Table of Contents
For many years now, the adjustable dumbbells market has been mostly dominated by 3 big players. They are the PowerBlock, Ironmaster Quick-Lock, and Bowflex SelectTech.
Several imitations have come on the scene. Imitations are of lesser quality and are only competing on price, taking advantage of the big players’ marketing and then undercutting them. This blog is about quality. I don’t like to point you towards low priced junk.
Fitness equipment might start to wear out or break quickly. Home-grade cardio equipment, for example, literally is not engineered to be used seriously. It’s light weight, shakes as you move, and starts falling apart if used daily. They’re counting on you using it for a few weeks, then tapering off, and eventually folding it up into the corner and vowing that someday you’ll get back it.
Freeweight equipment tends to be really good in comparison. Generally with freeweights we’re talking about pretty simple cast-iron weights.
The closest type of product we can compare adjustable dumbbells to is an olympic barbell. Barbells were designed a hundred years ago and have been fune-tuned over the decades to perform better, feel better, and last longer. You really can only appreciate the features once you’ve been lifting for a while and had a chance to compare different models of barbells. There are strict IWF and IPF requirements for barbells certified for competitions. Even the ones not certified look pretty much the same at first glance.
The adjustable dumbbells of the type I’m talking about in this article are a whole different story. They aren’t just barbells made smaller, except for one model.
With all the dumbbells here, there are no specs they’re trying to follow. They all include proprietary plates and designs that each manufacturer thinks is the most cost-effective way and user-friendly way to do it. Each one is different. That’s why this guide is necessary: to weed out the bad ones and figure out what the best design really is, or at least be clear on the tradeoffs.
The main reason adjustable dumbbells are so experimental is they’re marketed towards home users, personal trainers, and small gyms, not health club gyms or competitive lifters. There isn’t any elite level heavy duty models that they’re trying to imitate the look of. As long as they look pretty much like dumbbells, home users and trainers might give them a shot.
Quick Overview of Each
Standard Dumbbell Handles
These are the classics. In this context, ‘standard’ is the word we use to refer to weight plates with 1″ holes, and the bars to fit them. The same plates are used on standard barbells. These dumbbells you assemble with 10lb and smaller plates, usually some combination of 10lb, 5lb, 2.5lb and maybe 1.25lb. Any bigger than 10lb and the plate diameter is too large, such that you run out of working room as the plates start hitting your arm or body too easily.
The important thing is to get solid steel handles, not hollow. You can tell because the solid ones weigh 5 lbs each. The hollow ones are…I don’t know… a pound? If you drop them at an angle, loaded with weight, they’ll bend. That’s why you want solid handles. Most solid ones will be 100% steel, no fancy rubber covered handles, just knurling. There is one rubber part, that being the gasket on the star-shaped collars to help tighten them against the plates.
There are some drawbacks to standard dumbbells. There’s always the ends that stick out, making them kind of pokey, especially as you’re sitting the dumbbells on your thighs setting up for presses. I’ll get into everything else further below.
PowerBlock is one of the most popular brands, maybe the #1 right now. They’ve been making adjustable dumbbells since 1993. Every several years or so they update their models.
PowerBlocks are the most unique of the bunch. Unlike a traditional dumbbell where you just grip the handle, with these you reach your hand inside the enclosure and grip the handle in there.
Class Action Lawsuit vs PowerBlock Inc.
A 2017 class-action lawsuit alleges that PowerBlock’s Urethane series dumbbells fail in warm environments, causing damage and a safety hazard. Urethane is supposed to be a material that resists heat damage, so this is concerning to me.
I don’t know the results of this lawsuit. If it was settled out of court I don’t know that we will ever find out.
Currently they make a few models. Let’s make this easy…
Their Pro Commercial model, the only current one made with urethane coated weights, is double the price of others and not all that popular.
At the moment you might see an EXP series on some websites, but I believe that is being discontinued.
The Sport 50 and Sport 24 are older models that are not expandable.
That leaves PowerBlock’s USA Elite and Sport EXP as the only ones I’ll be presenting here. It’s good to narrow things down!
Bowflex makes these dumbbells with a dial selection for the weight for easy weight changes. They make two models, the 552, which is 5-52.5 lbs per hand, and the 1090, which is 10-90 lbs per hand.
Right away the name Bowflex pops out. They are of course known for their unique home gym machine that uses flexible rods as resistance and most of the time ends up as a coat hanger. 2 years later the coat hanger is given away for pennies on the dollar at a garage sale and then resold on Craigslist for not much more. To non-lifters, Bowflex is a leading brand. To people who lift regularly and know a little about equipment, Bowflex machines are a joke. They don’t provide enough resistance for some exercises like leg presses, the resistance curve is annoying for exercises, and it can be too cramped for larger users.
So hopefully these dumbbells are better.
Ironmaster LLC was founded in 1978, but I really don’t know what they did before making these dumbbells. These have been around since at least 2006, or at least some model of them.
The stand is not free. If you don’t want it, you will get a better deal buying the 45lb version and adding the weight upgrades.These look way more like a traditional dumbbell than the Bowflex. They’re still squarish, but they don’t have the weird enclosure. They come in a 45lb per hand and 75lb per hand model. Other than the weight, there’s no difference between the models, and it’s upgradeable to 165 lbs. If you buy the 75lb one you get a stand, which can store the removable weight plates on the lower shelf.
These have consistently gotten positive reviews by the regulars on the bodybuilding.com equipment forum. The main reason for that is they’re durable. We’ll see further below if they’re really the most durable.
Quick adjustment is important if you’re doing drop sets. You might also just be impatient. One reason this might not be a big issue is you normally rest a while between sets anyway. The reliability and ease of adjustment is still important, though. After enough times it can get annoying, and you wonder what your life would be like with a quick dial adjustment.
Standard Dumbbell Handles – They come in a couple types. One has smooth ends where you slide the weights on, and you then slip on and tighten any kind of spring or compression collars. The most popular type, though, is threaded ends with spin-lock collars. The collars spin into place and hold very well by friction with the built-in O-ring. You know if they’re going to come loose, because they start rattling, and then they would need to start rotating and getting crazy loose for the collar to spin all the way off. So it’s extremely safe unless you’re trying to load it up to the max and barely fitting the collars on the ends. It does take a moment to do. You’ll have a pile of extra plates either sitting on your floor or that you can do the responsible thing with and rack on a plate tree. So you’ll need to get a plate tree. If the rest of your plates are olympic (2″ holes), sorry, that olympic plate tree won’t work, and you’ll need to get another. It makes your handles the black sheep in the family and a pain in the ass.
PowerBlock – It’s kind of like one of those pin-selectors for weight stacks for commercial gym machines. You stick the pin into the desired weight, each of which is color coded (a feature that no other models here can claim), and then grab the handle and lift the dumbbell. The weight you select comes out and the remainder of the weight is left behind. It’s very possible to get the pin misaligned and try sticking it each part of the pin into two different weights until you realize your mistake and do it right. It’s not a safety issue, because you can’t push it in very far if it’s off. You can tell something is wrong, pull it out, and put it in right. The wrist guards/pillars in the Elite are hollow so you can add and remove the steel rods for 2.5lb increments. That’s pretty easy to do, but it takes a moment. You pull the weight pin out so you’re only lifting the handle, unlock the holes with a switch, slide the rods into the holes, and lock the switch back. It works good. Even if you were to inadvertently hit the switch during lifting, which isn’t really that likely, the weight plates are on the outside of the holes and further prevent the steel rods from slipping out. The Sport doesn’t have this feature.
Bowflex SelectTech – Its dial mechanism is easy. Even though you have to dial each side of each dumbbell rather than inserting a single two-pronged pin into the side, it’s arguably quicker to adjust than the PowerBlock. This makes it arguably the quickest weight change out of all the dumbbells. So if you’re lazy, or you’re doing supersets, or you just want to save time, the quick weight change is one major thing the Bowflex SelectTechs have going for them. The two dials on each dumbbell actually can be an advantage, say if you’re doing triceps extensions and want to select more weight on one side of the dumbbell to keep it balanced better when you stick one end up. The weight selection, lifting the weight out, and replacing it when you’re done with your set all work smoothly. Nothing tends to catch wrong or get in the way. It’s not hard to do. Basically it’s well engineered, for what it is. Sometimes the weight selection doesn’t catch right.
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – They improved their mechanism recently to be a little quicker than what you see in the video above. What you do with these is unscrew the end cap, stack plates on the end, and then screw the end cap back in. In that respect it’s exactly like spin-lock standard dumbbell handles. It’s still not as quick as turning a dial. If you want something super quick for drop sets, etc, these might not be for you. The rest of us need that little rest between sets anyway. And by the way, you have to store the extra plates somewhere. You can’t store them on a weight tree at all, because the holes are too small for even a standard weight tree, so you’ll need a shelf. The threads on the long screws can kind of stick against the edges because it’s made to fit tightly… which it has to be for a snug fit with no rattle while you use it.
Comfort & Feel
Standard dumbbell handles – They have a knurled, straight handle. It’s a little thin at 1″/25mm, not the best for most people. That goes for all standard bars, from these handles all the way up to a standard 7ft bar. The problem is the ends get pokey on you, because there’s always some length left after you tighten the collars. Even if you have it loaded to the max with the collars all the way on the ends, they still poke you while sitting on your thighs as you sit on your bench to set up for exercises.
PowerBlock – The Elite has a 33mm straight handle. The Sport handle is 38mm in the center and tapers off to the ends. Your hand and wrist is surrounded by pillars that they call wrist guards. If you have unusually large hands or wrists, it could be cramped. For the average Joe it’s not an issue. With some exercises it will restrict your movement, such as hang cleans where you would want to slide the handle in your hand a bit. Or skull crushers, where you normally would grip the head of the dumbbell. For typical dumbbell exercises like presses, curls, reverse flies, rows, etc, you shouldn’t have a problem. It has padded wrist guards, with a small opening. They say it’s good for people with weak wrists or who are new to dumbbell work, because the pads help support you if your wrists start to bend back from fatigue. Kind of like training wheels. I’m not really sold on that being a real issue. The weights rattle a bit. That’s kind of unavoidable with a weight select mechanism like this. The pins kind of stick out and could stick against your hips when you raise or lower them against your hips with a neutral grip (palms facing your body).
Bowflex SelectTech – The 38mm tapered handle is rubber coated. The coating doesn’t extend all the way to the ends, which is left as smooth, slippery chrome. It has a weight distribution problem with higher weights. The weight distribution is on the bottom, or the side facing down as you grip it from the top, so as you’re doing heavy exercises the handle wants to rotate to keep the heavy part down. That’s arguably a problem. Also, there’s a bit of a rattle. That’s inherent in this kind of design. There has to be enough slop for the weights to come out easily as you adjust it.
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – Hands down, these have the most traditional feel of all the new-fangled adjustable dumbbells. The handle is nice and thick at 32mm / 1.25″. Ironmaster is all about a traditional and rugged feel with the solid steel knurled handle. The thickness is just right. Many good solid dumbbells have about 32mm handles. These don’t rattle like the PowerBlock and Bowflex, assuming you tighten them good enough, making them feel more like solid dumbbells.
Size and Shape
A few inches difference in width can be a big deal. This helps your range of motion significantly. You can bring them down farther when doing presses without hitting your chest, and you can move your arms straight up towards the top of the press without the length of the dumbbells getting in the way of each other.
Standard handles – 14″ long. The ends stick out. The sides are ideal, with the round smooth 10lb and smaller plates you load on it, and a good size of 8″.
PowerBlock – Very compact. The weight stacks don’t extend out far. At 25 lbs, all their models are only 10″ long. That goes up to only 12″ at 50lb, and then it starts to get significantly longer as you go up from there. One reason they can do this is they put some of the weight around the front and back of your wrist and not just on the heads of the dumbbell. They have a bread loaf shape, or more rounded tops than the bottom. That helps because at the bottom of presses you won’t be poking your chest or shoulders so much.
Bowflex SelectTech – It picks up the weight differently, and it has the same length of 16″ no matter what weight you choose. So yeah, that’s pretty long. You get no break when you choose a lighter weight. Big loser here.
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – 9″ long at 20lb, and 14.5″ at 75lb. Pretty good, similar to the PowerBlock in compactness. So again, it helps a lot for getting a good range of motion without the dumbbells getting unwieldy and awkward.
Weight Range and Upgrade Options
Here are the max weights of each one, and any upgrade options should you start hitting the limit.
Each weight noted is per hand.
Standard dumbbell handles – Up to 75 lb. Some people try to get tricky and use 12.5lb plates instead of 10lb, but you know, the 12.5lb are a little thicker, so it doesn’t help. You could use 20lb plates, but then it gets ridiculously wide and restricts your range of motion. We currently sell sets at 45lb and 75lb, but it’s arbitrary and is just a matter of how many plates you want to buy with it. And you can adjust them in as small as 1.25lb increments.
PowerBlock – The Elite and Sport are available in 50, 70 and 90lb max, and all upgradeable from any size to 90lb. The Elite are adjustable in 2.5lb increments, and the Sport adjustable in 5lb increments.
Bowflex SelectTech – 52.5lb or 90lb. Not upgradeable. They adjust in 2.5 lb increments, but only on the lower half of the weight range.
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – 45lb or 75lb. Both upgradeable to 120lb or 165lb. All adjustable in 2.5lb increments. Worth noting also that their large steel end caps accommodate PlateMates or other magnetic weights in case you want to do smaller increments.
Solid dumbbells are the most durable, while any adjustable dumbbells have parts that are much more prone to damage when you drop them after a set.
Standard Handles – Great. It’s all steel and iron. Even if you drop them from high enough and manage to bend a handle, you can just replace the one handle.
PowerBlock – You can bang them around quite a bit, but don’t be dropping them from any height.
Bowflex SelectTech – I’m not going to do drop tests to find out what happens, but these feel the least durable in the bunch and most prone to breaking. Again, you can be rough with them, but no dropping!
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – Awesome! The big reason people go with these is because they are so tough. The manufacturer actually tells you that you can drop them. This makes them stand out among the others. Some of the other dumbbells have coating over the handle, but these have the thickest steel inside the handle (and in this case, the handle is all steel, just chrome plated, with no rubber or other coating) and therefore is the most durable when it comes to dropping it. It will be extremely hard to bend these handles. See this video of the madman tossing these down the stairs and off the second story.
It totally depends on how heavy you go, so I’m just going to compare the 50lb models, or as close to it as I can get. These prices may or may not include shipping. It all depends on where you buy it from, and I list some places further below.
PowerBlock USA Elite – $419 for the 50lb
Bowflex SelectTech – $399 for the 52.5lb.
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – $379 for the 45lb.
I can’t remember the last time I called in a warranty claim for something I bought. Either there’s something wrong right away and I need it replaced – which is almost always possible because of basic customer service and consumer protection laws – or I tend to take it as it is forever.
However, the warranty does give you a good indication of how rugged the equipment is. Manufacturers set their warranty (or in reverse, set the quality of the components) to ensure that under expected use it will almost always last through the warranty period. Expected use usually doesn’t mean daily for home grade equipment. After some amount of time new toys tend to get stored away.
Standard Handles – None, Anything you buy online new will have at least a 30 day warranty against major manufacturing defects. Or at least I know that’s California law.
PowerBlock – 5 years. Not warrantied against dropping.
Bowflex SelectTech – 2 years. Not warrantied against dropping.
Ironmaster Quick-Lock – Lifetime warranty. It sounds like they’ll cover everything, and they tell you in writing you can drop them.
With all of the above in mind, I recommend the Ironmaster. I like durable stuff. There’s no plastic on it. I’m used to spending a minute changing weights on barbells, and doing that on a dumbbell would be no big deal to me. They warranty is forever, and they’ve been around a long time. I’d get the 75lb version, along with the add-on kit to 120lb.
See Tony Fanelli’s detailed 7-year review of the Ironmaster 5-75lb dumbbells.
My next choice would be the Bowflex SelectTech 90lb. It seems to be well made enough, it gets good reviews, it’s been around for a long time, and I do like the round heads that are more like traditional dumbbells. I could see if you like their easy weight adjustment dial, or you’re doing drop sets where you need quick adjustments, you’d go with them instead of the Ironmaster.