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July 02, 2021
The classics never die. Weight plates are an essential part of any gym. The type of weight plate you find in the gym should tell you a little more about the gym and its target audience. Does your gym have iron plates, bumper plates or steel plates? This post will cover the differences in weight plate types plus the uses and benefits of each.
This article should cover everything you need to know to make an informed decision before you make any weight plate set purchases. It’s important to note that if you want to buy new weight plates you should be prepared to pay a pretty penny regardless of the type. However, there’s always that neighbor, friend, classified ad or good old tag sale where you can pick up a decent weight plate set for next to nothing. Give those unwanted weight plates a good home.
Check out our complete barbell buying guide or our list of the Best Barbells on the market today to get an idea of what you should look for when buying a barbell so that you know iron weight plates or bumper plates are the only way to go.
By choosing the Olympic style barbell and iron weight plates or bumper plates you will get higher quality products while having a wider range of choices in the future.
With that being said, we will consider all the following weight plates "Olympic" as they will have a 2-inch center hole.
In short, you should buy iron plates if you don’t mind the clanging noises, have a limited budget, or are a purist.
You should buy bumper plates if you’re concerned with noises of the weights banging around, perform Olympic lifts or budget isn’t an issue.
The answer is based on a few variables but ultimately comes down to personal preference, budget and usage. We personally use both traditional weight plates and bumper plates depending on the exercises we’re doing, sometimes we even get crazy and mix them together.
Also referred to as traditional plates, these weight plates are what you’d think of if you pictured Arnold in the gym back in the day preparing for Mr. Olympia. These weights come in all shapes, sizes, diameters and thicknesses so if you’re concerned with having a matching set of weights then once you buy a particular brand/model you will have to stick with it when adding new weight plates to the collection.
It’s important to note some differences in iron plates so you have a better idea of what to look for when purchasing the best weight plates.
A few aspects of iron weight plates apart from what they’re made from include the following:
The exact dimensions vary from brand to brand but the general stated weight amount will be the same. Iron weight plates will come in the following weight sizes.
In the US standard weight sizes are:
For those outside the US:
Cast iron Plates
Often the cheapest plates available, iron plates are made of iron. These are the most traditional weight plates that can be found in the old-school style bodybuilding gyms known to clank and bang around( oh what a sweet-sweet sound). Iron plates are made by pouring molten iron into sand molds then they are cooled to harden. The material is usually cast iron because it has a low melting point requiring less heat to melt it. Often times the iron plates will then be painted and baked in an oven to set the paint and harden the surface to reduce chances of scratching or chipping. Raw iron plates can eventually corrode and rust even if they have some type of coating. Although this won’t necessarily change the weight or function of the plates it can be rough on your hands when switching them off the bar.
Milled Iron Plates
Iron plates can also be milled or machined using the same methods but involve a second step where the plates are milled and machined down into the correct dimensions. Molds can produce some irregularities when used too much. Therefore the milling process can help guarantee the shape and size are the same regardless of any molding issues. Cast-iron plates will usually display seams from where the plate was formed in the mold. Milling can smooth out any imperfections or inconsistencies leading to most manufacturers guaranteeing 1-2% delta from the marked weight.
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Rubber Coated Iron Plates
Rubber coated weight plates have a few benefits over regular cast iron weight plates. To start rubber coated weight plates are durable and withstand some bumping around without chipping. This feature also makes them a little quitter for those trying to keep it down while working out in the basement home gym or garage gym.
After covering the benefits of rubber coated iron weight plates we should also mention the not so good aspects. Rubber covered plates can sometime have an unpleasant smell due to the manufacturing process. This smell should go away over time but unfortunately that’s not always the case. So, if you buy cheaper rubber coated plates then be prepared to endure a smell for a while. Rubber coated plates can also be scuffed rather easily so just be aware if you’re a stickler for looks.
Urethane Covered Iron Plates
Urethane coated iron weight plates are smooth to the touch and have no odor which makes it a little better than rubber coated plates in our opinion. Urethane is a crystalline compound in the elastomer family, you can think of it as an artificial rubber. Urethane coated plates normally have a thinner coating which makes it possible to load more plates closer to the center of the barbell. Urethane plates also are super durable and don’t scratch or scuff easily.
Many people might confuse iron plates with steel plates as most people aren’t experts in gym equipment or haven’t studied metallurgy. However, iron weight plates and steel weight plates are different, especially considering the price. Steel plates are awfully expensive! Steel plates are used usually only used for powerlifting competitions such as IPF (International Powerlifting Federation). The reason for using steel plates in competition is that the weight tolerances small, usually within 10 grams of the marked weight. In competitions you’re most likely to find steel weight plates measured in kilograms (KG) to keep consistent with international standards. The steel plates are also painted with colors that correspond to the weight.
Traditional weight plates may come in different shapes, sizes and materials but they have some common benefits over bumper plates as a whole. Let’s take a look at the advantages of traditional plates have over bumper plates.
Bumper plates were created in response to Olympic weightlifting where lifters often drop the bar after a (un)successful lift. Bumper plates made their way to the mainstream with the rise of Crossfit. These plates are made to withstand the impact of hitting the floor. Bumper plates have a metal core that is covered by rubber or urethane.
Crumb Rubber Bumper Plates
Also referred to as recycled rubber, this material has been recycled at some point, often from used then discarded tires. This recycled rubber might be used to cover traditional weight plates, bumper plates and even the flooring in the gym. This recycled rubber is produced from discarded tires that have been ground up then mixed with a binding agent. From there the material is solidified using heat and pressure. The binding substance used will influence the quality of the rubber as well as affect the smell. Make sure to check reviews of particular suppliers as different binding agents and processing methods can lead to a strong smell that might not dissipate with time.
Urethane Bumper Plates
These bumper plates are increasingly being favored by many gyms. There are a few factors contributing to urethane bumper plates becoming more prominent in usage. The price has declined over recent years and they are extremely durable. Urethane is resistant to scratches and scuffing so the aesthetics will stay for years. Urethane has no distinguishable smell which is a plus. It also has a thinner coating, allowing you to stack the barbell with more weights with the weight distribution being closer to the center of the bar making it more stable.
Virgin Rubber Bumper Plates
These plates are made from new rubber that has little to no smell as binding substances aren’t used in the manufacturing process. These rubber bumper plates are super durable and should last longer than the crumb rubber plates.
As you can see there are a variety of bumper plates. The benefits of bumper plates over traditional plates are:
Check out our post that covers the Best Bumper Plates on the market!
Unlike traditional weight plates that can come in a number of shapes, bumper plates are only available in round shape. This is because bumper plates are often dropped so they need to have smooth edges so that they bounce back evenly. Another difference is that all weight sizes of bumper plates will have the same diameter unlike iron plates, once again due to the dropping factor. As mentioned before, traditional plates sometimes come with built in handles but bumper plates are always solid which makes a little more difficult to handle if moving the larger plates. Another very visible difference between bumper plates and traditional plates is color.
Traditional plates even if covered in urethane or rubber almost certainly be black or dark gray whereas bumper plates can come in some very vibrant colors. Because bumper plates all have the same diameter it can be difficult to tell them apart, this is where the color comes into play. Many manufacturers will use the color schemes that have been standardized by the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation) and the IWF (international Weightlifting Federation).Also, weights 10kg and up must be 450mm or 18 inches in diameter.
Manufacturers these days are sometimes marking the weights with the colors or dispersing pieces of colored rubber in the plate rather than having solid colors.
Bumper plate official colors and corresponding weights are:
Specialty weight plates have specific uses. These plates can be used by professionals for international competitions or used by beginners for training purposes. The types of specialty weight plates that we’ll cover are:
Competition weight plates are meant for exactly that, competition. These plates are often referred to as calibrated plates. The main difference between iron weight plates and competition plates is the weight tolerance. Competition plates need to be within 10 grams or .02 pounds within the marked weight. Non-competition weight plates can range from 1% up to 10% from the stated weight.
Competition weight plates have a visible metal center to allow for weight adjustment to match exactly what it should be. At the end of the day if you feel comfortable spending the money on competition weight plates then go for it but it’s generally not needed unless you’re a professional lifter.
Fractional weight plates can be made from a variety of materials but usually steel is the chosen material. This is because it’s easier to create a more precise measurement using steel. The main use of fractional weight plates is to add relatively low increments of weight. These fractional plates are sometimes referred to as change plates. Some people might view these as unnecessary but if you consider the concept of progressive overload then you’ll understand that small progressions are important. In order to get stronger, you need to gradually add weight to your lifts or increase total volume. Fractional weight plates usually come in sets in the following sizes:
In the US:
Outside of the US:
What are Wagon Wheel Plates?
You won’t find these weight plates in many gyms apart from powerlifting gyms. These large oversized heavy weight plates look like wagon wheels, hence the name. The main utility of these plates is to help get the barbell higher off the ground to aid in deadlifts making the range of motion shorter from bottom to top. Another marginal benefit of these plates it that they may be easier to load and unload off the barbell instead of using another tool such as a deadlift jack.
What are Technique Plates?
These plates are lighter and cheaper compared with all the other weight plates mentioned. Technique plates are made to allow people to simulate lifting technique and form without actually lifting heavy plates thus reducing any chances of injury. The diameter will remain the same as other plates and are usually made of plastic. On the high end these plates can be 5kg or 10lbs.
Can I use standard weight plates on an Olympic barbell?
No! Standard weight plates have a one-inch diameter center so they won’t fit on the two-inch Olympic barbell. This is true vice versa. Traditional iron plates shouldn’t be used on standard barbells because the center hole is double the diameter of the bar. This would be dangerous as the weight plates would be moving around and can slide of the bar much easier.
Why are plates 45 pounds?
If you’re American you might’ve always wondered, “why are weight plates 45lbs not 50lbs?”. This is mainly due to the fact in Olympic weightlifting all lifts are measured in kilograms. 20 kilogram weight plates are the largest plates allowed. Thus, 20kg equals 44 lbs which is close to 45lbs.
How much is 3 plates on each side?
If you’re in the U.S. 3 plates on each side would be 315 total pounds or roughly 143 kilograms. If you’re outside the U.S. then 3 plates on each side would be 140 kilograms or 308 pounds.
Another common question is, “how much weight is two plates on each side?”. In this case it would be 225lbs in the U.S. and 100kgs outside the U.S. There are free online weight plate calculators that can help you figure how many plates of what weight you should add to the barbell to get to desired total weight.
How much do weight plates cost?
Weight plate prices differ from brand to brand and the type of plate being purchased. As a general rule of thumb most plates will range from $1.25/lb up to $5/lb. Cast iron plates are usually the cheapest weight plates available. While competition calibrated steel plates are the most expensive. The average price for traditional weight plates hovers around $1.50/lb while bumper plates are around $2/lb.
One thing to keep in mind is that the lighter weights usually cost more per pound. To compete with Amazon these days many gym equipment sellers are offering free shipping which gets baked into the final price. With that being said, a 250lb set of traditional iron plates will cost $450-650 to your door. While the same set of 250lb bumper plates can range from $600-900.
Who should use bumper plates?
Everyone can use bumper plates but they are specially made for those who are doing Olympic lifts where the bar can be dropped on the ground frequently. You’re guaranteed to see bumper plates in any Crossfit gym you walk into but big box gyms usually have traditional iron or iron coated plates due to the lower costs. People who are concerned with noise emanating from banging plates or those who want to avoid damaging the floor should buy bumper plates.
Why are weights so expensive?
Weights are expensive because the materials used to make them; iron, steel, rubber or urethane are expensive materials. Expensive starting materials plus building a durable product that should last a lifetime doesn’t equate to cheap. Another factor that plays a part in the price of weight plates, barbells, kettlebells, steel maces etc. is the concept of supply and demand. Recently there’s been a high demand for weights as more people are ditching the gym, opting to build a home gym.
What weight plates should I buy for a home gym?
It depends on your fitness level, how much you can lift and budget. First you should determine how much you can lift on the bigger compound lifts such as deadlifts, squats and bench press then go from there. You should buy a iron or bumper weight plate set that can accommodate at least your starting strength then you can add onto your set from there. The standard weight plates set regardless of iron plates or bumper plates is as follows:
These weight plates plus a standard Olympic barbell which is 45lbs or 20kg will give you a total weight of 300lbs or 122kgs respectively.
Can you mix iron plates and bumper plates?
Yes, you can load the barbell using a mixture of bumper plates and iron plates. This can be helpful in protecting your floor and sometimes your barbell from potential damage. It's important to make sure you're adding the same amount of weights to both sides of the bar.
We hope that you have a better understanding of the types of weight plates available on the market. Before you go out and buy a weight plate set make sure you take into consideration the multiple variables that will point you in the right direction for choosing the correct weight plates. Just remember that it's always better really think about your needs then to buy once as most weight plates should last a lifetime.
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