If you are thinking about getting dumbbells for your home, you are likely contemplating whether you should buy adjustable dumbbells or fixed weight (aka standard) dumbbells. To help you decide which is better for you, we reached out to our good friend Jan Libourel to ask him to lay out the pros and cons of both adjustable dumbbells and fixed dumbbells. Jan started training with dumbbells more than half a century ago, so we knew he'd be able to give a well-informed answer. Below is his comparison of adjustable vs fixed dumbbells...
By Jan Libourel
In the recent post in this blog entitled "What Weight Dumbbells Should I Buy?" the author gave some very cogent advice about training modes and selection of weights. There was little if anything I could disagree with. When, however, the author stated, "First, it should be noted that we didn't recommend adjustable dumbbells for a reason. We much prefer fixed dumbbells because they are more durable and they have flat ends rather than the handle sticking out on both sides. The latter point is important for many exercises because the protruding handle gets in the way," I would have to dissent. I have been using adjustable-weight DBs for over a half-century. For about a decade they were my only serious workout gear. I must have performed at least a thousand workouts (and probably a good deal more) using adjustable dumbbells exclusively, so I like to think I know a thing or two about dumbbells. In this little essay, I thought I would weigh the pros and cons of both types. Before going into the respective merits of both types, I would like to address a couple of points made by the author:
Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Dumbbells: Durability
Well, if you are talking about bargain-basement rubbish using vinyl-coated concrete plates (Do they even make those things anymore?), then clearly fixed-weight dumbbells are superior. However, when we are dealing with quality adjustable dumbbells featuring sturdy collars, steel bars and cast-iron plates, those a pretty durable items. A lot of my dumbbell equipment I bought in 1965, and it's every bit as usable as it was when I took it home from the sporting goods store. Short of throwing them into a smelter, it's hard to imagine what I could do to damage or destroy them. Rust? A coating of naval jelly and the application of spray enamel will make your old and rusty plates look as good as new. I will mention that any counsel I may give is limited to "old-fashioned" adjustable dumbbells, in which plates of varying weights are attached to the bar by means of separate collars. Most of my gear was purchased no later than the mid-1970s, my one concession to modernity having been the acquisition of a pair of Spinlock-type bars with threaded ends that hold the plates in places with large wingnuts. They seem to work fine as long as your remember to tighten the the nuts frequently. As to more modern adjustable-dumbbell designs, I have never been able to descry what advantages, if any, they offer.
Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Dumbbells: Handiness
As for the business about the ends of the bar protruding beyond the plates, I never perceived this as a bother or handicap. I have pair of extra-long, 22-inch dumbbell handles. As far as I could tell, their extra length never affected my ability in the slightest to perform incline bench presses or any other exercises where the bars were in proximity.
Unquestionably, it is far easier and more convenient to pick the exact weight you want to use from a rack than to interrupt the rhythm and dynamic of your workout by stopping to change weights, groping about to find the plates you want and then getting back to exercising a few minutes later. However, I found that I could arrange my workouts so that I would have to change plates only once or twice during the entirety of the session. Later I found that by buying extra plates and an extra pair of handles, I could leave the dumbbells set up so that I wouldn't have to bother changing weights, and, I'll have to confess, I did buy a few pairs of fixed-weight dumbbells for the lightest exercises. (For people who simply want dumbbells for toning and as calisthenic enhancers, a few pairs of light, fixed-weight dumbbells make good sense.)
Note from SFS: If you are big on instant drop sets and supersets, fixed dumbbells are obviously the best. However, selectorized adjustable dumbbells can be used for rapid weight adjustments as they have a mechanism that changes the weight with a simply lever. Whereas spinlock, plate-loaded adjustable dumbbells require you to spin off/on the collars to take off or add plates. That said, plate-loaded adjustable dumbbells offer the advantage of durability as they don't have the intricate mechanism (and often plastic) that comes with selectorized dumbbells.
You won't see many, if any, adjustable dumbbells at commercial gyms. The reasons for that are obvious. The proprietors obviously don't want plates coming loose from improperly tightened collars and injuring their clients, end of matter. But is this really an issue for the individual who trains alone? It has been over 56 years since I started training with dumbbells, and for much of that time I used them at least several times a week. In all that time, I never had plates fall off my dumbbell bars because the collars were insufficiently tightened...never!
If you decide to go for fixed dumbbells, read our guide on which weight dumbbells are right for you. It covers goals like building muscle and strength vs losing weight and fat, as well as best sets for males and females, and beginner to advanced trainees.
Here adjustable dumbbells have a huge advantage. For quite a few years, all my resistance training was performed with a dumbbell set consisting of four 1 1/4, 2 1/2, and 5-pound plates and eight 10-pounders. Aggregate weight with bars and collars was about 62 pounds apiece. With those and a workout bench, I made myself into a large, reasonably strong and muscular man. However, I would counsel anyone acquiring an adjustable set these days to start with the same assortment of smaller plates and only four 10-pound plates. These with bars and collars will give you a pair of approximately 42-pound dumbbells. (I say approximately because the weights of bars and collars can vary. Generally, they weigh about 5 pounds apiece.) The cost of weights has been very much in flux lately because of the covid panic. With shrewd shopping, you should still be able to acquire such a set for less than $100. (In the past, second-hand gear of this type could be snapped up at bargain prices, but panic-induced buying has lessened the chances of coming upon such bargains.) When you have "maxed out" with the 42's, buy four 20-pound plates. These will give you an easy transition from 42 to 45 pounds and a maximum of 82 pounds. If you can perform a number of exercises with 82-pound dumbbells, you are going to be pretty damn strong. If you really want to get much bigger and stronger, you probably ought to transition to a barbell and plate set. Many outfits don't offer 20-pound plates, but they can be had. Plates weighing 25 pounds are readily available, but they really make dumbbells to unwieldy for many exercises, or so I have found. In any event, a pair of 82-pound adjustables should set you back less than $300, even at today's prices.
Now let's look at prices for sets of rubber-coated, fixed-weight dumbbells. One outfit I checked offered a set of 5-to-50-pound fixed-weight dumbbells with rubber-coated hex heads in five-pound increments for $703, another for $816, a third for a hefty $1,100. However, the heaviest dumbbells you will end up with are a pair of 50s. Many serious weight trainers will soon find that poundage too light to be truly challenging for many of the most beneficial exercises. Fortunately, the second and third of the companies I checked offer heavier series--55 to 100 pounds--for $2,092 and $2,062, respectively. And if you're really a "beast," you will want a 105-to-125-pound set for an extra $1,552.50 or $1,380, depending on which you choose. And these prices don't include shipping costs. However, I suppose in an era when many people spend thousands of dollars on sundry high-tech exercise machines, these prices don't seem too daunting in comparison, especially since these dumbbells will be around long, long after the gimmicky machines have given up the ghost! Being a frugal sort, both by necessity and inclination, I think I'll stick to my adjustable DBs.
If you have an assortment of plates and a couple of handles, you can either load 'em up and roll 'em into a corner, or else you can disassemble them and stack the plates. Either way, adjustables needn't take up much room. If you have a goodly assortment of fixed-weight DBs, you will need racks. These will take up considerable room, between seven and eight feet of floor space. Prices seem to run between $800 and $900, and unless you can acquire them locally, shipping will also run up the tab.
Note from SFS: If you decide to go for adjustable dumbbells, we personally recommend plate-loaded adjustable dumbbells because of their superior durability to selectorized dumbbellls. And if supersetting is a priority to you, then just get another pair of handles.
Briefly, then, if you are equipping a commercial gym, you will certainly want to stock it with fixed-weight dumbbells. If you have the money and space for a lineup of fixed-weights and think you would like them, by all means get them. There are many worse ways to spend your money. For the rest of us, adjustables can give excellent service. Just remember to keep those collars tight!
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