Last updated on December 2nd, 2021 at 05:35 pm
When I started looking at adding a barbell and weight plates to my home gym, I thought it would be a simple decision. Every gym I’d ever been to had similar weights. How hard could it be? I figured I’d just pick out a “set” of weights and be on my way.
Little did I know, but they rarely came in sets and there were a million different varieties. So many options!!! Iron, rubber, or urethane along with varying qualities of each of those. Should I buy new or save some money and buy them pre-owned? Then, to make things even more confusing, I came across bumper plates. And that made me ask, “What are bumper plates”?
Bumper plates are weight plates made of high-density rubber. They are a standard diameter across all weights and are used in lifts (Olympic and CrossFit usually) where the loaded barbell is dropped to the floor. Their rubber construction protects the weights, the barbell, and the floor from damage.
I’d never set foot in a CrossFit box and I’d never done any Olympic lifting. That meant that I’d never been in the right place at the right time to ever be exposed to them. Once again, in the process of trying to put together a great home gym, I found myself buried in internet articles and forum posts.
Because none of the gyms I’d ever belonged to had had bumper plates, that meant I had several questions to answer… What are bumper plates, are they something I needed for my home gym, and if so, which ones should I buy?
What are bumper plates?
Bumper plates are weight plates made of high-density rubber molded around a steel insert. Each plate, regardless of weight, is the same diameter and they are designed for use on a standard Olympic barbell. Also known as “bumpers”, they are most used for Olympic and CrossFit style lifting.
When I first stumbled across bumper plates, I thought they were simply brightly colored versions of the weight plates I was already familiar with. I couldn’t figure out why someone would spend so much more just for color. And then, of course, I quickly ran into all-black sets of bumper plates. So it turned out that color was just a minor part of the difference if it was really a part at all.
The price difference was also pretty obvious at first look. Why would I want to spend more money to have them be a pretty color?! That didn’t make sense to me. There had to be more to it…
And there was.
Where did bumper plates come from?
Bumper plates were designed for competitive lifting. They are made of a dense rubber that, when dropped, won’t damage themselves, a lifting platform, or your floor (just a heads up, dropping ANY weight on your floor over and over is going to damage your floor, bumper plates, or no).
This becomes extremely important when doing Olympic and CrossFit style lifting. Lifts like cleans, snatches, and squats often end by dropping the heavily loaded bar to the floor. With that type of lifting, people are often pushing their limits. In those cases, lifts don’t always get completed. It’s important in those instances that, for safety, they drop the bar.
This action requires some special qualities in the weight plates being used. To accommodate the special demands of competitive lifting, bumper plates were born.
Bumper plate options
There are several options available when looking at bumper plates. As I mentioned, they come in black or bright colors. You can get them measured in lbs. or kilos. You can get them in a variety of materials (more on that later). But to make it simple, there are generally just two types of bumper plates. Competition and training.
The difference between training and competition bumper plates
Competition plates are just that, for competition. When hosting a sanctioned, competitive lifting event, it’s important that all the equipment used meets a set of universal and predetermined standards. The governing body that does this is the IWF (International Weightlifting Federation). Those standards are great for competition, but really don’t mean much of anything for your home gym.
That means that training plates will work perfectly for 99% of us. Training plates are very durable and are a fantastic option. In fact, it’s what most competitive lifters train with. I’d say when buying bumper plates, definitely save the money and go with the training version.
The difference, in case you are wondering about the specifics, is twofold. One, the plates are made to the exact specifications of the IWF. That includes diameters, collar size, and weight. That also includes a certain level, or lack of, bounce to maintain safety. Two, the weights have to be certified that they meet those criteria. Both of those things add to the cost of the plates.
Standard training plates, made by a reputable company, will conform to most of those standards anyway. There are some material and other differences that we will cover, but overall, training plates are what you will want for your garage gym.
A unique characteristic of bumper plates is their size. Unlike standard weight plates, where each unique weight is also a different diameter, bumper plates are all the same diameter. Instead of varying in physical size (45 lbs. being the largest and then working down from there), they vary in thickness and construction. This has two distinct benefits.
First, when you drop the bar, all the weights hit the ground at the same time. This distributes the force across a larger surface area and helps prevent damage to the plates or your floor.
Second, there are a few exercises where lighter plates with a larger diameter are beneficial. An example of this is the barbell hip thrust. Getting your legs and hips under the bar and into the correct starting position is much easier with the larger diameter plates.
Another benefit of the uniform diameter of bumper plates is how they bounce. It’s hard to imagine such heavy objects bouncing, but when dropped, they do. Having a uniform size where every plate hits the floor at the same time reduces the amount of bounce the bar has when dropped.
This is combined with the type of material used. Bumper plates are typically made from very high-density rubber around an inner weight and collar. The density of this material absorbs the impact of a drop and keeps the bar from bouncing dangerously back up.
A very important note here is to pay attention to the type of rubber used on the plates you are looking at. One drawback of many bumper plates, even very expensive sets by companies like Rogue, is that they smell. Not a light “I can get used to it” type of smell. They smell strongly of rubber. In my opinion, plates made of stinky rubber are a definite no-go.
Get plates made from virgin rubber and that are rated to have a low odor like these from Fringe Sport. No plate will be odor-free, but this type will only have a slight smell that will quickly dissipate over the first few weeks you own them.
Standard or Bumper plates?
When deciding what to purchase for your home gym, start with the type of lifts you are going to be performing.
If you are going to be using an EZ bar and doing curl variations, French presses, close grip presses, or other EZ bar exercises, smaller diameter, traditional weight plates will be the right choice. The larger diameter of bumper plates will just get in the way of this type of bar. And it’s rare that you are loading this type of bar with heavy weights anyway. Stick to the smaller around 25 and 35 lb. plates and smaller here.
If you are doing big movements, CrossFit, or Olympic-style lifts, you’ll definitely want to invest in a set of bumper plates. You will end up dropping your bar regularly. Without bumper plates, you will damage your weights and your floor.
(Caution… Regularly dropping weights on your floor will cause eventual damage to most floors. If this style of lifting is your primary home gym activity, you should definitely consider a lifting platform or special flooring made specifically to handle this type of abuse.)
If you are doing any barbell work at all, bumper plates are the right way to go. Even if you aren’t dropping them on the floor, you will be setting them on the floor at some point. Bumpers just seem like more of a fit with the standard barbell.
One thing I found interesting was that, unlike steel, rubber, or urethane weight plates, bumper plates can come in a variety of colors and designs. At first glance it might not seem like that would matter. But it can.
The most common option you’ll find is black. It’s traditional. It’s gritty. It’s what belongs in a gym built for work, right? If that’s your deal, black is the color for you. One tip if you go black… You can get colored tape to put on the edges of the plates so that you know which is which. I highly recommend this little hack to make keeping track of the plate sizes easy!
For others, colored plates are a preferred option. Since all the plates are the same diameter, it’s harder to tell them apart than traditional weights. Being able to know exactly what’s on your bar at a glance is extremely beneficial. Not only does it help when setting up for a single lift, but it also helps when doing drop sets or changing exercises.
When you are trying to move from set to set quickly, you don’t always have a ton of time to change weight. Having colored plates really helps to identify how much weight is on the bar now and what you need to change for the next bunch of reps.
This also comes in handy when working out with a partner who is not lifting the same weight as you. When you have to change plates after every set to get ready for the next person, the easier it is to identify the plates, the better.
In the end, let your style of lifting determine whether or not you should add bumper plates to your arsenal of home gym equipment. But know that if that style includes a barbell, you’ll probably want at least a portion of your set to consist of bumpers.
A good set of bumper plates will last for years. They will end up being an oft-used and highly valued part of your home lifting sessions. You’ll be proud to have them and they are a large step on the way to building the perfect home gym!