Dumbbells are some of the best way to be able to create a whole range of different workouts at home. But which type is best for you?
For the average home exerciser a set of selectorized adjustable dumbbells is the best solution. Adjustable dumbbells are cheaper for the same range of weights as a set of fixed dumbbells. Fixed dumbbells are more durable but more expensive and take up more space.
Learn more about the differences between the types of dumbbells and what is best for you.
Types of dumbbells
Before getting into which type of dumbbell is best for you, we should take a look at which types actually exist. When shopping for dumbbells (or any gym equipment really), things get complicated quickly because everyone is advertising some aspect of their equipment as the best but if you’re not really familiar with the equipment, it’s hard to distinguish if that ‘unique’ feature is actually unique and if it’s any good.
There are a ton of different types and models of dumbbells but most differences are just distinctions without a difference. There are two types of dumbbells that you should know and there are a few important differences between but also inside of those two types.
The two basic types of dumbbells are;
- Fixed dumbbells
- Adjustable dumbbells
Let’s take a look at those two types, what the pros and cons are and what important features they can have.
The basic difference between fixed and adjustable dumbbells is very simple: Adjustable dumbbells are a set of handles with an adjustable amount of weight on them. Fixed dumbbells have the weights fixed to the handles and can’t change.
Fixed dumbbells are the ones you see in pretty much every commercial gym in the world. You’ll see a big rack of different weights, you grab the weight you want to use and that’s it. Very simple and sturdy.
Important features of fixed dumbbells
Manufacturers make always seem like their products are the best. Can’t blame them for that, that’s the nature of marketing. But what are some features to look for that really do make a difference? Here is what you need to know before buying fixed dumbbells.
The most important thing about fixed dumbbells is what they’re made of. There are different parts to a dumbbell. The handle is pretty much always stainless steel. If it isn’t I would avoid that particular set. Rubber gets dirty and can start peeling off. Steel that’s not stainless can start rusting pretty quickly if you don’t keep it perfectly clean and dry. Clean and dry is kind of difficult with something you keep in your sweaty hands.
The materials of the head are also important. Cast iron or other types of steel are a good choice. Some cheap dumbbells can be filled with sand or cement but neither of those are a good choice. Steel is the most durable option.
The outside of the head doesn’t have to be the same as the inside. Often it isn’t Most new dumbbells have an iron head covered in urethane or other type of soft cover. This is a great combination since it prevents the dumbbells from damaging your floor and vice versa. It’s also a bit more comfortable to use and quieter when dropped.
Dumbbells without any type of soft cover aren’t any more or less durable but it’s a different look. Practically they’re more likely to dent your floor and make a big noise when dropped. It’ll also be more susceptible to corrosion although most of the bare metal dumbbells are either coated with something durable or chromed. If you’d like to go back to the 80’s, chromed dumbbells are the way to do it, otherwise there is no good reason to not go for a set that’s covered in urethane.
Shape of the head:
The head of the dumbbell is where the weight comes from. They can be made into a few different shapes. Round and hex are the most common shapes for dumbbell heads. For the functionality of the dumbbell it doesn’t really matter, the only big difference is when you put them down. A round dumbbell will tend to roll a little while hex shaped ones will stay put. It’s not a huge deal but if your floor isn’t perfectly level, hex shaped dumbbells can prevent some irritating situations.
You might think that the hex shaped dumbbells are a little less comfortable to use since they’re ‘pointy’. In real life you don’t really notice the difference. You’d have to push it into your body pretty hard to feel the difference.
Handle thickness and shape:
One last important factor is the thickness of the handle. In general 1.1” (28mm) is the best diameter and most dumbbells will have that thick of a handle although 1”/25mm is common too. This thickness is the right balance between grip and comfort for most people. Thin handles cut into your hands more because the weight is spread out over a smaller surface area. Thicker handles can become difficult for people with normal hands to keep a good grip of. Thinner handles are OK for light dumbbells since the weight won’t cut into your hands as much.
The shape also plays a role. Usually advertised as ‘ergonomically shaped handles’. This means that the middle part of the handle is thicker than the outsides. This helps your hand keep a good grip of the dumbbell especially with sweaty palms. This is a good thing to have on your set although it’s not absolutely necessary.
The dumbbells have to be available in the range of weight you want. Having to buy different sets that look different is just messy. Sure, it’s not that big of a deal and doesn’t influence your workout much but it can be irritating.
For most people that want to do a serious workout, you want a set of dumbbells that ranges from 5 to 50 lbs. with 5 lbs. increments. That’s the basic set you get if you buy a combo so this shouldn’t be too hard to get. Heavier dumbbells than 50 lbs. can be a bit difficult to get. You’ll almost always have to buy them separately and it’s likely they’ll look different. This is hard to avoid unless you buy a really expensive set that is meant for commercial gyms. (and even in commercial gyms I’ve seen many times that the heaviest dumbbells are of a different make and model.)
If the heaviest dumbbell you need is 10 lbs., just get some of the silicone weights. No need to get steel ones.
To quickly recap what you’re looking for in fixed dumbbells;
- Stainless steel handles
- Steel head covered in urethane or other soft material
- Hex shaped
- 1”-1.1” thick handle, ergonomically shaped is a plus
Pros of fixed dumbbells
Here are the pros of fixed dumbbells compared to adjustable dumbbells;
- Sturdy: The only thing that goes wrong with fixed dumbbells is that the head comes loose from the handle. If you buy a high quality dumbbell this isn’t likely to happen and often you can even fix this. Also, if one dumbbell breaks, you’ve still got a whole set of other ones you can use.
- Easy to switch between weights: No need to screw around with weight plates or selector knobs. Just grab the pair you want to use and you’re done.
- Don’t have to buy all at once: While buying a full set of dumbbells 5 to 50 lbs. is a good way to get started, that’s not necessary. You can cherry pick the ones you need in the beginning and save some money. However, in the long run you’ll probably need all of those in the 5 to 50 lbs. range anyways.
Cons of fixed dumbbells
- Expensive: There’s no way around it, a full set of dumbbells costs a lot of money. A range of 5 to 50 lbs. is easily more than $1500 although prices fluctuate quite a bit between models but also over time.
- Take up a lot of space: All the different dumbbells need their own space. You’ll need a rack to put them all on and that takes up quite a bit of room. Getting a multi-tier rack helps a lot but it’s still a decent chunk of floor space. Leaving them on the floor is a bad idea. It looks very messy and if you have any moisture issues, they can corrode. Not to mention the chances you’ll stub your toe or trip over one.
Adjustable dumbbells are a set of handles you can put different weights on. Inside this category there are two subcategories;
- Adjustable dumbbells with a screw collar
- Adjustable dumbbells with a selector mechanism
The absolute cheapest way to get a set of dumbbells with a good range of weights is the to get a set with screw collars. This is basically a very short barbell you can put weight plates on. Those plates are secured in place by a screw collar. The screw collar is basically a big nut. These sets are relatively cheap and share their sturdiness with fixed dumbbells. The drawback is that changing weights is a pain. You’ll have to screw off 4 collars, change the plates and screw them back on. This takes time.
A selector mechanism changes that. Selectorized dumbbells have a knob or a slider that picks up the right plates. You’ll have to place these dumbbells in a base station to do this though. However, if you get into the habit of setting these dumbbells down in the base station, you can change the weights in a matter of seconds, similar to fixed dumbbells.
This convenience comes at the price of durability. Especially with the cheaper versions this is a vulnerable part since it’s usually made from plastic. However, with the high end ones like from Powerblock, the whole mechanism is made from metal. I still wouldn’t drop them from hip height but from bench height is OK. There are very few reports of these mechanisms breaking in the high end models but it is a possibility.
How you handle your dumbbells plays a big role in this of course. If you always set down the dumbbells instead of dropping them, you’ll have no issues. Most people that lift heavy tend to drop their dumbbells at least some of the time though.
Important features of adjustable dumbbells
- Adjustment mechanism: There is a pretty wide range of weight adjustment mechanisms. One that’s made from metal is the most durable although the adjustment itself isn’t always the smoothest on those.
- Weight range: For a good workout a weight range of 5 to 50 lbs. is a good starting point. There are a few selectorized dumbbells that have a weight range up to 70 lbs. but you usually give up some of the lower weights so the range will start at 10 or 20 lbs.
- Shape: Some adjustable dumbbells look more like fixed dumbbells but others are quite different. The different shape is usually a cube with a top and bottom plate with rods connecting them. These can get in the way on some exercises but this type of dumbbell is very strong on the flipside.
Pros of adjustable dumbbells
- Compact: It’s only one set of dumbbells with a base station. So an adjustable set of dumbbells that goes up to 50 lbs. is only slightly bigger than a single set of fixed 50 lbs. dumbbells. That means you save a lot of space which can be useful in a home gym. Also, you can put them away in a cupboard and you won’t see them at all.
- Cheaper: While more complicated, in the end adjustable dumbbells are cheaper than a set of fixed ones. That’s because steel plates are surprisingly expensive and adjustable dumbbells use the same weight for all different settings.
- Easy to use: The selectorized ones are easy to use. Adjusting the weight only takes a few moments. Screw collar ones take a while to change to the point where it’s irritating.
Cons of adjustable dumbbells
- More difficult to change weights: Even though selectorized dumbbells are pretty easy, it’s still a bit more difficult than just grabbing a different pair.
- Bulky: Selectorized dumbbells roughly stay the same size whatever weight you adjust them to. That means at 10 lbs. it’s just as bulky as at 50 lbs. This can be a bit irritating if you use light weights often.
- Mechanisms can break: The adjustment mechanisms are slightly complicated and can sometimes break. This can largely be avoided by buying the higher end ones with metal mechanisms.
- Hard to expand: with some exceptions, you can’t add extra weights to an adjustable dumbbell as you could expand a set of fixed dumbbells. The weight range you buy is what you get. Of course you can still buy other separate dumbbells if you want to go heavier.
- Break one break all: If a fixed dumbbell breaks, you still got all the other ones. If an adjustable one breaks, your whole set is useless.
What’s the best type of dumbbell for you?
In a commercial gym adjustable dumbbells wouldn’t work. Those dumbbells get abused to much to survive in adjustable form for long enough. Also, in a commercial gym you’ll have multiple people that want to use dumbbells at the same time so while an adjustable set of dumbbells can replace a whole set, in a commercial setting you want all those dumbbells to be available separately.
It’s safe to say that for home use, the considerations for what is the right dumbbell are very different. However, fixed dumbbells are better in most ways except they cost a lot more and they take up more space. In a home gym setting those things are very important.
For the majority of people, adjustable dumbbells with a selection mechanisms is the best choice for use at home. They are cheaper and take up less space and when you’re alone you can only hold one set at a time. However, no matter how good the adjustable dumbbells are, the selection mechanism will always be a weak point.
So if you plan on just dumping the dumbbells on the floor after a set, fixed dumbbells are going to live quite a bit longer. For the same set of weights you’ll pay multiple times as much for a fixed set of dumbbells than for adjustable ones though.