Dumbbells are one of the most popular pieces of exercise equipment out there, and have been for a long time.
Benjamin Franklin even wrote, “I live temperately, drink no wine, and use daily the exercise of the dumbbell.” If it’s good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for us!
Dumbbells offer an array of benefits to your overall fitness:
- Enhanced range of motion vs a barbell
- Safer than barbells
- More affordable & compact than a barbell with free weights
- Increased muscle activation and stabilization over time
That’s all well and good until you walk into a gym, or browse an online store, and find there are TONS of different types of dumbbells to choose from.
How do you know which one is right for your workout style?
The types of dumbbells can be broken down simply into what material they’re made from (including iron, neoprene, and chrome), what shape they’re in (including hex and round), and whether they’re fixed or adjustable.
You can perform most exercises with almost any kind of dumbbell, but each type has its own advantages and disadvantages to be aware of.
Let’s take a closer look at each variety of dumbbell and what you should know about them before you buy or use them in a gym.
If you look closely enough, then you have probably noticed that some dumbbells look slightly different from others.
For safety reasons, it helps to know whether you’re using cast iron or rubber equipment.
These dumbbells are made with a cast iron core that’s dipped in neoprene, which is a synthetic polymer.
The neoprene is usually colored, so when you see a brightly colored dumbbell set, it’s usually made from neoprene.
Neoprene is pliable, which makes it more comfortable. It helps immensely if you plan on performing a high number of reps. They’re also ideal if you want to incorporate them into your cardio routine, such as walking on a treadmill.
Strength coach and champion powerlifter Robert Herbst says that neoprene dumbbells have an advantage over other varieties because they don’t rust.
He also advises, “They are more likely to bounce though if you drop them or put them down hard, so they are harder to control.”
Neoprene dumbbells usually weigh between 1 and 15 pounds — they don’t typically come much heavier than that.
The material also tends to wear down quickly.
While they’re great beginner dumbbells, they may not be suitable if you want to lift over 15 pounds.
Cast iron dumbbells
Cast iron dumbbells feature a solid cast iron mold, solid one-piece construction all the way through.
They tend to go up to 120 pounds. So if you’re really looking to ramp up your workouts, cast iron may be the way to go.
A lot of lifters love cast iron because they’re practically indestructible. You don’t have to worry about cracking the material if you drop it on the floor.
You just want to make sure you’re ready to develop some callouses on your hands, because these can be pretty rough.
The main thing to watch out for with this variety is that you don’t want to leave them outside. They rust easily if exposed to moisture.
Rubber coated dumbbells
Rubber dumbbells are actually metal weights that are coated in rubber.
The rubber either comes from tree sap or a synthetic material. But since metal fills the inside, these weights can often get up to 120 pounds.
The rubber is there to protect the floor if you drop it. When there’s only metal, there a risk of cracking the floor.
While you can use these dumbbells for the same exercises as neoprene and cast iron, you should be aware of potential odor. Rubber sometimes lets off a powerful smell, and it can take some time for that stench to dissipate.
Another thing to consider is if you have a rubber allergy. If so, you’ll want to opt for a different material.
Also known as “Beauty Bells,” chrome dumbbells are made out of solid steel.
They’re among the most visually-attractive out of all the dumbbells you will find.
They tend to weigh between 3 and 50 pounds. The weight may not go as high as other materials, but the handle tends to be a lot more comfortable.
They also have a great look to them. It may not matter at the gym, but if you like showing off your home gym to other people, then chrome dumbbells really make an impression.
You also need to watch out for rust with this material. Whatever you do, don’t keep them outside. They can also scratch easily and wear down (looks-wise) over time.
Urethane is a different type of rubber, but otherwise these are quite similar to rubber coated dumbbells.
Where urethane really excels over traditiona rubberl is in its durability. Urethane weights tend to last longer than normal rubber. It’s also better capable of withstanding the effects of outdoor conditions, such as direct exposure to sunlight.
With urethane dumbbells, you can have weights that go up to 200 pounds.
The drawback is that these tend to be the most expensive dumbbells available. That may hold you back if you want to add them to your home gym.
In most high-end gyms you’ll usually find commercial-grade rubber dumbbells or urethane dumbbells.
It’s not just the material you have to consider with dumbbells.
They also come in a variety of shapes.
And while the shape doesn’t influence what exercises you can do too much, there are still tiny differences that influence how comfortable your workouts are.
A 10-pound hex dumbbell weighs the same as a 10-pound round dumbbell.
While it may seem like shape doesn’t matter, it does somewhat impact what exercises you can do.
And there are certain things you can do with a hex dumbbell you just can’t do with other options.
With six sides, you can firmly plant the dumbbell on the floor. That way, it can assist you with dumbbell push-ups.
Trainer Alex Shaw of Body Transformation Solutions says, “They’re ideal for certain exercises like the renegade row and Dumbbell T-pushup. If you are performing a plank while holding dumbbells (it allows you to keep your wrists straight), it’s much easier to perform this exercise by using hex dumbbells.”
But the benefits don’t end there.
Due to the shape, you don’t have to worry about a hex dumbbell rolling around the floor.
However, you typically don’t find hex dumbbells with a contoured handle. Most of them come with a straight one.
This is a matter of personal preference, but you should be aware before you start perusing through hex dumbbells at the gym.
Round dumbbells are perfectly circular in shape.
They pretty much do the same thing as hex dumbbells.
But the main thing to watch out for is that they can roll when placed on an uneven surface.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. If you need to move the dumbbell around a given space, then it can be easier to roll it than carry it. You just need to watch out for it accidentally getting away from you if you do set it down.
Round dumbbells often have more handle options available to them.
But when it comes to standard weight training, you can pretty much do everything with a round dumbbell as a hex one.
It can be rare to find completely round fixed weight dumbbells, however many adjustable sets or spinlock sets come with round weights.
Square dumbbells (and other specialty shapes)
Square dumbbells naturally have the main material in a square shape. You might also find dumbbell sets that utilize a teardrop or other specialty shapes.
This makes them very similar to hex dumbbells in that you can place them evenly on the floor and do push-ups. They also won’t roll away from you.
Square dumbbells are fairly rare. If you go to your local gym, then chances are good you’re going to find more hex and round weights.
Fixed & adjustable dumbbells
Just when you thought you already had a lot of homework to do before your next dumbbell purchase, there’s one more factor to consider!
Some dumbbells come at a single, fixed weight — if you want to lift a different weight, you’ll need to grab a different dumbbell. If outfitting a home gym, you’ll need a set or rack to give yourself lots of options.
Other dumbbells are adjustable, meaning the weight or resistance can be changed on the fly.
Here’s what you need to know.
Fixed weight dumbbells
There’s no flexibility when it comes to fixed weights.
When you get a 50-pound fixed dumbbell, it’s always going to weigh 50 pounds. The dumbbell itself is completely molded to be one solid block.
As a result, a lot of lifters like these dumbbells. You don’t have to mess around with adjusting the weight. You simply pick them up and get going.
Fixed weight dumbbells are super durable and secure. They feel great in your hand.
It doesn’t matter a whole lot that you can’t adjust these dumbbells if you’re lifting at the gym, because they’ll often have a full rack of different weights to choose from quickly.
But fixed weights can get cumbersome if you have a home gym. You need a greater amount of dumbbells, and you may not have the space for all of them.
And since you need to buy more weights, it tends to cost more, too.
Adjustable dumbbells are a space-saving solution for your home gym.
The unit comes with various mechanisms, which can be a pin, dial, or lever, to allow you to adjust the weight that comes on your handle when you go to pick it up. Various weight increments are available, allowing you to gradually alter your workout however you see fit.
Alex Shaw brought up a great point about adjustable dumbbells:
“Adjustable weights are for people who value space or live in a large city and have limited space to house workout equipment.”
You get one single piece of equipment with your purchase, so it helps immensely when you have a smaller home gym.
However, not everyone is a fan of this variety. It can take some time to alter the weight. As a result, it slows down the momentum of your workout.
And not everyone loves how these pieces of equipment feel in your hands (they can feel a little off-balance or rattly at times).
But when it comes to price and space, it really can’t be beat.
Spin lock dumbbells
Spin lock dumbbells are another variety of adjustable weights, but they’re more similar to a barbell with weights than other types of adjustable dumbbells.
This variety specifically caters to lifters who want that classic dumbbell feel.
You can place various plates on either side of the dumbbell bar to get the exact weight you want. And since plates tend to come in increments of 2.5 pounds, your dumbbell weighs precisely how you want it.
Once you’ve added your weight plates, you lock them in place with a clip or collar.
Spinlocks give you ultimate control over your weight training. You can “create” dumbbells of any weight you can conceive of.
But changing the weights can be slow and awkward, and if you’re buying these for home, you’ll need a rack of weights to add to your spinlock (which can get expensive and take up space).
There are a LOT of different kinds of dumbbells to choose from.
Chances are, if you’re going to a big box gym, you’ll find rubber coated dumbbells or commercial-grade urethane dumbbells in weights from 2.5 up to 100 pounds or more.
You might also find small neoprene dumbbells for HIIT and other light resistance workouts.
For your home gym, you’ll want to consider all of your options. Adjustable sets take up way less room and cost less in the long run, but have some drawbacks in terms of how they feel.
But for most of us with limited space and budgets, a good adjustable dumbbell set is probably the best choice for home.
For more on understanding fitness equipment, check out:
- The different types of resistance bands
- The different types of weight benches
- The different types of power racks
Hope this helps!