Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Buying and Using a Light Bar

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | June 15, 2021

A standard barbell weighs roughly 45 lb. This is a versatile piece of equipment that can be used by a wide demographic to get strong. It can be loaded from 45 lb to over 800 lb and to as small a resolution as needed – many female or older lifters need 1.25 lb increases in weight on their upper body lifts.

Not everyone can use a 45 lb bar for the press or bench press. These are typically lighter women and heavier, deconditioned people who cannot squat using a 45 lb bar. Additionally, a lifter pressing 50 lb should not be using a 45 lb bar for early warm ups – it's too heavy compared to the work sets. The purpose of the warm up sets is to prepare for the work sets without producing enough fatigue to hinder the work sets.

A lighter bar will be necessary in these cases. The barbell market provides some solutions, but these are typically more expensive than equally viable solutions from alternative sources. Each light bar listed has advantages and disadvantages, and some are not recommended to fill the role of a light bar.

Light steel/aluminum barbells

A steel or aluminum barbell weighing between 15 lb and 25 lb may be desirable for a professional barbell gym or coach if they are willing to pay $100 to $200. They last a long time if they are not misused, and they solve the problem of warming up to a 50 lb press. This is not recommended for most trainees, because of the cost and small weight difference between a light barbell and a 45 lb barbell. These are luxuries, but also may not solve the problem if the lifter needs an even lighter bar than 15 lb – this is rare, but it does occur.

comparison of aluminum bars light bars

Figure 1. A 15 lb aluminum barbell (bottom) is a strong, rigid, and attractive option when a 45 lb bar (top) is too heavy.

Black iron pipe

Black iron pipe is actually seamed steel tubing. It is rigid, cheap, and can be bought in a variety of diameters and lengths. One inch diameter, schedule 40 (the wall thickness designation) for a seven-foot long piece costs about $20 and weighs roughly ten pounds. Typically, home centers won't sell by the foot. They sell a nominal length (usually a ten-foot piece), but they will cut it to seven feet at the store. Just make sure to clean off the cutting fluid with some paper towels.

It will need to be marked for where the collars of a barbell are. Buy four spring clamps. Two will take the place of the sleeve shoulders. The other two will take the place of the spring clips to hold the plates in place.

using a black iron pipe for a light bar in a press

Figure 2. A 10 lb black iron pipe is rigid and, with modifications, can function as a loadable barbell.

PVC pipe

PVC pipe is cheap and easier to acquire – less than $10 for a one-inch diameter, seven-foot long pipe at a home center. It is modified the same as the black iron pipe, but weighs much less. A seven-foot long pipe weighs about 1.5 lb. PVC is not recommended because of its elasticity – loading it with only 15 lb will cause bending which affects the technique and control of the lift. Better would be a wooden dowel rod.

pvc pipe used as a light bar shows bending with load

Figure 3. PVC pipe bends a lot even under a small (15 lb), static load.

Hardwood dowel rod – oak

A dense, rigid wooden dowel rod makes for a great light bar. It is weaker and more elastic than metal, but is strong and rigid enough to function well at light weights. A two-pound, six-foot oak rod can be found at most home centers, but won't be in the “wooden dowel” section, which usually contains lengths under four feet. Look for closet poles or staircase hand rails. There should be six to eight-foot lengths in one-inch and one-and-a-half-inch diameters. Oak is a strong wood and will last a long time. It will cost $20 to $40 depending on the length and thickness. Do not buy a pole shorter than six feet, because it won't fit on most racks.

using a red oak bar for a 52 lb press

Figure 4. Red oak dowel rod loaded with to 52 lb.

Get four spring clamps to take the place of the barbell sleeves' shoulders and clips, just like for the black iron pipe.

Softwood dowel rod – pine

Pine poles can be found with the oak dowel rods in home centers, but pine is weaker and more elastic than oak. A pine pole with a diameter of one inch will be light, but also flexible enough that even a 15 lb load in the press will cause difficulties a weaker trainee doesn't need to be distracted by. A two-inch diameter pine pole will be rigid for a load under 45 lb and will also be easier to clip with standard barbell clips or collars. A two-inch diameter will be more difficult to carry correctly on the back in the squat, but will not produce serious problems in the press or bench.

using a pine dowel for a light bar

Figure 5. A one-inch diameter pine dowel rod is not ideal, and should only be used for loads under ten pounds due to the bending of the wood.

Switch as soon as possible

The trainee should begin using a standard bar as soon as possible, as soon as they need to lift 45 lb. Nothing will break using a lighter bar for 50 lb, but the design advantages of a standard bar are worth switching mid-workout. The knurling, rigidity, and diameter enhance the training experience and are factors the trainee needs to get used to.

various light bar options

Figure 6. (Top to bottom) Black iron rod, red oak pole, PVC pipe, 15 lb aluminum barbell.

A light bar is an essential addition to a professional barbell gym, and will be helpful for many trainees' home gyms. Some untrained individuals will require a light bar to begin training and may continue to use them for warm-up sets even after they've been training a while. There are many options for light bars, but the critical elements are weight, strength, and rigidity. Any lightweight, strong, and rigid rod or pole will serve a trainee well if they are used appropriately.

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