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What symbolizes strength training and fitness better than the humble dumbbell?

Dumbbells are a classic piece of fitness equipment. The benefits of incorporating dumbbell exercises into a well-rounded workout routine are well-documented. Whether it’s your first time in a gym or you’re an experienced lifter, dumbbells help promote improvements to your physical strength, endurance, conditioning, and overall health and well-being.

This simple but effective free weight is great for getting us in shape, but what about their shape? Does the shape of the dumbbell actually matter? Is dumbbell design as dumb as their name suggests, or are they the perfect example of intelligent design?

Today, we’re exploring the differences between the three most common dumbbell shapes to determine whether or not they have an impact on your workout. We’ll also take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each type of dumbbell, so you can choose the right dumbbell shape for your fitness needs and for your home gym.

RELATED: Buying Dumbbells: How To Get The Most For Your Money

A Brief History of Dumbbell Shape

We’re used to seeing racks of great dumbbells in every gym we’ve ever entered, but what do we know about their history? When and why were they invented? How did they become what they are today?

For our answer, we must travel back to ancient Greece. It was a golden age where not only intellect was praised, but physical fitness as well. Athletes were training regularly to compete in this brand new thing called the Olympics, and artists were celebrating the human form by creating detailed drawings, paintings, and sculptures.

I mean, have you seen the bodies on these classic Greek statues? They’re totally chiseled!

The Greeks used a primitive form of the dumbbell called the “haltere,” a cylindrical rod with a weight on each end made from stone or metal. Though crude, it bore a striking resemblance to the modern-day dumbbell despite predating it by centuries.

dumbell from ancient greece
IMAGE: By Portum at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7755340

Halteres were primarily used for strength training and enhancing athletic performance, but they were also incorporated into a long jump event at the Olympic games.

The Greeks get most of the credit for the birth of the dumbbell, but weightlifters in India and the Middle East around the same time period were using similar equipment to get their gains. They called their version the “Nal,” and it was a heavy club-shaped apparatus.

English colonists eventually brought the Nal, aptly nicknamed the “Indian club,” to the West and began using it in England for the same purpose until it was reimagined in the 1700s by an English poet named Joseph Addison.

Addison, drawing inspiration from the shape of the Nal, created his own version by removing the clapper of a church bell. At the time, the word “dumb” was synonymous with “mute” and, because the bells Addison used to get in his reps could no longer could ring, they were literally “dumb bells.” Thus, the word “dumbbell” was created to identify Addison’s invention and, as they say, “The rest is history.”

The fitness industry has evolved dramatically since the 1700s, but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Modern dumbbells feature a few new handy features, the basic shape and idea remains the same as centuries ago.

Types of Dumbbell Shapes

The three most common are hex dumbbells, round dumbbells, and square dumbbells, each providing their own unique benefits and drawbacks.

Hex Dumbbells

Hex dumbbells are typically made from iron. They feature hexagonal-shaped ends with flat sides, and often use a rubber coating on the ends. Because of their flat sides, the weights don’t roll when placed down, guaranteeing you don’t unintentionally injure yourself or someone else nearby with a runaway dumbbell.

There are many benefits to using hex dumbbells. 

For starters, they make exercises like the renegade row possible, as trying to assume the push-up position with round dumbbells is significantly more difficult than using hex dumbbells. 

Jason Khalipa using dumbells

The angles of the hexagon may also assist in getting a good grip when doing exercises like the goblet squat or the tricep pullover that require holding the dumbbell by the end rather than the handle.

Hex dumbbells are available in 2.5-pound increments for smaller, more precise loading, and they tend to be more affordable than other dumbbell types. All things considered, there’s a lot to love about hex dumbbells.

They’re not completely without drawbacks, however. For example, the hex dumbbells become larger and more cumbersome as they get heavier and, because of their trademark shape, they are harder to store than round dumbbells.

In addition, some customer reviews cite an unpleasant odor caused by the rubber coating.

Round Dumbbells

Round dumbbells, as the name suggests, use round heads on each end. They might be made completely out of iron or another metal and, similar to their hexagonal counterparts, they may use rubber or urethane on the ends.

The round dumbbell sets you often see at commercial gyms are called “pro-style dumbbells.” Most commercial gyms will carry dumbbells of this type in weights up to 125 pounds, but powerlifting gyms, where weight training reigns supreme, might have dumbbells going all the way up to 200 pounds.

RELATED: What Size Dumbbells Should I Buy? Tips From A Certified Personal Trainer

Flybird Adjustable Dumbells being lifted from base

Round dumbbells are great because they are durable, available in heavy weights. and easier to store compared with their hexagonal-shaped alternatives. 

On the flipside, round dumbbells can roll away when placed down, becoming an inconvenience if you’re lucky or a hazard if you’re not so lucky. Round dumbbells tend to be pricier too.

Square Dumbbells

Dumbbells are amazing at the gym, so they work well as home gym equipment too, right?

Not exactly. Commercial gyms have plenty of space for racks and dumbbell sets. Sometimes, their selection spans across the entire length of a warehouse wall. 

Do you have that kind of space to spare? Probably not.

That’s where adjustable dumbbells like the PowerBlock come into play. Instead of dedicating a tremendous amount of floor space for dumbbells galore, adjustable dumbbells like the PowerBlock effectively replace a whole mess of dumbbells with two convenient hand weights.

PowerBlocks let you change the weight from as low as 2.5 pounds all the way up to 90 pounds simply by removing and replacing a pin, the same way you do for selectorized weight machines. The fact you can adjust the weight of the PowerBlock is its biggest selling point, while its primary drawback is its price tag.

RELATED: Best Adjustable Dumbbells

lifting weights on REP AB 4100 adjustable bench

Beyond adjustable square dumbbells, some manufacturers, namely Peloton, find the square shape of the dumbbell to be aesthetically pleasing. They call it “sleek and modern” and an “ergonomic design” that is “optimal for fitting in the palm of your hand for goblet exercises and providing additional stability during dumbbell pushups.” 

We find the “improved stability” gained by its square shape to be only marginally better than hex dumbbells. In this regard, they offer the same benefits and drawbacks of the hex dumbbells, but cost considerably more, which could make them an all-around worse value.

RELATED: Adjustable Dumbbells Vs Fixed: A Classic Home Gym Debate

Handle Shape

We often focus so much on the shape of the dumbbell’s end that we completely overlook the handle. Meanwhile, the handle plays a critical role in the user experience.

Contoured Handle

Dumbbells with contoured handles, sometimes referred to as “ergonomic grip dumbbells,” feature a thicker portion in the middle of the handle that tapers down as you approach the ends. Contoured handles often feature knurling or a rubber-coated grip in the midsection to increase friction and maximize grip.

RELATED: Black Friday Dumbbell Deals

Flybird Adjustable Dumbells close up weight

Some find the unique shape more comfortable than a straight handle, while others feel the fat portion in the middle diminishes their grip strength. In addition, most manufacturers fail to include a grip or knurling across the full length of the handle, settling for a stripe down the center and possibly two on either side.

Straight Handle

The straight handle offers a straightforward design that stretches straight across from one end to the other. Just like the contoured version, the handle may include a grip or knurling for increased friction, except straight handles are usually knurled from end to end instead of only in sections. 

Straight-handle dumbbells tend to be less expensive, too.

dumbell handle

There are no huge differences between straight and contoured handle dumbbells, so it all comes down to comfort. You want to choose a dumbbell that feels comfortable in your hands and allows you to get a firm grip during your exercises.  

We recommend trying both types before buying.

How Dumbbell Shape Impacts Your Workout 

So, we’ve covered the pros and cons of each dumbbell shape when it comes to the user experience, but which shape will give us the best home workout possible? 

To our knowledge, no study has specifically tested the efficacy of one shape versus another, so the jury’s out. Here’s what we do know:

  • Dumbbells use static resistance. So, a 10-pound dumbbell is a 10-pound dumbbell no matter where you are in your range of motion or what shape it’s in.
  • There is a mental component to fitness. Most of us do better work when we’re focused or in the zone. Using workout equipment that distracts us from those positive feelings will only hinder our performance rather than enhance it.

On paper, all dumbbells of equal weights will provide the same workout to us, regardless of shape. However, if one dumbbell feels more secure in your hand than another, you may perform better and feel stronger because of the better grip. Likewise, uncomfortable dumbbells that burn out your grip instead of your target muscle group will wear us out in all the wrong ways.

RELATED: Best Dumbbell Exercises

Final Thoughts: Does Dumbbell Shape Matter?

From the ancient Greeks to the PowerBlock, we’ve covered a lot of ground regarding dumbbells today, but what have we learned? 

With all the facts laid out, does dumbbell shape really matter?

Here’s a recap:

  • The shape of your dumbbell end has little or no impact on the amount of work your body is doing to move the weight.
  • Different dumbbell shapes offer different benefits. For example, hex dumbbells and square dumbbells don’t roll when placed on the ground, making them ideal for exercises like renegade rows, while round dumbbells tend to be more durable.
  • Contoured handle dumbbells provide an ergonomic grip, but it may be overly taxing on your grip if you have smaller hands.
  • Straight handle dumbbells are more straightforward and tend to be less expensive.

When choosing a set of dumbbells to buy for your home gym, think about the type of exercises you’ll be doing, your fitness goals, and your budget. The best set for one person might not be the best for another.

Ultimately, the best type of dumbbell for your workout is the one that feels comfortable and safe for you to use, and allows you to perform your exercises with proper form and technique, no matter what it’s shaped like.

Q&A: Does Dumbbell Shape Matter?

What are the different types of dumbbells?

There are many different types of dumbbells, like:

Adjustable dumbbells: Dumbbells that allow you to change the weight by adding or removing weight plates. They are versatile and cost-effective.
Fixed weight dumbbells: A standard dumbbell with a weight that cannot be adjusted. They are often made of cast iron and are typically more durable than adjustable dumbbells.
Hex dumbbells: These feature a hexagonal end to prevent rolling.
Round dumbbells: These have a round, circular end.
Square dumbbells: These include fixed weight dumbbells with square ends and adjustable dumbbells like the PowerBlock.
Selectorized dumbbells: Dumbbells that allow you to change the weight by manipulating a selector pin, similar to gym machines.
Neoprene dumbbells: A fixed weight dumbbell with a non-slip neoprene coating.
Vinyl dumbbells: A fixed weight dumbbell with a non-slip vinyl coating.

The type of dumbbell that works best for you will depend on your fitness goals and budget. Each type of dumbbell has its own pros and cons, so it’s important to consider these when making your purchasing decision.

What shape dumbbells are best for bodybuilding?

Bodybuilders use a combination of barbells, dumbbells, and other free weights to encourage hypertrophy and build a competition-ready physique. Dumbbells are integral in bodybuilding because unilateral exercises help correct muscular imbalances and help bodybuilders achieve symmetry.

It generally doesn’t matter what shape of dumbbell is used. The most important components will be what exercises are used, how heavy the weights are, and number of sets and reps completed.

RELATED: 12 Most Underrated Dumbbell Exercises To Improve Your Workout Routine Now

Which dumbbell shape is best?

As with most matters related to fitness, it’s hard to determine if one is truly the “best.” Each offers different benefits, and some people prefer one type to another for personal reasons.

We recommend trying out each type, if possible, before buying to see what works best for you.

Why are dumbbells shaped that way?

When you think about the shape of a dumbbell, it makes a lot of intuitive sense. The handle stretches from one end to the other so you have a place to hold the weight, while the two ends must be large and heavy to challenge the target muscle group.

As for the ends, it’s essential they are equal in weight because if one side outweighs the other, the dumbbell will be unbalanced and unwieldy. Round ends made sense for achieving uniformity, and were easy for dumbbell makers to produce with speed and precision.

As manufacturing methods become more advanced in our modern time, we started seeing the birth of hex dumbbells and square dumbbells, as the flat edges helped keep the dumbbell from rolling away.

Today, there are many different shapes of dumbbells, but the fundamental design remains relatively unchanged from the days of ancient Greece.

Further reading

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