One of the most common garage-gym based strength training programs is Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength; an easy to follow, incredibly effective, linear training program that focuses solely on compound barbell movements like the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Starting Strength (SS) is popular not only because it is super easy to follow and offers near instant strength gains and improvements to body composition, but also because very little is required in the way of gear or equipment. There are only five main lifts to worry about; none of which involve machines, or require dumbbells, kettlebells or other fancy accessories. The lack of special equipment requirements makes SS an especially simple program to follow in minimally-equipped gyms; like your garage gym.
The five lifts utilized in Starting Strength include the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, and the power clean. This makes the gear requirements a barbell, some weights, flat bench, and a power rack. Since the bar is absolutely the most important piece of equipment for any strength training program, and Coach Rippetoe is fairly vague about bar selection in the Starting Strength book, it’s what I’m going to talk about and give some guidance on.
Last update: January 2018. Checked for changes in data and pricing. Minor revisions.
Barbell Spec Suggestions for Starting Strength
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; when it comes to the equipment in your gym, the bar is not the place to be a cheapskate; it’s just too damn important. If you need to save some cash while building out your garage gym buy used cast iron plates off Craigslist or get your bench off Amazon; do whatever you gotta do to make sure a real bar is in your budget.
Now you don’t need to go crazy and spend a grand on a bar, but you can’t spend just $100 either; that kind of money just doesn’t cut it. A bar that sells for anywhere near the hundred dollar mark is garbage, and garbage bars bend easily, lose sleeve rotation, and discard that spray-on chrome finish all over the place. The worse of them are even known to come apart at the sleeve or break entirely.
And is if that wasn’t enough, cheap bars are riddled with inaccuracies from shaft and sleeve diameter to bar weight, length, and knurl placement. All sorts of specs are known to be way off with the imported, box-store-style barbells. It’s just a waste and I again recommend you find somewhere else to save money.
In order to get a quality barbell that will both perform great and survive years upon years of training, you should expect to pay somewhere in the $250-$325 range; a bit less if you are a woman wanting a 15 kg bar. Sure you can spend more, but you don’t really need to. You definitely want to think twice about spending less than that though.
If $250 or more seems like a lot to you, try and remember why you’re even doing this in the first place. It’s really a small price to pay if you’re even remotely serious about your training goals and progress. To help put that into perspective a little bit, $300 is less cash than what your iPhone is worth. You know, that device that even the brokest of people manage to buy every 12-18 months. Priorities!
What to Look For in a Starting Strength Bar
Here is what you should look for in a barbell suitable for the Starting Strength program, or any basic strength training program for that matter.
- A standard “Olympic” barbell that follows the specification guidelines for either the IPF or IWF. This means a 2200 mm (~7.2 ft) long bar with 50 mm (~2 in) sleeves weighing 20 kg (~44 lb). Some USA power bars like the Texas Power Bar are 45 pounds rather than 20 kilos, and that’s perfectly fine.
- Shaft diameter should be within the 28 mm – 29 mm range, with 28.5 mm and 29 mm being the most common for power bars.
- Sleeve assembly should contain bushings, not bearings. The bushings should be either sintered/self-lubricating bronze, or composite. Avoid brass bushings, steel bushings, or any bar that don’t even specify what makes the sleeves spin.
- Sleeves should be held onto the bar using either an end cap (like seen on the B&R Bar below), or snap rings (like almost all Rogue bars.) If there is a bolt of any kind (usually a hex) sticking out of the end of the bar, you’re looking at the wrong bar.
- Knurl should be moderate to slightly aggressive. Starting Strength has two heavy pulls (the deadlift and power clean), so you’re going to regret buying anything with a delicate, baby knurl. A center knurl should also be present for back squats.
So I’ve eliminated most barbells already by suggesting you not spend anywhere near $100, so the question becomes: what bars can you use?
Burgener & Rippetoe (B&R) Bar of Olde and New
This is the obvious bar choice for many folks following the Starting Strength program being that the Burgener & Rippetoe Bar was co-developed by Mark Rippetoe himself (alongside Coach Mike Bergener.) As you might expect, the B&R Bar meets and exceeds all of the bar requirements of the SS program, and it does so at a very reasonable price.
The B&R is a raw steel bar, just like in the days of old. It was manufactured by York Barbell in Canada and sold exclusively at Rogue Fitness for $295, but Rogue took over production a year or two back making it no longer a York Bar – the price is unchanged. The 20 kg B&R has a 29 mm shaft, a pair of bronze bushings in each sleeve, and dual hash marks for both powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. The knurl is moderate, but secure.
There are a number of reasons why this bar works well for Starting Strength. For starters, it has a bare steel shaft, and bare steel has a very natural and grippy feel to it. Couple that natural, raw feel with the very nicely done knurl and you’ve got a bar that just stays securely in the hands, and does so without sharpness or discomfort. This overall perfect grip is quite important in a program in which 40% of the movements are heavy pulls.
Additionally, the B&R has bronze bushings that offer very reliable sleeve rotation for years and years. Even if you lose some of the spin to chalk, dirt, and dust build up, putting a drop of oil in each bushing once or twice a year will completely restore any lost spin. The B&R also has a center knurl for squats; a feature many companies are leaving off their bars.
Rogue B&R vs the York B&R
The Rogue B&R is definitely built to mimic the York, but a couple of things did change. First, Rogue increased the tensile strength rating from 190k to 205k; an upgrade that will likely be lost on novices. That upgrade was met with a downgrade – the replacing of York’s sintered bronze bushings with Rogue’s simple cast bronze bushing; a less lubricated and somewhat noisier component. Finally, Rogue replaced the signature York end-caps with their standard snap-ring sleeve assembly. A cosmetic downgrade, but functionally no better or worse.
My personal York B&R is about five years old now and it’s not only still straight as an arrow but it spins like new. The raw steel requires some maintenance to keep rust at bay; mostly for the first year or so while the bar develops a patina, but at this point it’s minimal – mostly hands off. I’ll always be a huge fan of the York B&R, but good luck locating one.
At the end of the day; be it a Rogue or York; the B&R is one of the best bars for the Starting Strength program, or any similar strength & conditioning program. It’s a modern day classic.
Rogue Matt Chan Bar
The Matt Chan Bar is another great bar for the Starting Strength program. It’s a 190k PSI, multi-purpose (dual-marked) bar with a more aggressive knurl than most multi-purpose bars on the market, and a custom knurl pattern that gives your shins more smooth surface area for pulling deadlifts and power cleans. These knurling features along with the presence of a center knurl and added rigidity of a 28.5 mm shaft (vs 28 mm) makes the Chan feel very at home when doing any of the Starting Strength lifts.
As much as I like the York B&R Bar, it’s the Matt Chan Bar that ultimately replaced it. Now I am not necessarily saying that the Chan is superior to the B&R, but I do personally prefer it. I prefer it for a couple reasons, but mostly because I tend to lean toward more aggressively knurled bars; which the Chan is. That may not be for you though.
To be fair, part of the Chan appeal for me was the satin chrome finish option; an option that no longer exists, sadly. Better knurl, custom pattern, and a maintenance free finish? What’s not to like? Currently only black zinc is an option for the Chan, and while black zinc isn’t my cup of tea I still think the Chan is an amazingly versatile barbell, and one that has Starting Strength written all over it. Zinc or not, the Chan is still a 10/10 bar for knurl.
Texas Power Bar (TPB)
The Texas Power Bar by Buddy Capps is another good option. Power bars work well for the Starting Strength program since the program is based entirely on powerlifting. The problem that I think most people will have with the TPB is the depth and sharpness of the knurl. This bar will just wreck the hands of most intermediate lifters, and no doubt all novice lifters. The current generation TPB is really designed to be lifted by advanced powerlifters that work in the 1-3 rep range, not in multiple sets of 5’s like in Starting Strength.
That said, the older generation Texas Power Bars are not quite the cheese graters that they are now. If you are able to find yourself a used, old school TPB, I think you’d be good to go. The older Texas Power Bars tend to maintain solid sleeve rotation, and they generally stay straight. It’s probably not an easy bar to track down used, but it could be worth looking into.
The current generation TPB is a 28.5 mm, 45 pound (as opposed to 20 kg) bar. The deeply knurled shaft is coated in zinc rather than being raw, but the sleeves are still bare steel. The TPB has a 186k tensile strength and is rated for 1500 pounds, which is more than you’ll be lifting. If you buy direct from Buddy on his Amazon listing you’ll pay about $290 shipped.
You should also know that due to Buddy failing to patent his bar back in the day, there are knock-off Texas Power Bars galore. In order to avoid these import imposters you just need to know that the real TPB is still made by Buddy Capps in Irving, TX, and you can identify them by their State of Texas end caps (in above image.)
The <Insert Name> Power Bar
Just about any mid-range or greater powerlifting bar can be used for the Starting Strength program, and there is currently no shortage of reasonably priced power bars out there. The two best priced [good] power bars around right now are the bare steel Ohio Power Bar, and the chrome finished Grizzly Power Bar. Both of these power bars are $250 before shipping, and the beauty of them is that they are polar opposites – giving you two different affordable bars to choose from on a budget rather than two virtually identical bars.
Paying any less than $250 is a serious gamble both in terms of performance value and the potential durability of the bar. If you absolutely must spend less than this, I suggest making the best of the CAP OB-86B. It’s not great, and it is still about $160, but it’ll get you by until your skill level necessitates something better.
Below is a little more information about the bars I just mentioned, along with info about their alternative finishes and upgrades.
The standard Ohio Power Bar in pounds is a 29 mm bar with a very rigid 205k PSI shaft. It is basically the new Rogue B&R with only IPF markings and a far more aggressive knurling (including the center knurl). The Ohio is available in bare steel for $250, black zinc for $275, and finally with a stainless steel shaft for $395. I recommend the bare steel over zinc, or the stainless steel if you can comfortably afford it. Stainless feels just as good as bare steel, but won’t rust. Definitely an end-game power bar, that stainless OPB.
Alternatively, a kilogram version of the Ohio Power Bar is also available. It’s a little fancier in that it has friction welded sleeves and is IPF-certified, but otherwise it’s the same bar and will offer the same experience. A black zinc version is available for $325, and stainless steel is available for $425. I don’t believe that any novices need an IPF-approved bar for Starting Strength, but it is your money and your preference.
The American Barbell Grizzly Power Bar is a 190k PSI bar much like the Chan Bar, making is slightly less rigid at heavy weights than the 205k bars. The shaft is 29 mm and finished entirely in chrome, and the Grizzly has composite bushings rather than bronze. Of the bars I’ve talked about the Grizzly has the mildest knurl. It’s adequate but by no means coarse or aggressive. It’s the softer knurl and chrome finish that makes it completely different than the Ohio Power Bar. Same price though at $250.
Louie Simmons’ Westside Power Bar 2.0 is more or less the same as the Ohio Power Bar, so it could be picked up as an alternative if you’re a Westside fan; or if you like all black zinc bars for some reason.
All of these power bars (save for the CAP) are made in the USA. If you want to see some other power bar options or get more detailed information about the bars I just summarized, check out my comprehensive Power Bar Guide.
Choosing a Bar for Starting Strength – End
I hope this has helped you zero in on a bar for the Starting Strength program. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below. If you want to be a swell person, share this article on your social media site of choice.