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How dropping an empty barbell is relatable to sustainability.

A colleague and I were talking about sustainability the other day. Exploring the word, what it means to her, what it means to me, and where we can take action in our personal and professional lives to improve. During this unraveling of concepts and strategies, she asked me the question, isn’t sustainability what you want to be known for? With an awkward pause, I responded that I want to be known as an individual that always gently placed an empty barbell onto the floor.

Most Olympic-style barbells have a heat-treated stainless steel shaft of the highest quality. This level of excellence ensures that tensile strengths are established to handle a wide spread of weights placed on the bar and reverberate the shock load when the loaded bar hits the ground. This preferred material of choice provides a superior corrosion resistance that allows it to its environment of chalk, sweat, and a litany of cleaning solutions and strategies. Along the bar, knurling that is set into the stainless steel circumferentially allows for an optimal grip regardless of the lift. On the ends of the bar are chrome-coated sleeves that are assembled to the shaft with a collar mounted to the inside allowing the weights to remain axially secured against a designed shoulder. The interface of the sleeves and the shaft is typically fastened with two high-performance needle bearings. The needle bearing is preferred due to its superior radial strength capabilities, weight, and compact design. One bearing is within the sleeve’s collar and the other is within the sleeve at the end of the bar. The four bearings allow the shaft to spin independently of the two sleeves. This independent rotational ability allows the weightlifter to transition their lifts with a grip that spins the shaft and weights on the sleeves minimally rotating. This is the designed intent of the engineered barbell. However, components do fail over time and exponentially affect the functionality of the barbell if it is misused.

For example, when a needle bearing fails, the barbell typically can still be used but with a functional failure. As the barbell stands alone amongst the rack of others, the barbell still looks useful and might even get used on lifts such as a deadlift or a bench press. However, any of the four bearings failing will be immediately felt when your lift requires the shaft to spin independently of the weights on the sleeves. Heavy lifts overhead, like a squat snatch or a clean and jerk, will exert angular rotational forces through your grips that you aren’t expecting.

It’s important to understand what is the optimum performing bar. The goal is simple, the bar sleeve must spin unrestricted at all loads and have a smooth feel with no play up and down on the bar shaft. -

The bearing failures are typically not the result of a poor design, the bearing type selection, or the sealing used to keep chalk and sweat out of its pre-lubricate needle bearings. The failures are not typically due to a lack of preventive maintenance, improper housekeeping, or dropping a heavy lift off your back after just missing a back squat personal record. Instead, the failure of the bearing begins when someone drops the bar empty.

When the noise of an empty bar hits the ground you may get a motherly stare from a coach accompanied by quick one-on-one coaching. Regardless of which bearing impacts the floor first, the bearing has a high potential to be damaged in these events. This is because of a momentary point-loaded force that is applied radially to the bearing that it is not designed to handle. This impact can create surface blemishes and focus areas of work hardening on the needles or the races. This damage then begins to transpose its damage radially into other areas of the races and inevitably into other individual needles. No amount of lubricant or grease can refurbish the bearing and change the course of a premature functional failure. The bearing is forever flawed and is now on the downward slope of the PF Curve requiring a replacement for it to be brought back to its original capabilities.

As a gym may fail to educate on the engineered design or the weightlifter displays a lack of workmanship in using the barbell as designed, the bar will transition from a quiet engineered marvel to a piece of scrap is as loud as a sloppy skateboard buzzing around a driveway. Throw around a barbell that is severely damaged, and you may feel like it is about to fall apart. You will then most likely place it back on the rack, and find another one.

Needle bearings are designed to handle large radial loads due to the individual roller’s large contact areas contacting the race. Therefore, when the bar drops with 100 pounds on each sleeve and seven feet from the ground, the force is exerted from the floor, through the weights, and smoothly transitioned into the bar as it reverberates materialistic characteristics. When the bar with no weight, the bearing absorbs the majority of the blunt forces versus the energy being transmitted into the shaft. Don't drop an empty barbell.

Back to the question of isn’t sustainability what you want to be known for, this barbell example is what sustainability means to me in the manufacturing space. As manufacturers, we have a responsibility to design things with the intention of longevity, use them within the engineered intentions, and understand the undesired consequences when we carelessly or unknowingly misuse them. As sustainability practitioners, we must have the patience to understand the operating criteria, along with challenging others around us to understand the design’s intent.

After placing a barbell down casually many years ago, my coach stopped to explain to me the reasoning for placing it down gently when empty. I immediately realized I had misused the resource and compromised the total time it would remain functional to myself and others. Similarly, to achieve a sustainable world, we need to be a culture that has the patience to explain the waste that is created when someone drops the barbell empty versus loaded. We also need to be a society that has the patience to listen and understand the waste when it is dropped empty.

Quietly placing an empty barbell on the floor is something we can all achieve. If we all become this type of individual or company, we are becoming more in tune with our raw materials, tools, and resources. We become one who understands the consequences when resources are abused or carelessly overconsumed. We can achieve a type of care, respect, and excellence for the resources and resilience around us. Not respecting the equipment we are using to become stronger, will not only limit us but will affect the next person that wants to use the barbell.


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