Stepping into a gym for the first time or shopping for fitness gear online can be overwhelming. Having so many equipment options opens up a world of fitness possibilities, but having too many choices can make strength training seem daunting.
The good news is, at least when it comes to weights, learning which to use — and when — isn't as complicated as you may think. "Typically, the considerations are going to be a combination of skill level, strength level and safety," says Zach Trowbridge, owner of Chicago-based All Strength Training.
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The most common weights for home gyms are dumbbells and kettlebells. Both are ubiquitous at gyms, where you'll also find barbells. There are pros and cons to using each of these fitness tools. Here, we explain each choice in detail, so you can decide which form of strength training is best for you right now.
Are Dumbbells Right for You?
At the gym, you're most likely to find dumbbells sitting in pairs on a weight rack, ranging in size from 5 pounds up to 50 (or more, depending on the gym). There are many specific types of dumbbells, but the ones you'll see most commonly in the gym are the non-adjustable "fixed-weight" kind, which are comprised of two equal weights connected by a short bar.
You can find fixed-weight dumbbells for purchase online or invest in adjustable models. There are two types of adjustable dumbbells:
- Dumbbells with weight plates that can be added or subtracted and are held in place by a nut
- Dumbbells that come with multiple weights that are placed in a stand, which can be easily switched out by using a dial
Trainers love dumbbells for their versatility; they can be used either together (to work both arms simultaneously) or separately (to focus on one arm at a time). Additionally, due to their shape, dumbbells can be used for a wide variety of exercises very easily, from compound movements like squats and lunges to smaller exercises such as triceps kickbacks.
"Dumbbells are the most versatile weight," Trowbridge says, "because they allow for accommodations." For example, you can easily change how you hold a dumbbell to perform a wide variety of different movements, from overhead presses to walking lungs.
Dumbbells also force you to perfect your form on both sides of your body, says John Gaglione, founder of the Farmingdale, New York-based gym Gaglione Strength. Compared to a static barbell, dumbbells are less stable and provide separate resistance for each side of your body.
Gaglione has just one caveat about strength training with dumbbells: You have to be careful with the weight increments.
Dumbbells can increase in increments of 3 to 5 pounds, meaning that your muscles might be taking on a significantly more challenging load when you move up to the next weight. "Five pounds per hand is a 10-pound increase of weight to your total system," Gaglione explains. "That can be a huge percentage increase for someone starting out."
That doesn't mean dumbbells aren't a good option for beginners. It's just something to be mindful of if you are using dumbbells in the gym. If you are purchasing a set for home use, consider looking for a brand with weights that go up in smaller increments.
- Pros: commonly available at the gym; allow you to work one limb at a time; encourage better form
- Cons: weight increments may not be small enough for beginners
Are Kettlebells Right for You?
Kettlebells and dumbbells function similarly — and are both great strength-training tools for beginners — but there are a few key differences between the two.
Kettlebells take the form of a weighted ball with a handle on top. Due to this configuration, they're often used for swinging exercises. That's not all they can (or should) be used for, however: The easy-to-grasp handle actually makes the kettlebell a superior choice for any movements where dumbbells may feel difficult to grip.
"Because of its unique nature and shape, the kettlebell can be a great introduction to certain barbell and strength exercises," Gaglione says. "That being said, most beginners should start off with slower, more controlled movements that build strength, so they have the stability and control to [perform] more ballistic exercises — like swings and snatches — in the future."
Using a kettlebell can also be a fun way for dumbbell aficionados to freshen up their strength-training routine, Gaglione adds. However, with some moves, such as biceps curls, dumbbells may be preferable, because improper kettlebell technique could result in forearm bruising. With other moves, like deadlifts, kettlebells may be a better bet because their design can lessen your risk of injury as you pick the weight up off the floor.
- Pros: unique shape can lead to a more secure grip; can serve as a replacement for dumbbells in most weight-lifting exercises; great for doing swinging exercises to build power
- Cons: not always available at gyms (especially in higher weights); bottom of weight can bruise forearms if used improperly or if wrists are weak
Is a Barbell Right for You?
Ideally, you should only advance to strength training with a barbell once you've built up some strength with dumbbells and/or kettlebells. The barbell itself typically weighs about 45 pounds — before you add any weight plates to it.
Some barbells come with pre-attached weights; you may find them on the weight rack at your gym. Otherwise you'll find the bar resting on a rack that's positioned over a weight bench, with weighted plates nearby that you can put on the ends of the barbell.
One benefit of lifting with a barbell, Gaglione says, is that unlike dumbbells, its weight doesn't increase in large increments. "The major benefit of a barbell is that you can micro-progress the load over time," he says. For home workouts, "you can purchase micro plates and take small, one-pound jumps. That's why, for long-term, sustained progression, a barbell wins [over dumbbells] by a landslide," he says, as long as you're able to lift at least 45 pounds.
Training with a barbell can provide more stability, too, especially when a squat rack or power rack is available. These racks have safety rails that can help should you need an extra assist when lifting, Trowbridge says. Thanks to the safety rails, you won't get stuck underneath the weight.
That said, there's an argument to be made that, since you can add more load, there's more risk involved with a barbell. "When barbell squatting or benching in particular, it's best to use safeties in a power rack and/or a spotter to ensure proper safety," Gaglione says.
"[Because] you can indefinitely add more weight," he adds, "a barbell is a better tool for a serious athlete who needs to get stronger." However, a certain level of technical skill is required when using a barbell.
- Pros: can micro-progress over time; provides stability; invaluable tool for building power for athletes
- Cons: bar itself weighs 45 pounds, which may limit beginners; may require a spotter or power rack for safety reasons; less common in home gyms