Dumbbells are a great addition to every home gym. The versatility and the added exercise options that only dumbbells provide make them worth the money.
But, when you get into the market for dumbbells, chances are you’re going to find yourself at a crossroads:
Should you buy adjustable dumbbells or fixed dumbbells?
Adjustable dumbbells provide more long term value and save space. However, fixed dumbbells still cannot be beaten from a durability standpoint.
It really will come down to what you value most out of your equipment and what is a better fit for your lifting style, budget and lifestyle.
In this article, I’ll break down the pros and cons of each as well as the key differences between adjustable dumbbells vs fixed dumbbells. This way, you can make an informed decision and not end up regretting the couple hundred dollars you spend on one or the other.
Let’s get started.
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Table of Contents
- Adjustable Dumbbell Pros
- Fixed Dumbbell Pros
- Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Dumbbells – Price
- Types of Adjustable Dumbbells
- Types of Fixed Dumbbells
- Final Thoughts
What’s The Difference Between Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Dumbbells?
At the most basic level, a fixed dumbbell is just a regular dumbbell that most of us are all familiar with. The dumbbell is made of iron and typically has a number etched into the side of it letting you know how much weight it is.
It can also be made with a rubber coating or even urethane, but at the end of the day it’s one dumbbell that weighs one set amount.
Adjustable dumbbells, on the other hand, are exactly what they sound like. Adjustable.
These dumbbells come in weight ranges, where by turning a dial, moving a pin or adding a plate – one dumbbell can weigh anywhere from 5 pounds to 100 pounds. Having said that, ranges are not usually that wide for a single dumbbell.
This is the initial appeal of an adjustable dumbbell – one single pair of dumbbells turns into an entire dumbbell set.
When you consider that you can get a whole set of dumbbells all rolled into one the choice for a home gym owner seems obvious, but it’s quite that simple.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each style.
Adjustable Dumbbell Pros
Let’s start with versatility because I basically already touched on it and it’s the most obvious advantage of having adjustable dumbbells.
If there is “one ring to rule them all”, then the same can be said for a set of Bowflex 1090 Dumbbells or an Elite Series Power Block. These adjustable dumbbells can have a weight range from 5 to 10 pounds all the way up to a maximum weight of 90 pounds.
That’s 16 or 17 (Bowflex has one extra) sets of dumbbells all in one. Plus, going from 5 pounds to 90 pounds covers all the dumbbell needs for 99% of us.
Because adjustable dumbbells are giving the versatility of 16 sets of dumbbells all in one, they will save you an enormous amount of space!
Think of what the dumbbell rack at your commercial gym looks like. It’s huge! I’ve worked in college weight rooms where our “dumbbell area” was as big as my entire garage gym.
It’s not just saving space in your current home either. Have you ever packed up your fully built out home gym and moved it? I have.
I had a complete set of traditional fixed dumbbells ranging from 5 pounds to 50 pounds, all in 5-pound increments. Then, in addition to that, I had a pair of 60s, 80s and 100s. It took one time of packing all those up into a moving truck to vow never to do it again.
So, if adjustable dumbbells can provide you with amazing versatility and save you space, then it’s a no-brainer, right?
Fixed Dumbbell Pros
I have seen fixed dumbbells break before. By break, I mean the dumbbell is dropped and the head of the dumbbell breaks off the handle.
I tell you that to tell you this. I’ve been a strength and conditioning coach for 20 years. Over those 20 years I couldn’t even guess how many dumbbells I’ve seen dropped on the ground after a set. We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands a day for two decades.
Both times (it’s been twice), it was shocking.
Dumbbells just do not break. They get dropped and occasionally even slammed over and over again every day. They get taken outside, carried, rolled into each other – it doesn’t matter – they just don’t break.
The two times I’ve seen it were both on really heavy dumbbells, like a 90 and a 110 I believe.
What I’m basically trying to say is when you buy a pair of regular dumbbells, they’re going to still be sitting in your garage, or wherever you workout, the day you die.
Unlike fixed dumbbells, adjustable dumbbells, have extra mechanical parts that allow them to make all those weight adjustments. And ask any engineer, when you start adding moving pieces to another, you greatly increase the chance of one of those pieces breaking down.
And if one of the pieces does break down, what you end up with is a really expensive paper weight.
Now, adjustable dumbbells have come a long way and I’ve seen PowerBlocks and Bowflex adjustable dumbbells that have lasted quite a while. But, I would be very, very cautious of some of the cheap adjustable dumbbells I see on Amazon.
Finally, when it comes to durability, I just mentioned ‘dropping dumbbells’ about a half dozen times. I would not recommend dropping adjustable dumbbells.
In fact, neither does Bowflex. In a direct Q&A response on their website they mention that “the dumbbells are pretty robust but aren’t designed to be used for pushups… or dropping them after completing an exercise”.
This means that adjustable dumbbells will work great for lifts like goblet squats or seated shoulder press, but exercises like renegade rows probably aren’t the best idea.
Something to keep in mind if you tend to be aggressive with your dumbbells. (CrossFit workouts come to mind)
“Old School” Feel
This is most likely just the meathead in me talking, but there is just something ‘different’ about using adjustable dumbbells.
Call it old school non-sense or maybe just chalk it up to nostalgia, but all things being equal if I have the option of using traditional fixed dumbbells or an adjustable dumbbell – I’m going to pick the regular dumbbells every time.
Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Dumbbells – Price
Now that I’ve gone through some pros for both fixed and adjustable dumbbells, let’s get to the one big difference that, depending on your needs, could end up being a pro for either one.
Let me be clear – dumbbells, just in general, are expensive. Regular dumbbells typically cost about around $1.50 to $2 per pound. This means a regular fixed weight set of 40 pound dumbbells can easily cost you over $100.
Adjustable dumbbells, probably not surprisingly are even more expensive. A pair of quality adjustable dumbbells are going to cost you at least $350 (except plate loaded dumbbells which tend to be cheaper – more on those later).
If you want an adjustable dumbbell set that goes up into the heavier weights (over 50 pounds) then you can expect that price to double.
So, the question becomes…
Are Adjustable Dumbbells Worth It?
Is it worth paying the extra money for a set of adjustable dumbbells?
It really depends on how many dumbbells you actually think you need. In place of an entire set of fixed dumbbells, yes, adjustable dumbbells are absolutely worth it. However, if all you really need is a pair of 20 and 40-pound fixed dumbbells, then I would say no.
To give you some real numbers, I mentioned that the price for regular fixed dumbbells is somewhere in the range of $1.50 to $2 per pound. (You can get much more expensive than that if you start diving into Urethane dumbbells, but let’s keep it simple.)
On the other hand, a pair of Bowflex 1090s, the ones that go from 10 pounds up to 90 pounds, works out to about .45 cents per pound. This is because that even though it’s going to cost you $750, all the combinations of weights available to you would work out to 850 pounds, per dumbbell.
That’s an enormous value if what you really want is a full set of dumbbells.
But, take me for example, I don’t really need or want a full set of dumbbells. I have a few pairs of dumbbells – 25s, 40s and 50s – all bought used at estate sales. I use them for auxiliary movements like shoulder presses, curls and side raises.
Plus I tend to be a little rough with my dumbbells especially if I’m doing circuit training. So, for me at the moment, while a pair of adjustable dumbbells would no doubt be awesome, I just can’t justify the cost.
Finally, the last thing I want to mention on price is the elephant in the room that, if you’re new to this whole idea of resistance training at your home, there is a chance that whatever dumbbells you buy are going to sit in a corner collecting dust after two weeks.
I know, I know – not you. Not this time. But, if that’s a possibility then I’d much rather have one pair of 30s that cost me $50 collecting dust than an adjustable pair that cost me $350.
Are Adjustable Dumbbells Awkward to Use?
This is a question I get quite a bit from friends looking into a pair of adjustable dumbbells for themselves.
The short answer is no, but I understand why some people might think so.
First, adjusting the weights on a pair of good dumbbells is really easy. If you’re having difficulty switching weights, then I would be concerned about the level of quality of your dumbbells.
As far as actually using them, a pair of adjustable dumbbells are probably going to be longer than you’re probably used to. This is because they are made to hold to the heaviest available weight as well as being able to switch between weights.
So for an example, the Bowflex 1090s are 17″ long compared to my 50-pound cast iron hex dumbbells that are about 13 1/2″ long. That’s going to be a noticeable difference for exercises like bench press.
Is that a deal breaker? I don’t believe so at all. Just something to be aware of before you make your purchase.
Types of Adjustable Dumbbells
Let’s assume for a second that after reading through all this, you’ve decided that you love the versatility, space efficiency and overall value of adjustable dumbbells and that’s the direction that you’re going to go.
Now, you’ll have to decide not just what brand to buy, but what style of adjustable dumbbell you want. Because when you’re comparing adjustable dumbbells, quite literally, they are all not built the same.
Spin Lock Dumbbells
Spin lock dumbbells are some of the OG plate-loaded adjustable dumbbells.
These dumbbells are threaded on each side. Plates are then added to each side and a spin lock (think nut and washer) is spun on to tighten the plates down.
I’ve never personally been a huge fan of spin lock dumbbells because I find them clunky and kind of a pain to use and switch weights. They also use 1″ diameter weight plates which are specific to the thinner bars that hold these plates.
In other words, the plates you probably already have in your gym that fit onto your barbell will not work on these dumbbells which in my opinion defeats some of the minimalistic advantages.
However, they do have their benefits. Spin lock dumbbells are going to be way cheaper than some of the other styles and because there are no delicate moving pieces, much more durable.
Plate Loaded Adjustable Dumbbells
Plate loaded adjustable dumbbells, like this one from Bells of Steel, are upgraded to more modern adjustable dumbbells. Cost-wise they’re relatively cheap like the spin-locks, but they have a 2″ diameter sleeve which means all your current weight plates will fit perfectly.
So, if you have some 5 and 10-pound plates laying around a regular barbell collar, then you’re good to go with dumbbells. When you consider the cost and versatility, these may just be the best adjustable dumbbells you can get.
Selectorized dumbbells are the more high end dumbbells like the BowFlex and Powerblock dumbbells that I’ve already mentioned a few times.
While they are more expensive, they are also easier to use and don’t require the need for a whole set of weight plates to stack onto them.
They’re perfect for anyone that wants the all-in-one package. No need for extra weight plates or a separate locking mechanism. You can buy a set of these dumbbells and essentially completely check dumbbells off of your needs list.
They’re also perfect if you don’t have the ability to create a full-on garage gym type of space and are instead making a small area inside your home your workout mecca.
Types of Fixed Dumbbells
If you decide you want to go with fixed weight dumbbells, there are different styles like there are with adjustable, but the differences are more aesthetic than they are functional.
The biggest differences that you’ll be choosing between are whether to go with hex dumbbells where the weights are blocky and six sided (hence the ‘hex’) or circular dumbbells where the weight is, well, circular.
Once you choose the style, then you’ll have to decide between rubber coated or straight cast iron. Don’t let the rubber coating fool you, this is purely a cosmetic choice. Rubber coated dumbbells may somehow appear safer, but drop a 40-pound dumbbell on your foot and see how much of a difference it actually makes. (Don’t actually do this)
At the end of the day, there really isn’t that much difference between different types of fixed dumbbells. My best advice is to just go with the style that fits your look and your budget the best.
I feel like we set out to solve the question of should you buy adjustable dumbbells or fixed dumbbells for a home gym and the answer I’m essentially giving you is, “It depends.”
But, that’s the case here. Both fixed and adjustable dumbbells have their pros and cons.
It ultimately depends on how many dumbbell weights you want, how much space you have and how much you are wanting to spend upfront.