WHY do barbells spin? Here’s why…

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I recently bought my first barbell with BEARINGS in the sleeves and boy – does that thing SPIN! It got me thinking – just WHY do barbells spin, and when is that actually useful? Here’s what you need to know.

Why do barbells spin?!

At a glance…

  • Barbells spin to allow our grip to move subtly through full range of motion exercises without passing a load of unwanted torque through our wrists which can cause discomfort or injury
  • SOME spin is desirable in almost all applications
  • EXTREME spin is most useful for Olympic weightlifting (clean & jerks, snatches, etc.)
  • Barbells with a LOT of spin typically cost more as they are built with expensive ‘bearings’ in the sleeves
  • Power bars and general use bars can use cheaper bushings as they don’t need as much spin

So, why do barbells spin?

Olympic barbell sleeves spin to eliminate any torque from the weight plates spinning before it is applied to your wrists or elbows. This is essential for Olympic weightlifting movements such as cleans and highly desirable for most other lifts as well.

Barbell spin is desirable… Most of the time…

When moving a loaded barbell through a deadlift or a snatch your hands grip the bar then you perform the move. Barbell spin allows this to happen comfortably.

If the sleeves did NOT spin then your grip would be compromised as you would NOT be able to rotate the bar as you performed the lift. Instead you would be faced with your overhand grip trying to rotate the weight plates while they are plated on the ground – a fools errand and a waste of energy when the aim is to lift it UP. This wasted energy would manifest as strain on your wrists and can effect your form.

This is because the angle of grip changes subtly throughout a lift – an overhand grip may start tight but a heavy deadlift might roll the bar slightly further down the hand. This is possible because the sleeves can keep themselves right independent of the shaft.

Too much spin can be bad… Sometimes… 

The main downside to spin is that it can lead to a lack of control in some circumstances. If a sleeve spins too freely it can upset the balance of the bar and affect your ability to grip it.

This happens because any small input – be it deliberate or a slight ripple in bar path – cascades through your grip and upsets the balance subtly across part or all of the bar. The weight plates at the extremes of the bar will be inclined to NOT spin as they are heavy, so any wobble in form will go straight in to your wrist as the bar shaft spins instead.

Of particular concern is when this occurs on bench press. Loss of control there and the bar will dump over your wrists and on to your spotter bars (if you’re lucky). Some people get on fine with a free spinning bar – others HATE it.

The lesson? Too much barbell spin is bad when bench pressing.

Barbell spin is most important for Olympic weightlifting

Olympic weightlifting moves are dynamic in nature. A snatch for example could be distilled down to a quick deadlift followed by a ‘jump’ and a catch of the barbell in the rack position. Throwing the barbell upwards like this – if not done on a spinning barbell – would send the plates spinning around to follow our grip as we launch the bar.

If the plates are spinning – the heaviest part of the bar – then the whole bar would then spin around. This would make catching the barbell in the rack position hard, and if the bar did land then any rotational momentum would need to be absorbed by YOU directly.

So, in short, barbells spin to allow the plates to stay in the right place while the shaft of the bar rotates in the hand during dynamic lifts.

Olympic bars typically use bearings in their sleeves

Most high quality Olympic barbells will have bearings in the sleeves to facilitate a free, smooth spin. Bearings are more expensive than the alternatives and therefore most premium Olympic barbells are more expensive than their more basic competitors.

If you use a bar without bearings for some of these dynamic moves you run the risk of injury (some report torn shoulders when snatching) and the general ‘feeling’ of the bar trying to slow you down!

Do powerlifting bars spin?

Yes power bars also have spinning sleeves. The rationale is the same as for Olympic lifters – to allow you to manoeuvre your grip without losing control of the barbell when loaded. The speed in which things happen is, however, much slower.

Powerlifts are much slower than Olympic lifts and a completely inertia free spin is less important as a result. Too much spin risks losing control of the bar when lifting heavy. Instead a slower more controlled spin to let the plates do their thing BUT without being out of control is what we need.

Power bars typically use bushings in their sleeves

Most power bars will use bushings to enable their sleeves to spin. These are cheaper than bearings and come in varying qualities. In general bushing bars will spin less freely than their bearing peers which is absolutely PERFECT for most uses.

Are deadlift bars supposed to spin?

Yes. A specialist deadlift bar is thinner to allow a tighter grip (typically 27mm diameter) and it will have bushing sleeves to allow some spin. 

When gripping a deadlift you may rotate the shaft or the bar in your hand when gripping and setting up – this is not possible with a fixed bar unless you are happy to roll the bar out of position (which you shouldn’t be!)

What about barbell spin when bench pressing?

When bench pressing we want minimal spin. A bushing-based power bar is ideal. This means the weights can self right but the bar is unlikely to slip out of our hands if minor movements are transferred to the bar.

What to do if your sleeves are NOT spinning

If your barbell sleeves are NOT spinning – or you simply want to make them spin BETTER – then some simple maintenance can be done:

  1. Lubricate the sleeve – Hold the barbell upright and put a few drops of the appropriate lubricant (I use 3-in-1 oil but it may be worth checking with the bar manufacturer for recommendations) in to each sleeve and spin it around to distribute. Repeat on the other sleeve. Enjoy!
  2. Strip down the bar – remove the sleeve by working from the end of the bar inwards. Typically there will be a snap ring (requires a specialist tool to remove), end cap and then various washers and other components. Note the order you remove them. Once removed clean everything with a clean microfibre cloth and lubricate the bearings or bushings. Reassemble and test.

These solutions have worked for me every time – start with a basic lubrication, but if the issue persists break the barbell down and do a deep clean.

Conclusion

Barbells spin to reduce the torque forces passed on to our wrists (and the rest of our body sometimes too!) when lifting weights. It allows our grip to rotate subtly through the range of motion without turning the heavy weight plates at the ends!

Bars with bearings in the sleeves are typically spin far easier than bushings, but both types of bar have their uses.

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