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Dumbbells are some of the most popular pieces of equipment found at gyms everywhere, but they’re also one of the first things people buy when they’re building a home gym. That’s because they offer a versatile strength training regimen that can be done anywhere at home without even needing a dedicated room to workout. But can you buy just any pair of dumbbells or should you first pay attention to your specific needs and fitness goals? To help you zero in on a perfect pair or a set, we analyze the different types of dumbbells available on the market and explain their strengths and weaknesses so that you don’t overspend and will want to use them regularly.
To make it easier we categorize them according to what dumbbells are made of, their shape, and whether they’re adjustable or fixed. Some are great for beginners, while others are rare outside of body builder gyms.
Table of Contents
Should you get fixed dumbbells or adjustable? Fixed are simple and easy to use. You just grab the ones you need off your rack and go. You can’t adjust the weight of each dumbbell, so if you want progressive weight resistance with these, you’ll have to buy several pairs.
They’re pretty much indestructible too. The entire dumbbell is made of cast iron. Some are coated with different types of rubber, some aren’t.
Other than deciding on the weights you need, your biggest consideration when buying ones will be what material you want them to be made of.
These are the simplest type and they’re tough too. There’s no coating to crack or peel. But that lack of coating may be hard on your floor if you drop them too hard. They’re also hard on your hands if you’re a beginner.
If you like to workout outdoors, you’ll want to find a set advertised as “rust-resistant”. Cast iron is notorious for rusting.
One big advantage of cast iron bells, for some people, is their higher range of weights. If you want bells over about 80 pounds, you’ll likely end up with a cast iron set.
Rubber dumbbells are actually cast iron. The “bells” are coated with rubber to protect your floor. This is great if you don’t have a home gym and workout in your living room.
If that strong rubbery smell bothers you, find a set that features virgin rubber, which doesn’t smell as strongly as recycled rubber.
Like cast iron dumbbells, rubber ones aren’t best for storing outside. Direct sunlight can cause the rubber to crack.
Urethane dumbbells are a lot like rubber sets, but the bells are coated with super tough urethane instead.
The main advantage is durability. They may literally last forever. Sunlight won’t affect the urethane, and you can drop them from the top of your house. The urethane won’t crack.
The only real disadvantage is price. These are among the most expensive.
Plain cast iron and rubber and urethane-coated ones are what you’ll find most often in pro-gym centers where you can really focus on body building.
What’s more attractive than chrome? Dumbbells made of chrome look great. But that’s their only advantage.
Contrary to popular belief, chrome can rust because the chrome coating will start to peel over time. You won’t want to keep them in a humid basement gym or outside. And if you want to go above 50 pounds, you’ll have trouble finding a set.
However, a chrome handle will give you a good grip and stability because it often features a knurled grip. You’ll often find dumbbells with a chrome handle and rubber encased weights, like these high weight ones by Rogue or these 50 Lbs and under by Amazon Basics.
These are the smaller colored dumbbells that you often see in department stores. They are made of cast iron and are heavily coated with neoprene.
They’re pretty much indestructible too, but the heaviest ones you’ll find are about 15 pounds. That’s good for cardio and light resistance training because they’re lightweight and comfortable. Neoprene is also easy on the hands, which makes it a good choice for beginners and for doing high repetition sets.
Be aware that they bounce quite a bit when dropped. This can be irritating, and possibly dangerous if dropped from about hip-height.
You’ve noticed that dumbbells come in a variety of shapes. The most popular are round, square, and hexagon. These shapes aren’t just for looks.
Hexagon or Square
These are the most common shape and you’ll have more options as well. The reason is that they don’t roll, even when they’re not racked. In fact, you may not even need a rack for them if you have enough floor space for the number of weights you need.
Another advantage is that you can use them for dumbbell pushups and planks because they’re stable and don’t roll. You can’t do that with round ones.
Round or circular dumbbells can be rolled to where you need them. This is a good thing if you do really heavy lifts. You don’t want to expend your energy carrying the weight across the room if you’re only going to do a few hard reps.
They have a better variety of handle shapes as well.
Adjustable dumbbells have several advantages over the fixed type. But there are a couple of drawbacks as well.
First, you can save some room by having one pair of weights, rather than several, to have the variety of weights you need. This is awesome for small home gyms. And although adjustable dumbbells may seem more expensive, you’ll typically only have to buy one pair. Getting several pairs of fixed dumbbells can really add up.
If you decide on adjustable dumbbells, you’ll have to know which of the three main types to get.
This kind of adjustable dumbbell is the easiest to use. The plates are held in a rack, and the handle stores in the plates.
To select your weight, you typically turn a dial on each side of the handle to match the total weight you want. This locks the plates onto the handle. When you lift the handle, the appropriate weights come up with it. That’s it.
Changing weight is as easy as setting the dumbbell back in its rack and twisting the dials again. These are simple and changing the weight is quick, so you don’t interrupt the flow of your workout.
The drawbacks are price and feel. They’re the most expensive type and they feel a bit rattly.
Clamp-style adjustable bells are the most affordable, but it takes more time and effort to add or remove weight.
The handle has collars set about six to nine inches from the center. You have to manually slide the weight plates onto each side. Then you clamp the outermost plates to secure them all onto the handle.
These are best when budget is a big consideration.
This type of dumbbell generally carries the same advantages and disadvantages as a clamp-type adjustable but the mechanism is different.
Instead of using clamps, you spin a collar onto each end of the handle after adding or removing weight.
Kettlebells are those teardrop-shaped weights with the handle on top, in case you didn’t know. They can be used for many of the same exercises as dumbbells, but there are some differences that you should consider.
Their center of mass is directly below the handle, rather than in the middle of the handle. You can do bicep curls, lunges, overhead presses, and many other free weights exercises. There are also some workouts you can do with kettlebells that would be more difficult with dumbbells, like kettlebell swings.
Just like dumbbells, kettlebells come in a variety of flavors. There are cast iron and coated kettlebells. There are even adjustable ones, which are available with the same locking mechanisms as adjustable weights.
Depending on your routine and goals, kettlebells can be an excellent addition to your home gym.
What To Consider When Choosing The Best Dumbbells
To get the best bang for your buck, you need to figure out what you need in your new bell set before you go shopping. Keep these things in mind.
Of course, you want to keep your goals in mind. Are you looking to bulk up? If so, you’ll need heavy weights. Exactly how much weight you’ll need depends on your starting point.
A good set of adjustable dumbbells with a range of up to 50 pounds would be great for strength training. For fixed dumbbells, look for a set with 10, 20, 30, and 40-pound pairs for a smooth progression.
If you’re trying to lose weight, tone up or gain endurance, a lighter set will work. Test out some dumbbells in the five to 15-pound range.
Most people go with hexagonal dumbbells. The main reason for this is that they don’t roll around.
Another good thing about the hex shape is that they can be used for planks and dumbbell-assisted pushups, as mentioned earlier.
Square dumbbells are harder to find, but they function the same way hex-shaped ones do.
Choose round dumbbells if you lift heavy weights and want to roll them around.
If you’re worried about your floor, you’ll want some kind of coating on that iron. If you need to go cheap, go with rubber. If you can spend a bit more, price a urethane set. They last longer, so you’ll get a better overall value.
For indoor gyms where the floor isn’t a concern, cast iron dumbbells are often a good choice. They cost less than coated dumbbells of the same weight.
For cardio and light resistance training, check out some neoprene dumbbells.
If you love that chrome shine and don’t need more than around 50 pounds, go with chrome.
Adjustable dumbbells of the locking dial type are available up to about 70 pounds, however most max out at around 55 pounds. You can find a few clamp or spin-lock sets that go up to 90 pounds. If you need more than that, you’ll have to go with a fixed set. But 55 pounds is a good weight for most people and most workouts. You should only need more than that if you are trying to build some serious muscle.
Fixed cast iron sets come in at up to 200 pounds per dumbbell. Remember that rubber and urethane dumbbells are the same as cast iron. They just have a coating on the weights. The handle is almost always metal. That’s good, because you’ll probably want some knurling in the above 55-pound range.
Neoprene dumbbells max out at about 15 pounds. And of course, chrome dumbbells don’t come higher than 50, but you can get a good set of chromes down to 3 pounds for your cardio. You’ll look good while jogging or power walking with them.
You want a good, solid grip on your handle so that you don’t injure yourself if it slips out of your hand or even a little bit within your grip. But you want it to be as comfortable as possible as well.
Cheaper sets often have straight handles. This is fine, but you may want some kind of contour. This is mostly about personal preference. Contouring offers a much more ergonomic grip. That can prevent soreness in your hands. But too much of a contour may make for a poor grip, especially for large hands.
Knurling, that etched diamond pattern often seen on barbell bars, offers an outstanding grip, but they can be uncomfortable. Smooth rubber grips are easier on the hands, but they can be slippery when your hands get sweaty.
Most trainers recommend knurling for heavier weight and rubber for lighter workouts. But again, it comes down to personal preference. Knurling can be pretty hard on your hands, but you’ll get a much better grip than any smooth rubber material can give you. To ensure your skin isn’t ripped to shreds, you can wear gloves.
Take a trip to your local gym or fitness shop and try out some handles, if you can. Be sure to load the weight you’ll be using onto the handle before testing them out if you’re trying adjustable dumbbells.
Available Storage Space
Most of us who workout at home have a limited amount of space to exercise. That means we have to be careful about how much room our equipment takes up. Even if you have your own home gym, the other pieces of equipment might need any extra bit of space you might have.
Adjustable dumbbells are by far the most compact option. One adjustable set takes up slightly more room than a set of large fixed dumbbells.
Fixed take up quite a bit of room if they’re stored on the floor. This is especially true if you have several pairs of dumbbells. You could always get a dumbbell rack, but honestly, they don’t save much space. They have to have a large footprint to be stable enough to support all that weight.
If you’re short on space, you may want to consider an adjustable set. If you go with a locking set, like Bowflex’s, you won’t have to worry about storing your plates. Otherwise, you’ll either have to stack your weight plates or get a leg rack for them.
Advantages Of Dumbbells Over Barbells
Many of us don’t have the luxury of owning both a barbell and dumbbells. There could be several reasons for this. Cost is a big factor, especially for those who are just getting started out and are getting their equipment together.
Space is another consideration for those of us who workout at home. A bench and bar can take up a lot of room.
Dumbbells eat up less space than a barbell setup. Read on for a few other advantages that dumbbells have.
Unilateral exercises involve only one side of the body. For dumbells, this means single-arm exercises. You can’t do that with barbells. This kind of workout improves balance and works your core stabilization muscles.
You can also focus on your weaker arm, which is usually your non-dominant arm. Working one arm at a time also indirectly stimulates the other arm. This is called cross-education of muscles, and it’s especially useful for rehabilitation after injury.
Focus on Stabilization
Your stabilizing muscles are found in your core and back, and they attach to your spine. They are the muscles that keep you upright when standing. It’s much easier to focus on these muscle groups with dumbbell exercises than with a barbell since you don’t usually need to worry about losing your balance while lifting dumbbells.
We could list out a bunch of good dumbbell stabilization exercises, but the truth is that they all work your stabilizers.
Avoiding Muscle Imbalances
This ties in with the advantages of unilateral exercises. Muscle imbalances occur when you work out one side of your body, in this case, one arm, more than the other. This can happen easily with a barbell because your dominant arm will always tend to do more of the work to lift the bar.
With dumbbells, it’s easy to work your non-dominant arm muscles harder to avoid an imbalance.
Tips for Using Dumbbells Safely
Investing in dumbbells is one way to start building strength and muscle. But there are always risks involved, as with any exercise. Beginners often complain of joint pain and that’s usually because of poor form and technique. Here are some safety tips for dumbbell use. These align with any safety tips you should follow for strength training.
- When first starting out, don’t worry about repititions. Instead concentrate on form and move slowly through each exercise. Stand in front of a mirror if possible. If muscle toning or building endurance is your main goal, then don’t try to do more than 10 to 20 repetitions of a each exercise. If you’re building strength muscle mass, then something like 8 repetitions should be enough. You can add more weight in small increments over time once you start finding it easy and you don’t feel any strain or pain anywhere.
- Start with lighter weights to get a feel of how your muscles and joints respond. Light weights are easier to control without jerking or moving your core.
- When doing an exercise, keep your back straight and don’t lean forward and back as you do your reps. You may tilt forward slightly if that feels more natural to you but you have to remain in that position and not use your back to get momentum. Beginners find this to be a good starting position. If you find that hard to do, stand against a wall and make sure your shoulders and buttocks are always in contact with the wall. Also pull your stomach in but keep breathing.
- When straightening your arm with the dumbbell, don’t lock out your elbow. Just straighten it enough to extend your bicep and then bring it back in.
- Lock your wrist so that it is straight at all times and avoid bending it.
Exercises like the bench press, bicep curl, shoulder press, bent-over row, one-arm swing, lunge, calf raise, triceps kickback, lateral raise, lying dumbbell fly, glute bridge, Russian twist, weighted sit-ups, tricep extensions, etc., are all good dumbbell exercises. Some of these will require a weight bench to do. If you’re short on storage space check out a foldable weight bench.
FAQs About Dumbbells
If you’re a woman and a beginner, you should generally start with 2 to 3 pounds in each hand. Men can start with 4 to 5 pounds each. You should be able to do 2 or 3 exercise sets of 10 repetitions each while feeling the challenge. Once you increase repetitions to 15 to 20 and it no longer feels challenging, you can increase the weights.
While it is good to do some weight training everyday, it’s better to alternate working out different muscle groups with different dumbbell exercises so as to avoid the risk of injury or plateauing. It’s a good idea to work out a split routine where you concentrate on one set of muscles on alternate days.
While a single pair of adjustable bells are more compact than several pairs of fixed ones, you’re actually still buying several pairs, each of a different weight. Because they have more components to make them adjustable, they’re more complex to make, which in turn makes them more expensive.
Rubber coated dumbbells are perfectly safe for most people, but if you have a latex allergy you’re better off sticking to plain cast iron for heavy weights, or if you have the budget, choose urethane weights. Neoprene weights are great if you don’t need more than 15 pounds in each hand.
New rubber tends to have a strong odor in the beginning, especially if it is made from recycled rubber. You can wash them to get rid of the smell. Use a light dish soap solution on a rag to quickly scrub them all over and then immediately towel them off before the soap has a chance to get absorbed. This is very important as even the slightest moisture can seep through the rubber and start to rust the cast iron inside or the steel or chrome handle.