History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 43

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on July 1, 2014 Comments off

Entering the Modern Age

I admit that I have enjoyed the responses that the most recent articles in this series have evoked (or provoked) as much as I have enjoyed writing the articles. For those readers new to this column which now includes forty-three monthly installments, the past few months have been spent explaining why it isn’t necessary to use what the lifting community refers to as a “power bar” or “Olympic barbell” for training if one is a competitive powerlifter. This stance is viewed as heresy by some or beyond the understanding of others because they were “raised” on the assumption that it is in fact a requirement to squat, bench press, and deadlift on a bar with rotating sleeves.

Again, allow me to make the statement that until the early 1970’s, most towns did not have a commercial gym within its borders and even large cities were limited to one or two hard core establishments and a handful of “fitness centers” or “health spas.” Machines designed to jiggle or roll mounds of fat off of one’s waistline were much more commonly seen than a barbell with rotating sleeves and the large-holed plates that went onto those sleeves. Most weight sets, even in the hole-in-the-wall storefront or basement gyms consisted of a one-and-one-sixteenth-inch diameter bar with screwed on inside collars, holes that were drilled out at one-and-one-quarter-inch so that they easily slid onto the end of the barbell, and some type of screw-on or hand turned outside collar to secure the weights onto the bar.

A specialized Olympic barbell with rotating sleeves and “the large-holed” plates that utilized a center hole of approximately two-inches in diameter might be found but was usually reserved for the serious or competitive Olympic lifters and the movements they performed. The revolution in barbell distribution that led to the Olympic barbell as a standard piece of equipment did not occur until the late-1970’s to early-1980’s and exercise machines that used these plates really didn’t take hold in a widespread manner until the establishment of the Hammer Strength Company in 1988. While the primary difference between Olympic and power bars remains the diameter of the shaft, the type of knurling, the use of a center knurl, and the “springiness” of the bar, it is usually the most serious of competitors that actually look for the finite differences in barbells.

Again as a brief summary, the Olympic barbell will have more “life” in it as a result of the treatment process of the steel shaft, a light knurling, and a shaft diameter of 28 mm. The governing body/bodies of both international and national weightlifting organizations have changed through the years on the use of a center knurl, and for many years most of the bars did not have one. When the rules changed and a center knurl was required, it was much lighter/shallower than the knurling on the remainder of the bar so that the throat was not cut or abraded when supporting the bar after the clean. The typical power bar is 29 mm in diameter, not as “lively” as a well manufactured Olympic barbell because the last thing a 900 pound squatter wants or needs is to have the bar vibrating and moving due to the heavily weighted ends when setting up for the lift. The knurling, including the center knurl is deeper and sharper than that of the Olympic bar, facilitating the grip during the deadlift and allowing the bar to dig into the shirt when squatting which aids stability and control of the resistance. Without going into the inclusive descriptions of the specialty squat and deadlift bars, these are the basic differences.

The similarities of course are the rotating sleeves and their necessity or lack thereof has been the topic of discussion over the past number of installments. One of the confusing aspects of conversation about barbells is the nomenclature, even to those who have been at it a long time. Recall that a one-and-one-sixteenth or one-and-one-eighth-inch diameter bar with non-rotating sleeves that accommodated “small holed” plates was always referred to as a “standard barbell.” The bar with the rotating sleeves that accommodated “Olympic plates” or those with a two-inch diameter hole, was the “standard Olympic barbell” and those are the terms I prefer to reference.
Former competitive powerlifter and long time follower of the iron sports, Dan Martin of California, noted, “And what about those of us who used standard plates and bars because that’s all we had and could afford? In reality, the only ‘problem’ with using ‘standard’ (what a misnomer, because there was nothing really standard about that stuff except it that wasn’t an Olympic set) was deadlifts because the bar was a bit lower compared to an Olympic set. Never dawned on us to raise the bar with shims or such!!!”

Dan of course is referring to the use of the thirty-five or fifty pound plate that was the largest size plate used on the standard bar unless one could secure 100 pound plates which were usually but not always, the same diameter as Olympic forty-five pound plates. Using the plates that came with a standard barbell meant that the bar itself had to be lifted off of the floor from a lower height than that of a bar used in Olympic lifting or powerlifting competitions.

It would be blasphemous to suggest that competitive powerlifters return to what they would interpret as archaic equipment, but there is little or no advantage in using a bar with rotating sleeves relative to one without. As I noted, where it was difficult to find a neighborhood gym with more than one Olympic barbell in use in the early to mid-1960’s, if they could even boast of one, it is now impossible to find a non-Olympic or power bar in any commercial facility. If there is a standard bar on the premises, it is part of a set of “fixed barbells” and I don’t recall being in a gym, university or high school weight room, or even home gyms of anyone younger than fifty or so, that had a large volume and selection of standard, small-holed plates and bars they would fit on.

Imagine if the “Olympic plate and bar revolution” had never occurred. The cost of outfitting a typical training center or institutional weight room would be slashed significantly as the cost of bars and plates would be markedly reduced. When one pays up to $1300.00 for an Olympic or power bar, the cost is reflected in the bearings, rotating sleeves, and machining to manufacture and assemble these parts.

Certainly “good” steel will cost more than a batch with less tensile strength for example and someone has to pay for the cost of tempering, knurling, and doing any other “hand work” to that bar. However, utilizing the shaft of a power bar for example, as one’s “barbell” and then placing “small holed” plates on it offers no disadvantage when performing the three competitive power lifts. If one lists the typically used and time honored assistance movements for each lift, other than power cleans, which are rarely seen in any powerlifting oriented gym or fitness facility in this modern age, a non-rotating barbell is not only acceptable for the task, but absolutely suitable. Incline pressing at various angles, overhead press, partial bench presss in a rack or off of boards, partial squats, box squats, front squats, rows, shrugs, deadlifts and high pulls from various heights do not require rotating sleeves on the barbell. So what transpired to make it a necessity to utilize large diameter holed Olympic barbell plates on exercise machines as well as on what seems like every barbell in the world?

The late, great Chuck Sipes poses with “small holed” standard barbell but this truly was the standard in every gym and weight room until the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s
One of the points I have emphasized is the fact that the strength of the steel in the shaft of a bar is dependent upon a number of factors. These factors are related to the manufacturing and “treatment” process that the bar goes through before it is a finished product. If a bar with non-rotating sleeves is “strong” because it is made properly, it could in fact be much stronger and “better” than the shaft of an Olympic barbell produced by one of the world’s leading manufacturers of such products if one of their manufacturing runs of bars was for some reason, sub-standard. Allow me to return to a comment made to me in December of 1978 by John Terpak of the York Barbell Company. At George Turner’s Heart Of America Powerlifting Championships, Mr. Terpak was present to observe the lifting and as he remarked to me, “see how our new bars held up.” The late 1970’s was a time of transition in the barbell business following an extensive campaign by the Environmental Protection Agency to force an improvement in operating conditions and procedures for the nation’s foundries. For a number of months during 1974, one could not purchase barbell plates in the United States from many of the usual sources, including the Iron Man Company.

The EPA was closing foundries for not meeting minimum emission and pollution standards and many foundries were closing voluntarily because they could either not afford the upgrades in equipment demanded by the EPA or their expected profit margins relative to the new increases in manufacturing costs would no longer make their business viable. With barbell plates almost always the last item on any list to be cast in a foundry after money-making machine parts for example, distributors sold their inventory and had nothing to replace it until foundries were back on line under the new environmental guidelines or an existing, legally operated alternative foundry could be located.

With powerlifting rapidly exceeding Olympic weightlifting in popularity, the top-of-the-line brands such as York began offering a streamlined, thinner “powerlifting plate” so that more weight could be placed upon the bar. With Olympic plate thickness reduced by fifty percent or more to approximately one-inch, it was now possible to put 800-900 pounds on a bar and still have space for securing collars. The “deep dish” forty-five pound plates did not allow this and many contest photos demonstrated the ingenuity of some lifters and spotters to provide enough resistance.

Note plates tied to shaft of bar to bring it up to desired weight in this photo of the great Bob Peoples of Tennessee

The new type of plates were a step forward but bars at times proved to be unable to bear the weight the top heavyweight lifters were now using. Mr. Terpak explained that they had complaints about some of the York bars bending or rotating sleeves being sheared off of the ends of the bar. Noting that the bars were not necessarily meant to carry the weight that some of the monster lifters were now routinely lifting, there was concern regarding quality control. His telling statement was “the bars are like cookies, some batches are better than others.”

Believing York barbells to be the “Cadillac” of the genre, I was shocked but immediately educated and became much more aware of my lifting tools from that point forward. I should also report that despite the assault of Larry Pacifico, Marv Phillips, Bill Kazmaier, and Mike Bridges, the York barbells held up perfectly that day.