Home Equipment – 2: Dumbbells

Continuing our series on equipment you can use at home, we move to one of the most common items used at home for strength training: dumbbells (DBs).

There is sometimes confusion between barbells and DBs. The simplest way to distinguish them is barbells are for two hands (long) and DBs are for one hand (short). Simple!

Now that's out of the way, let's look at the three kinds of DB types: fixed, adjustable, and selectable.

Fixed Dumbbells

These are probably the best-known and most-used DBs. Each DB has a fixed weight that can't be changed. They usually have hexagonal ends to keep them from rolling. These are mostly what I use.

The DBs are generally made from cast iron or steel, sometimes with a rubberized coating.

The biggest problem with fixed DBs is deciding what weights to get. Most people get no more than a few pairs. (I have four pairs.) This is somewhat limiting but getting a full set is both expensive and space-consuming. I used to have a full set (5-80 pounds, rubberized) but they weren't worth keeping.

Note that DB racks come in different sizes are usually sold separately. Whilst handy for organizing your weights, they can be expensive.

One note about weight selection: don't get tiny DBs! Consider 5 pounds a minimum. This always reminds me of a Dave Attell joke I've referenced before:

My gym has two-pound weights. If you are using two-pound weights, how did you even open the door to the gym? What’s your dream? To pump up and open your mail?

woman with 1-pound dumbbells
Pumping up to open her mail

You can always get heavier DBs as you get stronger. Or use barbells for the heavy lifting.

Adjustable Dumbbells

Adjustable DBs allow you to change the weight by adding or removing plates, just like a barbell. They normally use standard plates (one-inch holes).

What distinguishes various types of adjustable DBs are the collars; i.e. the things that hold the plates on the (short) bar.

Set-screw

These have been around a long, long time. I have a pair that date back to the 60s (they belonged to my oldest brother) that I never change so they're like a fifth pair of fixed DBs for me. Changing the plates requires a wrench. I'm not sure they still make these.

Spin lock

These were all the rage at one point. I've never had spin-lock DBs but do have a special barbell with spin-lock collars. They're kind of a pain and not super reliable but at least no wrench is required.

Other

I wasn't sure what to call this section. Honestly, I don't have first-hand experience with the new fancy-pants adjustable DBs but some of them look pretty cool, such as the DBs from Ironmaster.

Selectable Dumbbells

Also known as "selectorized." Sadly, these are often called "adjustable" DBs which confuses them with the previous section.

What distinguishes these is that the weight can be changed on the stand by simply selecting (hence the name) a weight via a dial or similar mechanism. These take up the least amount of space of the three categories, but are also the most expensive. And they look weird.

I've never used these but some reviews report the feel of the weight changes through movement so you should try some out before buying. I'd be particularly concerned about how they behave during DB snatches.

Conclusion

Dumbbells are extremely versatile weights for strength training. You can use them for both unilateral (one side) and bilateral (both sides) exercises. They don't take up much space and can be very affordable, depending on how many you get, what style, and new or used.

One important question is what weight(s) to get. As mentioned above, 5 pounds should be an absolute minimum. But there are many different exercises you can do and you'll be able to handle different weights on them (e.g. curl vs. bench press). Pick a weight you think you'll be able to do 5-8 reps with on your most common exercise. As you get stronger, you can do more reps or change the exercise or get heavier weights!

With adjustable or selectable DBs the question instead becomes one of what maximum weight to choose. On adjustable DBs, you're limited by the length of the bar...you can always get more and/or heavier plates as long as they fit. On selectable DBs, there's a set maximum weight.

Ultimately, the amount of weight you need is a personal decision based on factors such as your current strength and your fitness goals. Just don't get tiny ones.

I use my DBs for strength training every week in conjunction with other weights (barbells, kettlebells) and things that will all appear in future posts. So don't be a dumbbell...use some dumbbells! (Ugh.)

Be seeing you

-gary

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