Here’s the beauty of dumbbells: If they’re all you have at your disposal — along with a stable floor, enough empty space and some spare time — you can sufficiently train every muscle group in your body.
Some folks may argue that a barbell should be your first purchase, but they’re wrong, and I’ll physically fight them on this point as long as they aren’t too accomplished at mixed martial arts. The range of motion that dumbbells permit you to train through is more natural, and the foremost advantage to training with barbells — its ability to hold much greater sums of weight — doesn’t present itself unless you have the capability of elevating the bar to a stable place located off the ground.
Otherwise, you’re almost always better off training with dumbbells and taking the muscle groups through their fullest ranges of motion.
Three Things to Look for in a Good Pair of Dumbbells
1) Compactness: Dumbbells have two directions to distribute your training weight in — horizontally and vertically. There are fixed-weight dumbbells that are really just adjustable dumbbells where the weights have been permanently affixed to the bar, and this can cause the weight to extend across a broader area than is required. More often than not, it’s more desirable to compress the weight into the smallest possible area for the sake of control.
2) Smoothness: If you’ve ever executed dumbbell bench presses with heavy weights, you know the pain of having those dumbbells crashing into your chest, or having them rubbing up against you before you lie down on the bench and slide them on top of you. If those dumbbells have an abrasive texture, or especially if they have any sharp edges, it can make the workout infinitely more uncomfortable than it needs to be.
3) Quickness: If you have a bunch of fixed-weight dumbbells lying around, shifting from one weight to another is as effortless as dropping one set of dumbbells and scooping up another pair. When you decide to go the space-saving, adjustable route, the process of unscrewing clamps, swapping out weight plates and re-screwing them can be among the most time-consuming and annoying workout interruptions there is.
With this in mind, let’s take to Amazon and find the best set of dumbbells there with which to induce pain… of the beneficial sort.
Best Plain Hex Dumbbell: CAP Dumbbell
Why They’re Worth the Squeeze: CAP Dumbbells are a staple of weight rooms across the globe. Not only are they compact, with the amount of lifted weight being clearly visible on each individual dumbbell, but their hexagonal design makes it impossible for them to roll away whenever you set them down. This means that they can also double as efficient push-up handles, and multipurpose exercises like renegade rows become a possibility.
Why You Should Reach for Something Else: Are you rich? I hope so, because purchasing as many as four new sets of these weights — for instance, pairs of 30, 40, 50 and 60 pounds — can easily cost up to $700. This is to say nothing of their sharp edges, which can dig uncomfortably into your anatomy before, during and after your lifts.
The Last Word: If you’re building a deluxe, old-school gym in your home, CAP Dumbbells are what you’ll need to complete the look. Just make sure you have a deluxe bank account to fund your purchases, because filling in the full set between 10- and 100-pound weights in five-pound increments — plus a rack — can easily add up to $3,000.
Best Rubber-Coated Dumbbells: Amazon Basics
Why They’re Worth the Squeeze: Everything positive about the CAP Dumbbells remains true here, except the Amazon Basics have rubber coating on them, which softens them and makes them a little more forgiving with respect to both your training surface and the surface of your skin. And they still won’t roll. After all, we’re here to get our swole on, not our roll on!
Why You Should Reach for Something Else: Some of the concerns about standard hexagonal weights are significantly attenuated, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to disappear completely. Those edges may have rubber coating on them, but they’re still clearly defined as edges. Moreover, the rubber will eventually wear away, so they’ll turn into regular, rubberless dumbbells over time.
The Last Word: If you’ve got mega-gym money and you want to make sure your padded rubber floor doesn’t have to do all of the protective work, getting some dumbbells with rubber coating on them is a great secondary safety measure.
Best Traditional Adjustable Dumbbells: Yes4All
Why They’re Worth the Squeeze: Sure, owning a bunch of fixed-weight dumbbells is nice if you can afford them, but not everyone has the money or space for that. Besides, a standard adjustable dumbbell set enables you to set the weight totals yourself and in increments as small as a quarter of a pound. On the flip side, if you want the ability to set personal records without having to do so five pounds at a time, the Yes4All is a perfect tool for that.
Why You Should Reach for Something Else: There’s always a trade-off involved with adding some additional convenience to your training. Yes, you’ll reclaim a certain amount of space, but now you’re likely to have an abundance of weight plates lying around your residence. You can still do renegade rows and use these as push-up handles, but the connection with the floor won’t be as stable. Also, you’re now going to be dealing with weights that will roll away from you at the most inopportune moments.
Furthermore, the changeover time from one weight to another is likely going to be very frustrating, and if you thought the edges of hexagonal weights were uncomfortable, just wait until you’ve had the exposed ends of a dumbbell’s screw tips poking into your thigh with 80 pounds of weight pressing down upon it.
The Last Word: Not everyone can afford to spend 10 to 20 times the annual membership fee of a Planet Fitness on dumbbells alone. The cost savings from a Yes4All purchase is likely to make this well worth the money. After all, renegade rows aren’t that great; just do regular dumbbell rows like your grandfather used to.
Best Adjustable Dumbbells: Bowflex SelectTech 552
Why They’re Worth the Squeeze: In the time it takes to place a set of fixed-weight dumbbells back on the rack and grab a second pair, you can upgrade or downgrade the weight of your dumbbells by as few as 2.5 pounds at a time simply by dropping them onto their customized rack and turning a wheel. Thus, the Bowflex SelectTech 552s solve the problems of high-increment increases, sharp edges, rolling weights and space allotment all in one fell swoop.
Why You Should Reach for Something Else: One of the underrated features of fixed-weight dumbbells is your ability to throw caution to the wind, max out your exertion and then carelessly allow the weight to crash onto the ground without being damaged (just be mindful of people’s toes!). If you do that with these dumbbells, they’re probably going to break. That’s made doubly shameful by the fact that each dumbbell is likely to cost you $200; it’s a massive savings over having to purchase every dumbbell in that weight range, but it’s still not exactly cheap.
The Last Word: I train with the Bowflex SelectTech 552s every day. Buy them. Right now. Also, if you require heavier weights, feel free to snag some of the 1090s, which can reach weights of up to 90 pounds each.
Best Compact Adjustable Dumbbells: Flybird
Why They’re Worth the Squeeze: Not everyone needs to lift weight in the behemoth class, and most dumbbells are crafted with a presumption that upwards of 100 pounds of weight may one day be placed on each of them. If your dumbbell weights tend to peak at 25 pounds, that leaves a lot of exposed, unutilized bar protruding from your dumbbells. The Flybird Adjustable Dumbbells are constructed so that their ends are always smooth, ergonomic and not dangerous. And again, they will save you plenty of space.
Why You Should Reach for Something Else: The cost savings from owning adjustable weights isn’t quite as great at the lower end of the weight scale, so the trade-off between the amount of space saved and the durability of the weights becomes a more legitimate debate when the price difference is less dramatic. On top of that, if you eventually intend to lift increasingly more weight, 25 pounds is a relatively low height to establish a weight ceiling, and the Flybird Adjustable Dumbbells are incapable of climbing any higher than that.
The Last Word: If 25 pound dumbbells represent the heaviest weights you’ll ever need to conquer, the Flybird Adjustable Dumbbells will address almost every one of your purchasing concerns, and provide you with 5 to 25 pounds of weight in an optimally shaped package.