If you’re a beginner to weightlifting or have been an avid powerlifter, weightlifter, crossfitter, or bodybuilder for some time, chances are you’ve always noticed the slightly jagged and protruding sections of a barbell and likely assumed that they are just used to demonstrate where you should grip the bar.
That’s what I used to think when I first started training and most people will have experienced a particularly ‘sharp’ bar that is very uncomfortable to grip and feels like a poorly machined bar. Well, this raised area is actually an important part of the barbell and is known as barbell knurling.
Barbell knurling is a machine etched and raised surface on a barbell that allows for better grip during weightlifting and powerlifting exercises. There are three types of barbell knurling; hill, mountain, and volcano which can be aggressive or passive depending on how much supporting grip you need.
When buying a barbell for a home gym or trying to identify the best barbell to use depending on your type of training, the barbell knurl will be one of the most important, yet less thought of, factors that you’ll want to consider. In this article, I’ll run you through exactly what barbell knurling is and how to select the best type for your needs.
What Is Barbell Knurling
Knurling is something you might not have heard of, let alone know what it is, but if you own or are looking to invest in a barbell for your home gym I guarantee you’ve seen and used it before.
It is the name of the jagged crosshatch pattern scored into the metal shaft of your barbell, all too familiar to anyone who is just getting into weightlifting or is getting back into it after some time off.
The purpose of knurling on any surface is to increase the surface area which is being used to grip onto something, and when you’re lifting a heavy weight off the ground with your bare hands, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of grip.
If there is not sufficient friction between the shaft of your barbell and your hands, you’re probably not making that lift. Even worse than injuring your pride is the damage you can do to your body, which is why you will not find a conventional barbell without this crosshatch pattern engraved onto the surface.
What Are Knurl Marks For
This diamond pattern you might have seen imprinted into the flesh of your hands might all look the same at first glance, but there is actually a lot of variety in barbell knurling which can drastically change your lifts from bar to bar.
When shopping for a barbell for your home gym it’s important that the knurling you’re going to be wrapping your hands around is right for you.
Ideally, you are looking for a middle ground between a pattern that provides a lot of grip without sacrificing too much comfort – if the knurling is too sharp for your hands, for instance, you may end up cutting into your hands and not being able to make your usual lift barehanded until your hands have become calloused enough.
Types of Barbell Knurling
Barbell knurling patterns are engraved in 3 different shapes: hill, mountain, and volcano. However, all these shapes can come in all sorts of different grades, from sharper, spaced-out knurls to a smoother and much shallower pattern. Although it might seem overwhelming at first glance, once you understand the terminology you’ll come across, finding the right bar for you will be noticeably easier.
The difference between an aggressive knurl and a more passive pattern primarily is probably the most important thing to look at when finding a bar that is going to be comfortable to grip.
The crosshatch pattern of a barbell knurl is the result of cutting grooves into the metal, and the depth and angle of these cuts can result in either an aggressive knurl, with sharper, more pronounced points, or a passive knurl which will be flatter and smoother on the skin.
Although there are benefits to each type, it’s important to understand the positives and the negatives of both:
- Aggressive knurling might provide more grip, but if the points are too sharp can very easily cut the skin when lifting.
- Passive knurling might be much easier on your hands, but if the points are too flat then there won’t be enough grip to lift the bar.
Whilst bars that are too aggressive aren’t ideal for most people, passive knurling is generally not recommended for weightlifting, especially at heavier weights.
If you’ve ever been to a hardware store and looked at different types of sandpaper, you probably know where this is going. Whereas aggressive and passive knurling refers to the sharpness of the knurl on a barbell, fine and coarse knurling indicates the size of the grooves cut into the bar.
A coarse knurl means there are fewer diamond shapes cut into the bar, and so they are more spaced out, while a fine knurl has more raised points that are closer to each other.
As mentioned earlier, the more surface area you are able to get a grip of, the easier you’re going to find keeping a hold of your bar as you lift, making a fine knurl not only the more comfortable option but also, in almost every case, the better choice for grip.
Barbell Knurling Shapes
Once we understand the differences in the actual cut of the knurling, the shapes of the actual diamonds in the pattern make much more sense.
Hill – This crosshatch pattern is made up of diamonds with a flat surface, and is the most passive style of knurling you will find on a barbell. While it might provide the most comfort for a beginner, the pattern is not very useful for increasing your grip on the bar.
Mountain – The polar opposite to the Hill pattern, this shape is cut to have a sharp peak at the tip of each diamond. This shape is as aggressive as it gets and will be a painful bar to use without very calloused hands.
Volcano – A middle ground between the hill and mountain shapes. Each diamond has a little indent cut into it, which ingeniously increases the surface area of the bar which you will be able to grip without sacrificing too much comfort.
As you can imagine, the volcano shape is generally regarded as the best knurling to look for on a barbell. It is important to remember though that this hybrid pattern can still come in varying degrees of passive or aggressive, fine or coarse cuts, so make sure to utilize all this knowledge when choosing the right barbell for yourself.
Why Would You Want Center Knurl on a Barbell
Every barbell comes with knurling across the parts of the bar where you will be gripping, but not all bars have this pattern cut into the middle of the bar. When you finally find the bar you want to add to your home gym, chances are it will be available with or without this, so which is right for you?
Although knurling in this position can be uncomfortable during certain exercises, when doing back squats the pattern provides unparalleled assistance by gripping the top of your back during the lift.
Whether you opt for a barbell with center knurling or not is entirely down to personal preference, but more often than not the benefits to your squatting will outweigh the discomfort during less crucial exercises.
How to Protect Your Barbell Knurling
Once you’ve decided on the knurling that’s best for you, the final thing to consider is how you’ll protect it and keep it in good condition during frequent use. The main time you’d want to protect the knurling is when you are squatting or pressing on the rack and dropping some heavy poundage onto the J-cups or spotter arms.
While the knurling is machine etched into the bar and will keep its shape quite well when being gripped, if you are dropping the bar onto some J-cups after a heavy set of squats (or another exercise), the metal-on-metal force is going to wear down your knurling and make it less effective.
To protect against this, you will want to pad your J-cups or spotter arms to reduce any impact from dropping your bar loaded with quite a bit of weight. You don’t need to have the bar loaded with 400lbs+ either, even beginners dropping their bar onto the power rack is likely going to lead to wear and tear to the knurling.
Therefore, you can use tape, foam, or a cloth/towel as a DIY solution to pad your rack and minimize any damage to your knurling. This is quite an extreme option though and unless you own an elite-level Olympic weightlifting bar, it’s probably not worth the effort to protect your knurling.
Barbell knurling for most will be an afterthought or not a thought at all for most people. If however, you are serious about buying a good quality barbell or just want to maximize your training, then barbell knurl is something you’ll want to pay closer attention to.
The different types of knurl will be more beneficial than others depending on your needs and the aggressiveness of the barbell knurling will also be something that is based on individual preferences.
Knowing the different types though will make purchasing a barbell much easier and ultimately, it will make your lifts easier and more comfortable as a result.