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Types of dumbbells

Types of dumbbells
Want to know more about the various types of dumbbells there are? which ones are better for home use and the things to consider before you purchase your dumbbells? Well this article will help answer those questions and help you make a decision on which one best suits your needs.

Brief history of the dumbbell

Man has been exercising for centuries and has come up with many ways to train the muscles of the human body. There has been many types of handheld weights designed and used going back some two to three thousand years previously. The term dumbbell is said to be from the use of a bell like weight, that had no inner striker, hence the term ‘dumb bell’, while the humble dumbbell as we see them today with weights and a handle in between them possibly appeared around three hundred years ago.

Why are dumbbells so popular?

With a good set of dumbbells you can do all the exercises you need for getting into or keeping in shape or even build a great physique. They allow unilateral movement, can help create a balanced physique by working your weaker side equally and also work your stabiliser muscles quite effectively.

Dumbbells can be inexpensive and take up little room and so are ideal for the home trainer. Working out at home means you are not tied to a gym, meaning you can work out when it is most convenient for you.

General things to consider

Their intended use

When looking at purchasing dumbbells you firstly need to know what type of training you want to do with them now and in the future. Are you going to be using them for general fitness/aerobic workouts or are you looking to lift heavier weights to build muscle? The type of exercise you want to do may also dictate the type you choose to buy, such as some weights are better for swinging about while others may become loose or be too bulky and unstable.

Dumbbell adjustability

You need to consider how much weight you need now and think you may need later. What is the lightest weight you will want and what would you expect the heaviest to be? If you intend to build muscle, you will need dumbbells able to be gradually increased to a heavy enough weight to keep you progressing.

The adjustable increment amounts should also be considered. Some dumbbells have large jumps of 5 lb increments, while others will allow smaller increments.

Some of the above will depend on what exercises and type of training you want to do and if you have access to other training equipment, such as barbells, so may not want to do your heaviest work with the dumbbells but use either barbells or machines for the heavier work.

Materials used

The material used is also worth looking at. You can buy the following:

Cast iron – most traditional weights are plain old cast iron with a durable paint finish on them, which is often black or grey. Be aware though that they can mark your floor, so use a rubber mat or carpet. Also if you keep these in damp out-buildings they can rust eventually, especially if the paint becomes chipped.

Chrome coated – these can look great and are also very traditional. Again as these have a hard surface finish they can also mark your floor and the chrome can also chip if banged about, which can also expose the metal to become rusty in damp buildings.

Vinyl coated – some smaller fitness style dumbbells have a vinyl coating over iron weights. They are generally hard wearing. However when you sweat they can become slippery.

Vinyl – some weights are simply sand filled vinyl plates. The plates tend to be a lot larger than the cast iron plates of the same weight and so take up more room, but are more friendly on your floor. The plates are normally loaded onto a hollow steel bar and are usually much cheaper to buy than other types of dumbbells.

Neoprene coated – these are comfortable to hold due to the soft texture of neoprene and won’t slip in your hand when you sweat. One thing to note is that neoprene is made with chemicals in the material and often comes with a warning, do your own research if you have concerns.

Rubber coated – these are great for reduced noise, protecting your floor, used outside or in a garage as they wont rust, although they can split or chip when used on rough flooring.

Urethane (polyurethane) coated – this is a more modern durable coating, that doesn’t tend to damage your floor, but is generally more expensive than other coated dumbbells.

Other hard durable coatings – there are a few other modern coatings on some dumbbells, however the manufacturers seems to label them mostly as just a durable coating and not say what they are.

Note: some vinyl, rubber and neoprene coatings can smell, but this generally will fade over time.

Weight/plate shape

You may want to consider the shape of the plate depending on the exercises you intend to do. While most standard weight plates are round, many are either hex shaped or a combination of curved and straight edged. If you intend to do exercise that places the dumbbell on the floor, a straight edged dumbbell will not roll away.

Collar type

Again how you intend to use a weight may decide what type of dumbbell set you get and the type of collar it has. This mostly applies to adjustable dumbbells that require the weight plates to be changed to increase or decrease the weight needed. If you intend to use a weight overhead, I’d recommend the spinlock type over a sprung collar or tool/key lock type.

Speed of change

If you intend to do exercises that require a regular change in weight, either with a single exercise or going from one exercise to another that requires more or less weight, then you will want to be able to make the necessary weight change in a reasonable amount of time. Some dumbbell systems can be quite quick, while others can take too long. Alternatively you have the option to buy several pairs of dumbbell sets, see below for more details of the various systems.


A dumbbell has a bar with a central handle. The length and thickness of the handle can vary quite a bit. The wider the handle the more unstable the weight is in your hand, too narrow and it could be uncomfortable or the weight plate may get in the way on certain exercises. Some handles are also too thin or too thick, especially if you intend to wear gloves. The handles can also have a rubber surround or are knurled steel for extra grip, although wearing weight training gloves can be used in any case. Also some may come with the ability to rotate to allow the weight to freely spin. Standard dumbbell handles have a 1″ diameter bar, while Olympic dumbbell handles have a 2″ outer bar for the 2″ Olympic holes in their plates. Best to stick to the standard 1″ handles, unless you already have enough Olympic weight plates.


Finally comes the cost. Obviously a single pair of dumbbells will be cheaper than several sets of dumbbells, but this comes down to their intended use (and how much space you have for them).

If you have a limited budget, but want a good set for continued progress then a basic adjustable set that you can buy more plates for later may be the best option. If your budget allows you to spend more, then a good set of selectable or dial dumbbells are great. If you have a bigger budget and the space then a full set in a rack is the ultimate choice. Alternatively there is noting stopping you buying different types of dumbbells to suit specific needs.

So with that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the various types of dumbbells available.

Dumbbell options:

Standard adjustable dumbbells

Your basic adjustable dumbbells have been around for a long time and have been one of the most popular pieces of weight training equipment for those working out at home. The set usually consists of two dumbbell handles, weight plates that can have increments as low as 0.25 kg with plates usually going up to 5 kg each although in truth any plate that can fit the handle can be used and a collar that is also needed to hold the weight plate on the handle.

You can buy standard 1″ handles for weight plates with 1″ holes or Olympic handles for the 2″ holed Olympic weight plates. You can also buy weight plates that are made of vinyl and filled with sand, cast iron plates, even slim-line cast iron plates and rubber coated plates.

The handles are either knurled or have a rubber surround for extra grip.

You can get spinlock collars which allows a more secure way to hold the plates in place, although they do take just a little longer to change the plates and they can become loose on occasion. You can also get spring collars for smooth bars, but they are generally not as secure as the spinlock. Tool/key collars can also be used on smooth handles that have a small screw to hold the collar tight against the handle, but again not as secure as the spinlock.

Some extra information and things to consider about adjustable dumbbells: 

  • Increments can be as little as a 0.25 kg plate (2 x 0.25 = 0.5 kg) per dumbbell
  • Sand filled vinyl sets are cheap to buy
  • The slim-line plates can allow more weight to be added to the handle if you want much heavier weights
  • You can still have more than one set and make up lots of dumbbell pairs if you like
  • The spare weight plates will take up floor space
  • There are long and short dumbbell bars available to allow more or less plates to be used
  • Spinlock collars are generally more secure than sprung collars
  • Cast iron is durable, but harder on the floor, although a rubber mat underneath can help
  • There is nothing to break with cast iron plates and a steel handle

Fixed dumbbells (sets)

Fixed dumbbells are usually made up of several sets held on dumbbell racks going from very light dumbbells to some pretty heavy ones over 200 lbs. They are most often found in commercial gyms. They come in various styles and are usually black painted cast iron with steel handles, fully chromed, rubber coated or a hex shape which are normally painted cast iron or rubber coated. Most gyms will use rubberised ones, while the more bodybuilding type gyms can often prefer the iron type.

Some extra information and things to consider about fixed dumbbells:

  • You don’t have to keep changing weight plates or turn any knobs
  • Fast transaction from one weight to another if needed
  • If you are looking to lift heavy dumbbells then these are great for using the knee up technique as they have a flat surface on the end and allow the dumbbell to sit upright on your knee
  • Hex shaped dumbbells allow the dumbbell to stay flat on the ground and not roll about
  • Fixed weight dumbbells are usually more robust and can be used to swing a weight about or use them for body conditioning exercise or even aerobic activity if light enough
  • If you need different weights they can take up a lot of room, you could end up with 20 pairs of dumbbells just to cover 1 to 20 kg at 1 kg increments
  • It could be very expensive due to the pairs of dumbbells you may need
  • The increments could be too large a jump for some people with many fixed sets having 1 kg to 2 kg or 2.5 lbs to 5 lbs increments, when you only want to go up 0.5 kg for a specific exercise
  • Paint on cast iron weights can chip
  • You’ll ideally need a dumbbell rack

Light fitness fixed dumbbells

For casual fitness, aerobics, pilates and conditioning workouts you can also get fixed lightweight fully coated vinyl, rubber or neoprene dumbbells. These can be bought as individual pairs of dumbbells or often as a set from 1lb to as high a 20 lbs and some will also come with a pyramid rack. Some are round, hex shaped or various other shapes.

Some extra information and things to consider about light fitness fixed dumbbells: 

  • Vinyl, rubber or neoprene coating is OK on most floors and they tend to look smart
  • Rubber and neoprene are more comfortable to hold and doesn’t tend to get slippery
  • You don’t have to change weight plates
  • Generally cheap to buy
  • Can be swung as there is nothing that can become loose
  • Vinyl and sweat don’t mix and they can get slippery, gloves will help
  • Limited to the weights you have
  • Cheap neoprene can begin to split
  • Can have a smell from chemicals used in their production

Selectable dumbbells

These are also very popular with home trainers. These allow you to select the weight you want to use via a dial or pin. They come in all sorts of weight nominations, but the most popular are the 2-24 kg or 2.5-25 kg sets. They should come with a floor holder needed to hold the plates upright that are not being used, while there is also usually an option to have a raised stand so you don’t need to lift them off the floor.

Some extra information and things to consider about selectable dumbbells: 

  • Takes up little space
  • Quick and easy to change weight needed
  • Looks smart
  • Strong durable coating over the metal weight plates, but can still get chipped and damaged if knocked about
  • Some of the increments are too large a jump for some exercises as some sets have 2.5 kg/5 lb incremental jumps
  • Most sets are often not heavy enough for the serious lifter, although recently heavier ones have become available, but are expensive
  • The mechanism can break if dropped and become useless, although usually well made if you buy well known brands and look after them
  • Expensive, but in comparison to multiple sets of dumbbells may not be too expensive in the long run
  • Can feel bulky and long
  • Some handles can feel too big/awkward for some
  • High level stands are available for some

Power blocks

These use a frame/cage that holds the weight blocks. When extra weight is needed you add the appropriate block and insert a holding pin in place.

Some extra information and things to consider about Power blocks dumbbells: 

  • Quickish changes for large increments, but much slower for smaller increments
  • Very strong durable coating
  • Bulky if using heavier weights
  • Wont roll on the ground
  • Takes up less space
  • The increments are too large a jump for some exercises at 5 lb
  • Very expensive, but you can add more weight blocks later as you progress and in comparison to multiple sets of dumbbells may not be too expensive in the long run
  • Not always easy to select the correct weight
  • Might not be able to do some exercises due to the position of the handles
  • Good amount of weight can be added with extension bars
  • They come with a long warranty
  • You can get a stand

Racks and stands

There are many types of racks and holders for your dumbbells. Some like the selectable and Power block will either come with or have available purpose built holders and/or stands. While others can be placed in a pyramid, vertical or horizontal rack.


Well there you have it. Decide what best suits your needs and buy once. Just be aware that for the serious lifter that dumbbells have their limitations. They can certainly be used for building a great strong physique, but are not a replacement for barbells when it comes to lifting very heavy weight.

For those looking just to keep fit and healthy at home they are ideal.