steel, iron, adjustable, rubber
The highest quality style of fixed-weight (non-adjustable) dumbbells is debatable.
I’m going to show you what’s best for your situation, depending on whether you have a commercial gym, school gym, Crossfit box, training studio, or home/garage gym.
Table of Contents
#1 Overall: Urethane
First of all, as a general rule, urethane is the best. Nowadays you’ll find them in new health clubs. They are super durable, look brand new for ages, are easy to clean, and they’re easy on other equipment they find themselves bouncing against.
There are some other considerations, mainly the dumbbell heads being round or multi-sided. Let’s explore and narrow down your choices. Here’s your best choice for each training environment…
Home Gyms – Adjustable Dumbbells
For adjustable dumbbells, see our article comparing the top ones including Bowflex SelectTech and PowerBlock.
Multi-User Gyms – Commercial, School, etc.
Here we’re talking most commercial gyms as well as high school, college and university gyms.
In an environment with dozens or hundreds of members using the gym, you want round-headed dumbbells and the type of rack with saddles to hold each dumbbell.
3 reasons for this:
- People are lazy, forgetful and distracted. Guaranteed when a few people have dumbbells out, someone every now and then will put the 45s where the 55s should go. That kick starts the chaos. It’s like once that warehouse on the quiet street suffers one broken window, the norm is set and kids start throwing rocks to break more. Pretty soon it’s like nobody cares. At some point it becomes an obligation to finish off all the windows.
The point is, don’t make it easy for this to happen. Saddles, especially if you put some number stickers on them, give users no excuses, and if they screw up then at least the mess is easy to sort out. It’s clear where each one goes.
- Round things roll around. You put the 45s back in the right spot, lightly knocking the 50s, one of which rolls to the right, and the guy trying to replace the 55s calls you out. Then you have to take your squabble to dark parking lot because the girl on the leg adductor machine that you’ve had your eye on (the girl, not the machine) is taking notice. Don’t put your members through this. They just want to replace their dumbbells like civilized humans.
- People need space. The asshole above that shamed you is now doing dumbbell curls right in front of the mirror mounted above the dumbbell rack, blocking half the rack. What do you do? Wait? Is this going to be over in a few seconds, or are you going to need to take a seat and wait for him to grind out his 100 rep set?
This whole thing could be avoided if you respect the space your gym members comfortably need by having saddles that space out the dumbbells. It takes up more floor space, but that’s kind of the point.
By the way, multi sided dumbbells on a saddle rack don’t fit quite right, adding to wear on both the saddles and dumbbells. Don’t do that.’
Your second choice, if you like more of a classic look, are pro-style dumbbells. Troy pre-assembles theirs and tightens the crap out of them so they will never loosen. New gyms still are equipping themselves with these, for that old school iron feel. It’s mostly just a matter of personal preference between them and urethane.
These are a different situation. You do have (round) barbells rolling around a bit, but hopefully the drops are pretty controlled. Dumbbells roll easier and can be spending time on the floor where they’re quickly placed, if not dropped, and will roll. So round dumbbells aren’t the best idea for WODs. You want to minimize the chaos with a dozen people jumping and throwing things around already.
Plus, generally everyone is also going to be picking their dumbbells at the start of the workout and likewise replacing them all in sync, so spacing out the dumbbells along the wall isn’t important. You probably have multiple pairs of many sizes, so getting them out of order isn’t such a big deal.
For these reasons, you’ll do best with urethane or rubber multi-sided dumbbells. Urethane is has the best abrasion resistance and lasts indefinitely without degrading.
If you’re just starting out and watching your costs, you can do rubber dumbbells. Box owners aren’t as concerned with having pretty looking equipment. As long as everything is cleaned regularly it’s fine. Grungy, degraded rubber just adds to the vibe.
A bonus with York’s rubber dumbbells is the sizes under 50 lbs are made in 2.5lb increments instead of just 5lb. Other than that detail, there are tons of rubber dumbbells out there that look nearly identical to these. Remember you can’t use things like PlateMates to add small weight increments on these because of the rubber surface, so the 2.5lb increments are pretty handy if you can afford all the extra dumbbells.
Here’s a video with the kilogram version of these dumbbells, being in Ireland. The ones we have are in pounds:
Training Studios and Home Users
The easy part is you have no crowds of people using the dumbbells and replacing them carelessly.
However, two problems:
- Space to store them is at a premium.
- Odors will fill the room quickly.
Space: As far as space, you definitely want a nice 2 or 3 tier rack, along with multi sided dumbbells. 3 tier racks are the best use of space.
Odors: Yep, unfortunately, new weights usually stink. Plates and dumbbells alike, they usually carry some odors from the factory. For plain iron weights it’s a layer of oil from the factory to protect them from rust on the long journey to you (we have an article about cleaning them). Rubber coating made from recycled car tires stinks. Virgin rubber coating, on the other hand, is tolerable or not even noticeable at all. If you’re super-sensitive to odors and don’t want any chance of smelling something, go with urethane. The stuff is odorless. Another reason why it’s the best.
Round dumbbells feel nice on the thighs as you’re setting up for bench presses, I know, but if you get some nice 12-sided urethane or rubber dumbbells, you’ll be just fine. They’re better than the standard 6-sided (hex) due to the more gradually curved surface created by the additional number of sides. That is, hex dumbbells can be pointy and uncomfortable.
You’ll be happy with Troy’s Premium Rubber Dumbbells. Smooth rubber heads, and a very thick steel chromed handle.
Women really don’t mind the thick handles, because dumbbells are mostly only used for pressing movements or light enough pulling movements where grip strength isn’t an issue, unlike with heavy barbell work.
The Old School Look
York’s classic dumbbells have a cult following. York made a version of these decades ago, and these have a good textured finish over the entire dumbbell for superb durability and a good feel. The slightly bumpy surface gives it that rough but consistent texture that can slide in your hands a little, but not too much, and with no burrs that you have to sand down.
One unique thing about these is they have a small flat part on the otherwise round heads to keep them from rolling. So you can use them on a regular rack, if you’re careful to always direct the flat edges down to stabilize them. It’s generally already going to be pointed down because you aren’t rotating the dumbbell much in your hand during use, or you’re just transferring them from the floor to the rack.
One caveat with these is the finish isn’t always great looking, as detailed in the product description, so they’re really best for home use.
Barre Classes / Aerobic Studios
Neoprene dumbbells are the go-to type. They’re the only ones that have all the lightweight sizes – 1lb, 2lb, 3lb, etc.
You can get color coded ones, but as of writing we just have the black ones listed on our site because that’s what everyone wants. Black fits into every decor.