Have you ever mindlessly placed weight plates onto a barbell?
I’ve been doing it for years. I’d look to put the plates on so that they are symmetrical on both sides of the bar but I never thought that the way you load a barbell is important from a safety perspective but also because it can make your lift more difficult if you load them incorrectly!
This is true, there is both a proper etiquette for how to load a barbell but there is also a method to do it efficiently – depending on the exercise you are doing.
Read on to find out how to properly load a barbell (we know, not the most exciting topic) but also to learn how you can load a barbell to make your lifts more effective. It turns out you might be loading a barbell and risking injury just by making a few simple mistakes…
How to Load a Barbell
Loading a barbell is a common afterthought (or no thought at all) for most people. When you watch old-school bodybuilding videos, the bodybuilders just load up the bar with 45lb iron plates and make a satisfying clink but it just looks like they are tossing the plates on with no thought.
That could be true, but for most beginners and even seasoned lifters, you should have a process for correctly loading a barbell.
To load a barbell safely and correctly you should load the bar with it raised from the floor. To do this you can use squat rack hooks or a barbell jack. Once raised off the ground, you should load a barbell with the heaviest and thickest weight plates first to ensure the center of gravity remains central.
This is a brief overview so below we’ll cover the three main steps you should take when loading a barbell.
Before getting into the exact tips for loading a barbell, check out the video below for an accurate overview of things that you should keep in mind.
1. Use a Rack or Barbell Jack
Optimally, you should load your barbell using a rack or barbell jack. Doing so will make it much easier to load your plates safely and quickly.
Loading plates on the ground is definitely possible but comes with some risks. Since you’ll have to lift your barbell as you load plates, you might accidentally drop one.
Such accidents usually cause minor bruises, if anything. However, heavier weights can injure your foot or break a toe even if they just fall from their side. Similarly, you might drop your barbell and hit your shin.
Racks support and center the bar so that users can focus solely on loading plates. They’ll hold it at a good height for many exercises, such as squats, meaning you don’t need to strain to load the bar.
Barbell jacks are much harder to find at gyms, so you should consider buying your own. They’re placed on the ground and lift barbells just enough to load plates on them. Their low height and stability make them excellent for preparing for deadlifts.
Loading weight plates with the bar on the floor is the least effective method for loading a barbell. Having to tilt the bar at either end when loading plates can only be done single handed and becomes much more difficult when you have more weight on the bar.
This is the reason why you should either load the barbell on a squat rack or use a barbell jack to lift the bar off the floor.
2. Load Weights on the Barbell in the Correct Order
When loading a barbell, it’s crucial to add weights in the correct order. Specifically, the heaviest weights should go on first.
Loading heavy plates last can make balancing the bar significantly harder. This is because, in the outer position, they force the barbell’s center of gravity away from you.
If you do bench presses with heavy plates on the outside of little ones, you’ll feel more pressure on your outer shoulders than your chest. And should you teeter or lean too much, the barbell will fall out of your grip.
Dropping the barbell because of poorly loaded plates can seriously injure you. If you lose the bar to one side while benching, the opposite side might fall back on your chest.
In other situations, you might lose control of the equipment and accidentally hit someone else.
As a result, heavier plates should always go on the inside and smaller ones on the outside. Doing so not only is safer but also promotes better form.
Linked to this, you should also always load the thickest plates first. This is for the same reason above as thicker plates loaded further away from the barbell collar will move the center of gravity away from you. If you are using plates that are the same thickness, it won’t matter how many you load onto the bar but when using different weight plates, always load the heaviest and thickest plates first.
To give an example, If you warm up with a couple of 25lb plates and move up and add additional 45lb plates for your next set, you should always remove the 25lb plates, add the 45lb plates and then re-add the 25lb plates.
3. Attach a Barbell Collar
Weightlifters, especially beginners, should use barbell collars whenever they’re lifting.
If you are unfamiliar, barbell collars are the adjustable plastic or metal bands attached to the end of bars. You put them on after loading plates to keep the weights in place. They prevent weights from sliding off the barbell ends, as well as reduce the rattling or moving of plates during a lift.
Failing to do so means you might accidentally shed plates if you lean too far to either side while pressing or squatting. In that case, it’s pretty easy to lose control of the bar due to the unequal weight distribution.
It might go flying over to the heavy side, with the empty side coming back down and hitting you. Or, if you brace too hard trying to prevent that, you might pull your shoulder or arm.
Lost weight plates can also roll away and bump other people. While that’s usually not dangerous on its own, it is if someone trips on them or loses focus while lifting after getting hit.
Additionally, if you deadlift, dropping the bar can send the outer plates rattling off of it. Not to mention it’ll be harder to balance the barbell if plates move into asymmetrical positions.
Loading a Barbell on the Ground
While using a barbell jack, rack, or ledge is preferred, sometimes you’ll have to load weights on the ground. Thankfully, there are ways you can do this safely as well.
The key is to take your time and load plates one at a time. Try lifting one side just enough to affix the barbell end inside the hole of the heaviest plate you plan to use. Then, you can gently shimmy the plate further on or push the barbell end through.
A helpful shortcut to simplify this is adding a plate flat under your barbell’s end to add height. That way, you can focus more on just loading the weight.
Instead of doing one side entirely, load both ends first with the heaviest plate you intend to add. Since the heaviest plates are usually the biggest, your bar will naturally be higher. It’ll be easier to add more weight like that.
Tips for Loading a Barbell Safely and Correctly
Here are some other useful tips for safely and correctly adding weight to your barbell:
- Grip weight plates with both hands from the sides, not from the top.
- When adding plates, have them face inward (logo towards the lifter). They will sit flush against each other and wobble less.
- Take turns adding plates back and forth between sides. Don’t load up one side with multiple weights at once, especially on a rack (any more than 2 plates extra on one side can cause the barbell to tip over).
- Try to use as few weight plates as possible. If you’re adding 90 lb, use two 45 lb plates. Don’t use a bunch of 10 lb or 5 lb weights instead.
- Have a friend or spotter help you if you’re struggling. Better safe than sorry.
If you load your barbell without any thought to how you are loading it or why you are loading your plates in a certain way… you’re probably not the only one!
It’s definitely not something that many people consider, even once you become a more experienced lifter, however, it can make the difference both to how easily you load the barbell – saving time and reducing frustration in between heavy deadlifts – and also how safe you make an exercise.
By loading the barbell incorrectly you risk injury by moving the center of gravity during an exercise away from your body (which acts as a solid foundation) which in turn puts added strain on your joints and connective tissue and if you don’t secure the plates in place with a barbell collar, you risk injuring other people as well.
Therefore, follow this three-step process when loading a barbell to ensure you always do it both safely and efficiently:
- Always load the barbell off the floor using either the squat rack or a barbell jack
- load the heaviest and thickest plates first. If adding more weight to the bar, replace existing plates with heavier and thicker ones rather than adding additional plates
- Add a barbell collar to secure weight plates in place