Olympic bars have been around for many years, with established brands such as York, Eleiko, Ivanko in the early days and then more recently, Rogue, Texas, RAZE, Uesaka, ZKC, Kabuki and ATX taking the offering to another level.
A good few bars are made in the US and the US steel is some of the best, Eleiko manufacture in Sweden with the remaining being is the far east.
Steel quality does vary considerably, personally I wouldn't buy a Chinese made olympic lifting bar (for olympic movements) because the quality I feel is lacking, a Taiwan made bar is exceptional quality, with some of the US made bar sourcing components from there.
Olympic Lifting bars:
What makes a good bar?
The shaft is the most important part in my eyes, it's what connects you to it. The steel needs to have great memory, the right amount of whip, a knurling that is grippy, but not sharp. Diameter are either 28mm (Men's) or 25mm (Women's), anything else is considered a powerbar or hybrid. The finish is typically stainless, zinc, ceracote or hardened chrome.
Tensile strength is a good indicator of the quality, anything 170KPSI tensile and above is a good bar for Olympic lifting, however try to aim for 190KPSI as this steel has proven time and time again to withstand bending. Yield strength is a better measure of the bar quality as it is based on the bend test, at which point the bar will not return to straight, tensile strength is a stretch test, but they are closely linked.
The sleeves construction can be bushed or be needle bearings, with the latter being more expensive, but give a much smoother rotation during the heaviest of loads. A bushed sleeve is reliable and will suit 95% of lifters as they are smooth, just not as free spinning as bearings. How the sleeve is attached to the bar is important, a sleeve detachment could be lethal, so knowing how it's fixed will allow you to check before use, avoid any bars which have a retaining bolt in the end, its a sure sign of a cheap bar and is not suitable for Olympic movements.
What makes a good bar?
A power bar is a stiffer bar, which is designed to be used during static compound lifts such as bench, squat, deadlift, where the bar doesn't need to whip. Typically these bars have a shaft diameter of 28.5-29mm and knurling is either a sharp cut or a diamond hatch pattern. You need the superior grip for deadlifts and less so for benching and squatting, however there does still need to be a fair amount to ensure your grip is safe.
The finish of the bars are very often a zinc, stainless, hardened chrome and bare steel, for the full natural feel. As mentioned above, the tensile strength is important when looking at the quality, you need to be looking at 190K PSI+ for a good bar, however if you aren't pulling serious weight, then you can get away with 150K+, anything less would be considered budget. If looking at power bars, you may notice a "MAX LOAD or TEST" which can be anywhere between 1000lb and 1500lb, this again should be used as an additional guide and not the only way of assessing bars. Some cheaply made bars boast 1500lb test, but wouldn't live upto to the rigors of a busy weight room.
Sleeve construction is pretty simple on Power Bars, as dynamic lifts are not the aim, the sleeves do not need to have needle bearings, high quality bushes are adequate enough as there is no need for a fast rotation of the shaft, as it would in a clean or snatch movement. Sleeve attachment is generally a combination of rolled pins, circlips and in some instances a nut with split pin. As these bars are not typically dropped from a great height and repeatedly, the attachment method needs to be sound and can be real simple.
As with everything, try to buy the best bar you for your powerlifting, weight is weight and old cast plates can be painted up, however a quality bar will last you a lifetime, its an investment, not a cost.
This is where variation in your training can happen or work arounds because of injury or other restrictions. We will keep this short and simply list the types of bars worth considering and in order I feel of importance.
1. Safety Squat Bar-If you have beat up shoulders, can't back squat with a straight bar, this is a must. Can also be used for good-mornings, walks, step-ups, Andersons, single leg and Hatfields. Good level of padding on the 3 rollers and firmly attached grips. The bar should sit on the shoulders hands free if it made correctly and is balanced.
2. Hex Deadlift/Trap Bar-If you cannot perform Olympic lifts, this has a good transfer for the all important "triple extension", easy to teach, variation to traditional deadlifts, easy to use with bands and chains, can be used for carries and pulls from pre-set heights. There are open backed Hex Bars which allow carries to be easier and also single leg variations to be performed. Ideally you want as larger internal space as possible.
3. Football Bar/Swiss Bar-Pretty much the same as each other, Swiss Bar has parallel grips and the football has angled grips. Both are good for beat-up shoulders if you still wish to bench, with the swiss bar being a great substitute for a log when over head pressing.
They can be used for curls, skulls and over head extensions, pressing and rows, well worth the investment.
4. Thick Grip Bars-If you can get these, an axle and curl bar are probably the two I would go for. They just scream "BUILD MY GRIP AND FOREARMS" and will transfer back well to traditional barbell work. The thicker diameter may also be a suitable change to stave on any overuse injuries.
5. Cambered Squat Bar-Many variations of these, but are a great change when squatting. Lowering the centre of gravity and increasing instability. Perfect choice if you cannot grip a straight bar, hold it lower and brace. We love to use this bar when box squatting as it allows you to really concentrate on the eccentric phase of the lift, before exploding upwards before having to brace to stop any swing. Can also be used for Zercher squats and carries. It's typically a big bar, but if you have the room, get one.
So hopefully with this article we have given you some food for thought and shared our views on bars and what to look for. As we are not tied to a single brand, we can offer impartial advice on bars, dependent upon your exact requirements. From 20 years as a coach and working with some of the leading equipment manufacturers I have an honest and unbiased view on bars. I know what I use personally, I know what I supply to teams and clients and I know how many are produced and where.
Thank you for your time.