Building a home gym can get expensive. And it can get that way fast! So finding places to save money without sacrificing functionality becomes important to those of us on a budget.
One of the best ways to stay on budget and still get a functional gym is to spend money where you need to and look for ways to save in areas you don’t.
My best advice for this has always been to spend a little more on your bar and your bench, but trim back in other areas like your rack and weights. Weights, in particular, can vary in price from very cheap to crazy expensive.
But weight is weight, right? A 45 lb plate that you paid $140 for weighs exactly the same as a 45 lb plate you spent $10 on. So why spend the extra $130???
Why I recommend bumper plates
I wrote an entire article about the benefits of bumper plates that you can read here. I won’t go into every reason you might want them in this article. We should, however, touch on two very important bumper plate benefits.
One is that they protect your floor if you drop your bar. For those of you that never drop your bar, this is a non-issue. For those of you that do, this is really important.
If you drop a bar loaded with 400 lbs. of iron plates onto the concrete floor of your garage, you’re going to mess up your floor. There are several ways to mitigate this (see my article on preventing floor damage here for most of them), but one is to use bumper plates
You can drop a bar loaded with 400 lbs. of bumper plates directly on your floor with no issue. Your floor holds your house and your car, it can handle your loaded barbell when it’s loaded with rubber bumpers.
The problem comes into play when that 400 lbs. consists of the sharp-edged hardened steel that makes up iron plates.
The second reason you want bumpers is to protect your bar. If you drop that same loaded bar with iron plates on it, you could very easily break your barbell.
The bearings and hardware that attach the sleeves of your bar to the bar itself cannot withstand the jarring impact of steel plates when dropped. It’s just not a great idea.
So, in the interest of protection your floor and your bar, you should definitely consider buying bumper plates when putting together your home gym.
Bumper plate drawbacks
I love, recommend, and use bumper plates myself. But I’ll be the first to admit that they do have some drawbacks.
First, they are expensive. Especially good ones. You can go cheap, but they won’t last. Buying cheap bumper plates is a recipe for having to replace them within a year.
So that leaves us back at the fact that bumper plates come with a premium price tag. They cost a good amount more than steel plates and are exponentially more expensive than used iron plates.
See my recommended weight plates page for the bumpers and other plates that I recommend.
The second drawback of bumper plates that I’ll reference here is that they are much wider than metal plates. They therefore take up more room on your bar. They also take up more room on whatever storage solution you use to store your weight.
This means that if you are lifting a good amount of weight, you may not be able to load your bar as heavily as you’d like if you are using bumpers. You’ll simply run out of room.
Using iron plates is a great way to get around both of these bumper plate drawbacks.
Why I recommend iron plates
In a word, cost. As I referenced above, iron plates cost a lot less than bumper plates do.
Iron plates, depending on their design, usually also take up less room on the bar. This fixes the problem of not being able to load enough bumper plates on your bar to achieve your desired weight. This is the reason that most competitive powerlifting meets use metal plates exclusively.
For me, there is another allure to iron plates. They are gritty, kind of dirty, rough in your hands, and remind me of hard work. There is an aesthetic to iron plates you just don’t get with other types of weight.
There’s just something about a raw piece of steel that makes me want to train!
Iron plate drawbacks
So why not just get iron plates? Well, we already touched on most of the reasons, but let’s summarize.
Iron plates can easily damage your floor. They will crack and chip cement and cut rubber. I highly recommend great flooring and a lifting platform if you are exclusively using iron or other metal plates.
Iron plates can damage your bar. Without the shock absorption that bumper plates provide, you’ll need to learn to lift without dropping your bar if you use metal plates.
Last, I’ll mention one that’s kind of embarrassing. I hurt myself on iron plates all the time. For some reason, I can’t seem to load weight on a bar without pinching my finger between those metal plates.
I’m sure this can’t be just me, and it’s for sure something that can be avoided, but it’s at least a part of the reason I don’t have iron plates in my own gym!
How to mix iron and bumper plates
So is there a way to get the benefits of bumper plates combined with the benefits of iron? Is there a way to protect your bar and your floor and still not spend a small fortune? You bet!
This is where mixing the two types of plates together comes into play. As long as you pay attention to a few details, this is easily done. Here’s a quick breakdown of the 3 things you’ll need to watch out for when mixing iron and bumper plates.
Check your diameters
The first thing to check is the diameter of the plates you are mixing. On the whole, bumper plates tend to be a larger diameter than iron plates.
If you have a bumper plate loaded on your bar next to a metal plate of a smaller diameter, the bumper would contact the floor if dropped and keep the metal plate from ever making contact.
This way you prevent both floor and bar damage caused by the iron plate impacting the ground. It also means the total cost of your plates is much lower than if you were using bumpers alone!
It’s not always the case that metal plates are a smaller diameter than bumpers, so it’s important that you check. It’s also important that there be a meaningful difference.
Fringe Sport bumpers (the brand I recommend and use myself) are 17.7″ in diameter (450mm). Their metal plates top out at 17.5″ for the 45 lb plate. This isn’t really a big enough difference to prevent floor or bar damage.
Their 35 lb plate, though, is 13.75″. And that’s more than enough of a difference to keep the metal plate from slamming into the ground. Even if you had to use a 35 lb plus a 10 lb metal plate to get to 45, you’d still be way ahead cost wise than having 2 45 lb bumper plates.
In other words, don’t mix a 45 lb bumper with a 45 lb iron plate. Instead, mix your bumper plates with smaller diameter iron plates of 35 lbs and below.
Match your weights
Another consideration when mixing metal and bumper plates together is how much of each weight you are using.
A good rule of thumb is to use a maximum 1:1 ratio metal to bumper. In other words, if you have a single 45 lb bumper on your bar, you shouldn’t put any more than another 45 lbs in metal plates on the bar.
This is because when your bar hits the deck, that bumper is going to have to support and absorb its own weight and the weight of the metal plate(s). The rubber in bumper plates can only withstand so much.
Sticking at a 1:1 ration or less will ensure that you don’t damage your bumpers by overloading them. Having to replace your bumpers because they are damaged kind of defeats the whole idea of cost savings!
Load in the correct order
Speaking of preventing damage, let’s prevent some bar damage too. Always load your bumpers first. They should be the closest to the shoulders of your barbell sleeve.
Most people would do this naturally, largest plates towards the middle with the plates getting smaller as you progress to the end of the bar. But just in case, always remember to load the bumpers first.
You want the force of impact, absorbed by the bumpers, to hit the barbell sleeve as close to the shoulder as possible. Otherwise, you’ll be imparting an off-center force on the bearings inside and could cause damage.
Mixing iron and bumper plates together is a great way to get the benefits of bumper plates combined with the lower cost of iron plates. As long as the iron does not outweigh the bumpers, this will be effective.
Just remember to check your diameters, load, and loading pattern when doing so. Keeping these three things in mind will allow you to take advantage of this cost-cutting trick with no loss to the effectiveness of your training!
Yes, as long as you are working in pairs of matched plates. Because plate weight can vary from brand to brand, it’s best to make sure that the plate on one side of your bar weighs the same as the matching plate on the other.
Budget priced bumper plates simply won’t last. Especially if you are dropping them on the ground. Another factor is that the type of rubber and binder used to make the cheap plates will off gas possibly harmful fumes. At best, they just stink pretty bad.
See my recommended plates page here for which plates I recommend at all budget levels.
The short answer is to match your plates to the type of lifting you are doing. The longer, more detailed answer can be found in my complete guide to selecting weight plates for your home gym!