Last updated on May 21st, 2022 at 06:06 pm
In my article on the must-have essentials found in all great home gyms, I made the case that resistance training is king. I feel that of all the types of training one could do at home, old school weight lifting is still the most effective.
That’s not to say that I don’t take part in other types of training. I do. Yoga, kettlebells, calisthenics, and HIIT are all things you can find me doing regularly in my garage gym. But those are all secondary to my barbell and weights.
If you’d like to see the barbell and weights I use and recommend, stop by my recommended gear page here!
Why free weights?
Free weights have a long list of advantages over other types of gear. The movements done with them are infinitely adjustable. They are extremely effective at producing both size and strength. They are versatile and provide an endless variety of possible exercises.
Weights are also easily accessible. You can pick them up used for next to nothing. You can find them at garage sales and retail stores as well as a seemingly endless array of online vendors. They are not only highly effective, but readily available to all who have the room to use them!
That’s why when I wrote my home gym essentials article, the first three items on the list were a barbell, a squat rack, and weights. Those are the three key pieces of equipment that I feel all home gyms should be built around.
I wrote a very in depth guide to picking out the right squat rack for your home gym. I also wrote an equally in depth guide to selecting the right barbell. In this article, I’ll be helping you sort through all of your options for the plates that go along with those first two.
Olympic plates, not standard
As I referenced in my barbell buying guide, there are two general types of weight training bars and plates.
The first is the kind you’ll find at most garage sales. These standard plates have a 1” diameter hole that fits a 1” diameter bar.
This is NOT what you want!!! Stay away from this type of set up. You will not have access to quality equipment and there are too many drawbacks to list here.
Instead, stick with the bars that have 2” diameter sleeves and plates with the matching 2” diameter openings. These are called Olympic bars and plates.
By staying with this type of equipment, you open up a ton more options. Within those options are a whole lot more choices that are of a much higher quality.
Most people reading this will already know this part, but just in case, it’s really important to note up front. Stick with the Olympic sized plates!
Traditional or bumper plates?
Once you get the hole and sleeve sizing choice out of the way, the next major differentiator in plates is deciding between traditional plates or bumper plates.
I wrote a pretty lengthy article about why I prefer bumper plates, but I’ll be the first to admit that your needs may be different than mine. I’ll also note that I own and regularly use both traditional and bumper plates.
In my article outlining how many plates you should buy for your home gym, I review why owning some of both could be beneficial. For my needs, sometimes I prefer bumpers. Sometimes I think traditional is better suited. Quite often I mix both together.
Your mileage may vary, but knowing the ins and outs of both types as well as what they are best suited for will help you decide on the ideal assortment for your own weight training regimen.
Typically made from iron, traditional plates come in all different sizes. The more each plate weighs, the bigger it is. It kind of has to work that way. More weight equals more iron!
You’ll also find that there is no standard size even when the weight is the same. Brand A’s 45 lb plate will usually be a different diameter, thickness, and sometimes even shape than a 45 lb plate from Brand B.
For the more anal retentive among us, this can cause problems. For those that don’t care about these things matching, it may not. I’m among the former group. I just can’t stand it when things don’t match!
The least expensive traditional plates are made from bare iron. This makes for a noisy gym. These plates clang and bang and may not be the best idea for home gyms where noise is a factor.
Raw iron will also rust over time. Even plates that have been painted, powder coated, or somehow plated will all corrode. This doesn’t change their weight, but it does change their looks. It can also cause them to be rough on your hands.
This is why a majority of today’s iron plates are coated in one of two materials. By coating the plates, corrosion and damage is prevented. If you go with traditional plates and have a little extra in the budget, this is the route to go.
If you like the idea of good ole iron and cost savings that come with them, I love this set that Rep Fitness sells.
Rubber coated plates
The most common coating is rubber. Rubber is durable, but will scratch and mar easily. They will not look new for long. But they will last. Rubber is a nice, low cost material for this purpose.
Rubber will have a couple of drawbacks other than not keeping its looks. The first is the smell. Most rubber coated plates have a strong odor. I’ve found that the strength of the odor goes up as the price of the plates goes down. As a general rule, cheaper rubber has a stronger odor.
Rubber will also make your hands smell bad. This won’t last forever, but you’ll notice it quite a bit for the first several months you have your plates. A lot of the tricks I describe in my article on how to get the smell out of rubber flooring could apply to plates as well.
For a lower odor option that’s built well and won’t break the bank, check out Rep’s rubber coated plates here.
Urethane coated plates
Plates coated in urethane are considered the nicest of the three. Urethane is extremely durable and does not scratch or mar as easily as rubber. It’s also a smoother and more appealing finish.
Urethane does not smell bad. This, for me, is a huge advantage over rubber coated plates. It’s also the reason that the standard plates I own are coated in urethane.
One last difference I’ve noticed is that the urethane plates I’ve worked with are all thinner than the similarly weighted rubber versions. This is nice in that they don’t take up a ton of room on the bar.
This feature helps when trying to load a lot of plates. It also helps when using them in conjunction with noticeably thicker bumper plates.
The most popular urethane plates being made right now are these equalizers by Rep Fitness.
Another detail to note about traditional plates is their shape. There can be a couple of aspects of their design that will add to their usability. Since they can vary wildly from manufacturer to manufacturer, it’s important to know where differences can crop up.
The first thing to pay attention to is the shape of the plate. Most weight plates are round. This is what they should be. But for some reason, you’ll find 8 and 12 sided plates here and there.
While not as popular as they once were, these odd shaped plates were popular in many big box gyms. You’ll still find them there to this day! I think they think it adds to their image. In reality, all it does is make the plates dangerous.
When performing any lift that starts or ends on the floor, you want your plates to be round. If they aren’t, the flat surfaces on the outer edge of the plates can make them move.
Imagine heavily setting down 400 lbs. during a deadlift only to have the bar jump back towards your shin as the weight rotated to settle on a flat spot. These plates are an injury waiting to happen. Stick to round instead.
Another aspect of plate design is the addition of handles integrated into the plate itself. With 5 and 10 lb plates, picking them up and loading them on the bar is easy. With 35 and 45 lb plates, it becomes more cumbersome.
That’s why many plate manufacturers engineer hand holds into their plates. Sometimes, as in the old school iron plates, there is simply a lip all the way around the outside of the plate. Other times, it’s actual handles.
What you want to stay away from are mostly smooth discs. They look cool, but are much harder to load on and off the bar.
Another benefit of handles is that they allow you to use the plate itself as an implement. Whether it’s for shrugs, lateral raises, or loaded carries, having an easy way to securely grip the plate allows you to use it even without loading it onto a bar.
An often overlooked aspect of plate design is its bevel. The bevel is a notch that is taken off of the outer edge of the plate so it’s not completely square. This notch serves two purposes.
First, it allows you to pick up a plate off the ground when it has been laid down flat. Without a bevel, the plate’s edge meets the ground flush and you can’t get your fingers under it to pick it up.
Second, it allows you to separate the plates when they are on your bar. When unloading plates, it is much easier to pull each plate away from the next if there is a bevel.
Which traditional plates to buy?
In the end, if you are on a budget, stick to plain iron plates. Find them used if you can. They won’t be the prettiest thing in the world, but they’ll work.
This is the type of plate that Arnold Schwarzenegger used for most of his career. It’s the kind of plate still being used at some of the premier barbell clubs around the world. It’s a choice that carries with it grit and history and a sense of hard work.
If you need something that’s quieter, easier to move around, and looks nicer, go with rubber or urethane coated plates. You’ll spend progressively more on each, but in my opinion it’s worth the investment.
If you don’t mind the smell, save some coin and go rubber. If you do mind the odor, and you want your plates to look like new for years, go urethane.
In the end, a 45 lb plate weighs 45 lbs no matter which kind you buy. Don’t get too caught up in things. Set a budget and go from there.
See all of the traditional plates I recommend here.
Bumper plates are a lot more common now than they ever have been. Their popularity has been spurred by CrossFit because the type of lifting done in CrossFit requires bumper plates over traditional plates.
That doesn’t mean you need to be doing CrossFit at home to warrant bumper plates. You don’t. I do no CrossFit type workouts and no Olympic lifting (the other type of training that requires bumpers) and I still prefer to primarily use bumper plates.
Bumper plates can be dropped without damaging them or your floor (you still want to use protective flooring, see my complete guide here). They are much quieter. They are easier to handle and in my opinion look a lot nicer than traditional plates.
One of the most notable differences between bumper plates and traditional is the outer diameter. With traditional plates, the plates change in both thickness and diameter as the weight of the plate changes. With bumper plates, the diameter remains constant while only the thickness changes.
**There is, however, one variance to this constant diameter with some brands of bumpers. Sometimes 15 and 10 lb bumper plates are made to be a slightly smaller diameter. This is because they are less durable due to their lack of thickness. By making them a slightly smaller diameter, when a loaded bar is dropped, only the heavier and more durable weights hit the floor. The smaller diameter weights don’t make contact and thus prevent damage to the plate.
Better manufacturers simply make their 10 and 15 lb plates much more durable and therefore keep them the same diameter. This is one of the reasons I chose the plates I currently use. You can see the exact plates I own, use, and recommend by clicking here.
Recycled rubber plates
Also known as “crumb rubber”, recycled rubber is composed of old tires. This is true of all rubber that isn’t “virgin” rubber. The world creates an obscene amount of used and discarded tires. These serve as the raw material for most things made of rubber.
This includes the coating on traditional weight plates, your rubber gym flooring, and lower cost bumper plates. It’s simply not always cost effective to use virgin rubber, so lower priced bumper plates will always be made from recycled rubber.
Crumb rubber is made by grinding up old tires into little pieces also known as “crumbs”. Then a binding agent is used to to glue the crumbs together under heat and pressure. It’s actually the binding agent that determines the rubbers quality.
A better agent will create more durable rubber. It will also limit the smell (although all binding agents smell). My first set of bumpers was by Titan Fitness. They were great plates and I loved everything about them… Except the smell.
The smell of those plates was excruciatingly bad. And it never dissipated or went away. I eventually had to sell them.
It’s that smell that makes me advise against getting plates that are made from recycled rubber. If you are going to spend the money on bumper plates, get either virgin rubber or urethane.
Virgin rubber bumper plates
Virgin rubber does not come from ground up tires. There is no binding agent to worry about. That means it’s smell is very mild. This is a huge selling point for me and a big part of why I own the specific bumper plates that I do.
It also tends to be more durable. Crumb rubber will crumble and deteriorate over time. There are, of course, differences in durability based on the manufacturer, but overall virgin rubber will last longer than recycled.
One thing that disappointed me about virgin rubber plates is how easily they got marked up. That has no bearing on their durability, it’s simply a quality of the rubber itself. After even limited use, virgin rubber plates will appear very scuffed and worn. They won’t look new for long.
I absolutely love my virgin rubber bumper plates from Fringe Sport. If I was to start all over from scratch, I’d buy these again in a heartbeat. They are durable, look great, and will last a lifetime!
Seriously, if you are in the market for bumper plates, you cannot go wrong with the Fringe Sport bumpers!
Urethane bumper plates
Urethane, at the time I’m writing this, is gaining popularity. This is due to the price coming down to a somewhat tolerable level. Don’t misunderstand this as them being affordable. On the whole, they aren’t.
Urethane bumpers will cost 2-4 times what a quality set of virgin rubber bumpers will. But for you, they may be worth it.
The first major difference is durability. Urethane is near indestructible. It won’t easily scratch, mar, scuff, or crumble. It will look brand new for years to come.
The second major difference is the lack of smell. Virgin rubber does have some odor to it, although it goes away fairly quickly and is not bad to begin with. Urethane has none. This is a big deal to many including myself. If I’d had the budget, I would have bought urethane without a second thought.
The third difference is plate thickness. Urethane is noticeably thinner than rubber. This means that you can load more plates onto your barbell. It also means the weight is located closer to the center of your bar. When lifting very heavy, this makes a big difference in the stability of the load.
Lastly, urethane is prettier. In my opinion, the colored urethane plates are beautiful. They have the brightest and most vibrant color of any of the available bumper plates. Combined with their added durability, this makes them eye candy for your gym.
If you think urethane is the direction you will go, there is no better choice for urethane plates than the set made by American Barbell. If I was to buy urethane bumpers, this is the ONLY set I would consider. They are by far the best-made and nicest looking set available today! Check them out here on American Barbell’s website.
Unlike the traditional plates described above, bumpers are only round. No weird hexagonal plates to avoid. This is the shape that can be dropped safely.
With the exception of the sometimes smaller 10 and 15 lb plates I already mentioned, all weights are the the same diameter. This is another difference from traditional plates.
Unlike traditional plates, bumpers will be harder to handle. They never have handles built into them and most models have only a small lip to hang on to. This makes them harder to move and load. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s worth noting.
This makes the bevel (or lack thereof) an important factor. Trying to pick up a 45 lb plate that is laying flat on the ground yet has no bevel is not always an easy task. Especially after deadlifting when your grip and fingers are pretty weak to start with!!!
All else being equal, try to buy plates that have a nice bevel. You’ll be thankful for this small detail.
Another very obvious difference that bumper plates bring to the table is color. Traditional plates are almost always black or grey. Bumper plates also come in black, but there are many versions available in bright colors.
The point of the color difference is to help you easily identify the weight of the plate. Since they are all the same diameter, they can be harder to tell apart.
The colors used by most manufacturers correspond to a scheme standardized by the two major weight lifting federations. The IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) and the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation) have set forth a standardized color set to be used in competition.
Since these bodies only sanction the use of kg plates, they don’t technically have a color code for lb plates. That said, lb plate coloring is also uniform.
Plate colors and their weight correspondences:
- Red = 55 lb or 25 kg plates
- Blue = 45 lb or 20 kg plates
- Yellow = 35 lb or 15 kg plates
- Green = 25 lb or 10 kg plates
- White = 10 lb or 5 kg plates
- Red = 2.5 kg plates
- Blue = 5 lb or 2 kg plates
- Yellow = 1.5 kg plates
- Green = 2.5 lbs or 1 kg plates
- White = 1.25 lbs or .5 kg
These colors don’t just apply to bumper plates, but extend across all competition plates where color coding is in use.
In addition to these standardized solid color competition plates, you also see some manufacturers getting creative. Vulcan makes some very cool plates for outdoor use that have large colored flecks in them. My plates, made by Fringe Sport, are black, but the lettering on the sides corresponds with the colors above.
When it comes to looks, you’ll have several very cool options to pick from. For most garage gym applications, it will come down to what you want your plates to look like more than anything.
Solid black will be the least expensive, but if you want to add some flair to your garage or basement weight training, you can always spend a little more and go colored! For those on a budget, the simple addition of colored electrical tape to the edges of black bumpers works very well.
For those that want possibly the sickest looking bumpers being made, you have to check out the “Savage” bumper plates that Fringe Sport is putting out. In my opinion, these are the coolest looking plates being made today!
If you are not a competitive lifter, I wouldn’t advise spending the extra money on competition plates. It’s a big cost difference and it won’t help your workouts in the least. There’s simply no reason to do it.
If you are a competitive lifter, and by that I mean you actually compete in IWF or IPF sanctioned events, then it might be worth it.
The primary difference in competition plates is that they are guaranteed to weigh within 10 grams (.02 lbs) of their stated weight. Non certified plates can vary in weight as much as 10% from what they are supposed to be.
This is why competition plates have a solid metal visible center piece. It’s this center hub that allows the plate’s weight to be adjusted exactly. It also looks cool, but that’s not the hub’s primary function.
Weight variability is a big part of why I would stay away from cheap plate sets on Amazon. If you buy a 45 lb plate, it should at least be close to 45 lbs. Some of the least expensive options can end up weighing 40 lbs or less!
If you stick with a reputable brand, you won’t have to worry here. All the major plates suppliers have plates that are close enough to the stated weight so as not to matter to most garage gym enthusiasts. If my 45 lb plate weighs 44.5 lbs, I’m not going to lose sleep.
I’m also not going to spend 2-3 times as much on competition plates to ensure I’m getting that extra .5 lbs!!! However, if you really want calibrated plates without spending top dollar, Titan Fitness will sometimes have a smoking deal. Check that out here!
Competition plates are typically nicer looking and are almost always a superior durability and quality. These two attributes are nice to have, but again, not usually worth the price to folks stocking a home gym.
In the end, you can get very durable, high quality plates that weigh the correct amount without springing for the competition sets. If it’s in the budget, or you feel like you need competition plates, don’t let me stop you. Just understand it’s probably not necessary in 98% of home gym applications.
See all the plates I recommend on my recommended plate page here!
As you are shopping for you plates, you’ll come across several specialty options as well. I wanted to quickly touch on them so you know what they are.
These look like, well, wagon wheels. These are heavy plates with a very large diameter. They are made specifically for deadlifting and are designed to get your bar further off the ground. This facilitates deadlifts done with a partial range of motion.
These also make it easier to load additional plates on your bar when deadlifting. Something that normally requires a deadlift jack or other specific tool.
For me, I’d rather just do rack pulls from my safety straps or pins instead. That’s a much easier and far less expensive way to raise the bar height on a deadlift.
You can also lift from blocks or off of stacks of other weights. There are lots of options here outside of buying these big wagon wheel plates. If you want to see what these look like, check them out on Titan Fitness here.
These are inexpensive, lighter weight plates made for teaching beginners proper form when lifting. They are the same diameter as standard bumper plates, so allow the simulation of lifting much heavier weights without risk of injury.
They are usually made from plastic and are hard and durable. This is to stand up to the rigors of teaching new lifters. It’s also because most 10-15 lb bumpers can’t be dropped without damaging them.
These types of plates can be valuable if you have someone training you, or if you are the one doing the training. It’s a specialized application and you’ll probably already know if you need something like this in your home gym. Fringe Sport makes a great set that’s reasonably priced.If you are interested,
My approach was to buy from a company that makes extremely durable 10 lb plates. I’m thrilled with my set of virgin rubber contrast bumper plates from Fringe Sport. Check out all of their really great plate options here.
Change and fractional plates
I wrote an entire article on change and fractional plates that you can see here. The short version is that these are lighter weight plates that range from 5 lbs. down do just a fraction of a lb each.
These types of plates are valuable training aids and I recommend having them in your arsenal. For 5 and 2.5 lb plates, I use traditional urethane plates. Nothing special there.
For weights under 2.5 lbs, I use a set of fractional plates. I love these and use them regularly. You can see the set I recommend here on Amazon.
I wanted to include a quick word on collars and I’ll start with a request. Please, for the love of god, stop using spring collars. They are a pain in the butt, don’t work well, and will not hold any reasonable amount of weight in place.
In my opinion, there are only two types of collars worth using. The first are Lockjaws. These are great for anything where you aren’t dropping the bar. They are inexpensive, safe, extremely easy to use, and what I use for standard lifts like presses and squats.
The second type of collar I recommend are OSO collars. These are more expensive, but for good reason. Once secured, they will simply not move. I use my OSO set for heavy deadlifts and anything where I might be dropping the bar.
I own a pair of each and each has its place in my garage gym. You may only need one or the other. You can pick up the LockJaws (don’t buy imitations, get the real thing) here on Amazon. The only place to get OSO collars these days is from Rogue Fitness.
If you are a competitive lifter, you might want to look at the high-end competition collars, but for the rest of us, the LockJaws will work perfectly! If you are interested, I made a video about this very topic on my YouTube channel here.
What to budget
Your set of plates will be with you for a long time. They are one of the three primary must have pieces of gear you’ll put in your home gym. Take your time and pick out what’s absolutely right for you.
On the low end, you can get used iron plates for a song. Start there if you have to.
My plates (a combination of virgin rubber bumpers, urethane standard plates, and a set of fractionals) total up to somewhere around $800. If you go with a pricier brand or go with competition bumpers, you can easily break the $1000 price point.
If you really want to get nutty, you can get IWF certified plates and drive the price up to $3000 or more for a set. Yikes!!!
A final tip is to build your set a piece at a time. You can get a really nice 250 lb set of bumpers shipped to your door for $450 or so. Start with that and add more weight down the road. Combined with your bar, that puts you at just under 300 lbs. Add to that as needed.
Buy nice or buy twice
I remember the day I got my latest set of bumper plates. I had been using a set that I liked but couldn’t stand the smell of for quite some time. When I sold them and had cash in hand, I immediately ordered my new set.
That first, less expensive set, didn’t end up saving me anything in the long run!
From the moment I unpacked the new set of plates, I was in love. There’s just something about quality gym gear that gets me excited. I train more often when I love my equipment. And that’s the whole idea, right?
If you want to see the plates I own, or any of the other gear I own and am very confident in recommending, make sure to stop by my recommended gear page here.