Investing in Free Weights

All free weights are not created equal, and it pays to make sure you invest wisely in this core piece of equipment.

Training with free weights increases muscle mass, bone density, muscular endurance and metabolism. Because free weights allow non-linear paths of motion across all three planes of movement, they are well-suited to improving functional performance. Free weights are also an economical way to provide a wide variety of exercise options. Unlike machine-based resistance training, free weights afford an almost limitless number of exercises for a modest amount of space. Free weight training is also popular across a broad swathe of members, including segments traditionally disassociated with this kind of resistance training, such as older adults and women.

While free weights are essentially basic pieces of equipment compared to the complexities of cardiovascular and resistance machines, free weight designs have evolved to the point where the products are vastly different than their forerunners. User-friendly materials and bright coloring have helped to break the "pumping iron" reputation that, for a long time, dominated free weight training and intimidated many people from using this equipment. Personal training has also helped to make more people comfortable training with free weights. Group exercise classes that involve free weights have had a similar impact. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), Boston, Mass., 2005 IHRSA Trend Report indicated an increase in free weight usage by women from 32 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2005.

The decision to invest in free weights is a no-brainer - according to IHRSA, 97 percent of fitness centers offer free weights. But, there are several other decisions to be made about material, shape, storage and quantity.

Material choices

Free weights can be finished in chrome, black oxide, powdercoated steel, stainless steel, rubber or urethane. Will Geddis, design assistant for WTS International, Rockville, Md., says, in most cases, steel dumbbells and plates are powdercoated, which makes them more susceptible to wear and tear. They will also generate more noise than urethane and rubber. He says the best material for dumbbells and plates depends on the application and frequency of usage. "Urethane dumbbells and plates are a wise option for clubs that generate over 700 uses per day," says Geddis. He adds that the advanced bonding of urethane provides the edge over rubber. The bonding means there is less chance of splitting and tearing, and it won't leave black scuff marks. "Having said that, urethane weights come with a hefty price tag," Geddis says. "Rubber is the more economical option, while still very durable and soft on impact."

For many years, chrome was the preferred choice because of its shining, aesthetic appearance. "The advantage of chrome would be appearance, but it is slippery when wet," says Brian Samuel, director of operations for L&T Health and Fitness, Falls Church, Va. And, there are question marks over the long-term durability of chrome. Chip- and flake-resistant chrome Olympic bars and dumbbells are available, but sharp edges can still be a risk over time. "Chrome chips, and the chipped areas can be quite sharp," says Samuel. "I've had shards of chrome in my hand from chrome dumbbells." Similarly, pitting and blemishes can appear, and it shows fingerprints.

Fitness facilities often steer clear of rubber dumbbells and plates because they give off strong odors; however, the odor is not inherent to all rubber -it depends on the manufacturing process. Rubber also tends to be viewed as less durable, but good quality rubber can last. These days, rubber can also be made in different colors. And urethane is a form of rubber itself.

Jim Thomas of Fitness Management Consulting, Flower Mound, Texas, says urethane is by far the best material for dumbbells and plates. "It not only looks great, but is very durable," says Thomas. "There are no chipped painted plates or dumbbells, and no noise from plates clanging together." It will also not damage floors, although there is some evidence that urethane can chip powdercoated surfaces.


Free Weights Selection

Brian Samuel, director of operations for L&T Health and Fitness, Falls Church, Va., lists the equipment suitable for a free weights area:
  • Plates: Work with your vendor to determine what you need based on how many barbells and plateloaded pieces of equipment you have in your facility.
  • Dumbbells: Most facilities need a complete set up to 120 pounds. To be well-equipped, the set should be in 2.5-pound increments up to 40 pounds, with duplicates up to 50 pounds.
  • Equipment: Facilities should have Olympic flat, incline and decline benches; a shoulder press station; a power rack/squat rack; a deadlift station; multi-angle incline and flat, and multi-angle decline utility benches; a short-back seat; and Preacher curls (standing and seated).

Free weight quality

A higher-quality free weight will not be plagued by problems, such as a rubber odor or chipping. In determining the quality of free weight, Samuel says that the old adage applies: You get what you pay for: "Less expensive plates tend to show wear quicker and are less accurate when compared to their stated weight." The manufacturer, in keeping costs low, may opt to use a lower grade of metal. By investing in more expensive free weight equipment, fitness centers can expect longer lasting, more accurate weights and better aesthetics.

The quality of urethane free weight products can vary. Some urethane coatings are thicker than others, and the formula itself can vary, leaving some prone to splitting and not providing good cushioning on impact. The reason urethane thickness varies is cost - urethane is more expensive than iron or steel, so some suppliers provide a thinner coating.

Thomas says that cheaper equipment will chip paint easily, and have a rough feel and look to the surface. He says facility owners should ask about the grade of the steel and how it compares to others, but "be sure you're comparing apples to apples." He says that there is not a great deal of difference between the more high-quality brands, and most manufacturers use a decent grade of steel. Geddis says that steel dumbbells and plates are more likely to damage flooring and other equipment when compared to urethane and rubber.

Country of manufacturing origin is another issue to consider. While some countries may supply a cheaper product, the quality of metal and design may be lower, leading to worse performance and a shorter lifespan. "U.S. or imported, the cheaper the cost, the cheaper the quality," says Samuel. "You may get a better high-quality U.S. product for a lower cost, since shipping tends to be a killer when it comes to plates." Geddis says that most free weights are manufactured overseas now, and high quality products are available.

"Free weights, in general, are the most maintenance-free items when compared to [other] equipment," says Geddis. But, lower-quality equipment exacts a heavier maintenance toll.

Maintenance and installation

Here are some common maintenance issues with plates and dumbbells:

Plates. There is no general cost associated with the maintenance of plates - just clean them occasionally.

Dumbbells. With dumbbells, head-bolted bells tend to need more attention. The cost would be whatever you would pay your maintenance contractor or employee to tighten them on a regular basis. The method of fixing weights to bars needs scrutinizing. "Bolted head weights are more prone to failure," says Geddis. "In most equipment failure cases, the dumbbell handle will loosen from the weight plate, allowing the plate to spin or detach. This is an issue that clubs don't have to worry about when they go with welded-head weights."

Says Samuel, "Solid steel would be the best - the bar is attached inside the bell. If you are choosing a plate-style dumbbell, consider that, if a bolt shears, it may be able to be replaced. [However,] if a weld breaks, a welder would need to repair it, and it will change the weight of the bell. But, welded [bells] tend to have less wobble in the plates."

There are additional quality considerations regarding particular pieces of equipment. Olympic bars can bend, and have even been known to snap. It is a matter of the manufacturing quality. A well-made Olympic bar will be straighter to start with, and stay straight even when used with heavy plate loads. Bars with low tensile strength and low yield strength can bend more easily. According to Ivanko, any Olympic bar with a tensile strength rating of less than 190,000 PSI will bend over time. So, ask suppliers how their bars are made. Even with the highest manufacturing standards, some bars will have flaws. Bar strength can also be compromised by grooves, which, despite their aesthetic appeal, lessen the diameter of the bar at those points, making them weaker.

To help ensure a safe investment, find other fitness centers that have installed the same equipment, and ask them how the equipment has performed so far. Thomas advises buyers to actually exercise with the product under consideration.


Directory of Free Weight Providers

Body-Solid Inc: 800 833-1227; Cemco Physical Fitness Products: 800 782-6377; GP Industries: 800 814-4943; Hampton Fitness Products Ltd.: 877 339-9733; Intek Strength: 866 996-3825; Iron Grip Barbell Co.: 800 664-4766; Ivanko Barbell Co.; 310 514-1155; New York Barbell: 800 446-1833; Promaxima Manufacturing: 800 231-6652; Troy Barbell & Fitness: 800 872-7767; York Barbell Co.: 800 358-9675;

Function and style

With the evolution of free weight design and materials, functionality and ergonomics have improved. Many plates these days come with grip slots for ease of handling, which improves safety. With both dumbbells and plates, there is a choice between round headed and multi-sided equipment. Multi-sided weights with up to 12 sides were developed with the goal of preventing rolling, which is considered by some as a safety risk. Samuel says that multi-sided or round dumbbells and plates is a matter of preference: "Round dumbbell advocates will say they are easier to move around and better balanced. Multi-sided advocates will say they are safer and easier to handle."


Storage options also need to be carefully evaluated. Investing in a quality rack for your dumbbells and plates will help extend the life of the equipment, and make it more user friendly. For instance, a dumbbell rack should be angled to allow for easy removal and replacement of weights. This also improves the tidiness and safety of the weight area.

Geddis says a good rack will soften the impact of putting weights back with some sort of cushioning. "Racks are often the main cause of dumbbell deterioration," he explains. "Any time metal collides with metal, there is the potential for wear." He adds that, unfortunately, this is hard to control with weight plates, because they are stored side by side.

Attention to flooring can further help to eliminate damage to the facility when weights are dropped, as they frequently are. Thomas says the minimum thickness of flooring should be 1/2-inch rubber, with 3/4 inches working best.

How many weights?

How much free weight equipment you need depends on standard criteria of membership numbers and facility size. "Most clubs can feel safe if they purchase pairs from 5 to 100 pounds, with some duplicates in the smaller increments from 20 to 45 pounds," says Thomas. "Being well-equipped depends on the size of the facility."

Geddis says that WTS generally recommends a set of beauty bells and 5- to 55-pound dumbbells, with duplicate dumbbells for 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35 pounds (for a 1,500-square-foot fitness center). The quantity of weight plates solely depends on the number of plateloaded machines and equipment. This works out as a plate package for every two compound-movement stations (e.g., the Smith press, incline press, supine press, squat rack, etc.). A plate package consists of eight 45s, four 35s, eight 25s, eight 10s, eight 5s and four 2.5-pound plates.

Budget and warranties

If you are on a tight budget, you may wish to consider the used market. Thomas says that you can get good prices on some decent equipment, but "watch out for painted-over, rusty plates." Samuel advises fitness centers to find out where the equipment is coming from and how it has been treated. "If the weights are old and in an environment where members have a tendency to throw the weights around and drop them all over the place, they will be worse for the wear," he says.

Guarantees are another thing to consider. "Free weights should come with a replacement warranty; if they break under normal use, they should be replaced with an equal piece," says Thomas. Samuel says that free weights should come with a lifetime guarantee if the company really stands behind its product, but three to five years is reasonable.


An advantage of urethane over rubber is that it can be engraved. So, customizing the equipment with your facility's name or logo is an option, but not without expense. "Branding your equipment provides a unique upgrade to equipment that is otherwise generic," says Geddis. Generally, the artist setup fee starts around $200 for branding dumbbells and plates. The price per dumbbell/plate starts around $25 per plate/pair of dumbbells, and increases rapidly depending on the complexity of the design. Thomas says that branding free weights can provide a personalized touch and help counter theft. But, he adds, there are other ways to brand your business.

A further consideration is, once emblazoned with your name and/or logo, you are stuck with it. Your facility may change owners or affiliation, or simply want a fresh look. Branded equipment is also going to be harder to trade in or sell.

Consider the long term

By choosing the right material for your needs, and being a stickler for quality, fitness centers can ensure that their free weight investment delivers long-term performance.

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