Why do bumper plates FEEL lighter? (Hint: WHIP)

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I lift with both bumper AND steel plates and the difference in feel between the two types of plate is quite pronounced. Many people experience the same – and question whether bumper plates are actually LIGHTER than their steel equivalents… Spoiler alert: No they are not – but here’s why you might THINK they are:

Why do bumper plates FEEL lighter? (HINT HINT!)

At a glance…

  • Bumper plates are not lighter than metal plates
  • Some weight plates are more accurate than others which may be a small factor in how they feel (typically 0% – 1% tolerances in good quality plates depending on manufacturer spec)
  • Barbell whip contributes to the bar feeling lighter when using bumper plates – this is when the barbell flexes in use
  • Thicker bumper plates push the weight out to the extremes on the bar inducing this whippiness
  • Deadlifting with a whippy bar can feel easier, but that isn’t the same for all people (or lifts…)

Bumper plates are NOT lighter than metal plates!

A kilogram is a kilogram, and a pound is a pound. Bumper plates are NOT lighter than other materials such as steel or iron.

One caveat to this is the accuracy of construction. For example I have a set of Rogue Calibrated steel plates which are accurate to within 10 grams of stated weight. This compares with Rogue Echo Bumpers which are within 1% (so a variance of up to 250g on a 25kg bumper plate.) Over a 220kg lift this could be up to 2.2kg of a difference in weight compared to a bar loaded with calibrated plates.

Although don’t get too distracted by this – for most of us having the weight accurate to the last few grams is unnecessary, especially if you lift with the same plates consistently in a home gym.

So why do bumper plates FEEL lighter?

Bar whip makes bumper plates FEEL lighter than their steel equivalents. It is far more pronounced with numbers due to their thickness pushing the weights further out to the barbells extremes.

Consider a single 25kg (55lb) plate – it’s around 7.5 to 8cm thick (looking at a Rogue Fleck bumper plate as an example) compared to a calibrated steel plate of 2.7cm.

So for a total lift of 220kg / 485lbs we would have 40cm of bumpers on EACH barbell sleeve compared to 13.5cm of steel plates. Bumper plates push the weight out FURTHER AWAY from the lifter.

The further AWAY from us the weight is the more the barbell will whip – imagine a high bar squat with the bar on our upper back. When we hit the bottom of the hole the barbell extremes will drop down with momentum before the steel barbell bounces them back up. This bounce is whip.

Many lifters find this sensation of whip makes the lift feel easier – thus why many are tricked in to thinking bumper plates are lighter. It is in fact the barbell whip making the bottom of the movement range of motion feel easier as it bounces us back out a little, at the cost of a bit of instability from the barbell moving more.

It could by psychological

Looking at a bar loaded with chunky bumper plates might make you THINK it should be heavier compared to a far more compact barbell complete with calibrated plates. This may make you perceive the weight as being ‘lighter than you expected’ when you go to lift.

It is quite cool to look a barbell absolutely PACKED with weights – bumpers will work wonders for your ego…

Is it easier to DEADLIFT with bumper plates?

Yes it is significantly easier to deadlift with bumper plates. This is because the centre of mass at each end go the barbell is further from our hands which produces more force on the barbell, bending it DOWN towards the ground. 

This is barbell whip.

In practice this means as we pull UP the plates stay DOWN on the ground for longer reducing the total height we lift the plates to and reducing the amount of work we have to do – thus an easier lift.

If you don’t believe me then consider this – speciality deadlift bars are both LONGER (by around 10cm) AND thinner (typically 27mm diameter vs 28.5mm or 29mm power bars). BOTH of these aspects increase whip making the deadlift feel easier.

A relevant question to ask is whether your deadlift with bumpers is comparable to one without? Of course your PR’s will always stand – but equipment can have an impact on what you can do on any given day. For example when I moved to calibrated plates from thicker rubber coated steel ones I noticed my lifts drop off slightly initially as I adapted to the lack of whip.

So if you mix your equipment a lot it might make sense to track what your set up was that day – belt, bumpers and deadlift bar will be easier than a 29mm power bar, calibrated plates and a 13mm double ply leather belt!

Bumper plates vs calibrated - example of how much thicker bumpers are
Bumper plates vs calibrated – example of how much thicker bumpers are

Is it easier to BENCH with bumper plates?

The same logic applies to bench… Sort of. Benching with bumper plates will feel lighter due to the increased whip. There are some nuances for benching with bumpers however:

  • Bumpers are not well suited to benching – typically bumper plates have smooth metal inserts meaning the plates slide easily on the barbell sleeve. This means they can slip OFF easily when benching unless you use collars, which is rarely a great idea when benching
  • Whip less pronounced – the vast majority of regular lifters will bench quite a bit less than their squat or deadlift therefore the benefit of whip is less obviously
  • Competition bench press involves a PAUSE – there is no momentum carried in a competition bench as it is PAUSED at the bottom. Whip is therefore less helpful (and can be a hindrance)

On balance I do NOT think it is beneficial to bench press with bumpers over regular steel plates.

But remember: not everyone LIKE whip!

Before you throw all your metal plates out it is worth remembering – not everyone likes barbell whip! Some even hate it.

It can be uncomfortable, unpredictable or plain annoying depending on your lifting preferences. Personally I quite like it, but you may have a different opinion.

The other consideration is that there are a TON of other factors that impact barbell whip – including bar thickness and tensile strength of the steel used in the bar construction.

So don’t throw all your kit away just yet!

Conclusion

If you’ve wondered why metal plates feel heavier or why you can hit PR’s with your deadlift bar and bumper plates then now you know – barbell whip is probably the culprit!

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