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How Do Adjustable Dumbbells Work?

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Adjustable dumbbells come in different styles with several mechanisms for changing weight. It’s important to understand how they work to determine the right type for your home gym. Generally, weight dials and pins are the easiest to use and provide the best speed. Meanwhile, plate-loaded options are the most durable and offer a more traditional look and feel.

A set of dumbbells is one of the best and most versatile pieces of gym equipment you can add to your home gym.

However, traditional fixed dumbbells are expensive and take up valuable space.

A much more economical option for home gym owners is a set of adjustable dumbbells.

But which ones should you buy when there are so many options?

In this article, I’ll take you through each type of adjustable dumbbell and show you how they work. By the end, you should be able to tell which is right for you.

Let’s dig in.

How do Adjustable Dumbbells Work?

What are Adjustable Dumbbells

As the name implies, adjustable dumbbells allow you to change the weight depending on your workout, fitness level, etc. Compared to fixed dumbbells, adjustables cost less and take up much less footprint in your gym, making them an ideal home gym solution.

I consider adjustable dumbbells a choice of tradeoffs. Some systems provide excellent speed but at the expense of durability and a traditional feel. Others provide a traditional dumbbell feel and great durability but at the expense of speed. And then there are some that blend these three elements.

In general, there are five main types of adjustable dumbbells:

  • Weight Dials
  • Weight Pins
  • Plate-Loaded
  • Loadable Dumbbell Handles
  • Smart Adjustable Dumbbells

Let’s take a close look at each to see exactly how these adjustable dumbbells work and which ones may be best for you.

How Do Weight Dials Work?

Weight Dial Adjustable Dumbbells

Weight dials have become the most popular adjustable dumbbell style because of their speed and overall usability. These dumbbells have dials in the handle or on the ends of each side. You can adjust them nearly instantly by turning the dial to the appropriate weight.

As a safety measure, all weight dial systems must be docked in a special cradle before adjusting the weight. When properly docked, the weights are unlocked, allowing you to make the change. Otherwise, they are locked so that you can’t accidentally adjust the weights while using the dumbbells.

Handle dials work by threading a steel rod through a series of weight plates. These generally have straight, knurled handles that feel like traditional fixed dumbbells. End dials work like a gear system, collecting the proper number of plates as the gears spin. These often have contoured handles with rubber coatings.

I recommend handle-dial dumbbells to most people because they’re faster than end dials and are typically higher quality. My favorites are the NÜOBELLs, which can get up to 80 lbs in 5 lb increments. Their knurled steel handle feels great in the hand, and their mostly steel construction is durable.

Pros

  • Excellent Speed
  • They’re great for beginners to advanced lifters
  • Ideal for drop sets and super sets
  • Great for training more than one person
  • Weights range from 5-80+ lbs

Cons

  • More complex mechanisms may break down over time
  • Typically include more plastic than other systems
  • Warranties generally aren’t as long

How Do Weight Pins Work?

Weight Pin Adjustable Dumbbells

A less common but equally fast system is the weight pin mechanism. The best example is PowerBlocks, which are among the most popular adjustable dumbbells of all time.

These work by sliding a pin through the appropriate number of plates. Each increment is color-coded or otherwise distinguished with a weight call-out, and it takes only a few seconds to adjust the weight, making them some of the fastest and easiest adjustable dumbbells to use.

Another subset of the weight pin category is the pull-slide selector. To adjust the weight, you pull up on a tab, slide to the appropriate weight, and release. NordicTrack Adjustable Dumbbells are the best example of the pull-slide mechanism.

I recommend PowerBlocks in this class because of their longstanding reputation, excellent durability, and strong warranty. They’re some of the best adjustable weights I’ve used.

Pros

  • Fast and easy to use
  • Weights range from 5-90 lbs, but can get as heavy as 175 lbs!
  • Great for drop sets and super sets
  • Appropriate for all fitness levels

Cons

  • PowerBlocks have a unique box shape that may limit range of motion on some movements

How Do Plate-Loaded Adjustable Dumbbells Work?

Plate Loaded Adjustable Dumbbells

Plate-loaded adjustable dumbbells represent the most conventional style and are more similar to traditional dumbbells. They’re typically made with all steel and are highly durable. The biggest drawback is that they take longer to set up.

To adjust a plate-loaded dumbbell, you have to physically load weight plates onto each side of the handle and secure them with a threaded end cap. While it’s still fairly fast at around 30 seconds, it’s noticeably slower than weight dials and pins. If you’re changing weights frequently, it can add time to your workout and make drop sets and super sets difficult.

The biggest benefit is that they look and feel like a fixed dumbbell. The balance is excellent, and they’re extremely durable since they have little to no plastic. You can also typically load them heavier than others.

I recommend the Ironmaster Quick-Lock Adjustable Dumbbells in this class. They are outstanding adjustable dumbbells with great performance and a solid track record. You can load them up to 165 lbs, making them ideal for serious lifters.

Pros

  • Look and feel like traditional dumbbells
  • You can load them very heavy
  • They’re the most durable style
  • They can be some of the most affordable
  • Longer warranties than most

Cons

  • Longer set-up times
  • Not great for drop sets or super sets

How Do Loadable Dumbbell Handles Work?

Loadable Dumbbell Handles

Loadable dumbbell handles are mini-barbells. As the name implies, you have to load these handles with plates, which makes them slower than some. However, like the plate-loaded style above, these are all steel and very durable.

I call them mini barbells because that’s exactly what they are. They have a barbell shaft, two sleeves, and a bushing rotation system. This gives them a solid feel, but the extra length can reduce the range of motion on some lifts. They’re excellent for rows, carries, shrugs, etc., because you can load them heavier than most.

Another big benefit is that they’re by far the most affordable. You can find a pair for under $100 in some cases. You can also use weight plates you already own, including Olympic and standard plates. Keep in mind that these are secured with external collars, which is a key difference from other plate-loaded styles.

I recommend the Bells of Steel Olympic Handles to most people. They function well at a great price and include a lifetime warranty

Pros

  • They can load up to 200 lbs!
  • Great for rows and unilateral movements
  • Extremely affordable
  • Ideal for barbell lovers
  • Most compact adjustable dumbbell

Cons

  • Extra length may limit range of motion
  • Takes longer to set up
  • Requires external collars

How Do Smart Adjustable Dumbbells Work?

Smart Adjustable Dumbbell

The final type of adjustable dumbbell is the smart dumbbell. Smart gym technology continues to evolve as more people train at home. Smart adjustable dumbbells represent a very small class since the market is still maturing, but they’re one to watch.

Depending on the manufacturer, smart dumbbells can be manually changed with a dial or electronically changed with the push of a button or your voice. Perhaps their biggest selling point is their integrated apps, which track your progress, provide workouts, and more. Some also include teacher-instructed classes, but all of this comes at an additional monthly cost.

I see smart dumbbells being a potentially good option for adaptive users, but I don’t recommend them to most people since the technology is still young and the durability isn’t strong.

Pros

  • Voice or touch-activated adjustable weights
  • App connectivity for tracking stats and workouts
  • Good for beginners and adaptive users

Cons

  • Not as durable as other systems
  • Bluetooth and mobile app integrations introduce bugs
  • Can’t be loaded as heavy as others

FAQs About Adjustable Dumbbells

  • What is the Best Kind of Adjustable Dumbbell?

    The best type of adjustable dumbbell is the one that fits your budget and training needs. If you need speed, I recommend weight dials or weight pins. If you need durability and a traditional look and feel, I recommend plate-loaded or loadable dumbbell handles. Some options blend each of these elements, so do research to determine the right model for you.

  • <strong>How Quickly Can You Adjust the Weight on Adjustable Dumbbells?</strong>

    Most adjustable dumbbells can be adjusted in less than 30 seconds, but it depends on the manufacturer and dumbbell style. Plate-loaded options take longer because you have to load individual plates onto the handle. On the other hand, weight dials and pins are considerably faster at under 5 seconds.

  • Are Adjustable Dumbbells Safe?

    Yes, adjustable dumbbells are safe as long as you use them responsibly and ensure they’re secure before weight training. Some adjustable dumbbells, like weight dials, have built-in safety measures. Others, like plate-loaded dumbbells, need to be tightened and checked before beginning your workout. Either way, they are very safe, even with heavy weight.


Final Thoughts

Adjustable dumbbells are a great addition to any home gym, but it’s important to understand how they work to pick the right ones for your needs.

Ask yourself what’s most important for your training goals.

Do you need speed? Durability? Do you prefer a traditional look and feel?

The answer to these questions will steer you in the right direction.

Adam Hensley
Adam Hensley
Adam is the founder of Garage Gym Lab and has over two decades of fitness/training experience. He serves as the chief content creator and runs our YouTube channel and social media accounts. When he's not testing equipment or sharing his love for home gym life, you'll find him with his wife and two kids in sunny South Carolina.
Adam Hensley
Adam Hensley
Adam is the founder of Garage Gym Lab and has over two decades of fitness/training experience. He serves as the chief content creator and runs our YouTube channel and social media accounts. When he's not testing equipment or sharing his love for home gym life, you'll find him with his wife and two kids in sunny South Carolina.

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