Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 01:38 pm
One of the great things about having a home gym is that it gives me the ability to train with equipment I wouldn’t normally find at a commercial gym. It’s allowed me to be thoughtful about the gear I buy and to buy things that genuinely compliment my programming. I’m not stuck with whatever the gym owner or manager wants in their gym.
For me there’s no better example of this than fractional plates. At first glance I was skeptical. At the time I was introduced to fractional plates (sometimes referred to as “change plates”, but more on that later), very few people sold them. To me, they looked kind of gimmicky. But someone I trust implicitly recommended them, so I pulled the trigger.
What are fractional plates?
For the most part, standard plates come in predetermined weights. Those weights, almost universally, are:
- 55 lbs
- 45 lbs
- 35 lbs
- 25 lbs
- 10 lbs
- 5 lbs
- 2.5 lbs
For those of you outside the US and using metric/kg plates:
- 25 kg
- 20 kg
- 25 kg
- 15 kg
- 10 kg
- 5 kg
- 2.5 kg
- 1 kg
By using this assortment of plates on a barbell, you can increase and decrease the weight you are working with in increments of 5 lbs (2.5 lbs on either side of the bar). If using a metric set, 2 kg (1 kg on either side of the bar) is typically the smallest step.
Fractional plates were developed to allow a lifter to increase and decrease the load in smaller increments than 5 lbs/2kg. Fractionals are sold in several different varieties depending on the manufacturer, but typically come in sets of 8. In a standard set of fractional plates, you’ll get:
- 2 x .25 lb
- 2 x .5 lb
- 2 x .75 lb
- 2 x 1 lb
For kg sets:
- 2 x .125 kg
- 2 x .25 kg
- 2 x .5 kg
- 2 x .75 kg
***Weights can vary with fractional sets based on the manufacturer. The above sets are representative of the weights I see most commonly
Fractional plate construction
These plates are commonly made from steel but can be found in many different materials and finishes. They also come in a variety of colors. In my opinion, steel is the ideal material for this type of plate. It brings the cost down, an important factor considering that there is no benefit to making them from anything else. My first set (which I still use to this day as they won’t ever wear out) cost me way more than you can buy them for now.
Steel also allows for a more precise weight per plate. Plates that are coated or made from another material may not weight out as exactly. When dealing with the incremental weight changes associated with fractional plates, this is important.
You will find some rubber coated sets out there as well as some made from urethane. Those can certainly be prettier, but I’d pass on them as they are more expensive and the material they are made of, as noted earlier, serves no functional purpose.
No matter what the material, they are typically all made to fit on a standard 2 in/50 mm olympic barbell sleeve just like other standard sized Olympic weight plates.
Why you should use fractional plates
A critical part of making size and/or strength gains with weight training is the concept of progressive overload. In short, that means progressing in either number of reps or in amount of weight each time you lift. Anyone that has completed or worked a weight lifting program prepared by a qualified trainer has been exposed to this.
As I reference above, traditional weight plates allow the lifter to move up or down in 5 lb/2 kg increments. For things like the deadlift or squat, that is typically adequate. For other lifts, 5 lbs/2 kg can simply be too much of a change. That 5 extra lbs, depending on the lift, could be far too large of a step to take.
Without an intermediate weight step, you are often left stranded on a dreaded plateau. Unable to progress in weight for weeks on end, you can end up both frustrated and looking for a solution. That usually leads to you either trying for more reps or simply not progressing. I’m not a fan of either of those possibilities.
Overhead pressing is a great example of this. Adding 5 lbs to an overhead press is a lot if you are already pushing yourself to lift as much as you safely can. Often, that weight is too big of a step to take so you get stuck at one weight, unable to progress.
This is true of quite a few different types of lifts. For me, reverse curls and barbell tricep presses are two more great examples. With these types of lifts, when trying to make use of progressive overload, 5 lb/2 kg increments is sometimes simply too much.
Fractional plates allow you to add far less than 5 lbs/2 kg to your bar. As noted above, a normal set of fractional plates will come with 2 each of .25 lb, .5 lb, .75 lb, and 1 lb ( .75 kg, .5 kg, .25 kg, .125 kg) plates. Using these allows you to move up or down in much smaller steps. It may not seem like a lot, but when you are pushing out your maximum effort, every little bit makes a huge difference.
New to weight training?
One last but important note applies to new lifters. If you are just beginning your path in weight training, you are probably not pushing a lot of weight. For someone who is pressing 300 lbs, fractional plates don’t mean a lot. For someone pressing 45 lbs, they can make a huge difference.
I felt it was important to include this point because I sometimes here experienced lifters scoffing at the idea of fractional plates. Their years of training have left them with no memory of what it’s like to be just starting out with much lighter weights.
They can often forget that when looked at as a percentage, fractional plates make a much bigger impact to lower weight lifters than to those pushing heavier loads. Adding 1 lb to an overhead press of 50 lbs can be a noticeable 2% difference in load for someone lifting lighter weights. Adding that same 1 lb to an overhead press of 150 lbs may not be all that useful.
Take this difference into consideration when deciding if fractional plates are right for you. Make this purchase decision based on your lifts, not someone else’s!
Are fractional plates effective?
In short, yes! They work really, really well! The best way I can illustrate this is with an example.
When I bought my set of fractional plates, I was struggling to break through a plateau on the overhead barbell press. I had been stuck at the same weight for weeks. Any time I tried to add another 5 lbs, I just couldn’t complete the reps I was shooting for. I tried a lot of different things, but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to get any stronger in this movement pattern.
So I backed off. I stopped trying to go up in 5 lb increments and used my fractional plates. The first week I added what seemed like a measly .5 lbs. The next week I upped that to 1 lb. Then I moved to 1.5 lbs and so on through the set of fractional plates.
At that time, I trained the overhead press twice a week. In a matter of 3 weeks using fractional plates I was able to break through a plateau I hadn’t been able to crack for several months before that. That’s when I was sold. I started using them with great effect on a number of lifts. I continue to use them to this day!
This was about 7 years ago and well before I had a gym in my garage. That set of fractional plates, which I still own and use, went back and forth with me on every trip to the gym. They made my gym bag heavy, but it was totally worth it.
These days, they sit on an easily accessible shelf in my garage. Rare is the week when I don’t pull them off that shelf at least once. If I’m in a training phase where I’m really pushing myself to improve, they come out a lot more often than that.
More than one person has pointed out that instead of changing the amount of weight I use to achieve progressive overload that I could get the same effect by increasing my reps. On paper, they are probably right. On paper.
For me, there isn’t a better sign of progress in my lifting than adding weight to the bar. It’s something I look forward to doing as often as I safely can. To me, it’s the most satisfying way to show that I’m getting stronger. This has become one of my favorite benefits of owning fractional plates.
It’s the mental bump I get from adding that weight that makes me push harder. I think to myself, “What’s a half a pound?! You can do that no problem!”. And with that, I lift more weight than I did the last time.
Every week I add a half pound here and a full pound there. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. It gives me concrete feedback that my efforts are paying off. It’s a boost to my training that’s hard to get in any other way!
In the end, we are all capable of doing much more than we think we can. More often than not, the thing that holds us back from progress is our mindset and mental approach. Fractional plates can help give you an edge in this department. And couldn’t we all use any help we can get in that area?!
Fractional vs. Change plates
One point of confusion that may come up in your search for fractional plates will be when you come across “change plates”. These are actually more common than fractional plates and may seem similar. In many ways, they are.
Change plates are the intermediary step between standard plates and fractionals. In fact, the list of plates that I started this article with included several plates that could be included in the “change plate” category. This typically only applies to buying bumper plates, but I’ll try to make sense of the division here.
Standard “full size” bumper plates:
- 55 lbs
- 45 lbs
- 35 lbs
- 25 lbs
For kg bumper plates:
- 25 kg
- 20 kg
- 15 kg
- 10 kg
The next plate down is a point of contention among plate manufacturers. Some consider the 10 lb or 5 kg plate a “change plate”. This means it will be a smaller diameter and different construction. Others make the 10 lb or 5 kg plate the same diameter as the larger plates and include them in their sets as a “normal” plate.
The issue lies in the durability of this size plate. There are only a few companies that make durable full size (the same diameter as the higher weight bumper plates) 10 lb or 5 kg plates. Everyone else needs to make them smaller and more dense so they hold up over time.
Neither one is “right”, but it does mean that some change plate sets include 10 lb plates and others don’t.
So, that means a set of change plates would normally include:
- 10 lbs (sometimes)
- 5 lbs
- 2.5 lbs
- 1.25 lbs
For kg change plate sets:
- 5 kg
- 2.5 kg
- 2 kg
- 1.5 kg
As you can see, the fractional plates fit in nicely right where the change plates leave off. To see the plates I own and recommend, check out my recommended gear page here. As I mentioned, I own both change plates AND fractional plates and think you should too.
Using fractional plates on dumbbells
I already talked about my struggles with the barbell military press. But I don’t always lift with a barbell. In fact, I do a good amount of my training these days with dumbbells.
My dumbbells of choice, the PowerBlock adjustable dumbbells (see my full article on these here), already allow me to step up by smaller increments than 5 lbs. But most dumbbells do not. Most dumbbells, even the high priced full sets that cost $1000’s dollars, go up and down in 5 lb/2.5 kg steps.
That’s why shortly after I bought my fractional plates, I also bought a set of Plate Mates (Check them here out on Amazon). These magnetic weights each weigh 1.25 lbs. and stick easily to the ends of most commercial dumbbells. Usually, you’ll end up using two (one on each end) for a total of 2.5 lbs. These fractional plates allow you to turn a 20 lb. dumbbell into a 22.5 lb dumbbell, a 30 lb. into a 32.5 lb., and so on.
Plate Mates do for dumbbells what fractional plates do for barbells. And they have the same physical and mental benefits. I have even found a way to make use of them on my adjustable dumbbells. They are yet another example of one of those small things that makes a huge difference.
I used to lug these back and forth to my local gym every day too. With the fractionals and these, my bag sure was heavy! But it was worth it. Every little bit helps, right?
Should you buy fractional plates?
For all of the reasons I mentioned above and some I’m probably not thinking of right now, YES! When I look through my gym at all of the equipment I’ve accumulated, I can divide most of it into two categories. Stuff I’m happy I bought and stuff I probably should have passed on. Fractional plates and Plate Mates definitively fall into the “happy I bought” category.
Within that “happy I bought” category, fractional plates are some of the few that I use in almost every training session. They are a tool that I reach for often and every time I do, I’m happy to have them around. I’m very happy I looked past my early skepticism and gave them an honest try.
If you decide to do the same thing, I can assure you that you’ll be glad you bought these little gems for your home gym. Try them out, they are totally worth it!