Bob Karhan's Custom Barbell Podcast Interview
John Wood: We have Mr. Bob Karhan from Cleveland, Ohio on the line. Bob, thanks for joining us.

Bob Karhan: Thank you for having me, John.

JW: Bob, a lot of people are not familiar with you, so before we get started in the barbell information, can we have you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got started training.

BK: Sure, I got interested in training because I knew this kid in fourth grade who used to be a total wimp and who ended up getting a lot stronger. I asked him about it and he said someone had given him a set of barbells; back then nobody knew what the heck they were. I’m 66 now so this would have been back in the 50’s. I went to his house and saw barbell training for the first time was impressed for what it did for him, so that’s how I originally got interested. I kept at it and got a little obsessed with it over the years.

JW: Seems like a lot of people have a similar story, they get turned on to lifting by a friend or a classmate and it builds from there -- and then here we are fifty years later.

BK: Yeah, exactly. Back then a lot of people who wanted to discourage you if you wanted to lift weights. My father always said that if I trained, I’d get so muscular that the muscles around my heart would get so strong that they would crush my heart. This was a constant belief back then but obviously I haven’t died yet. Or maybe they just didn’t get muscular enough, I don’t know. So from there, I just really got into it and had almost an adrenaline high to train. That’s really how it felt a lot of the time, I got really excited to lift barbells. The thought of fighting it out and grinding out reps was something that I really enjoyed.

JW: …and eventually you were able to become a performing strongman.

BK: Right, I started out doing some work for the York Barbell Company for two years until their management changed. Dennis Rogers really helped me out with some training ideas and so did John Brookfield. I used to go around to a lot of schools to talk and did a lot of shows at prisons. With the assistance of John Black, a powerlifter of note, I traveled around speaking and demonstrating feats of strength. This kind of thing always went over really big in the prisons, I will say. I used to perform some strongman feats and do some heavy barbell lifts. We went to a lot of prisons all over the Midwest.

JW: What kinds of feats did you perform at the prisons?

BK: A lot of times, I’d bend a steel bar in my mouth. I’d take a piece of half inch hot rolled steel and cut it down. I think the shortest bar I ever bent in my mouth was 38 inches and that would just rattle my jaw something awful. Normally I’d stay at about 42 inches. Through all the times I have done this feat, I broke five crowns in my mouth. Thank God I know a dentist who owed me some favors who took care of me. Breaking teeth gets annoying after a while, bending stuff in your teeth just destroys everything in your mouth. I don’t do that kind of stuff today, but I did it for a good 15 years.

One of the other things that I used to do was to break a set of police handcuffs - that was the hardest feat I ever did. It was brutally difficult to do. Dennis Rogers helped me out a lot with that, not that I was as proficient as he was with that feat but I could do it. I could roll frying pans into tubes, like he does, doing the 3-pan roll and all the other stuff was one of my favorites. The bed of nails feat was also a good one. That wasn’t a strength thing obviously but it always went over really well and the crowds loved it. I used to drive nails with my hand through boards, like you’ve seen Dennis do. I used to drive a nail through two 1-inch boards but I never did it through a frying pan like Dennis. I had a few physical issues with my shoulder which eventually had to be fixed through surgery but anyhow, that’s the stuff that I would normally do for a show. I’d also sometimes do some heavy barbell presses behind the neck or something with dumbbells, et cetera.

JW: Not many people can say they have ‘performing strongman’ on their business card…

BK: Yeah, I suppose not (laughs). I performed up until I was around 58 years old, or so. I did a full program until I was 56 or 57 but after that, I’d arbitrarily pick things like rolling frying pans mostly so we didn’t have a lot to carry in. That’s a big objective, when you perform in a prison or elsewhere, whatever you drag in you have to drag out. Eventually I had to have a shoulder surgery; my supraspinatus was just hanging by a thread. After the surgery, I’ve been able to come back quite a bit which is pretty good for a 66 year old guy.

JW: Why don’t we switch gears a little bit can you tell us about how you got started making your own barbells?

BK: Sure, in 1972, if you watched the Olympics, the great Alexeev got out there and pressed like 521 or something like that. As I watched this, I was looking at the bar and I said, “my god, the bar just takes off like a rocket off his shoulders.” I watched the thing bend and snap right up. I didn’t press 521, but I was in the 300’s then and I never had a bar take off like that one did. I figured there must be some way metallurgically to make a barbell that could do the same thing. I worked in a met lab at the time and started working on different things over the years. I was in no particular hurry but I experimented with different heat treating and types of steel and came up with some interesting results. When you perform, you want to make the lift as easy as you can on your body, sometimes you have back to back performances and when you’re older, you have to push a limit to make it impressive for the audience.

JW: So your goal was to come up with a barbell that had a lot more whip to it, that was more “live” so you could catch it on the bounce and allow you to lift a little more weight on certain lifts.

BK: Exactly, that pretty well sums it up.

JW: We’ve got several of your prototype and custom barbells available which are made of different types of steel, different factors involved. Bob, can you give us a little more detail on what makes these bars unique?

BK: Basically every bar I’ve ever done is made with aerospace stainless steel and heat treated in an aerospace furnace so everything is very precise, about as precise as you can get. I’ve messed with different heat treats, different steels, sometimes different diameters and that’s how those bars came about. These are the same firms that do work for Lockheed and Boeing and those kinds of places. Anything that they would do for a barbell would be way beyond what is normally expected.

JW: The bars we have here from you are all a little different. I know the diameters vary between 1 inch to 1-1/8 inches and as far as how they behave during some lifts and the overall feel you are talking about barbells that you are definitely not going to find at your local sporting goods store.

BK: Exactly, these bars are extremely durable. Besides being extremely flexible, they can also take a beating. I’ve certainly never had one bend. They are made to really whip. It depends on the weight you have loaded up, but the ones in the 200,000 pound tensile have a whip a little bit less than an Eleiko bar. I’ve seen a lot of bars dumped in very odd fashions and they always stayed straight. The bars that are 300,000 pound tensile have a tremendous amount of whip to them. If you learn how to handle the whip, the bar will take off like it’s jet propelled.

JW: It also seems like, at least to me, and I’ve trained with one of these bars for over a decade now, that part of the appeal is the feel of the bar, which is pretty unique especially when compared to any other bar, and it’s also just a lot of fun to train on something so different.

BK: Yeah, that’s why I love lifting on a these bars. There’s other bars I like too, not just my own but I know that what I’ve done is to get the best I could out of these different steels. So that’s what makes these barbells rather unique, the durability and flexibility. It also depends a lot of the type of lifts you are doing. Barbells can be heat treated to do anything I’d want them to do, I mean, if I wanted a stiffer bar I could have done that, if I wanted more flexibility, I could have done that. Everything I did was for the lifts I really worked on.

JW: The bars with a lot of whip to them would be very beneficial if you are going to lifts like cleans, push presses, jerks, that type of thing. These bars really lend themselves more to the quicker, explosive lifts.

BK: It depends on the individual and how explosive you are, let’s put it this way, if you use one of these bars for squatting, you are just going to get driven into the ground. They are way too whippy for any of that type of lift with a heavy weight. I know I’ve made eight, nine and ten footer custom barbells for your dad. Those things are all over the place but once you learn how to control the whip and handle it, you can make everything look easy.

JW: Those bars are definitely a whole different experience from anything anyone else has ever done with a normal barbell, as I’m sure you know.

BK: Those long bars took a long time to do.

JW: At least one of your bars that we have you said is more of a Powerlifting barbell because it is stiffer than the others.

BK: Yeah, the bar that you have which is an inch and an eighth is more of a bar for multiple types of lifts than the other bars. Some are an inch and a sixteenth inch thick, some are right at one inch. Any bar that is 1-inch thick is really going to have a live feel, of course, the others ones will too depending on what kind of weight you have on them and the lifts that you do.

JW: One of your bars has stainless steel ends and needle bearings which is not a combination that you see very often.

BK: Right, that’s the 28 millimeter bar. We’ve tried that one with a lot of Olympic lifters and it was well accepted. Because of the machining, the cost is very high. It puts it out of the reach of the normal trainee.

JW: That bar would kind of like a high end set of golf clubs, above and beyond what the typical guy would need but if you are looking for a barbell that is pretty special, this is one of the only examples of such a bar in the world.

BK: Right. That is a very unique bar with the ends being stainless steel. Sometimes I just made something just to make it and see how it turned out and that was a good example; with the stainless ends and bar. I never worried too much about the weight of the bars. All those bars were tested for flexibility first, not like trying to make them for production or having them weight a specific poundage. That would have been a bunch of extra unnecessary work, we only focused on the flexibility.

JW: And because they are custom and prototype bars, they really aren’t certified with any federations but that is beyond the scope of what you were trying to accomplish.

BK: Right, exactly, the bars I made up were mostly just for my strongman performances but there were other guys who did deadlifting and all kinds of other lifts too.

JW: Also, because you put these bars through their paces, some have a few dings.

BK: Yeah, a few here and there.

JW: Because they are prototypes and got tested, this is pretty well expected.

BK: They have all been tested in several ways just to see how they perform when we drop them or do whatever with them.

JW: Ultimately, if someone is looking for a unique feel, one of these bars will be right up their alley.

BK: I would think so. The guys that I train with thought that the feel was totally different than anything else they had tried before. I’ve trained on Berg barbells out of Germany, Schnell barbells out of Germany, Eleikos and everything else and these bars are different than any of those.

JW: I know you’ve got some guys who train with one of your bars who keep it in the closet and only takes it out for Olympic lifts just because of how unique it is.

BK: Yeah, they do that. There’s all kinds of lifts and lifters out there. Somebody is always going to use a unique bar for certain things only.

JW: It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to train with a bar of which is the only one like it in existence.

BK: Sometimes I’d heat treat one or two at a time, it’s not economically feasible to do that but I tried all different values to see how they behaved with different times and temperatures. We fooled around with all kinds of variables. The guy I worked with the guy in the aerospace industry and I’d ask him his opinion on different things. He wasn’t in the barbell business, they usually make jet parts but they have a certain amount of knowhow about some of the steels I used. We’re talking about types of steel that are not familiar to most people but they are well known in the aerospace industry.

JW: This is definitely a unique opportunity and what we are going to do on the website is to go through each of the bars and highlight their specs and people that want to take action will have the opportunity to do so.

BK: It would be good for people to tell you how they want to train with the bar so they can be fitted to the right thing. You don’t want someone to end up with a barbell outside of what they are training for.

JW: We will be very upfront and forthcoming on the specs of each barbell so people will know exactly what they are getting. We will also make some suggestions, like the thicker barbell for more of a powerlifting emphasis. The whippier 300,000 pound test bars will be more conducive to Olympic style weightlifting and explosive lifts.

BK: Right, and if anyone has any questions on the bars, please let me know. I’ll be happy to answer them any time.

Bob Karhan's Custom Barbell Podcast Interview