Dumbbell-like devices have been used since ancient Greece to build athleticism and muscle. Today, they remain an effective tool in a man’s strength-training arsenal.
Dumbbells are handy for isolation movements like bicep curls and are easier on the joints than barbells. They can be swapped in for certain barbell lifts if an injury prevents using a barbell for that exercise (e.g., swapping the barbell shoulder press for a dumbbell shoulder press), or they can be one’s preferred equipment for getting a full-body workout.
There’s just one problem with dumbbells: To build strength, you have to train using the principle of progressive overload — adding reps or weight each week — and to add weight to dumbbell workouts, you have to use progressively heavier pairs of dumbbells. But that requires access to a huge set of them, where the first pair starts at around 10 pounds and each subsequent pair is 5 pounds heavier, on up to around 100 pounds. That’s almost 20 potential pairs of dumbbells.
That’s fine if you belong to a gym, and they provide that big ol’ range of dumbbells on a big ol’ rack for patrons. But if you’re working out at home, a full set of dumbbells can cost you somewhere in the ballpark of $3500 to purchase and will take up a heck of a lot of space. It’s a non-starter for the average guy.
To solve this dilemma, manufacturers of fitness equipment have created adjustable dumbbells. All you need is a single pair of them, as each dumbbell can be toggled from lighter to heavier weights. Adjustable dumbbells are a lot more affordable than getting a full set of the traditional variety and take up far less room.
But do adjustable dumbbells really work as advertised, and if so, which of the various kinds available are the best?
I recently field-tested four models, and below I offer my unbiased, non-sponsored take on each of their pros and cons and which I’d recommend most.
With the ability to adjust the weight of each dumbbell from 5 to 50 pounds (up to 90 pounds if you buy extension kits), these dumbbells pack the utility of up to 20 traditional dumbbells within a small footprint.
Compact design. One of the standout features of the PowerBlock Elite EXP is its compact design. The dumbbells have a block shape and don’t sit in a special cradle as other adjustable dumbbells do. Out of all the adjustable dumbbells I tried, the PowerBlock Elite EXP takes up the least amount of space.
Durable. As we’ll see, many adjustable dumbbells are pretty finicky and require you to treat them with kid gloves. When I used the PowerBlock, I felt I could be rougher with them and not worry that they’d break.
Price. Right now, you can buy a pair for $430 on Amazon, making it one of the cheaper adjustable dumbbell sets out there. However, the extension kits to increase their weight capacity to 70 and 90 pounds cost $125 and $170, respectively. So it’s a good entry-level adjustable dumbbell, but if you think you’ll quickly max out the weight capacity and have to buy the extensions, then it won’t ultimately be a real bargain.
Weight adjustment. The weight adjustment mechanism on the PowerBlock is kind of annoying. The process involves removing a plastic pin and sliding it into the desired weight slot. Using the pin to adjust the weight will allow you to go up or down by 10 pounds. If you want to adjust the weight by 2.5 to 5 pounds, you remove some metal cylinders from the handle. Compared to other adjustable dumbbells I tried, the weight adjustment process is pretty clunky.
Bottom line: if you’re looking to get a lot of weight variations in a cheaper, compact piece of equipment, the PowerBlock Elite EXP is a great option. But be aware that they’ll feel different compared to traditional dumbbells.
If you’re looking for an adjustable dumbbell that feels more like a regular dumbbell, check out the MX85 Rapid Change. It allows you to adjust the weight from 12.5 pounds to 85 pounds and do so quickly.
Feels more like a traditional dumbbell. The MX85 Rapid Change looks and feels more like a traditional dumbbell than the PowerBlock. (However, large, oddly-shaped “plates” lend these dumbbells their own kind of awkwardness — see below.)
Adjusting weight is a breeze. The MX85 Rapid Change uses a dial system to adjust the weight. You turn a dial on each side of the handle to increase or decrease the weight. So if you want a dumbbell that weighs 12.5 pounds, you’d set both dials to one; if you want the dumbbell to weigh 85 pounds, you’d set the dials to 10. Much easier to adjust than the PowerBlock.
Adjustment mechanism is made of metal. The adjustment system in the handle uses metal gears and a metal rod to adjust the weight, making it much more durable than its competitors that use plastic and nylon.
Weight adjustment increments are weird. While it’s easy to adjust the weight on the MX85 Rapid Change, the weight increments you can adjust to are really dang weird. You can increase from 12.5 pounds to 85 pounds in 8-pound increments. So weight increments look like this:
12.5, 21, 29, 37, 45, 53, 61, 69, 77, 85
Never in my training career have I thought: “Hey, I need to do a set of 10 at 53 pounds.”
Five-pound jumps, 10-pound jumps, yes.
Eight-pound jumps? Huh?
This is probably the biggest flaw with the MX85 Rapid Change.
Can’t drop. Like most adjustable dumbbells, you can’t drop the MX85 Rapid Change. If you do, you risk breaking the adjustment mechanism in the handle. While you can’t drop them, I’ve found the MX85 Rapid Change durable. I haven’t felt like they’re falling apart after a few months of use.
Price. At $600, the MX85 Rapid Change is pricey.
Bottom line: The MX85 Rapid Change is an easy-to-use adjustable dumbbell set that allows you to get heavy. However, I wouldn’t recommend them due to their odd shape and size and their weird weight adjustment increments.
A customer review said, “If Apple made an adjustable dumbbell, it would be the NÜOBELL.” And after using all these adjustable dumbbells, I’d have to agree. With the ability to easily adjust from 5 pounds to 80 pounds, the superior design of the NÜOBELL puts it at the top of my list.
Easy to adjust the weight. Changing the weight on NÜOBELL is a breeze. Simply rotate the handle and adjust the weight up or down by 5 pounds.
Speaking of that 5-pound adjustment, this is a big advantage the NÜOBELL has over the MX85 Rapid Change. You can go from 5 to 80 pounds in nice, standard 5-pound increments (5-10-15-20-25-30-35-40-45-50-55-60-65-70-75-80).
The ease of adjusting the NÜOBELL has made my workouts super fast. I can quickly change weight from lift to lift in seconds.
Less durable. Like other adjustable dumbbells, you can’t drop the NÜOBELL since it could break the adjustment mechanism. And because the adjustment mechanism on the NÜOBELL is made of plastic, it’s a bit more prone to breaking than the MX85 Rapid Change.
I experienced the lack of durability firsthand when I got my NÜOBELL delivered. One of the boxes I received looked like it had been taken out back and beaten with a crowbar. When I opened the box, the handle on that dumbbell was broken. It wouldn’t adjust.
I ordered my NÜOBELL from Rogue Fitness, so I emailed customer support, and they quickly sent me a replacement handle. (Thanks, Rogue! Excellent customer service!)
Since then, the NÜOBELL has worked like a champ. I’m careful when I set them down, though. I don’t want them to break.
Price. The NÜOBELL is $600 at Rogue Fitness, so pricey. They cost the same as the MX85 Rapid Change, but I think the NÜOBELL provides a better experience.
Bottom line: The NÜOBELL is my favorite adjustable dumbbell. The range of weights and the ease of adjusting weight is phenomenal. The only downside is that I feel like I have to treat them with kid gloves. I’d love for them to come out with a more durable version that you could drop. Where’s the Steve Jobs of dumbbell design when you need him?
While technically not an adjustable dumbbell, a loadable dumbbell is an old-school way to get various dumbbell weights with minimal equipment. Loadable dumbbells are basically mini barbells that allow you to increase their weight using the smaller-sized barbell plates you may already have. The loadable dumbbells that I have are from Rogue. Dubbed the “DB-15,” this dumbbell is a beefy 15 pounds without plates (they also offer a 10-pound version, but you can’t load as many plates on it). They look just like a miniature version of their famous Rogue Ohio Barbell.
Compact design. When the dumbbells are unloaded, they occupy hardly any space in my garage gym. I store them right next to my plate holder.
Can go as heavy as you want. The DB-15 has a long 6.75″ sleeve that allows you to put a lot of weight on it. I made a 115-pound dumbbell for some rows using two sets of 25-pound plates, and I still had room for more weight.
Super durable. Rogue’s Loadable Dumbbell is incredibly durable. You can drop these with abandon, and they’ll keep on ticking. If you’re looking for dumbbells that you don’t have to baby, these are it.
Price. A pair of DB-15s will set you back $300. If you already have weight plates, buying a set of loadable dumbbells will be much more cost-effective than purchasing an adjustable set of dumbbells. If you don’t have plates, things can get expensive as you start buying them.
Hard to adjust the weight. The biggest drawback of the loadable dumbbell is that it’s tedious and time consuming to adjust the weight. You have to load them just like a barbell: put weight and a collar on each side of the sleeve. Changing the weight out on the loadable dumbbell slowed down my workout time.
I can see myself using the loadable dumbbells combined with an adjustable dumbbell in the future. I’m pretty close to maxing out the weight on the NÜOBELL on my dumbbell bench. I’ll probably continue to use the NÜOBELL for my warm-ups on the dumbbell bench since it’s so fast to increase weight, and then use the loadable dumbbells for my heavy working set.
The other issue with the long sleeves is that you can’t rest the dumbbells on your knees without pain. Resting a heavy load on top of your knee doesn’t feel good as you get ready to hoist the weights onto your shoulders.
Bottom line: If you already own barbell plates and are looking for a more affordable way to get started with dumbbell training, a pair of Rogue Loadable Dumbbells is the way to go. The biggest downside is the hassle of adjusting the weight on them.