Home Health Research Review: Thick or thin? Which bar is best? |

Research Review: Thick or thin? Which bar is best? |

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A study with a few thousand participants found that people who drank a thin bar had better self-control than those who drank a thick bar.

A new study by a group of researchers from the University of Florida has found that people who deadlift with a thicker bar have less risk of injury.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years regarding the benefits of thick bar barbells and dumbbells over conventional barbells and dumbbells.

Thick barbells are just that: thicker barbells (more accurately, larger diameters).

The thickness of a thin barbell ranges from 1” (2.54 cm) to 1 1/16” (2.70 cm) (diameter). A thick (or fat) barbell, on the other hand, has a diameter of 2” (5.25 cm) but may go up to 3”.


Thick bars are believed to assist enhance strength growth by increasing muscle activation.

Consider the difference between grasping a golf ball and grabbing a softball. It’s becoming more difficult to hold on to that softball.

Because it’s more difficult to hold on to a thick bar, you should utilize more muscles to assist. Isn’t it true that having more muscles functioning implies you’ll be larger and stronger?

That’s great! What’s the best way for me to join up?

Question for investigation

I’ve tried thick bars, and they definitely make some workouts much more difficult. It feels different – chin ups are certainly more difficult – but I can’t tell whether I had greater muscle activation, and I haven’t used thick bars long enough to claim they lead to superior strength increases.

In this week’s review, I examine a research that looks at how bar diameter affects neuromuscular activation and maximal voluntary contraction.

D. Fioranelli and C. M. Lee. Inferences from an isometric unilateral bench press on the effect of bar diameter on neuromuscular strength and activation. 2008 May;22(3):661-6. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 May;22(3):661-6.

To make things more interesting, I’m going to challenge you to identify a flaw in the design of this research. You may be able to figure it just by looking at the title.


A repeated-measures design was used in the research.

This implies that the individuals in the research did the same activity twice. The thin (regular) bar was used once, and the thick (fat) bar was used once, before the two were compared.

The exercise in this research was a bench press, but with a twist:

It was unilateral (one arm) and isometric in nature (static or no movement).

But there’s more: the isometric contractions were performed at two angles: one at the bottom of a normal bench press (45 degrees at the elbow joint) and one at the mid-point of a typical bench press (45 degrees at the elbow joint) (elbow joint at 90 degrees).

The people that attended

That were the bench pressers who struck it rich? It should come as no surprise that they were eighteen college/university-aged males (no shocker since most exercise studies end up with men that are going to college).

The men were on average 25 years old, weighed 78.6 kg, and had a body fat percentage of 11.2 percent. They also had to be healthy in terms of neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and metabolic conditions. The requirement that they have at least a year of regular weight training and be competent (experienced) in bench pressing was the most remarkable part.

The method was followed.

This was a very simple experiment. Participants were evaluated on two different days (one for maximal contraction and the other for neuromuscular activation), with at least one week between each test day.

Caffeine was not permitted on test days. (It must have been difficult for university students to go two days without drinking coffee or Red Bull.)

The subjects were assessed for maximal voluntary contraction on one of the test days (MVC).

The participants were strapped into a high-tech Biodex System 3 Dynamometer, which measures force. Participants pushed themselves hard for 5 seconds in a bench press posture.

On test day #2, the still-sleepy individuals were evaluated for neuromuscular activation by placing electromyography electrodes on the pectoralis major (the biggest chest muscle engaged in bench pressing) and the forearm flexor area (a method of assessing muscle electrical activity) (the muscles you would use to, say, squeeze a tennis ball).

The neuromuscular activity of the participants was assessed when they were contracted at 80% of their MVC (from the previous time).

All tests were performed on the dominant arm, by the way.


First and first, I must remark that this was the shortest findings section I’ve ever read in a scientific paper – just one paragraph with five sentences!

They discovered the following:

  1. MVC did not vary between the bars or any joint angle (45 degree and 90 degree elbow joint).
  2. When comparing the two angles, the narrow bar had greater neuromuscular activity (as shown by electromyographic activity) of the pectoralis major than the thick bar.
  3. The thin bar showed greater neuromuscular activity in the forearm flexors than the thick bar in both angles.


While this research found no benefits to employing a thick bar, it did indicate that using a thin bar may be helpful; there have been other studies that have shown differences (1-3).

Another research (3) found no differences in 1 repetition maximums in pushing exercises (as in this study), but found differences in pulling activities (deadlift and bent-over row).

In pulling exercises, the thicker bar lead to lower 1 rep maxes compared to thinners bars. Not a surprise, since a thicker bar makes gripping the bar more difficult (1 & 2).

So, given that information, have you found out the study’s flaw?

If I were to design this research, I would have chosen an activity that would better demonstrate the differences between thick and thin bars, such as a pulling exercise with a thicker bar that would make the grasp more difficult. Pushing exercises don’t truly test the grip and aren’t the greatest way to see whether bar diameter affects strength and neuromuscular activation.

Why did they use a pushing exercise in their study?

It would be more difficult to get electromyographic activity with a pulling exercise, but with the bench press, the body may be stabilized such that movement does not interfere with the readings.

The lesson of the tale is that studies are typically faulty due to measuring constraints, not bad design. In order to get the desired measurement, scientists may compromise for a less-than-ideal design or model.

Do you believe scientists are interested in measuring genetic variations in mice because they are so fascinating? No, it’s because they can’t do it in the way they want it to be done – with people.

In conclusion

This research indicates that, at least for isometric pushing workouts, employing a thick bar isn’t helpful in terms of neuromuscular activation.

Pulling exercises, on the other hand, are a whole other beast, and a thicker bar may be helpful in that instance – although the verdict is still out.

If you have or can get access to a thick bar, I recommend giving it a go and seeing how you like it.



To see the information sources mentioned in this article, go here.

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The thick bar training is a type of strength training that uses thick bars. This type of training is typically used in powerlifting, strongman, and Olympic weightlifting.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to bench with a thick or thin bar?

A thick bar is better for benching.

Are thicker bars better?

There is no scientific answer to this question.

Do thick bar grips work?

Yes, they work just fine.