plates like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.

Do you count the bar?

You sure do! It’s part of the weight you’re lifting. People also speak of big lifts in terms of how many 45-pound plates are on each end of the bar. (Internationally, you’ll see 20-kilogram bars and 20-kilogram plates, which are roughly equivalent.)

So the math goes like this:

  • One 45-pound plate on each end of the bar is 135 pounds, and is colloquially a “one plate” lift. (As in, “I can bench a plate.”)
  • Two 45-pound plates on each end add up to 225 pounds (90 + 45 + 90). Anything you do with this is a “two plate” lift.
  • Three 45-pound plates add up to 315 (135 + 45 + 135).
  • Four 45-pound plates add up to 405 (180 + 45 + 180).
  • And so on.

Are there different kinds of plates?

Yes. There are bumper plates, which are designed to be dropped harmlessly onto the floor, and these are full size (about 18 inches in diameter) no matter their weight.

Then there are your standard iron plates, where the 45-pounders are full sized and lighter weights are smaller in diameter. Most gyms’ plates are like this, and they may be plastic-coated rather than just iron.

Then there are multi-sided “hex” plates, which are the same idea but much more annoying to deadlift.

The only thing you need to know is that if your gym has both bumpers and regular plates, save the bumpers for people doing Olympic style lifts or deadlifts. You don’t need them for your squats or bench presses, no matter how cool they look.

Should I look in the mirror?

Please don’t. When you’re squatting, face toward the rack and step out of it backwards, no matter where in the room the mirrors might be.

Otherwise, pay attention to how your lift feels, not how it looks in the mirror. You can record yourself and watch the video later, if you’re really curious.

What’s with all the scritch-scratch marks on the handle? Where do I put my hands?

That stuff is called knurling, and it’s there to help you get a better grip on the bar. Each person’s hand placement is a personal choice, so experiment with narrower and wider grips on each exercise. I like to take a wide grip on bench (ring fingers on the smooth little line) and a narrower grip on overhead press (about 3 inches from where the knurling starts near the center).

Pay attention to these landmarks to make sure your hands are centered, and so that you can hold the bar in the same place every time you lift.

Am I going to drop it on myself and die?

You are not. If you’re squatting, set the safeties on the rack. This way, if you can’t stand all the way up, you can just sit back down and set the bar on the safeties.

If you’re deadlifting or doing another lift from the floor, bailing is easy: You just drop (or better yet, gently lower) the bar.

Bench press is the one where people most often fear for their life. Ideally you’ll use a bench station that has safeties (often called “face savers”), and yes it’s fine to drag a bench into a power rack to use the safeties there. But more often, people will ask another gym-goer to “spot” them, meaning the person stands by in case you can’t finish the lift. In that case they will help you get the bar back on the rack. Don’t just drop the bar and expect them to grab it; their hands only need to apply a few pounds’ worth of pressure to make the bar feel light enough that you can re-rack it.

If you end up benching without a spotter, you still don’t have to die. Just set the bar down on your belly, roll it onto your hips, and then sit up. Uncomfortable, yes, but not deadly.

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