Dumbbells: Our Buying Guide
Free weights are simple instruments designed for practicing functional fitness. In other words, they’re made for enhancing certain exercises, in order to increase strength, stamina, and improve reflexes. Evidently, the most common free weights used by anyone who wants to get in shape, improve their overall level of fitness, and gain muscle mass, are the dumbbells. These are great to use at home, and almost everyone who has a home gym, has at least a few sets.
However, if you’ve ever been to a fitness store, or have accessed several online stores focused on fitness equipment, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the plethora of free weights available. They come in various shapes, sizes, colors and systems. So, the question is, which ones are the best for you?
In this post we’ll focus particularly on this issue. We’ll put into view the types of dumbbells available, and the most important aspects that you must not overlook when choosing your sets.
Types of Dumbbells
Fixed Weight Dumbbells
As the term suggests, a fixed weight dumbbell consists of one solid piece. The weight heads are either welded onto the bar, or the bar is threaded into the weight heads, pinned and press-fitted. In most fixed weight dumbbells, the weight heads are difficult to remove or replace; the connection between them and the handles is really tight. That’s why these weights can typically take a lot of abuse before they break.
The weight heads of fixed dumbbells are typically made of cast iron. Depending on brand, they can have different shapes. They can be cylindrical, spherical, square etc. However, the most common shape used for the weight heads is hexagonal. Thus, the free weights with hexagonal shaped weight heads are commonly referred to as hex dumbbells.
This type of weights comes with certain advantages. For example, if placed on the floor, they won’t roll away. Also, they’re great for certain exercises, such as dumbbell push-ups, as they offer superior stability, and the user can easily focus on their form rather than equilibrium, which results in a better workout.
Fixed dumbbells can have various coatings on their weight heads and handles, such as corrosion resistant enamels, chrome paint, urethane or rubber. Each type of coating comes with its own pluses and minuses, and we’ll cover those in one of the next sections of this post.
Evidently, in case you’re looking forward to invest in a set of fixed free weights, you should be informed about their advantages and disadvantages.
1. They’re extremely easy to use. They’re pick and go free weights, don’t require any adjustment.
2. They’re extremely sturdy. As opposed to adjustable dumbbells, fixed ones are less likely to break.
3. They’re perfect for P90X or similar workout programs which require the alternance of different weights. Of course, for this you’ll need multiple sets of two dumbbells, but nonetheless, it’s much more convenient to just pick up the right set of two for a specific exercise, rather than adjusting weight.
4. They’re usually smaller than the adjustable ones for almost any weight increment.
5. They don’t make any sounds and don’t wobble when in use.
1. They take a lot of space, as each weight increment is basically a set of two dumbbells with the same weight. So, to keep them organized, a rack is required.
2. A set of several pairs will weigh a lot more than a set of adjustable dumbbells. For example, a set of 5-50 lbs fixed hex dumbbells, with weight increments of 5 lbs, is going to weigh 550 lbs. So, the transport of such a set may not be an easy task.
3. Considering that a certain weight range for a set of fixed dumbbells basically packs a lot of iron, they’re typically more expensive than adjustable dumbbells.
There are many types of adjustable dumbbells, but they can be divided in two main categories: “classic” adjustable dumbbells and “selectorized” dumbbells (or quick-adjustable dumbbells).
Classic Adjustable Dumbbells
The dumbbells with a “classic” adjustment system involve simple bars, threaded or not, with stoppers on each side close to the middle of the handle, and in general, circular weight plates. Depending on the type of bars used, the plates are secured on them via threaded collars or spring locks.
Olympic dumbbell bars feature sleeves with a 2″ (50.8 mm) diameter, and require weight plates with 2″ (50.8 mm) holes. The grip parts of these bars are usually slimmer than the sleeves. Evidently, weight plates with smaller holes than 2″ won’t fit on Olympic dumbbell bars. The sleeves of these bars are simple, not threaded, and the plates are locked onto them with spring collars.
Standard dumbbell bars feature threaded sleeves, with a diameter of 1″ (25.4 mm), which evidently require weight plates with 1″ holes. The weight plates are secured on these bars via threaded collars. You’ll find Standard bars of various lengths, beginning with 14″ (35.5 cm) and up to 22″ (55.8 cm).
Now, along with these two common types of dumbbell bars, Olympic and Standard, you’ll find various other types of bars, which may have a different thickness, and may or may not be compatible with 1″ weight plates. For example, various adjustable dumbbells such as the Yes4All 105 lbs set, feature bars with 1.25″ sleeves, and weight plates with 1.25″ holes. Now, you can load Olympic weight plates onto these bars, but evidently Standard 1″ ones won’t fit.
So as a bit of conclusion here, when you purchase or order dumbbell bars, pay close attention to the diameter of their sleeves, an their compatibility with various types of weight plates.
Weight plates for this type of adjustable dumbbells are typically made of cast iron, with various coatings, such as enamels, rubbers, urethane or chrome. However, you’ll also find cheaper ones, usually made of concrete or other materials, covered by a sheet of vinyl. These are, in general, thicker plates, and you won’t be able to fit as many as cast iron plates, on a given dumbbell bar. They’re also less durable.
1. They’re safe and reliable. Weight plates are usually held very tight on the bars, being less likely to come off, even when you drop them.
2. Space-savvy. For example, one 5-50 lbs dumbbell set with two dumbbell bars, can basically replace 10 sets of hex dumbbells. You don’t need a rack for them. You can either stack weight plates off the bars, in a pyramid, or simply load them all up onto the bars when you finish your workout, in order to save space.
3. Portable. It’s pretty obvious that a 5-52.5 lbs adjustable dumbbell set weighs much less than a 5-50 hex dumbbell set. It will include 110 lbs worth of weight plates, plus the bars which are 10 lbs more. On the other hand, a 5-50 hex dumbbell set weighs 550 lbs.
4. Easy to find extra plates for sale, in case you need to increase your weight range. But in this case, it’s best to opt for a Standard or Olympic set from the start, as they feature standard 1″ or 2″ bars.
5. You can have an off-set weight for each dumbbell, by loading extra plates on one side, in order to achieve a better burn on certain muscles.
1. The loading and unloading of the weight plates may be bothersome for some users. However, this can be remedied by using 2-3 sets of dumbbell bars, and getting the required amount of weight plates on each set for the exercises you want to perform.
2. If not secured properly on the handles via their collars or spring locks, the weight plates may rattle or click when in use. Some users may find this bothersome as well.
“Selectorized” dumbbells are adjustable free weights that feature various quick-adjustment systems. Each dumbbell comes with a pre-defined number of plates, and typically an adjustment crate. By turning a dial, or moving a pin in order to select a specific number of weight plates on each side, you can quickly adjust the weight of such a dumbbell. Thus, when picking up the dumbbell, only the selected number of plates will remain attached on the axle of the dumbbell, the rest remaining on the crate. Two good examples of “selectorized” adjustable dumbbells are the Bowflex 1090 and the PowerBlock Elite.
Depending on brand, “selectorized” dumbbells may have different constructions. But in general, most of them feature “internal” elements that lock and sustain the weight plates onto the handles. These elements are often made of plastic. So, if you drop the weights or put too much pressure on them, they may break, resulting in plates falling off. Thus, if you want a set of this sort to last, you’ll have to treat them with a little bit more care than other dumbbells.
The weight plates used for these dumbbells are usually made of steel, featuring an urethane, or heavy duty plastic coating, to which the sustaining parts attach during adjustment. However, there are quick-adjustable dumbbells such as the Bayou Fitness ones, which use all-metal weight plates, with a chrome or enamel finish.
1. Evidently, the number one advantage of this type of dumbbells is the quick-adjustment system. If a “normal” type adjustable dumbbell takes approx. 30-50 sec. to adjust, adjustment in a “selectorized” dumbbell takes only 4-5 sec. Thus, they are great to use if you want to follow certain workout programs, which require dumbbells of various weights for each set of exercises.
2. Space-savvy. Depending on model, one set of fast-adjustment weights can replace 10 or even more sets of fixed weights. You don’t need a whole rack for them, usually the trays they come with offer the required storage place.
3. Portable. Evidently, there’s much less weight in an adjustable dumbbell set than in a non-adjustable set with the same weight range.
4. Sleek design. Most quick-adjustable weights feature a really pro look, which for some users can be quite a motivation factor.
1. Bulkiness. Evidently, since one handle is made to hold multiple weight plates, it’s pretty long, usually 15.5″ (39.3 cm) or even longer. Evidently, if you want to workout with a weight of 10 lbs for each dumbbell, the length of the axle will remain the same. Thus, the 10 lbs adjustable dumbbell, will be much longer and bigger than a 10 lbs hex dumbbell.
2. Less sturdy than classic adjustable dumbbells, due to the internal elements which sustain the weight plates.
About Dumbbell Handles
When it comes to dumbbell handles, there isn’t much to be said. However, there are several aspects to be mentioned. First of all, there are two main types of handles: steel-made, knurled with a chrome or paint finish, or handles covered by a sheet of urethane, neoprene or rubber foam. Now, a seasoned user may not have any problem at all with just about any type of handle. But for a beginner, handles with a steel, knurled grip may be to abrasive to the hands. A pair of gloves can of course, solve the problem, but it’s important to be aware of this aspect.
On the other hand, padded handles with various materials offer more comfort and a superior grip. But it’s pretty obvious that a more sophisticated handle will be reflected in the price.
Handles can also be cylindrical and arched. Evidently, arched handles are friendlier to the hand. Most “selectorized” dumbbells feature arched handles, while Standard or Olympic dumbbell bars have cylindrical handles with a knurled finish.
About Weights Coatings
As we’ve mentioned above, depending on brand or series, dumbbells may come with various types of coatings on their weight plates or weight heads. The most common are: paint, chrome, rubber, vinyl and urethane. Each type of coating has its own pluses and minuses.
Paint. In general, the paints used for dumbbell weight plates are corrosion-resistant, oil paints. Evidently, the cheaper the dumbbell set or plates, the cheaper the paint. Cheaper paint may peel off after a while. But on the other hand, the weights can be re-painted.
Chrome. Similar to paint, the chrome finish for various weight plates prevents them from catching rust. It also gives the dumbbells a shiny, sleek look which for some can be quite a motivation factor. But on the other hand, depending on the chrome coating quality, it can peel off just like regular paint, especially if the weights are dropped on a hard surface. Chrome plates or dumbbell sets that feature chrome weight plates, are usually a bit more expensive than painted ones.
Rubber. In general, dumbbells with rubber coating on their weight plates or weight heads have a professional look. Rubber not only offers rust protection, it also protects your floors from damage in case you drop them. But on the other hand, rubber coatings may come with a few downsides. Depending on the type of rubber, it may leave marks on your clothing or floors. Also, rubber may emanate an odor at least for a while. So, if for example you want to order multiple sets of rubberized hex dumbbells, and place the rack in a small room, the room will probably be filled by the rubber odor, which will persist for a while. Lastly, rubberized dumbbells are typically more expensive than the ones with paint or chrome.
Vinyl. This is a type of coating used typically for concrete weights, not cast iron. These types of weights are usually cheaper than the cast iron ones. Considering that concrete has a lower density than iron, these types of weights are usually bulkier. Of course, depending on brand, there are more or less durable weight concrete / vinyl plates. But in general, these don’t offer the sturdiness of cast iron weights. Especially if constantly abused, they will eventually fall apart. However, vinyl is also used on fixed, typically small weight dumbbells, the ones that are used in general for aerobic exercises.
Urethane. Urethane is far more resistant than most plastics. It has a specific level of elasticity and sturdiness. This type of coating is typically used on “selectorized” dumbbells, covering steel or cast iron weight plates. Not only it gives them a more compact aspect, it also typically plays an important role in the locking and sustaining system of the plates. But nonetheless, even though urethane is a durable material, this type of weights can sustain damage is not used with a little bit of extra care.
Other Aspects to Consider
Now that you know the most important aspects regarding dumbbells, there still are several aspects to consider before commiting to a certain set. These are:
Type of Training
There are many types of exercises that involve dumbbells. But depending on the type of workout you’re aiming for, certain types may suit you better than others. For example, if you want to follow a training program such as P90X, it’s best to opt either for a set of selectorized dumbbells such as the PowerBlock Elite, or for multiple sets of two dumbbells. This way, you’ll be able to quickly swap between weights and alternate exercises. Classic adjustable dumbbells may take too long to adjust. But still, you can opt for 2-3 pairs, load them up with the plates you want for the next exercises, and thus minimize the need for adjustment.
On the other hand, if you want to perform various aerobic exercises using lighter, 2.5-5.0 lbs dumbbells, it’s best to opt for fixed weight dumbbells. These are regularly smaller than the adjustable ones, and won’t hinder your movements in any way.
This is an aspect to consider especially if you want quick adjustable dumbbells. Some of them only allow 5 lbs adjustment increments. Evidently, that will be a problem if you want increments of 2.5 lbs. Also, various selectorized adjustable dumbbells don’t offer the possibility to create an off-set weight. Even though not all users may want this, it’s still an aspect that you shouldn’t overlook.
Your Available Space
A set of dumbbells, adjustable or not, does not exactly take the space an elliptical machine or treadmill would take. Even if you opt for a set of hex dumbbells with a rack, it still shouldn’t be more than 4′ (122 cm) long and 20″-25″ (51-63 cm) wide. But still, if storage space is an issue, it’s definitely an aspect to consider. In this case, a set of selectorized adjustable dumbbells may be the best choice.
When it comes to price, there are several aspects to know. First of all, a set of all-metal, basic dumbbells, without any fancy features, shouldn’t cost more than $2 per pound. Second of all, most “selectorized” adjustable dumbbell sets do cost a little bit more than a full set of non-adjustable dumbbells with the same weight range. Third of all, vinyl dumbbells are the cheapest. For example, a 100 lbs set of vinyl dumbbells may cost up to 30% less than a set of cast iron dumbbells with the same weight range. So, if you think you can treat them with care, and the extra thickness of weight plates is not a problem, then vinyl weights may not be a bad investment.
A Few Recommendations…
Since in this post we’ve covered the three main types of dumbbells, with all their pros and cons, for the last part we’ll point out some of the best choices that you can make in terms of brands.
In case you haven’t known, Bowflex is a brand name for a whole series of fitness equipment not just free weights, marketed and sold by Nautilus Inc. There are several types of free weights under the name of Bowflex, but so far, the Bowflex 552 adjustable dumbbells benefit from the highest ratings and best reviews.
The Bowflex 552 dumbbells feature a “selectorized” adjustment system, with weight increments of 2.5 lbs, and a weight range of 52.5 lbs for each dumbbell. Adjustment system consists of a dial on each side of the dumbbell. In other words, it gives you the possibility to also create an off-set weight is you want. They come with the adjustment trays… Read Full Review.
PowerBlock is a company focusing on adjustable free weights, benches and other accessories for exercises that involve the use of free weights. Their adjustable dumbbells feature an unconventional construction and adjustment system, involving several sets of weight plates connected by metallic rods, which attach to the handle via a connector pin.
The company has been around since 1993, and so far they have released several adjustable dumbbells series. The Elite series, even though it’s not the most recent, it still is one that benefits from many positive reviews, due to the fact that they are made of steel, and they’re manufactured in the U.S.
One of their dumbbell sets that so far benefits from a lot of positivity is the PowerBlock Elite 70 set. As the name suggests, these are dumbbells with a weight range of 5-70 lbs. This set actually replaces 22 pairs of fixed dumbbells… Read Full Review.
Body Solid is a company that offers various types of fitness equipment, including free weights of various sorts, gym systems and cardio training machines such as treadmills and ellipticals. In terms of free weights, they offer different dumbbells and barbells sets. The dumbbell set that stands out is the SDRS550.
The Body Solid SDRS550 is set of hex dumbbells, with a weight range between 5-50 lbs. It includes 10 dumbbell sets of two, with increments of 5 lbs. These dumbbells are the classic type, with a knurled, arched handle, and rubberized weight heads. The set is available with the GDR363-RFWS rack… Read Full Review.