Over the course of nearly five months, we lifted thousands of pounds of weight for hundreds of reps (in addition to researching the topic, interviewing experts, and comparison-shopping) to find the best set of adjustable dumbbells for at-home use. With a lightning-fast adjustment mechanism, a compact footprint, and a 5-to-50-pound load range, Core Home Fitness’s Adjustable Dumbbell Set is the set we think will work best for most exercisers.
As more people continue to exercise at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, at-home exercise equipment like adjustable dumbbells continues to be a hot commodity. Our picks are out of stock everywhere right now; buying them in stores or online is nearly impossible. In the case of our top pick, you can enter a lottery—yes, a lottery—for the chance to buy a set.
Projected dates for replenished stock vary widely by brand. Be aware that prices may be unsettlingly high on some sets that are available—price gouging by third-party sellers seems to be alive and well. Our advice: Be patient and vigilant. Core Home Fitness and Bowflex both provide an option to sign up for email notifications on restocks. We’ll update this guide as models return. In the meantime, know that you can improvise with items you may already have on hand.
Each dumbbell in the Core Home Fitness Adjustable Dumbbell Set can go from 5 to 50 pounds per dumbbell in a matter of seconds with just a twist of the handles. Even better, at 14½ inches long, the weights are a manageable length when fully loaded, and they get shorter, and therefore more ergonomic to handle, as you reduce the load. Our runner-up dumbbells remain 15¾ inches long no matter how you load them, so they’re potentially unwieldy for smaller-framed folks.
Our complaints about the Core Home Fitness dumbbells are minor: The weight increments on each are 5 pounds (rather than the 2½ pounds of others), which can make an increase feel significant, particularly at lower loads (say, going from 10 to 15 pounds, or from 15 to 20). And like most adjustable dumbbells we tested, these weights require careful alignment for you to re-rack them, and the racks get hung up when you pick up the weights fully loaded. Of the 10 sets of adjustable dumbbells we’ve tested over the past three years, the Core Home Fitness model offers the best experience in its price range, making it a great choice for most home gyms.
The Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbells adjust smoothly from 5 to 52½ pounds when you turn dials at either end of each weight. With 2½-pound increments for the first 25 pounds (and 5 pounds thereafter), the Bowflex weights allow for more nuance in training progressions than our top pick, whose increments are 5 pounds. Still, the Bowflex weights have two dials to adjust per dumbbell (lest you accidentally create an uneven load), so they aren’t as quick or elegant to load and unload as our top pick. Also, the 15¾-inch-long bars don’t get shorter as you change the weight, making this set a bit harder to handle, especially for smaller-framed people. If our pick is unavailable, or if the ability to adjust the total weight per dumbbell in smaller increments matters to you, these dumbbells are a solid choice for lifting at home.
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Why you should trust us
To learn about the benefits of using adjustable dumbbells in home workouts, we interviewed Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College and author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan, and Pete McCall, a San Diego–based certified strength and conditioning specialist, host of the All About Fitness podcast, and a former advisor to the American Council on Exercise. McCall is a consultant for Core Health and Fitness (not to be confused with Core Home Fitness, an affiliated company that sells our top pick), the parent company of StairMaster, which currently sells an identical adjustable dumbbell set under that brand name, though only to specialty retailers. (The company plans to cease production under the StairMaster name by the end of the year.)
I’m Wirecutter’s resident fitness writer, as well as a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)–certified personal trainer and an American Council on Exercise (ACE)–certified group fitness instructor. I train clients outside of my writing hours and am a personal fan of the at-home workout. Like many readers of this guide, I have limited space in my apartment in Queens, New York, and so I was particularly curious about this category of space-saving exercise equipment.
For additional testing perspectives, I enlisted NASM-certified personal trainer Phil Schiefer, co-owner of Cosmic Fit Club in Queens, who generously offered his fitness expertise plus gym-floor and home-garage space.
Finally, I relied on the testing and research of Mark Bixby, who wrote Wirecutter’s first guide to adjustable dumbbells in 2016, as well as guides to other exercise equipment such as kettlebells. He’s a certified fitness pro whose previous research and testing allowed us to cut through the riffraff when selecting which models to test.
Who this is for
Lifting weights isn’t just some fly-by-night fitness fad or a hobby reserved for bodybuilders. Resistance training confers a host of health benefits, from boosting metabolism to improving bone density. In November 2018, [the rest is the same from here] the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion issued the recommendation that American adults complete a minimum of two muscle-strengthening sessions per week, defined as “activities [that] make muscles do more work than they are accustomed to doing.” The recommendation continues: “That is, they overload the muscles.”
One way to achieve that muscle overload is to use free weights such as standard dumbbells or kettlebells. (Resistance bands can also do the trick.) But—surprise—having just one or even a couple of sets of dumbbells at home won’t be enough. As you get stronger, you’ll find that you need to add more weight (or resistance) to achieve the maximum benefits. “The only reason the body adapts is because it’s challenged beyond its present capacity,” exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld told us. “If the weights are too light, you can’t do that.”
If you’re committed to weight training at home, investing in a set of adjustable dumbbells can save you money and space. Rather than buying a full set of traditional dumbbells, which, depending on what you choose, can be prohibitively expensive and require the same amount of storage space as a small bookcase, getting a set of adjustable dumbbells—two handles that each allow you to load them incrementally with weights totalling up to 50 pounds or more—may make more sense.
To some people, up to 50 pounds per dumbbell may seem like a lot of weight. But once they’ve learned proper form, even a novice exerciser is usually capable of deadlifting a load equal to their body weight for at least one rep, so 50 pounds per weight ends up making sense for most people. If you’re an experienced lifter and you would like more than 50 pounds per dumbbell, we have recommendations for you, too.
How we picked and tested
When selecting which sets of adjustable dumbbells to test, we looked for per-handle loads ranging from 5 or 10 pounds to around 50 pounds, a span that presents enough versatility for most exercisers.
You can find a variety of mechanisms for setting loads on adjustable dumbbells, and we were mechanism-agnostic when deciding which models to test.
Traditional: You manually slide weight plates, held in place by a threaded screw collar, on or off a bar.
Dial: The dumbbells sit in a tray and you turn a dial at one or both ends, engaging or disengaging the plates you need. The ones you don’t want remain in the tray when you pick the dumbbells up.
Handle-twist: You rotate the handle to collect or disengage the weight plates from the center outward, with the unneeded plates remaining in the tray when you pick the weights up.
Slide-pin: You pull up and slide a pin at each end of the dumbbell to add or reduce weight, from the handle out. Any leftover plates remain in the tray.
Other: Some sets have proprietary adjustment mechanisms that differ from the above. Read more in The competition.
Thanks to the work of former guide writer Mark Bixby, we easily nixed nearly a dozen sets of adjustable dumbbells that didn’t perform as well as others during previous panel testing or that we dismissed without testing because of poor owner reviews. When updating this guide in 2018, we checked on the availability of previous picks and looked for new or updated models that had come out since our last round of testing in 2016.
We chose to test five sets in total, including a mix of newly released models and former picks. When evaluating these adjustable dumbbells, we prioritized the following:
- Speed and ease of adjustment: Being able to load or unload weight quickly and smoothly is important for workout timing and flow, and also for safety. Overly complicated or annoying adjustments can prompt mistakes in changing the weights (say, forgetting or improperly adjusting one end), or can lead you to decide not to adjust as often, leaving too little or too much weight on the bars for your exercises.
- Adjustment increments: The typical load adjustment increment is 5 pounds, but some dumbbells allow increases or decreases of 2½ pounds, while others adjust by increments of 10 pounds.
- Ergonomics: How the weights feel in your hands and how you can move while holding them is extremely important, especially given the fact that these things are likely to be bulkier, longer, and more unwieldy than standard cast-iron dumbbells of equivalent weights that you’d find on the racks at the gym.
- Overall construction: More metal (and fewer plastic) components may make for a safer, longer-lasting set.
To test each set, Phil Schiefer, another personal trainer, and I worked out with them both in a gym (where we had enough space to try multiple sets) and at home.
We determined the ease and speed of adjusting the weight load, both initially and while transitioning exercises in a circuit format (that is, from one exercise to another with little rest between). Longer transition times mean longer periods of rest, which certified strength and conditioning specialist Pete McCall pointed out can affect the quality of a workout—especially if your goal is to improve conditioning, which requires keeping your heart rate up. In the gym, Schiefer and I timed ourselves adjusting the weights while completing the same circuits of exercises with each pair. This way we could compare adjustment times across sets and see approximately how much that adjustment time affected a workout for two different people.
We considered how limits on load-adjustment increments might affect our training, finding that 2½-pound increments were best for working out with lighter total per-dumbbell loads, while 5-pound increments could require reducing the number of reps when increasing the per-dumbbell load.
We also considered the ergonomics of using each set, particularly in maneuverability during exercises. We took into account the length of each dumbbell at given loads, which for me, as a 5-foot-5, narrow-framed woman, quickly became an important parameter. Longer bars meant that for certain exercises I had to modify my range of motion or my body positioning, or both. These modifications, while not necessarily harmful, can affect which muscles are engaged and potentially the quality of the workout. Brad Schoenfeld likened it to how the machines at the gym are not one-size-fits-all—they’re designed to fit an “average” person, so outliers on either end can find them biomechanically awkward.
Finally, we looked for any safety or durability concerns. We noted the ratio of plastic to metal components and how secure the weights felt in terms of any rattle or movement of the plates, which all but screw-collar models produce to some degree.
Our pick: Core Home Fitness Adjustable Dumbbell Set
Speedy, uncomplicated loading and unloading set the Core Home Fitness Adjustable Dumbbell Set apart from the competition. You can adjust each dumbbell to the desired weight—between 5 and 50 pounds—in just one or two seconds, even simultaneously, with a simple twist of the handles. For the other models we tested, adjustments took anywhere from six to 25 seconds per dumbbell. The ease of this adjustment mechanism lets you focus completely on your workout rather than having to fuss with your tools. What’s more, fully loaded, these dumbbells are a manageable 14½ inches long, shorter than all others we tested; in particular, they’re 1¼ inches shorter than our runner-up pick and 2½ inches shorter than the longest dumbbells in our testing group. When the weight is reduced, so is the dumbbell’s overall length. In contrast, most other models, including our runner-up pick, maintain the same bar length no matter how much weight you load them with. Shorter dumbbells mean that smaller-framed people (like me) don’t have to modify their range of motion or movement angles with the Core Home Fitness set in order to avoid colliding the weights together in, say, an overhead military press.
These weights look the same as our former also-great pick, the StairMaster TwistLock Adjustable Dumbbells (which are currently unavailable), and that’s because they are. The dumbells are now sold for home fitness use through sporting-goods stores and online by Core Home Fitness (formerly called Core Fitness), which is a sibling company of StairMaster’s parent company, Core Health and Fitness. The Core Home Fitness set retails for significantly less than the old StairMaster pair—and along with their superior ease of use, they are now our top pick, over our former recommendation and current runner-up, the Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbells.
The reviews for the Core Home Fitness dumbbells are overwhelmingly positive on both the Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods sites at this writing. The company backs its weights with a two-year, parts-only warranty, common for this category.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The only real complaint we have concerning the Core Home Fitness dumbbells is that the weight increment is a fixed 5 pounds. In the gym, you’ll typically find dumbbells at 2½-pound increments, especially at the lower weights—5, 7½, 10, 12½, and so on, up to 25 pounds. For some people (or certain exercises), a 5-pound jump can be a lot. To manage it, the general rule of thumb is that you increase the weight and reduce the number of reps you can complete with good form. If you need dumbbells that you can adjust in 2½-pound increments, consider our runner-up pick.
The other small issues are ones that we encountered with most of the adjustable dumbbell sets we tested: When the dumbbells are fully loaded, the rack frames tend to stick to the outside of the weights as you pick them up. (Keeping a toe on the frame, or picking the dumbbells up one at a time so you can hold the rack with your other hand, solves that problem.) The Core Home Fitness dumbbells, like most other models we tested, also have to be aligned carefully for you to re-rack them—the plates have a V-shaped mold to guide them into place. In our tests, the plates rattled a bit on the bars, but they felt more secure than those on most other sets we tried. As is the case for all the adjustable dumbbells we tested, you can’t drop these as you might do with regular free weights: You must place them on the bench or the ground with a bit of care.
Runner-up: Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbells
The Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbells accept adjustments in increments of 2½ pounds for the first 25 pounds (and 5 pounds after that), allowing a smaller progression than our pick’s static 5-pound increment. With this Bowflex set you can select loads from 5 pounds to 52½ pounds by turning a dial at each end of the dumbbell. Doing so takes only six or seven seconds, but that’s more than twice as much time as on our top pick from Core Home Fitness (which took only a couple of seconds for us to adjust).
The Bowflex SelectTech 552 set is also larger than our pick. Regardless of how much weight you load, the bars that hold it remain nearly 16 inches long, unlike the more-compact Core Home Fitness dumbbells, which get even shorter as you release weight plates. The length of the Bowflex weights was a nonissue for the 6-foot-2, broad-shouldered Phil Schiefer, but for me (5-foot-5 and narrow-shouldered), the weights could feel unwieldy and even affected my body positioning and ranges of motion in some exercises. For example, in a two-handed biceps curl, I had to externally rotate my shoulders to avoid hitting the weights together.
The dial adjustments on this set generally operate smoothly, but with two per weight, if you miss an end (which can happen with fatigue-addled workout brain), you risk an awkward, uneven load.
As with most adjustable dumbbell sets, the racking tray can stick when you’re lifting a full load, and you need to have the weights aligned carefully to re-rack them.
Some Amazon reviewers express concern about the weights’ plastic components being less durable than the metal of other models. Bowflex itself warns owners not to drop these dumbbells on any surface. Like our pick, these weights come with a two-year, parts-only warranty. The company also offers extended, parts-only policies.
A Wirecutter staff member who used the Bowflex dumbbells for two years on average two to three times per week praised the weights for their ease of use and durability. His only complaints were those we found in our testing—that the bars were too long for some exercises (he has a slim build), and that the weights could stick in the trays sometimes. The only reason he stopped using them regularly: He got strong enough to the point where the max load wasn’t challenging enough, and he joined a gym. Still, he said, “I can’t bring myself to sell them.”
The hefty Merax Deluxe 71.5 Pounds Adjustable Dial Dumbbells are a good value for a significant bump in total load: about 20 pounds more weight per dumbbell than either of our picks offers. Although the Merax set was similar in pricing to our top picks at the time of our testing, these dumbbells are more expensive now. The single adjustment dial releases with a press of a trigger button for speedy weight selection that’s faster than on the Bowflex set but slower than on the Core Home Fitness pair. But this set comes with a couple of quirks. First, the weight plates are in kilograms, not pounds, which requires some mental gymnastics (2.2 pounds per kilo) if you’re used to US/imperial measurements. Also, turning the dial counterclockwise selects kilogram loads of 5, 10, 15, and so on, while clockwise gets you 7½, 12½, 17½, and so on, yet the dials can spin all the way around in either direction, so you need to pay extra attention while adjusting the loads. Like our runner-up pick, the Merax dumbbells remain a static length (in this case, 16¼ inches—a half inch longer than our runner-up). Still, if you want more weight and don’t mind the learning curve, we found that these dumbbells felt nearly as sturdy in the hand as our picks.
The Yes4All Adjustable Cast Iron Dumbbells are traditional adjustable dumbbells that use a bar, weight plates, and threaded collars to hold everything together. They take forever to adjust, as you must remove the collars, load or remove plates, and rescrew the collars, all while doing weight-plate math. (Each dumbbell of the 105-pound set we tested had a 4-pound bar, eight 5-pound plates, two 2½-pound plates, and two 1¼-pound plates.) All told, the fastest we managed a weight change for one dumbbell was about 25 seconds, which means you’re looking at about a minute of rest between exercises, plus resisting the very strong temptation to just do your next move using the same amount of weight, which could mean either not enough challenge or a serious struggle. Another weird quirk is that these bars and the corresponding holes on the weight plates measure 1.15 inches in diameter, making them incompatible with a more standard 1-inch bar and plates, so you can’t increase the load by using plates from another set. Still, if more traditional strength training (which requires longer rest periods) is appealing to you and the total weight load is adequate for your needs, this set may be worth a look as a budget option.
We hit a snag while testing the NordicTrack Select-A-Weight Dumbbell Set. One of the dumbbells in the set we received had broken at one end, a potentially dangerous situation in which heavy plates could flop around during use. A company representative was quick to issue a replacement and requested a return of the broken one, which was a result of a manufacturing problem she assured us had been remedied. The replacement set indeed seemed sturdier, but the adjustment mechanism—a sliding pin—wasn’t as smooth as the dial and twist types we tried, or as user-friendly, with the weight increments printed somewhat distant from where the pin sat. These dumbbells were also very plasticky and felt bulky in the hand, especially at their 17-inch fully loaded length. (As with our top pick, the weights get shorter as you reduce the weight and longer as you add it.)
A pick in the previous iteration of this guide, the StairMaster TwistLock Adjustable Dumbbells set is identical to our current top pick from Core Home Fitness (an affiliate of StairMaster’s parent company, Core Health and Fitness). A representative for the company confirmed that it ceased selling these dumbbells under the StairMaster name. If you find this set on a clearance sale, though, it’s worth considering—it’s identical to our top pick save for the logo, and panel testers for a previous version of this guide enjoyed using this pair.
Writer Mark Bixby, who did the first version of this guide in 2016, praised the Ironmaster 45-Pound Quick-Lock Adjustable Dumbbells for their all-metal construction, limited lifetime warranty, and ability to expand up to 120 pounds per dumbbell. “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,” he wrote. He conceded, though, that they’re much slower to adjust “and will take you about 15 to 20 seconds to fiddle with the screw-in pin lock.” And although the heavier load offering is notable, this set plus an expansion pack represents a significant investment. We weren’t able to try the Ironmaster set in 2018, as it was on backorder for the duration of our testing period.
PowerBlock weights, which have been around since 1993 and are easily the most established line in this category, have a unique square design that allows for a massive range of 5 to 130 pounds per dumbbell. Mark Bixby and panelists previously tested the PowerBlock U-90 (Stage 1 set). Although he praised the expandability, compactness (only 12½ inches long fully loaded to 50 pounds), and lifetime warranty, he ultimately dismissed them because “the weights’ boxiness was just a bit too weird for most of our testers’ tastes.” He continued, “[The] fact that it feels like you’re reaching into a cage to lift the weights made their use a bit clunky.” In response to recent stock shortages, PowerBlock added a notification to its website reading, in part, “Please be careful of unauthorized resellers dealing PowerBlocks online.”
Bixby and panelists also tested the Bayou Fitness 50-Pound Adjustable Dumbbells, which give you a metal sliding pin, similar to the NordicTrack set’s plastic-and-metal setup, to make weight adjustments in 10-pound increments. He “struggled with the process, especially when fatigued,” he wrote. “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.”
The MTN Gearsmith Adjustable Dumbbells, with their traditional collar-and-weight-plate design, are highly similar to the Yes4All weights we tested but cost more. We chose not to retest them.
The Bowflex SelectTech 560 Dumbbells, like our runner-up pick, use a dial adjustment mechanism, though these have a built-in accelerometer that tracks reps and total weight lifted and beams the data via Bluetooth to a smartphone app. The Amazon reviews are middling, with many suggesting that you should buy the SelectTech 552 set (our runner-up pick) instead. Because the SelectTech 560 set costs over $100 more at this writing, we decided not to test it. Also, as of our most recent update to this guide, Bowflex no longer sells the SelectTech 560 set on its website. We also noted that the going price among third-party sellers on Amazon is more than $1,000—we’re fairly confident this is a markup to avoid.
We also didn’t test the Bowflex SelectTech 1090 Dumbbells, which operate similarly to the Merax weights but range from 10 to 90 pounds each, in 5-pound increments. At a whopping 17½ inches long—nearly 2 inches longer than the Bowflex 552 dumbbells—they’d likely affect almost anyone’s range of motion. If you want more weight per dumbbell, the Merax weights are probably more manageable.
Bixby previously dismissed the Gold’s Gym Switch Plate 100 set, the XMark 50-pound Adjustable Dumbbells, and the Stamina Versa-Bell II 50-Pound Adjustable Dumbbells because of poor owner reviews and difficult-to-reach customer service. We again chose not to test these models, for the same reasons.
Pete McCall, certified strength and conditioning specialist and host of the All About Fitness podcast, phone interview, April 26, 2018
Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College and author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan, phone interview, May 3, 2018