The Rotating Barbell and Ivanko
After a few months of discussion involving the politics and behind-the-scenes events that affected powerlifting and the founding of the sport, I would like to continue the point of debate that also affected the sport at one time. In any storefront gym or garage where lifters gathered to train, there was almost always a discussion involving the merits of utilizing a barbell that did not have rotating sleeves as per the standard Olympic barbell. Because our modern era incorporates training equipment that exclusively uses Olympic plates, it is difficult for the younger trainees to realize that until the late 1980’s it was much more common to find “small holed plates” in any training facility. Even in a gym that catered to hard core lifters and bodybuilders, there would always be a rush for the one or two Olympic bars that might be part of the gym’s inventory. There was an attitude that one could “lift more” on the Olympic barbell or for some reason, it was “cooler.” I recall stories about what was perceived to be a “lifters’ gym” in Illinois where the competitive Olympic and powerlifters would argue with some of the bodybuilders or non-competitive trainees over the use of the bars. Unfortunately it was just as common to see someone doing curls in a power rack with the only Olympic barbell in the facility as it was to see them squat or snatch!
For the majority of trainees and even competitive lifters, the question posed in one of Weider’s articles about the necessity of using an Olympic barbell for powerlifting training or competition was one very much welcomed by all I’m sure, other than those selling Olympic barbell sets. This is a question I still ponder and I have had a number of conversations with one of the world’s foremost authorities on barbell design, manufacturing, and history. Tom Lincir of Ivanko Barbell Company had his start in the industry as a serious barbell trainee, one of the strong men who trained as a bodybuilder in his hometown of San Pedro, California. He eventually made a place for himself in the business by sewing low back/waist supporters in his kitchen. He removed the back seat of his car, loaded up his vehicle with his new product, and drove around from gym to gym selling these and in time, sold an awful lot of them.
ITom also sold a 16 gauge hollow tube EZ Curl bar but he was rather dissatisfied with it. The bar was supplied by a well known West Coast foundry but merely stepping on it tended to bend or crush the bar, thus he requested one made from 14 gauge tubing. The foundry’s refusal to upgrade the product did much to change the barbell industry because this spurred Tom on to find better products, and eventually to design and produce his own barbells and plates. His business expansion was done correctly and he eventually led the way in either manufacturing original items related to barbell construction, or tweaked existing designs that made them much better and catapulted Ivanko to the top of the industry relative to quality and sales. While any reader of POWERLIFTING USA Magazine knows that Ivanko is the barbell set used in most major competitions in the U.S. it is less known that Tom has one of the most extensive and carefully cultivated collections of barbell and lifting related literature and memorabilia in the world. When I think “history” Kim Wood, the former Cincinnati Bengals strength coach and Tom are the first that come to mind. Tom can both explain and demonstrate the evolution of the barbell and dumbbell because his collection has almost everything of importance in the iron game. As a “lifting guy” as well as an historian and barbell designer and manufacturer, he truly knows everything about the tools of our sport. Our frequent and regular discussions range far and wide and I admit to having a preference for listening to his stories related to his social and romantic escapades at times, more than I do to the barbell related information but Tom “knows” and has through the years, been kind enough to share his information.
Tom and I, as “old timers” share a view of training that most young lifters just do not have any longer. This starting premise is important in answering the question related to the necessity of using a 28mm Olympic barbell or 29 mm powerlifting barbell with rotating sleeves, versus a non-rotating sleeve, 1-1/16” standard bar. Tom said to me “Then let’s not forget, no one got stronger by making the lift easier.” As one who believes that it is the intensity of training, not the volume, frequency, manipulation of sets, reps, periodization, or any of the other “buzz word” principles that have proliferated in the field for the past thirty years that will determine one’s ultimate results, Tom’s point is well made. There is a very important difference in demonstrating one’s strength and actually building one’s strength or training to become stronger. If one wishes to demonstrate their “strength” and we are in this case defining that term by meaning that one will lift as much as possible in a specific lift, one would want everything as advantageous as possible. One would want to utilize their “best” body leverages, wear the best supportive suit, belt, and wraps, perhaps use a Monolift for the squat so that energy would not have to be “wasted” walking out from the racks and/or setting up, and have the best bar possible at their disposal. The resistance would be moved through the most minimal still-legal range of motion and of course, one would hope that they were well rested and mentally prepared. In training, one would be best off making things as difficult as possible. If training harder means training at a higher level of intensity which translates to greater stimulation for increases in muscular strength and size, one doesn’t want any of the “advantages.” Thus a barbell that made one work harder would be preferred to one that made any of the lifts easier, at least during actual training.
The obvious question emanating from the above comments then becomes, “Is there in fact, any advantage in using a bar with rotating sleeves for the squat, bench press, and deadlift?” Tom and I have both been told by lifters and some officials that a bar with a rotating sleeve “keeps the weights on center during a heavy lift.” Neither of us knows what that is supposed to mean but if the barbell plates are round and the hole that is drilled in the middle is round and accurately placed, the weights are “not moving off center!” Any slight movement of the plates as the bar moves for example, off of the floor in the deadlift, would be almost imperceptible. Let’s take this to the next step: even for a top of the heap Olympic weightlifter, how important is sleeve rotation? In Tom’s very informative articles on the Ivanko Barbell website and in conversation, the comparison of rotating sleeves with bushings or bearings has been dissected a number of times. Tom made a comment to me quite some time ago when discussing Olympic lifting, specifically the snatch or clean that was revealing. He said “for the split second that the bar rotates doing a snatch or a clean, I defy any lifter to tell me if that bar had bearings, needle point bearings, or well lubricated bushings. You don’t really need all of this technical stuff” or words to that effect. Remember too that Tom makes perhaps the finest needle bearing bar that money can buy. One of the points he made in his articles is that when needle point bearings first were used for the application of sleeve rotation for Olympic weightlifting, some of the lifters suffered shoulder subluxations or dislocations due to over rotation of the bar. In most cases however, the vast majority of lifters would not know what was being utilized to provide rotation to the bar sleeves. The very obvious question that then comes to mind is “How much rotation does one want or need and what is the best tool for that purpose?” At no time does a lifter want plates that are literally spinning rapidly around on the bar shaft. Yet, needle point bearings are recommended and used for applications where rapid rotation is called for. A bushing provides more moderate rotation and again, even with Olympic weightlifting movements, one does not get a full “turn” or rotation of the plates nor would one want that to occur. For the powerlifts, one would certainly not want that type of rotation. For bar control, why would any rotation be sought? Thus Joe Weider’s original question, “does one need to use an Olympic (or later, a powerlifting) bar for the three powerlifts?” is easily answered and that answer is “No.”