After almost three months of research and more than six weeks of personal and panel testing, we’ve determined that the Bowflex SelectTech 552s are the adjustable dumbbells that we’d tell most people to get. Out of the six sets we tested, some excelled at strength-training exercises (“pumping iron” to build muscles) and others were better at fast-paced conditioning workouts (more aerobic, like CrossFit, P90X, or calisthenics), but the Bowflex set proved the best overall when testing for both uses. Also, this is the only set that comes with actually useful instructions to help get you started safely—including a DVD with an introduction to resistance training and even some tips for experienced lifters.
Our testing group, which included four men (ages 37 to 58) and four women (ages 36 to 43), thought the Bowflex looked the best of the six models they considered. All of our testing panel participants agreed that the Bowflex 552s have a sleek design, with a modern, nicely ergonomic twist on a traditional adjustable dumbbell. In terms of ease of use, these weights take less than five seconds to figure out. They come packaged seated in their weight tray (in which they must be placed to adjust the weights) and have twist-dials clearly showing weight increments on either end of each dumbbell. Simply twist to the desired weight, lift from the weight tray, and begin working. Furthermore, the fact that you can adjust each side independently gives you the freedom to fine-tune the amount of weight in each hand if you so desire.
Overall, though, what makes the Bowflex dumbbells special is how well they cope with both fast-paced conditioning workouts (for building endurance and losing fat with aerobics) and standalone strengthening exercises (for building muscle strength and mass). That gives you more flexibility for how you choose to use them. However, if you primarily do conditioning and are willing to sacrifice strength-training performance, or vice versa, we have other picks for you. (If you’re unsure as to the differences between the two types of training, here’s a brief rundown.)
If superquick weight changes for rapidly paced conditioning workouts (think P90X or CrossFit) is what you’re after, there’s nothing quicker than our runner-up, the StairMaster TwistLock Adjustable Dumbbells. Instead of twin dials that must be adjusted independently, like those on the Bowflex set, with the StairMasters, you simply twist the barbell handle in either direction to adjust the weight up or down. In literally two seconds you can adjust the weight from 5 to 50 pounds (in 5-pound increments). Unfortunately, what you gain in speed, you lose in variety, since the handle-adjustment mechanism means you can’t adjust the sides independently like you can with the Bowflex set. But most of our testers found this to be a worthy trade-off in terms of usability. Another highlight is that among all of the dial-adjusting dumbbells we tested, the StairMasters are the only ones that change their length as you increase or decrease weight. That means they’re pretty consistent in length with a traditional single-weight dumbbell of the same load,1 which appeals to people with experience using weights. Overall, they were the fastest adjusting and one of the favorites in user experience, but nobody thought they were $200 better than the Bowflex set.
On the other hand, if you’re primarily focused on strength training, consider our upgrade pick, the Ironmaster 45-Pound Quick-Lock Adjustable Dumbbells, or if you want more weight, get the 75-pound version (includes a stand). Either set is expandable up to 120 pounds per handle for real heavy lifting, should you ever get to that point. This set was my personal favorite because I loved its smart design, traditional feel, and all-metal construction. However, it’s much slower to adjust, and will take you about 15 to 20 seconds to fiddle with the screw-in pin lock as opposed to 5 to 10 for the dial-based picks. That makes them ill-suited for conditioning workouts that rely on rapid weight changes, but if you primarily want dumbbells for bodybuilding and/or stand-alone exercises, these are the better buy because they’re more durable and can be bought in heavier configurations. They also come backed by a limited lifetime warranty as opposed to the two-year affair provided by our other picks.
I am the co-owner of Dynamic Fitness in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my wife and I have been running fitness classes and training private clients since March of 2008. I am also a senior instructor in the RKC School of Strength, for which I conduct instructor certifications and write blog pieces on various aspects of strength, conditioning, and mobility training. Additionally, I am a certified Level 1 and 2 FMS trainer, a certified MovNat instructor, and a certified progressive calisthenics instructor. I’m also a member of Vern Gambetta’s GAIN Network. Finally, I coach baseball and help coach strength and conditioning at Santa Fe Prep School. While I have lots of experience working with all kinds of exercise equipment, my best qualification for reviewing products for The Sweethome is that I get to test equipment with people from a wide range of ages and body types and both sexes.
When researching this guide, we were thinking of the average Joe or Jane trying to get (or remain) in shape from home, but who doesn’t have the space or money to buy a full set of traditional dumbbells, which can cost about $850 and take up a small bookshelf’s worth of space to get the same weight variety as one of our picks. And while deciding who the “average” person is clearly lacks scientific certainty, my years of work with regular people in the gym have given me good insight about what works for most people.
But why bother with a full set of dumbbells? Pick up any copy of a fitness magazine at the grocery store, and you’ll find a guide to increasing “tone” with the simple use of a pair of dumbbells. The catch, of course, is the law of diminishing returns. While using a pair of dumbbells will produce results in the short term (if you haven’t been using them before as part of your exercise routine), the limitations of a single pair of dumbbells will quickly reveal themselves once your body has adjusted to the resistance provided by the single pair. If you want to continue to produce results, you’ll have to buy a heavier pair of dumbbells. This is due to the principle of progressive overload, which basically states that to make improvements in muscle size, strength, or endurance, you must make your muscles work harder than they are accustomed to. Vladimir Zatsiorsky and William Kraemer, in their classic work Science and Practice of Strength Training, say on page 5 that “[i]f athletes employ the same exercise with the same training load over a long period of time, performance improvement decreases.” The adjustable dumbbells we tested allow users to easily scale up the difficulty of their workouts so that they continue to produce “adaptation” (fitness jargon for progress). Our main pick, the Bowflex set, offers variable weight options and ultrasimple use to maximize potential adaptation. Of those we tested, they are the most accessible offering for the average person.
However, that doesn’t preclude committed and experienced weightlifters from benefiting from our advice. In that spirit, we tested models like the Ironmaster Quick-Lock Adjustable Dumbbells and the PowerBlock U-90 (Stage 1 set), which offer higher load-bearing possibilities (and use slightly more involved weight-adjustment methods), in order to present a thorough assessment of the major players in the field.
Kettlebells have become incredibly popular since CrossFit exploded onto the scene, but these weights aren’t ideal for at-home use. And I say this as someone who’s been working with kettlebells since 2003—in fact, they are the most-used weight equipment in my gym. But kettlebells require specific technique in both Olympic lifting and powerlifting to avoid injury, which you should really learn from a trained and certified instructor. They are great if you know how to use proper form, but I have seen very few self-taught (or YouTube-trained) kettlebell users with proper form. In addition, kettlebells typically aren’t adjustable and can actually take up more space than a full set of dumbbells. Meanwhile, dumbbells allow for more isolation movements (with less range of motion required across multiple joints), and they include a wealth of easily accessible, solid support materials, which make them better suited for at-home users.
Strength training is what you typically think of when you hear “lifting weights.” The goal is to increase your ability to lift heavier loads, whether you are using barbells, machines, or dumbbells. As a result, your muscles grow and you become stronger. Exercises designed to build strength typically don’t require rapid changes because long rest intervals allow for plenty of time to make weight adjustments; for example, if I’m bench-pressing heavy weight for five-rep sets, I take a minimum of three to five minutes to rest between work sets. You pick a weight level that offers a good amount of resistance (but isn’t so heavy as to risk injury) and go at it for a set amount of repetitions. Over time, you switch to a heavier setting, and you progress accordingly.
Conditioning consists of exercises that require a person to work hard or move fast for a limited amount of time to increase their cardiovascular health. You have heard of many conditioning exercises: aerobics, short runs or sprints, jumping rope, and a lot of gym exercises that people consider to be cardio. All conditioning exercises burn fat as a result. You can also use weights (like a pair of dumbbells) for conditioning work. These workouts typically involve circuit training (exercises conducted in rapid succession and targeting different parts of your body). There’s usually only a 20- to 30-second break between exercises. That’s why it’s important to be able to change weight settings quickly. If your muscles start to tire, it’s better to complete the circuit using lighter weights than risk injury. But the only way to do that while keeping your heart rate up (without switching to a different, lighter set of weights) is to have weights that can adjust on the fly.
Strength training and conditioning each has its benefits, which is why so many experts recommend a program that combines a bit of both. Therefore, it’s nice if you can have one set of weights that excel at both types of training.
For a more detailed rundown of the two types of training, check out this breakdown at Livestrong.
While adjustable dumbbells have been around for more than 50 years, it wasn’t until the 2003 release of the home workout craze P90X that the market exploded with variations on the classic barbell design. That design, which includes a bar, loose weight plates, and screw-on collars to secure them, was incredibly unwieldy for the quick transitions between exercises and weights that were a staple of P90X. Producers took note, developed new designs, and 10 years later we have a market glutted with options in adjustable dumbbells.
To make sense of all these options, we had to establish some criteria by which to judge them. While my personal tastes played a role, I bring more of a specialist’s perspective to the table. Most of my own work is with old-school fitness equipment—kettlebells, barbells, Indian clubs; thus, my default was to quickly migrate toward the Ironmaster, which had the most traditional feel. My testers, however, liked the convenience and aesthetic of the newer-style dumbbells. To find some middle ground, I also talked to other trainers and fitness experts—like Brad Schoenfeld (who’s a regular contributor to The New York Times’s Well column and has a PhD in kinesiology), Dimity McDowell (co-author of Run Like a Mother; contributor to Shape, Self, and The New York Times; and co-owner of online community Another Mother Runner), and Andrew Read (gym owner and an writer for fitness site Breaking Muscle)—as well as my clients about what to look for in these things.
Each of the experts commended the advantages of a strength program built upon a variety of resistance levels and exercises. They all agreed that the new wave of adjustable dumbbell technology had provided a convenient alternative to the screw-collar adjustable variety of yore. Read remembers that adjustable dumbbells were what brought him into weightlifting, and he “fondly” remembers his dad complaining about the “piles of weight plates strewn about everywhere in the garage.” The smaller footprint of these newer adjustable weights is a huge plus for him. Schoenfeld, whose book The M.A.X. Muscle Plan uses dumbbells for strength gains, loves the scalability of adjustable dumbbells because “having a wide range of weights facilitates the ability to derive superior results.” McDowell believes in using simple strength programs to supplement cardio training programs, and she thinks that adjustable dumbbells offer an easy solution for strength needs. She and her husband have a set of Bowflex SelectTech 552s at their house.
In the end, we determined that the best product needed to be easy to use, broadly functional, durable (a criterion on which I will provide periodic updates), aesthetically appealing, and fall within a manageable price range. We know that most people either struggle to maintain consistency with their exercise regimen or struggle to exercise altogether. But if you can quickly get the knack of using a piece of equipment, then you are likely to use it. It makes sense then that if someone is entering the world of resistance training, they need a good product that is easy to figure out so that they can start experiencing success right away and keep that momentum up while developing a routine.
For such a seemingly simple product, this is a crowded field filled with various adjustment mechanisms, constructed from different materials, and aimed at many kinds of users. To add to the confusion, many of the companies making these things are actually owned by the same parent companies.2
To get a better idea of how these things differ from each other, I read tons of reviews. Doing this established that there are several basic types of adjustable dumbbells. First, there are the traditional weight plate/screw-collar configuration. Then, there are the knob-adjusted variety, where you twist a dial at the end of the weight to set in the weight increment. These weights rest in trays (which must be used to adjust weight increments), and when you pick up the weight, the unused weights are left behind in the trays. The Bowflex dumbbells are an example of this type. Next are the handle-adjusted variety, which allow you to twist the handle and scale weights up and down in that fashion (these, too, use trays for weight adjustment/storage of unused plates). The StairMaster TwistLocks are an example of this type. There is also a pin-lever-adjusted dumbbell (pull up a pin, slide it to the weight setting, release it and lock into place). Multiple manufacturers produce dumbbells of this variety, but I chose the Bayou Fitness model because I liked its metal components and price and the generally positive reviews I read about it. My final two choices, the PowerBlocks and Ironmasters, were chosen because of their unique positions in the field. PowerBlocks have been around since 1993 (easily the longest in the field of quick-adjusting dumbbells) and have a singular design and function (they are in a rectangular shape and are basically like weighted boxes that stack inside of boxes.). The Ironmasters’s screw-lock function (patented in 2004) and all-metal construction are also unique; these look like familiar old-school dumbbells but use the screw pin for fast adjustment: Align notches on screw hand or base unit, pull out the screw, adjust weights, push screw back in, twist 180 degrees to lock, and go.
I chose the Bowflex SelectTechs (over the similar knob-adjusted Universal Power-Pak 445s) because they’re more popular, have more positive reviews, and provide a larger range of weight options (in addition to the 552s, which go from 5 to 52.5 pounds, they make the 1090s, which go from 10 to 90 pounds). In the twist-handle category, I opted for the StairMaster TwistLocks over the Weider SpeedWeight 100s because of the simple fact that the Weiders weren’t easy to find in stock. People rave about the Weider 100s and 120s, but they are clearly hard to find (they seem to be permanently out of stock at retailers like Walmart and Amazon). There are many contenders in the pin-lever adjustable category (pull up a pin, slide it to the weight setting, release it, and lock into place), but I opted for the Bayou Fitness (over the X-Mark and Gold’s Gym sets) because of the bulk of more positive reviews and fewer safety concerns (especially over the Gold’s Gym set, which had multiple reviews claiming that the weights jammed easily or failed altogether). It was easy to choose the PowerBlocks and Ironmasters, as they are US companies (not part of larger fitness conglomerates) and offer singular designs that haven’t yet spawned imitators. Finally, I chose one cheaper, traditional plate/screw-collar barbell variety, made by MTN GearSmith. There are tons of possibilities of that style, and I chose one that seemed widely available.
Testing dumbbells “for most people” is a bit difficult to do because different people will want to do different things with them. This is why I wanted to test for both strength and conditioning, and with a variety of users of all sorts of body types to make sure we covered all the necessary bases.
I tested each of the models in three ways. First, I took them through a battery of traditional dumbbell exercises like curls, triceps extensions, shoulder presses, bench presses, rows, squats, and lunges. I did each of these as stand-alone exercises, so the emphasis was on strength work and isolation instead of conditioning. In these strength tests, I was checking to make sure that the dimensions of the dumbbells didn’t compromise my range of motion, that they felt comfortable and stable through different movements, and that they allowed lots of variability in loading options (when doing isolation exercises, especially of smaller muscle groups, it’s important that users can move up in small increments).
Then, to add a more conditioning-oriented component that was in line with the currently trendy approach used by CrossFit and other methods, I used each of the dumbbells in a “complex.” These combine multiple exercises in one work set without putting down the weights. For these conditioning workouts, I was looking for a weight that was broadly functional (showing no problems with range of motion, offering quiet and stable operation, and allowing for very easy manipulation in between work sets when I was shaky and tired). Complexes allow a user to combine strength and conditioning in taxing workouts that last no more than 20 minutes. This makes them particularly well-suited to a home user who has trouble finding a workout that fits into their busy schedule. I used the following complex: five bent-over rows, five hang cleans, five squat/presses, five bent-over rows. I found this by searching Dumbbell WOD (workout of the day). The 25 reps took me about 52 seconds to complete.
If I used a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio, I could complete five rounds (125 reps) in 10 minutes. If I really wanted to go for it, I could do 20 minutes of AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) and get through nine to 10 rounds. About 250 work reps later, my muscles were gassed and my heart rate was pumping. Finally, I tested each with an abbreviated round of P90X’s “Chest and Back,” “Shoulders and Arms,” and “Legs and Back” workouts, so that I could test with a plan that many home workout practitioners use. I was the only tester who used P90X. Though I personally don’t like P90X, we used it in our testing because it’s a practical way to test the dumbbells for conditioning using a program that’s already pretty popular.
But my body (6-foot-1, 177 pounds with long arms) is not representative of everyone’s, which is why we enlisted volunteers of both sexes and of varying ages to help with testing. I had three male clients (ages 36, 54, and 58) and four of our female trainers (ages 36, 41, 42, and 43) test the dumbbells in the traditional isolation exercises and in the aforementioned complex. As I did the most comprehensive testing personally, it’s useful to add that I’m 37 and have an extensive background in resistance training.
It was important to test participants in stand-alone strength exercises and in combination with conditioning work because I was looking for overall ease and functionality. While, for instance, people loved the Ironmasters and PowerBlocks for strength work, they didn’t like them as much for the workouts with conditioning emphasis because they were harder to adjust in between work sets. With the complexes, I used an AMRAP protocol over 20 minutes. I tried to achieve a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio to keep the heart beating heavily, but I went down in weight throughout the workout in order to keep good technique. In a fatigued state, with slightly shaky hands, both my clients and I spent more time fiddling with some of the weights than others; thus, our entire rest period was often devoted to getting the weights ready for the next round. The same thing happened to me when I tested with P90X. While most of the dumbbells tested well in the stand-alone strength exercises, adding a conditioning element greatly favored the dial-adjustment dumbbells (Bowflex and StairMaster).
Given the many user comments about durability concerns of adjustable dumbbells over the long haul, I also conducted some “drop” testing. I did this while bench pressing, as it’s not always possible to set the dumbbells down gently when you don’t have a spotter while benching. That said, I controlled the weights until they were 5 to 6 inches from the floor and dropped them. I dropped each of the weights four times from the distance mentioned, and while all of the units held up, I only had absolute confidence that the Ironmasters could withstand this type of treatment repeatedly. While none of the weights failed (failure in this case meaning that weights fall off of the units while in use) after dropping them, I would say my best advice is not to drop the dumbbells except in emergency situations. While the language of the warranties is a bit murky (except on the PowerBlocks, which say the warranty is voided if bells are dropped from more than 12 inches), they do say that warranties are voided if “outside of normal use.” An injury will cost you more than replacement parts. While I don’t mean to be flip, dropping weights isn’t a prerequisite part of lifting weights. If you err on the conservative side in selecting how much you lift, you will quickly figure out your safe working range. This should almost eliminate the need for dropping the dumbbells.
That said, should anything go wrong, it does help to have a good warranty behind your purchase. Ironmaster offers a limited lifetime warranty on its dumbbells and touts its product by claiming in the product’s description: “Heavy Duty—go ahead and drop them. No plastic or fragile parts!” Similarly, the lifetime warranty for the PowerBlock U-Series covers dropping the weights from 12 inches or less. The Bowflex and StairMaster sets both have two-year warranties on parts (with notable exclusions like “Damage due to normal usage and wear and tear”). The Bayou Fitness set comes with a limited one-year warranty on parts. I will certainly provide periodic updates as I use the equipment over the course of time (since I’ve been testing the dumbbells for only six weeks).
Other dumbbells might adjust slightly quicker or have better build quality, but the Bowflex SelectTech 552s are our pick because they offer the most complete overall package that will appeal to beginners and experienced users alike. In addition to offering great performance and adjustability, they have zero intimidation factor thanks to a terrific set of instructional materials that other manufacturers would do well to emulate. But even without the great introductory materials, we found in testing that the SelectTechs are easy to adjust, offer a wide variety of weight levels, and excelled in testing during all of our different exercise regimens for both strength training and conditioning workouts. All this adds up to a set that’s more approachable than anything else we looked at, which means you’ll be more likely to get started and stick with them.
Most of the people who come to my gym choose us for a couple of reasons. One, they need someone to force them to exercise (because they’ve struggled forcing themselves). Two, they are scared they’re going to hurt themselves if they do something wrong. One cannot overstate the intimidation factor in getting an at-home exercise program started. And this is why I was so impressed with Bowflex’s out-of-the-box experience. Not only do the SelectTech 552s ship fully assembled and ready for use, but they also were the only dumbbells to include a full-color instruction manual and a follow-along workout DVD, complete with safety tutorials.
While it’s typical for people to complain about various products when they haven’t read the instructions, I would encourage people to watch the Bowflex DVD first when evaluating some of the criticisms of the product. Most, if not all, of them are addressed and dealt with. For instance, the six-minute safety tutorial demonstrates the perfect technique to pick up the dumbbells from the floor or stand (which must be purchased separately) so that you don’t hurt your back. While many user reviews online fret over the possibility of back injuries from picking up the weights from the floor, the safety tutorial on the Bowflex DVD demonstrates the proper foot alignment, hip hinge motion, and flat-back position necessary to safely pick up the weights and set them down. The DVD also gives tips on how to maximize the lifespan and utility of your weights. For example, we had previously discussed why dropping these things are bad, so it’s nice that Bowflex has a video on how to bench safely with the SelectTechs to minimize your chances of dropping the weights.
There are also more than 30 detailed exercise demonstrations provided on the DVD that show exactly how to use the weights for each muscle group. Their “4-step rep” protocol basically emphasizes using tension throughout the movements so that the user doesn’t employ dangerous compensations/momentum that can lead to injury. If one of the complaints about dial-adjusted dumbbells in general (and SelectTechs specifically) is their length, users will see that the DVD shows how to use these dumbbells effectively in all ranges of motion so that the length is less of an issue.
After getting the brief orientation via DVD and manual, it was time to go to work with the weights. With a simple twist of the dials on both ends of each dumbbell, I set them at a conservative working weight, picked them up, and started lifting. I first wanted to sample a general assortment of traditional, stand-alone exercises done with dumbbells: lunges, curls, triceps extensions, bench, and various standing shoulder raises.
For the most part , everything felt smooth during strength training, but I did notice the length of the dumbbells on the bench and shoulder raises. At the end range of motion on front shoulder raises and bench, the twist dials of the dumbbells almost bumped into each other, which isn’t an issue with smaller, fixed-weight dumbbells. However, once you get used to the length, it actually becomes an advantage that gives you a more effective workout with less overall movement.
Because the weight on the Bowflex dumbbells is distributed farther away from the gripping hands, stabilization plays more of a role than it does with the traditional isolation of dumbbell exercises. As a result, I perceived (as did my testers) that my stabilizer muscles, especially the small muscles in the upper back and on the back side of the shoulders, worked harder when using the Bowflexes compared with shorter weights. Indeed, 50-pound lifts performed with the Bowflex set felt heavier than 50-pound lifts with the PowerBlocks (the shortest dumbbells in our test) because of the length differential. The Bowflex weights are longer, and, in my experience, that means they will require more stabilization because they are farther from the center (where I’m holding them).
I used my clients to test this sensation as well. If they were doing sets of bench, I would alternate sets with the Bowflex and other products (set at the same weight), and they would always report that the Bowflexes felt more challenging at the same weight because they worked more muscles—which is a good thing because you’re getting more of a workout. This wasn’t limited to presses and lifts either. My front squat position with the longer weights really forced my abdominal muscles to provide maximum stabilization (because the weights, extending from the body as they do, almost want to pull you forward; thus, the abdominal muscles are forced to perform their stabilization role to keep the user upright). So, the Bowflexes gave the added benefit of getting a great core workout without having to do isolated movements like crunches or sit-ups at the end. However, because of this effect, we recommend that both beginning and experienced users start conservatively with weight selection on the Bowflexes.
After my personal tests on the traditional strength-building exercises, I moved to testing the Bowflexes with the conditioning-oriented “complexes” found in P90X and CrossFit-style workouts. These types of workouts often include stacking several exercises together—for example, five reps rows, five reps hang cleans, five reps squat/press, five reps rows—before putting the weights down. After resting briefly, a user might adjust the weights and do the same thing again, ultimately repeating this process three to five times before switching up the exercises. This type of conditioning protocol is where the Bowflex dumbbells really shine due to their ease of changing weight. Generally, I would start these complexes/P90X (while fresh) with my heaviest target weight, which was 40 pounds with the Bowflex (again, I am 6-foot-1 and weigh 177 pounds and have worked out three to five times a week for more than 15 years). I reduced the weight over the course of the workout as I fatigued to ensure that I didn’t get injured. Given the conditioning emphasis of complexes (or P90X), rest duration between sets is limited. Beginners should plan on a 2:1 rest-to-work ratio, meaning if the work set takes 30 seconds to complete, rest 1 minute and repeat. As users get more conditioned, they can trim their rest periods. And with the inevitable fatigue that develops over the course of several work sets, adjusting the dumbbells to a lower weight is imperative; thus, the dial-adjusted weights were the huge winners in this type of workout. After 50-plus seconds of lifting weights without relief, I was always a bit shaky after setting the weights down. The Bowflex set’s dial-adjustment mechanism allowed me to easily lower the weight level in about five seconds and spend the rest of the break actually resting between reps. Summoning the coordination to adjust the weights on the other dumbbells (PowerBlock, Ironmaster, Bayou Fitness, and MTN Gearsmith) was frustrating and time consuming in comparison.
In addition to the ease of changing weights, the Bowflexes worked well operationally throughout the complexes/P90X. They made no noise while moving (unlike the clangy pairs by Bayou Fitness and MTN Gearsmith), and my range of motion wasn’t compromised on any movements (though the overhead press was close at the end range).
Once you are working with the Bowflex set, it offers an incredible variety of weight incrementation for workout customization. While the dial knobs display 15 weight increments (going from 5 to 25 pounds in 2.5-pound increments, and from 25 to 50 in 5-pound increments, before a final 2.5-pound jump to their max weight of 52.5 pounds), if the dials are set on different weights (for instance, one side set to 45 and the other set to 52.5, the resulting weight will be 48.75 pounds), an “offset” (heavier on one side of the barbell than the other) weight can be achieved. Offset weight settings allow the user to work more of his/her stabilization muscles to balance an unbalanced dumbbell. People looking to build functional strength (in the real world, stuff we pick up doesn’t have uniform weight distribution) will enjoy and benefit from the ability to offset their weights. Bowflex provides a convenient guide to all of the offsets in the user manual so that almost any desired weight setting can be achieved. In all, 125 different weight settings are possible on the Bowflex 552s.
Overall, the Bowflex dumbbells performed really well in all of the exercises I used to test them. Their ease of use and low maintenance (they are internally lubricated and don’t require any tuning) allow you an almost hassle-free experience. Paired with their excellent and informative DVD, most of the criticisms aimed at them are rendered obsolete, and their mid-range price makes them an extremely affordable and space-saving investment when compared with a set of stand-alone dumbbells).
In general, legitimate reviews of fitness equipment are few and far between. Most of what we could find fit into the “take with a grain of salt” category. Weight gear is bulky and pricey, so most folks haven’t tested a wide range in the field, and their opinions are usually limited to the one or two products they’ve tried. Some online reviewers claim to have tested a wider range of products before settling on their favorite, but if you read long enough into their reviews, you find out that they spent about 30 minutes at a fitness box store “testing” the products. Even the experts I consulted were limited by having only tried one or two of the models. None of the larger publications I consulted—including Health and Fitness, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and Consumer Reports—had done any work in this particular realm. I was left to scan the Web for user reviews (many linked in this article) and websites devoted to fitness reviews. While there are many websites that review dumbbells, all of the sites I looked at had affiliate relationships (where they got a cut of sales). While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I’ve avoided quoting from sites that exclusively offered positive or benign commentary about the various products. The sites below all speak to downsides (if they perceive any) of products tested.
After consulting countless reviews (both in print and on YouTube), I decided that the folks at Dumbbell Advisor provide a relatively balanced view (discussing the good and bad) about most of the available products in this field. For the Bowflexes, they find that, “The design of these dumbbells makes them difficult to criticize,” and conclude their review by saying:
The Bowflex SelectTech 552 adjustable dumbbells have been created to make working out with dumbbells faster, more convenient and more effective because of the quick dial adjustment system, which removes the need for multiple dumbbells, and makes adjusting weight a seamless exercise, allowing you to get on with your workout routine.
Overall, the Bowflex SelectTech 552 adjustable dumbbells have received overwhelmingly positive reviews and comments, making them a cost effective and highly recommended item in any home or fitness center.
Susan Butler, owner of the website Best Women’s Workout Reviews: Workouts That Work, loves how Bowflex has continually updated the SelectTechs (adding magnetic pins to replace the earlier and sometimes faulty plastic pins that failed to keep weights anchored) to ensure safety in their product. After praising the safety features, she comments on their small footprint and notes that “even if you don’t have a lot of space to spare, finding a spot that will accommodate them should not be a problem.” In terms of their use, she says that switching back and forth between weights is a “smooth, quiet and easy process” and adds that “the system is virtually foolproof.” In her wrap-up to the review, she says that what she likes most about the Bowflex dumbbells is the way they allow her to work essentially her whole body “efficiently and optimally.” She also states emphatically that having the appropriate weights available in the Bowflex set “means that there are no excuses to skip workouts.”
Tim Priest, owner of The Smart Monkey Fitness Blog, says that the Bowflex weights are “ideal for the vast majority of people seeking a practical strength training solution for their home gym.”
Finally, the folks at Fitness Rocks say, “When considering all of its aspects, the Bowflex SelectTech series of adjustable dumbbells is an outstanding product.” They go on to say, “The dumbbells are sleek and stylish and adjusting the weights is a breeze. As a matter of fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find another product on the market that allows you to switch weights so easily.”
One of the major criticisms leveled against Bowflex (and other dial-adjusted dumbbells) is their length (15.75 inches at all weight settings). As I’ve mentioned earlier, I mostly found the length to provide me with an added stabilization challenge/benefit. That said, the overhead shoulder press with two dumbbells forced me to concentrate and slow down my press at the end range so the dumbbells’ dials didn’t bounce off of each other. If I fired up a fast rep, they would tend to hit each other at the top. While focus and slightly reduced speed allowed me to work around this problem (without altering my range of motion at all), the length of the 552s is the longest I would want to work with; thus, we don’t recommend purchasing the Bowflex 1090s, which are 17.5 inches. Almost 2 inches longer per dumbbell than the 552s, the larger Bowflex dumbbells would force most people to alter their range of motion in most exercises. If you want larger weights than the 50-pound category, read below for my recommendations.
Another criticism and slight irritant about the Bowflex weights is that the tray they rest in sometimes comes off the ground with the weights when you’re picking them up (especially at the higher weight settings). User reviews complain about it, an editor at The Wirecutter who owns the set described it as an irritant, and I have experienced this as well when I use them. There are two ways to deal with this: buying the stand or picking up the dumbbells one at a time so you can use one hand to push down on the center of the tray while you lift the weight out. The stand has straps to anchor the trays down as you pull the weights out, so there’s no wrestling with the trays. As I find one of the best functional aspects of using these weights is learning how to safely pick them up and return them to the floor, I would just use the second approach described above. Simply pull the weights out of their trays one at a time, set each on the floor, and then pick them both up from the floor together. It’s also important to note that the problem of weight trays that stick typically happens most at 45-, 50-, and 52.5-pound settings.
Similar to the issue with picking them up is putting them down. The Bowflex weights (and all other dial-adjusted weights) leave the unused weight plates in the tray. Thus, when you put the dumbbells down, you can’t just drop them in the tray. Instead, you need to make sure that each dumbbell lines up with the plates left behind so that the whole unit fits together again when you set it down. While the process isn’t rocket science, it does require a bit of mindfulness and probably an extra second of time when returning them to the trays.
Finally, there’s the matter of the plastic pins that break as mentioned in a number of Amazon reviews from 2009, such as this one. While Bowflex would not get into specifics, a PR representative assured us that the issue has been addressed in the time since then. She explained to me that Bowflex updates its models each year with small design tweaks without changing the model numbers. We’re not ones to take PR at face value, but given that the majority of reviews are overwhelmingly positive (out of 1,622 reviews at the time of this writing, only 76 are two stars or less), it seems that the issue is limited to a small amount of defective units.
The one voluntary recall Bowflex made was for a single production unit of the 1090 version (the larger dumbbell) in August 2012. This recall was for a production mistake, not a design flaw. It should be noted that other users have also testified to the durability of their Bowflex weights over the long haul. The anecdotal evidence of user reviews shows that some swear to the durability of the Bowflexes while others say they can fall apart. So far, my Bowflexes have held up great under heavy use with a focus on putting them down carefully. I will certainly update this guide if I have any issues.
If conditioning is your primary concern and speed of changing weights is of utmost importance, it might be worth spending more for the StairMaster TwistLock Adjustable Dumbbells, which take only a turn of the handle to nearly instantaneously adjust their weight in 5-pound increments. Each dumbbell consists of a simple and sleek black unit resting in a polished chrome base. They definitely have the smallest footprint out of all the contenders. They are also easy to stow away, but still attractive if left out. Many of our testers said that if they weren’t so expensive, these would be the ones they would personally buy, but they are expensive enough that you really have to want them to justify their high price.
The other thing that separates the StairMasters from all of the other dial-adjusted dumbbells is that they get bigger or smaller depending on how much weight you’ve selected. Thus, they feel most similar dimension-wise to the traditional single-forged dumbbell of the same weight. Even at their top-loaded weight of 50 pounds, they were 1.25 inch shorter per dumbbell than the Bowflexes. This was nice in exercises like the overhead shoulder press, where the longer models are apt to bump into each other.
If speed, basic functionality, and a simple but stylish aesthetic are what you’re ultimately after, these might be for you. But right now you’ll have to pay $200 more than the Bowflexes, and you’ll be paying that premium for dumbbells that may not be as durable as our main pick. I had a hard time getting the handle to lock into the weights when I assembled them, which was cause for immediate concern. Also, the StairMasters use an expanding or retracting metal pin that goes in and out from the handle to catch and release weight plates. While this allows the weights to be shorter than the other contenders (because they aren’t anchored by a dial at either end of the dumbbells), I do worry that over time—especially with any dropping or mishandling—these could fail. And if they were to fail, it would likely be after the two-year warranty is up. I will certainly update this guide as I use them to let you know if this concern is merited.
If you are primarily focused on strength training and don’t much care for conditioning workouts that require rapid weight changes, a pair of Ironmasters will feel great and last you a lifetime. They come in a 45-pound starter set (90 pounds total between two dumbbells), or you can get the larger, 75-pound version (150 pounds total) that includes a convenient stand for storing the loose plates. The handles for the 45- and 75-pound sets are the same, so if you want to add weights, you won’t have to start with a completely new unit—both sets are expandable up to a whopping 120 pounds (or even 165 pounds with a custom add-on) per handle. The 45-pound unit does not come with the stand, however. We recommend the 45-pound set if you don’t care about speed, and the 75-pound set if you want something that can get really heavy.
The Ironmasters feel the most like a traditional set of dumbbells, but unlike traditional dumbbells, they’re a cinch to adjust. While a traditional adjustable dumbbell of the metal variety uses screw-on collars to secure the weights, it takes many turns of the collar before and after plate adjustment before they are ready to use. Ironmaster has radically sped up that process while keeping the great iron feel and look. It uses a patented screw-pin technology that allows the user to make a quarter-turn (aligning a notch in screw-pin with a notch in the dumbbell base) to quickly release the screw and add and subtract weight plates.
I used the Ironmaster 45-pound dumbbells, which come with a 5-pound dumbbell handle or base, two 2.5-pound screws, six 5-pound plates, and two 2.5-pound plates. Thus, weight configurations can be adjusted in 2.5-pound increments, which allows for all kinds of loading options. The Ironmasters have an outstanding diamond grip (surely the nicest of any of the offerings) on the stainless steel dumbbell base, which creates an outstanding feel when lifting with them. If you are used to lifting barbells, you will find an immediate affinity with the Ironmasters as soon as you pick them up. Not surprisingly, more advanced weightlifters love this product, and there are many interesting and informative forum discussions about their merits and drawbacks on BodyBuilding.com.
To use them, choose from the plates (2.5 or 5 pounds on the 45- and 75-pound sets, 22.5-pound plates on the 120- and 165- pound add-on sets), nest them together against the handle/base, push the screw pin in to set them, and turn the pin a quarter rotation to tighten the whole working unit. Pick them up and go. One of the surprising aspects of the Ironmasters—and a sign of their excellent craftsmanship—is their quietness during use. While you would expect some rattling/clanking with all of the metal parts, the snug fit of the unit allows for quiet use (just like a single-forged dumbbell) and makes them feel very safe and tight, even when used on more dynamic lifts like cleans, push presses, and jerks.
Fully loaded at 45 pounds, the Ironmasters are 12.5 inches long, so along with the PowerBlocks (12.5 inches at 50 pounds), they are the shortest dumbbells in the field. Again, if you’re interested in going heavy, check out the 75-pound set (14.5 inches long fully loaded). Owners of the 75-pound set can also purchase the optional 120-pound or 165-pound add-on kits. Each of these add-on kits uses the same set of handles that come with the 45-pound or 75-pound set. For reference, the length of an Ironmaster loaded at 120 pounds is only 19 inches, just an inch over a Bowflex 1090 loaded at 90 pounds. If I were going to invest in dumbbells over 50 pounds (and I was okay with a slightly slower weight-adjustment process), I would certainly purchase the Ironmasters. The likelihood of dropping heavier dumbbells, especially after finishing a set on bench press, makes their lifetime warranty and ability to sustain themselves through drops a prerequisite.
If the speed of adjustment isn’t important to you because you plan on using dumbbells for bodybuilding or stand-alone exercises only, the Ironmasters are your best bet due to their superior durability and their ability to hold more weight. My clients also loved them—as long as I made the weight adjustments between sets for them. It was only during the conditioning complexes and P90X trials that I would get frustrated with making changes. Again, with slightly shaky hands from a tiring conditioning set, I sometimes struggled a bit in managing plates and getting ready for the next set. While this wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for me, my wife (master RKC trainer Keira Newton) was far less inclined to adjust the weights in between work sets. She (and our other three female trainers) found the loose plates and screw adjustment of the Ironmasters intimidating and ultimately forbidding.
In terms of storage and stowability, the Ironmasters’s loose plates are bit of a drawback. The 45-pound set has 16 plates to deal with, while the 75-pound set has 28 plates. The 75-pound set comes with a stand (that can also store all plates required for the 120-pound add-on kit) as part of the price, but the design makes it more suitable for a garage or man cave than a public space. Again, compared with units that had no loose equipment (except plates left on the trays while unused), this aspect of the Ironmasters made them a bit unwieldy.
A final note on the Ironmasters: The company’s customer service is outstanding. Company representatives were available on the phone and via email (where I always received rapid and thoughtful replies) throughout my testing process. This was also true of PowerBlock, and this level and quality of service stood out in stark contrast to those of the other companies. Bowflex was slow in responding to my queries but ultimately came around, and I’m still waiting for return calls or emails from the people at StairMaster and Bayou Fitness.
If you want to work over the 50-pound range that I tested, I would easily recommend the Ironmasters or PowerBlocks over the Bowflex 1090s. As drops are more likely with heavier weights, you would want a product that stands behind its durability, and with their lifetime warranties, Ironmaster and PowerBlock are prepared to do just that. Also, you can’t work at the upper weight ranges if the weights are too long to handle, and both of these companies have done extensive research and development to make the shortest weights at the highest weight ranges. If you’re looking for quick-adjusting and heavy, go with PowerBlocks; if you’re looking for extreme durability and a classic aesthetic, go with Ironmasters.
PowerBlock’s “selectorized” dumbbells allow users to go from 5 to 130 pounds by adjusting a single handheld dumbbell—which is an incredible range of weights for just one dumbbell. But it doesn’t look like a traditional dumbbell; instead, it is a large, rectangular box of stacked weights with a grip in the middle. The box gets smaller or larger depending on how much weight you opt to use. The design is actually quite clever and is capable of changing quickly in 10-pound increments, but the weights’ boxiness was just a bit too weird for most of our testers’ tastes. Their rectangular shape just didn’t have the same immediate appeal as those models with more traditional roundness (like the sets made by Bowflex and StairMaster). That, combined with the fact that it feels like you’re reaching into a cage to lift the weights made their approachability and use a bit clunky. People with large hands might feel a sense that their hands are trapped inside the PowerBlocks when holding them.
The PowerBlocks have a couple of ways to choose weight (depending on whether you want 10-, 5-, or 2.5-pound adjustments). Using the selector pins to change weights in 10-pound increments was a breeze (taking five to seven seconds), but having to unlock the unit, remove the core and adjust the 2.5-pound cylindrical bars added some time (taking more like 20 to 30 seconds) and a lot of fiddling. This became time consuming and cumbersome, especially with my testers, who were generally averse to fiddling. Since increasing by 10-pound increments in isolated exercises like bicep, tricep, and shoulder work is difficult, the micro-adjustments must be used, and ultimately, the unwieldiness of those adjustments was a ding against the PowerBlocks. This was especially true since I was testing with cardio-intensive complexes and P90X, where 10-pound jumps were too ambitious to handle with safe technique and fatigued muscles. Ultimately, the PowerBlocks are not a bad product at all, but there are better, more accessible options available among the other models we tested.
The Bayou Fitness 50-Pound Adjustable Dumbbells received many positive reviews from people who liked their price, metal components, and pin-adjusted functionality. Their unique functional trait is a sliding pin that allows the user to make quick adjustments between weights. Basically, you pull up on the pin, slide it over to the desired weight (do the same thing on the other side of the dumbbell), and start lifting. While this sounds really easy, I actually struggled with the process, especially when fatigued. Not only does the pin require some tugging, but once you’ve got it lifted and ready to slide, it’s really hard to control the slide to get the pin in the weight option you want. Though I did like the diamond-grip metal handle when using the weights, I didn’t like the clattering of the weight plates against each other, and I also didn’t like that they adjust in 10-pound increments (unless you offset the weights, which the manual warns against doing). When doing isolated strength work, some of the smaller muscle groups can’t handle 10-pound jumps. Similarly, when doing fatiguing conditioning sets, you will likely find that 10-pound jumps are too hard when trying to keep good form in a fatigued state. Small increments will let you have more thorough workouts at various intensity levels. Overall, I didn’t find the Bayou Fitness set to be inexpensive enough (relative to other prices in the category) to justify the irritating aspects of my experience with them.
Because many people recommend going the bargain route in online forums, I also tested the original barbell-plate-and-screw-collar setup found on the MTN Gearsmith Adjustable Dumbbells. Many products are available in this general category, and I chose the MTN Gearsmiths because they were widely available and cheap. Unfortunately, paint flecks (both chrome and black) chipped off of the weights from the moment I pulled the pieces out of the box. The length of the barbell (onto which the plates get loaded) was almost 18 inches, which guaranteed that I was going to have range-of-motion issues. I couldn’t curl or press the dumbbells overhead without having to twist the weights awkwardly to avoid them banging into each other. Also, I struggled to get the collar threaded on the barbell when making adjustments. This was especially aggravating when I was working out and fatigued. In the end, this set’s lower price (significant as it is) isn’t a compelling enough reason to purchase this type of adjustable dumbbell.
Of course, as the adjustable-dumbbell market is flooded with choices, I had to leave out several major makes and brands. Most noteworthy among those exclusions are:
Gold’s Gym Switch Plate 100s: These use the pin-and-lever mechanism also employed by the Bayou Fitness model we tested. What stood out to me in my initial research was the high proportion of one-star reviews on Amazon and other product review sites. Like the Bayou Fitness model I tested, people complained about the sticky pin-and-lever adjustment process. But, the number of equipment failures noted by reviewers made this product seem like a safety concern, so I opted not to test it.
Universal Power-Pak 445s: This entry, similar in function to the Bowflex product (not surprising since Nautilus is the parent company of both brands), has generally good product reviews. I excluded it because the product tops out at 45 pounds, and I found that this would be too light for most people. The other products I tested maxed out at 50 pounds, and several of them have options to go up in weight (Bowflex, Ironmaster, and PowerBlock sets all go up to 90 pounds and beyond). I ultimately concluded that given its functional similarity to the Bowflex model, I would test the product with more weight variability options.
Weider SpeedWeight 100s: People had great things to say about this handle-adjusted product (similar in function to the StairMaster set we tested), but I couldn’t find it in stock at Walmart or on Amazon. (The fitness conglomerate who owns Bayou Fitness also owns distribution rights to the Weider product, but they didn’t return calls or emails about product availability.)
Stamina Versa-Bell II 50-Pound Adjustable Dumbbells: This product, distributed by Fitness Solutions Group (the same fitness conglomerate that puts out Bayou Fitness, X-Mark, and Weider), is a dial-adjusted dumbbell that works much like the Bowflex but maintains a more traditional dumbbell aesthetic. I had a difficult time finding many product reviews. More frustrating, however, was that inquiries directed to Fitness Solutions Group were never returned.
At CES 2016, Bowflex launched its SelectTech 560 Dumbbells, which feature a built-in accelerometer that tracks reps and total weight lifted. Although they aren’t Bowflex’s first pair of adjustable dumbbells—that would be our current top pick, the SelectTech 552s—they are the company’s first “smart” dumbbells. The SelectTech 560s can record the first rep of an exercise for good form and alert you if their sensors detect that you’re growing sloppy later on in your set. They also automatically transfer data to their companion app via Bluetooth, where you can check on your progress, caloric burn, and view a collection of video tutorials for next time. However, we certainly don’t think the 560s’ smart features are worth the additional cost.
After much research and a thorough testing process that included males and females of different sizes and ages (plus myself), I found that the Bowflex SelectTech 552 dumbbells were the best overall product for the most people. Their look, ease of use, ample support materials (DVD and manual), and solid price made them my overall favorite. That said, if ultimate convenience is your goal, the StairMaster TwistLock Adjustable Dumbbells offer a great experience at a much higher price. Old-school iron lovers will definitely enjoy using the Ironmaster Quick-Lock Dumbbell System, which is also capable of supporting loads of up to 150 pounds each, should you ever get to that point.
Originally published: June 20, 2016