How the female weightlifter out – grew the “lady bar”
Andrew “Bud” Charniga
“It has been said that man is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Wilton M. Krogman, 1951
Whoever said “man is fearfully and wonderfully made” in all probability could not even imagine a member of the “weaker sex” raising 193 kg over her head.
The first official women’s world weightlifting championships took place in 1987. By 1989 the world record in the clean and jerk of the female +82.5 kg (unlimited bodyweight) class was 137.5 kg; the same weight as the 82.5 kg record. At the end of 1993, the year the new weight classes were introduced, the world record had already grown to 155 kg. This 155 kg constituted approximately 124% of the bodyweight of the 125 kg female lifter who raised it.
At the present time the world record in the +75 kg (unlimited weight class) is 193 kg; set by 106.21 kg Tatiana Kashirina (RUS). This weight is 182% of her bodyweight, i.e., 38 kg more weight lifted by an athlete with 21 kg less body mass than the record of 1993!
In 1997 the International Weightlifting Federation decided to introduce the lady bar. The new 15 kg bar with a smaller diameter grip became the official bar for female competitions. By this time the female world record in the clean and jerk had flat – lined; having remained at the same 155 kg level established in 1993.
Up until 1997 when the lady bar debuted on the international scene, both sexes used the same equipment. A bar with a smaller diameter for the smaller hands of the females, especially the little girls in the 46 – 59 kg classes, seemed appropriate. All of the other specifications of weight and dimension of the official equipment remained unchanged.
When a number of factors are taken into account, practical experience clearly indicates the weaker sex has out – grown the shorter, smaller in diameter, 15 kg bar.
The realization in weightlifting sport that alterations in the competition equipment designed for the female lifter are needed is not a problem, but a reason for envy.
Weightlifting has a long tradition in the development of scientifically based, sophisticated training methodology and exercise techniques. This development has created the conditions for female weightlifters to raise weights once reserved for only the world’s strongest men.
Consequently, the present circumstances are a tribute to the more than 100 year development of the technical expertise of weightlifting sport science.
Problems with the specifications of the 15 kg bar
Renowned Israeli weightlifting sport scientist Genadi Hiskiya had been given the task to determine appropriate dimensions of the lady bar; based on the size of the athlete and the anticipated stresses imposed on the equipment a “weaker” sex.
Hiskiya did the math and decided a 15 kg bar should have a diameter of 26 mm. The 2,010 mm length of the bar would be shorter than the 2,200 mm male bar. However, Hiskiya’s calculations were cast aside when it was decided the bar would have a 25 mm grip. In all probably, since a 25 mm diameter steel is a common dimension, consequently, it would be cost effective to produce. Besides the most any female could lift was 155 kg and many would have logically thought that this if not the ceiling was close to it.
However, even though the grasping portion of the lady bar (space between the collars) is the same distance: 1,310 mm; the space on the loading portion of the bar known as the sleeve is 415 mm for the male bar, whereas it is only 320 mm for the female bar. The diameter of each sleeve is same for both bars at 50 mm; the same discs are used for both bars.
Consequently, it is logical for one to assume a 25 mm diameter grip and a sleeve length of 320 mm would be enough space to load discs for a female weightlifter; an athlete with serum testosterone levels of just 10% of a male weightlifter.
The 320 mm loading area of each of the lady bar sleeves constitutes 15.9% of its 2,010 mm length. So, approximately 31.8% of the lady bar constitutes the area for loading the discs. On the other hand, each sleeve of the men’s bar is 18.9%, or the combined area for loading discs of 37.8% of its total length, i.e., not just a larger area, but disproportionally larger for the athlete with ten times the serum testosterone of a female weightlifter.
Furthermore, the distance between the center and end of the lady bar is 1,005 mm; which, like the 1,100 mm dimension of the male bar constitutes 50% of its total length. The specified width of each inside collar on both bars is 30 mm.
Therefore, that means the distance between the outer surface of the inside collars, i.e., the closest point the first discs on the bar approach its center, is the same for both bars. That is because the width of the inside collars is the same 30 mm and the distance between the grasping portion of both bars is the same 1,310 mm.
However, the distance between the exact center of the bar and this point on the outer surface of the sleeve is 1,035 mm for the lady bar or 51.2% of its length. The distance of 1,035 mm is identical for men’s bar; but, constitutes only 47.01% of its total length.
Because of the differences in relative distance between the center of the bar and outer surface of the sleeve, the diameter of the male and female shaft, one would expect the case hardened steel constructed lady bar to flex disproportionally more for a given weight, than would be anticipated of the male bar. The reason being the first discs loaded on the sleeve segment are disproportionaly further from the center of the lady bar.
In effect, this would be similar to loading the first disc on the men’s bar, not flush up against the inside area of the collar; but, several centimeters further out from its center.
The “working length” of the bar
Soviet sport scientist Ilya Zhekov; author of Biomechanics of the Weightlifting Exercises, which some aptly have called god’s book of weightlifting; referred to the distance from the precise center of the bar to the point where the discs are loaded up against the inside collar, as the “working length” of the bar (Zhekov, 1976).
Zhekov recognized when a weightlifter produces a rapid bend in the barbell, timing this bend so that the recoil will assist the upward lifting of the barbell in the jerk from the chest was a complex skill; crucial for the high class weightlifter to master. The problem connected with mastering this skill is the amount of weight required; in order to bend and utilize the recoil in the jerk. A weightlifter needs to lift weights in the jerk from the chest heavy enough to practice the precise conditions of bar bend.
It was Zhekov’s idea to reproduce the bending – recoil conditions of lifting a heavy weight from the chest in training by increasing the “working length” of the bar. This is accomplished by moving the discs further out on the collars from the nearest point to the center of the bar.
For instance, by making the appropriate calculations, a lifter, who had difficulty timing the bend with (for him) a maximum weight of 200 kg could practice these conditions with say 120 kg simply by moving innermost discs on the sleeves further out away from the center of the bar.
In this manner a lifter could practice the springy conditions inherent to lifting a maximum weight in the jerk from the chest with a sub – maximum weight, i.e., get in more practice with more lifts of a lighter weight.
When this concept is applied to the design of the lady barbell it is obvious the working length of the lady bar is proportionally greater than that of the male bar, i.e., the discs are placed further out from the center of the bar. This means it is possible the lady bar can flex more in both relative and absolute terms, because the working length is greater than the male bar; which of course is only exacerbated by its smaller (25 mm) diameter (see photos).
Figure 1. Excessive deflection is a potentially dangerous characteristic of the 15 kg bar with 190 kg. Charniga photo.
Men lift bigger weights than women. Bigger weights can cause the bar to bend more. In absence of precise calculations, it would appear the ladies have a slight advantage in the jerk from the chest with a proportionally greater working distance on a 15 kg bar. This perceived advantage would be the potential to create and utilize the elastic energy from a springier barbell.
“The oscillation of a given barbell increases along with its increasing weight”. I. P. Zhekov, 1976
However, other factors need to be taken into account.
Besides a larger working length, as already noted, there is less space to place the discs on the 15 kg bar. The smaller space is often exacerbated by first, the loading protocols stipulating the 0.5 kg – 2.0 kg discs be outside the collars; and second, the manner in which the collars are fixed to the barbell.
The rules require the discs be fixed to the bar by means of collars. The rules specify the collars weigh 2.5 kg each and the diameter of the hole be 5.0 cm. The same collars are used for both 15 kg and 20 kg bars.
The problem associated with the requirement of collars is not their weight, but the design. Collars are designed with a lever to secure the discs from sliding and at the same time fix the position of the collar on the barbell.
The lever of the collar is designed to lock down the discs and collars to prevent shifting during the act of lifting. In and of itself, this should suffice. However, the two piece threaded design most manufacturers employ allows the length of the collar to be expanded by unscrewing the portion abutting the discs.
If for instance, the un-expanded length of a collar of a category ‘A’ barbell is 68.22 mm; it can be elongated to 93.78 mm. Un-expanded, each collar takes up 68.22/320 = 21.3% of the length of the 15 kg bar sleeve. This compares to 68.22/415 = 16.4% of the 20 kg bar sleeve. Consequently, not only is the loading area of the lady bar smaller in absolute terms, using the same collars for both bars means the collars take a disproportionate amount of space on the 15 kg bar; and, effectively disproportionately increase its working length.
Furthermore, if one of the 0.5 – 2.0 discs is loaded on the outside of the collars, as the loading protocols stipulate, this disc can be shifted further from the center by elongating the collar i.e., artificially increasing the working length of the bar. This effect, in turn, is slightly pronounced because the lighter segment of the collar is shifted towards the discs pushing the heavier segment further out; along with the disc loaded on the outside.
So, a situation where fixing the collar on the barbell with the least effect on the working length of the bar would be unexpanded (a length of 68.22 mm) with a 0.5 kg disc on the outside. The circumstances where fixing with largest effect on the working length would be a fully elongated collar (93.78 mm) with a 2.0 kg disc loaded on the outside.
However, if a record attempt, of say 194 kg, is loaded on a lady barbell; not only is there no room to expand the collar, but placing the 2.0 kg on the outside will definitely affect the oscillation of the barbell; and with it, the athlete’s ability to control it.
Some of the factors affecting oscillation of the barbell not connected with the design of the equipment
Apart from the amount of weight, other factors which affect oscillation of the bar, independent of the design of the equipment are the hand spacing; stance; width of the shoulder girdle; width of the pelvic girdle and the suppleness of the athlete.
Generally the further the lifter’s hands are fixed to the bar from the edge of the shoulder joints, the more the grasp supports the bar further from its center. This tends to reduce oscillation in the pull phase of the clean and of course bar bend and recoil in the jerk. Whereas, in the opposite case, the closer the hands are spaced to the shoulders the more oscillation one can expect.
When the barbell is resting on the chest prior to the jerk, a wide shoulder girdle provides more support with slightly less oscillation while a narrower shoulder girdle provides slightly less support creating slightly more oscillation. The relative width of a lifter’s pelvis probably has little effect on bar oscillation but a stance significantly wider than hip width would.
What does all of this have to do with the problem with the lady bar? Women generally have proportionally wider pelvic girdles, narrower shoulder girdles and smaller feet. Although most select a hand spacing for the clean and jerk in between what is considered wide and narrow (hands almost touching deltoid muscles) and a stance of approximately hip width; some of the elite females do not.
Some of the top female lifters gasp the barbell with a narrower hand spacing combined with an atypical stance where the feet are inside the width of the pelvis. A female (or male for that matter) lifter who employs a narrow hand spacing, along with a foot spacing (feet inside the width of the pelvis), shifts the lifting force acting on the barbell closer to the center of the bar, i.e., increasing the working length of the bar from the inside out.
In order to counterbalance the weight in the jerk from the chest many female lifters place their feet in the starting position such that the foot of the leg which is shifted forward in the split is lightly in front of the other, i.e., artificially increasing the length of the base of support. The female body is more complex than a man’s body. Consequently, this technique is instinctive, a natural predisposition of a complex organism to adjust to complex conditions.
So, a proportionally narrower shoulder girdle, a close hand spacing along with feet inside pelvis width stance will facilitate barbell oscillation and recoil in the jerk; especially when this technique is employed with a bar that has a 25 mm grip and an already proportionally longer working length.
There is not much research in weightlifting about oscillation of the barbell from lift off to fixation overhead. Generally most people recognize the bar bends before lift off from the floor or on the chest in the jerk, but few recognize the bar can hyper – bend; especially if the lifter’s movements are fast.
The accompanying pictures illustrate two forms of oscillation in the jerk from the chest. The 151 kg barbell has straightened out after recoil; in part because the lifter has a wide hand spacing. The other 157 kg barbell is bending in a slight hyper recoil with this athlete’s narrow hand spacing. This hyper recoil of the barbell means the center of the bar is bowing down and the ends with the discs are bowing up.
Figure 2. Illustrations of (from top) a hyper bending of the bar with a shoulder width hand spacing and (bottom photo) ‘supporting’ the bar with a wide hand spacing and effectively reducing some of the bend. Charniga photos.
Ultimately, the extra, hyper – recoil is added to the force of the weight on the athlete’s body when she locks her arms to fix it overhead. Furthermore, this additional recoil is magnified the heavier the weight, the longer working length of the 15 kg bar, the narrower the hand spacing and the narrower stance. An excessively springy barbell becomes more and more difficult to control at the chest, at full extension of the arms; as well if the weightlifter struggles out of the squat with a maximum weight.
An example of an unexpected problem of a too springy bar was the clean and jerk competition in the 58 kg class at the 2012 Olympics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7AulgVE86A). Two of the BLR 58 kg girl’s lifts were turned down for oscillating the barbell in the jerk.
The rules stipulate a lifter cannot purposely move in such a manner prior to jerking the barbell from the chest as to make the bar oscillate for additional assistance in the upward lifting.
In this instance, this lifter’s hand spacing for the jerk was very close to the shoulders. She raised the barbell off her chest after recovery from the squat to switch to a thumb-less grip; which the rules permit. However, in the process switching to this grip she expanded her grasp such that the base of her thumbs were brushing up against her shoulders. Consequently, the 127 and 133 kg barbells she was lifting oscillated a little more than would be expected had she retained the original grasp. This action increased the working length of the bar as noted before – from the inside out.
Even though she paused briefly before beginning to jerk the barbell it continued to oscillate after the clean. Two of the three referees apparently noticed the barbell oscillating; assuming the lifter was in violation of the rules, turned the lift down. The rules do not stipulate a length of pause from recovery to jerk only that the athlete become motionless. A prolonged pause to wait for a 133 kg female barbell to stop oscillating is unrealistic. The athlete was penalized for the moving bar even though there was no deliberate attempt on her part to flex the barbell in order to gain an advantage.
The point here is not point a finger, but to make the point: the strength of today’s women lifters is beyond the equipment, originally designed for a “weaker sex”, whatever that is.
Another factor, not easily quantified, is the fact that females generally have greater flexibility, greater overall suppleness and larger range of motion in joints; sometimes referred to as lax articulations. Suppleness and lax articulations are desirable qualities for raising heavy barbells.
A very supple, flexible athlete can perform complex movements while experiencing less of what the Russian sport scientists call “internal resistance”. A large range of motion in joints coupled with less internal resistance means movements of the modern female weightlifter can be mechanically more efficient in lifting maximum weights. Elite female lifters can raise big weights while performing less work against gravity, by means of less resistance to the body’s movement while raising the barbell to a lower height. Furthermore, the high class elite females instinctively achieve a resonance, i.e., a rhythm of stretching tendons and ligaments (biological springs) with the oscillation of the barbell.
Concerning the pressing need for alterations to the female barbell
The obvious problem associated with an excessive bend (see picture of 190 kg clean) in the bar created by the heavier weights being raised is an important issue; but, perhaps not the most significant, from a safety standpoint.
A hyper-bend in the barbell just before the lifter’s locks the elbows in the jerk and/or multiple, imperceptible to the naked eye, oscillations in the barbell when a lifter is struggling out of the squat or trying to become still with a maximum weight overhead in the jerk; pose bigger threats to safety and performance.
A number of factors have coalesced to create the conundrum of excessive oscillation with the lady bar. The following are the most significant factors affecting excessive oscillation of the 15 kg bar:
/ the strength of the female weightlifter;
/ the 1,310 mm dimension of the grasping area between the inside surface of the collars;
/ the 25 mm diameter of the grip;
/ the specified 30 mm width of the inside collars of the sleeves;
/ the expandable collar;
/ the loading protocols to fix the 0.5 – 2.0 kg.
Of the factors affecting excessive oscillation of the 15 kg bar, the unanticipated, astonishing strength of the female weightlifter is not the fault of engineering. The fault lies in modern methods of preparing weightlifters, especially modern concepts of weightlifting technique; a positive development for weightlifting, to say the least.
Of the alterations to the lady bar to consider for the safety of the female lifter; asking them to become weaker so they won’t bend the bar too much, is not a viable option.
Figure 4. Contrasting space limitations of the sleeve (from left) a 15 kg bar and on the right a male bar with female barbell loaded to 190 kg and male barbell loaded to 195 kg. Charniga photos
The 1,310 mm dimension of the grasping area between the inside surface of the collars stands out as the most irrational dimension of the 15 k bar. The idea to make a smaller diameter grip, even though the 25 mm is now too small, is understandable. This is to accommodate smaller hands, so the small girls will not have to strain just to hold on.
However, at least part of the rationale behind the 1,310 mm grasping area between the collars is to accommodate the lifter whose arms are so long he needs to grip the bar with hands up against the inside collars. It is illogical to assume someone with arms that long to require 1,310 mm of space will have hands so small as to need a 25 mm grip.
Consequently, the first dimension of the lady bar that should be altered is the 1,310 mm dimension between the inside portion of the collars. This dimension disproportionally increases the working length of the lady bar. It is highly unlikely anyone will need that much area to grasp the bar. Along with reduction in the 1,310 mm the 30 mm required width of the inside collars should be reduced as well. These two alterations would reduce the working length of the bar and free up space on the sleeve for the strongest lifters.
Figure 5. The strength of both male and female lifters has outstripped the practical use dimensions of the equipment; obvious from the three photos of male barbell 242 kg; female 193 kg and male barbell 261 kg. Charniga photos.
If those reduced dimensions were applied to a bar with a 26 mm diameter the barbell will still be springy, but not excessive.
As far as the collars are concerned the simplest, logical solution is to direct the loaders not to expand the collar. It is unlikely unscrewing the collars after the lever is tightened will contribute anything substantial to holding the weights on the bar. Of course in the long term an expandable collar is unnecessary; eliminating the threaded two piece design will save unnecessary tooling.
There are a number of factors which oscillation of the modern weightlifting barbell such as the amount of weight, the working length of the bar, the width of the hand spacing and so forth. However, the unanticipated current and still growing strength of the modern female weightlifter has antiquated the bar designed specifically for this athlete. This has created safety and performance issues which can only be addressed with design changes in the lady bar.
It is a quirk of fate that the stagnation of the male world records which necessitated the change in weight classes combined with unexpected strength of the female lifter is that the strongest lifters of both genders face the same problem of oscillation. From the pictures the barbell of both sexes is out of room to safely load the weights required of the strongest lifters. For the men it would be appropriate to introduce the already approved 30 kg 450 mm discs and as already mentioned for the lady bar eliminate the threaded collar.