December 12, 2021 10 min read
When it comes to weightlifting, the barbell is king.
And for the barbell, we need weight plates. Weight plates are flat discs that allow for a standard measurement of strength and allow for slow progression in fitness and power. The classic weight plate has been used for over a century and it’s kept the same general form—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
However, these days weight plates come in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, to the point where it can be difficult to choose what’s right for you. This is especially true if you’re looking to build your own home garage gym. However, the biggest conundrum can be boiled down to the decision between bumper plates and iron plates.
In the end, it’s going to come down to whether you plan on dropping your weights or not. As the name suggests, bumpers are going to give you a softer landing and are therefore better for certain lifts and circumstances. But while the deciding factor may seem simple at first glance, there are a lot more things to consider.
Weight plate holes come in two different sizes, either Olympic sizing or standard sizing. Olympic plates have a 2-inch hole that fits Olympic barbells. These are good for Olympic lifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, and more competitive lifting. On the other hand, there’s the 1-inch standard weight plates.
These are often seen with home gym equipment that’s more consumer-minded.
While standard-sized plates are cheaper, they’re not going to be as good of an option if you’re serious about lifting. However, if general fitness is your goal, then standard plates with 1-inch holes are your best bet.
Although weight plates can be boiled down to “metal” and “bumper,” there’s a host of materials that might be used to make them, instead of just iron and rubber. Cast iron is the classic choice, giving the purists the “clang” of plates hitting plates and also generally being cheaper. There are also steel and even chrome-coated options, but these are significantly more expensive. However, they do provide added quality in terms of being rust-resistant and more durable overall.
Rubber can also be used to either coat plates, or to make up the majority of the plate. Another option sometimes used instead of rubber is urethane. A urethane coating provides some added durability to plates. Furthermore, rubber can be broken down between “crumb” plates (from recycled rubber), or virgin rubber that hasn’t been recycled. The latter comes with a cleaner finish.
Bumper plates consist of a thick layer of rubber or urethane surrounding a smaller steel plate. Historically, these were mainly used by Olympic weightlifters due to the types of exercises performed—aka, dropping (or potentially dropping) the bar from high up, like in clean and jerks, overhead squats, and snatches.
In recent years bumper plates have been popularized by the CrossFit movement because they borrow many of these lifts from Olympic weightlifting, and so bumper plates are necessary. Because they’re made out of rubber, they bounce when they’re dropped. This makes them a lot safer to use and you won’t damage either the weights or the floor.
However, this also depends on the quality of your floor—gym-grade rubber floors are going to be a lot kinder to anything dropped on them when compared to a cement garage floor.
The “bounciness” of bumper plates is measured on a scale called the durometer, which tells you how hard a material is. A lower score on this scale will mean that something is bouncier. This hints at the fact that while all bumper plates have the same idea behind them, they’re not all created equal.
There are four general groups of bumper plates that have different uses for specific cases. The most commonly used for training are the standard variety which we’ll take a look at first.
But there are also crumb plates, competition plates, and technique plates.
All of these rely on the same “build”—a solid disk of metal surrounded by a thick layer of rubber or urethane that makes the plates safer to drop on the ground. Depending on your specific use case, one of these varieties will work for you better—at least if you end up choosing bumper plates over iron plates.
The standard bumper plate, also called training plate, is made out of virgin rubber that’s never been used for anything before. They usually have a high-quality finish that’s glossy and “clean.” Although most are made out of rubber, urethane has become more popular—especially since the quality of urethane has also been going up. A standard plate will bounce slightly when it’s dropped, but it won’t go as far as to bounce away from you. This makes them a solid choice for gyms, especially since they’re more expensive than competition bumper plates.
These are also called hi-temp and MIL-spec bumper plates. Instead of being made out of virgin rubber-like standard and competition plates are, these are made out of recycled rubber—this usually comes from old tires. Although they have a rougher texture and don’t look as “clean,” crumb bumper plates are more durable than standard plates.
They’re also a lot more bouncy than standard bumpers, which makes them a good choice if you’re worried about damaging your floor or annoying people who live with you. The drawback to this is that they’re going to bounce a lot further than standard plates, and so you need to be careful if working out around people or fragile objects.
Another downside is the sizing that they come in. Crumb bumper plates have a larger diameter than competition plates that are more aligned with the standards set out by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). While these are a good option for amateurs whose eyes aren’t set on competition, for those looking to be in the competitive weightlifting space then standard or competition plates will better serve their needs.
This is one of the more expensive options since competition bumper plates are made for—you guessed it—competitions. They specifically align with IWF standards when it comes to collar size, weight, and diameter. These also tend to be color-coded in order to better distinguish between the different weights. These are less bouncy than the two plate types we’ve looked at so far, and so they’re not going to be as useful for amateurs training in their home gym. And since they’re also more expensive, only consider these if you’re serious about entering the elite levels of lifting.
These fill a specific, yet necessary niche in the weightlifting community. As the name suggests, they’re designed to be used by those trying to learn Olympic lifting techniques. They’re also useful for lifters that are trying to rehab injuries that prevent them from using regular and heavier weights. Technique bumper plates come in 5lb and 10lb sizes with the same width that other bumper plates use. Again, these have a more specialized use-case and although they are very helpful for learning form with weight plates on a bar, they might be a superfluous expense in a home gym.
Now onto the old school, metal pates. These can be either made from iron, steel, or chrome. However, iron and steel are the most popular with cast iron plates being cheaper and more common than steel weights. Chrome plates are often just plated with chrome. These are the purist’s choice, making the clanging noise that’s a trademark of any commercial gym.
Of course, if you drop one of these babies on your floor, something is likely going to break. These also tend to be cheaper than bumper plates, at least when looking at the cast iron option. Since these aren’t standardized for competition as much as bumper plates, you’re going to see a much wider variety out there.
It’s important to keep in mind that they do have a smaller diameter, which isn’t going to change most lifts but you might need to raise the bar for deadlifts so your hips are in a good position. Metal plates are often made by pouring molten metal into a sand-cast mold with pockets that are then filled with lead to acquire the necessary weight. There are also machined plates that are of higher quality and provide a more precise weight.
Although metal plates come in many different shapes and sizes, one of the “standard” options is calibrated plates. These are specially made to competition standards where the weight has to be accurate to within 0.25% or 10 grams (whichever is lighter) of the necessary weight. They tend to be thinner than your regular plate, which allows for a more streamlined lift.
You can also fit more weight plates onto the bar, at least when compared to bumper plates that are thicker. These are, however, more expensive options and they’re not recommended for home gyms or amateur needs. They can also be made from either cast iron or steel, with steel being more pricey and durable.
Although we did just technically look at “rubber” plates, there’s a difference between rubber plates and bumper plates. While bumper plates are made from thick slabs of rubber with steel inserts, rubber plates only use a thin coating of rubber on an otherwise cast-iron weight. As with bumper plates, urethane provides a more durable and high-quality finish that won’t scuff as easily as rubber.
However, you can’t drop these the same way you would bumper plates. Some rubber plates are specifically designed for gripping, even coming in hexagonal shapes. While they are useful for general strength training and bodybuilding needs, they’re not going to be as durable for heavy weights. Not to mention that a hexagonal shape is going to make deadlifts very annoying to perform.
Rubber plates also often come with the 1-inch hole size, making them unusable with Olympic bars. This doesn’t make them very useful for powerlifting needs, but they are good for more general training that a lot of home gyms are built around.
The ultimate pro of bumper plates is the fact that they’re safer to drop—a benefit that comes with subsequent pluses. For one, they’re a lot quieter than metal plates—whether dropped or not. They’re also going to be extremely durable if they’re high-quality. Accidentally dropping a metal plate can easily crack it if you’re not careful.
These are great options for those looking to perform Olympic lifts, or for those who have to worry about either annoying neighbors or housemates. However, bumper plates tend to be pricier than metal plates. This is because there’s more manufacturing that goes into them—especially the high-quality ones. And since they’re thicker, you’re not going to be able to fit as much weight on a bar.
For the purists who aren’t going to be performing a lot of overhead movements that require dropping, the metal plate is the way to go. Not only do they give you the clang worthy of an iron temple, but they’re also built to last for a long time. The pricing is also going to be more wallet-friendly unless you opt for more high-quality steel or chrome plates that have been specially calibrated.
But while they are more durable, they’re also more likely to rust—especially if stored in humid environments. This doesn’t get in the way of using them, however. Additionally, lower quality metal plates tend to vary slightly with the weight when compared to the listed weights. This issue isn’t a problem if looking at the more expensive, calibrated plates, but it is important to be aware if using low-quality plates.
Like we said in the beginning, this is largely going to come down to what workouts you plan on doing. If you’re looking to be dropping a lot of weights, use bumper plates. Even if other factors (such as living alone or wanting to save money) point you in the direction of getting metal plates, only bumper plates are designed to be dropped. One workaround is in terms of getting a thick, rubber floor mat.
However, this won’t be as good as a solid bumper. And if you do live with someone or have money to spend, bumper plates will make less noise and dip deeper into your wallet. If you’re looking for something to fulfill general weightlifting needs, metal plates are a good option. They’re cheap and they offer that old-school clang that so many of us are used to, and prefer.
Not to mention that they’re also cheaper and you won’t have to worry about ruining the rubber coating. If you’re looking to buy second-hand, metal plates are going to always hold up unless they’ve been abused by being dropped.
It’s entirely possible to combine different types of weight plates, and it’s probably a financially smart decision if you’re planning to buy from different second-hand sources. However, there are some things to remember. Combining metal plates with bumper plates isn’t recommended for Olympic lifts or some CrossFit lifts because you’ll likely be dropping the bar onto the floor. It’s a much safer option for doing bench presses, overhead presses, or even squats.
While bumper plates are supposed to be safe to drop onto the floor, combining them with metal plates means that they’re going to have to not only absorb the weight of the bar, but also the other plates. If you overload metal plates with bumper plates, there’s going to be a lot of stress put on the collars of the bumper plates. This might not destroy the bumper plates overnight, but it will cause them to break down much faster over the long run.
If you’re planning to be dropping weights onto the floor, either opt for just using bumper plates or using a much higher ratio of bumper plates to metal plates. Combining more bumper plates with less metal plates will give more “bumper” to absorb the added stress of the metal plates.
It’s good to be informed about weight plates and how you can make them work for your specific circumstances and goals, but it’s also important to not ignore the bigger picture since even training often times comes secondary to taking care of your body in other ways—especially in the kitchen.
The type of equipment you use isn’t going to mean anything if you’re not holding a solid sleep schedule with a healthy diet. Getting enough rest and eating enough protein along with fats and carbs is what’s ultimately going to get you the results you’re looking for. Choosing the right weight plate is important, but it’ll mean nothing if your dinner plate is lacking.