Weight plates and barbells go together like peanut butter and jelly — one feels incomplete without the other. When you’re building out your own strength training space, you can curate these partners in crime for the sake of how you want to work out. While the differences between barbells are more well-defined, choosing between a set of iron weight plates or bumper weight plates can be a harder riddle to decipher.
Sure, both options hit that muscle-building aesthetic, and there’s loads of training potential either way. Understanding the differences between these foundational fitness tools, however, can help you select the best workout setup possible for your needs.
What Are Iron Plates?
Iron weight plates are that classic style most associated with strength training, and the inspiration behind that favorite gym bro phrase of “pumping iron.” Also known as cast-iron plates, these profiles are simple in nature and typically feature a black or grey colorway. Some brands may offer plates with a thin rubber or plastic coating for added durability, but the classic bare metal look is pretty standard.
You can find iron plates in loads ranging from 2.5 to 100 pounds, with 5s, 10s, 25s, 35s and 45s being the most common. Iron plates are typically thinner than bumper plates, which can allow you to load some impressive numbers across a barbell for really serious PRs. Additionally, iron plates vary in diameter based on their weight. A 25-pound dish is going to be smaller, for example, than a 45-pound plate.
There are plenty of brands offering high-quality iron silhouettes, and it’s worth investing in a name you know. Cheaper plates can have a tendency to differ from their stamped weight total, anywhere from 5 to 10 percent, so if you want your lifts to be as accurate as possible, go with more recognizable labels.
What Are Bumper Plates?
Bumper plates are composed of a steel or iron core encapsulated by a thick layer of high-density rubber or urethane. This durable exterior is designed to absorb the shock from dropping your loaded barbell from a given height, helping preserve your equipment’s integrity while also limiting the abuse you deal out across your home gym flooring. Your bumper plate’s quality of material often dictates how much bounce your barbell will experience, with harder options like virgin rubber and urethane being the most deadening.
The thick coating across bumper plates also lends itself to more colorful setups. You can typically find bumpers available in a classic black or a color-coded look designed to represent competition standards. Some brands go even further with personalization, offering bumper plates in crumble patterns or other designs to give each lift a refreshing, lively vibe.
Bumper plates are commonly available in loads ranging from 10 to 55 pounds. Regardless of weight total, each bumper plate in a set carries the same diameter, typically 17 to 18 inches. Because of this more uniform setup, heavier bumper plates are thicker than their iron counterparts, which means you may run out of barbell sleeve space if your working totals surpass a certain number.
Which Weight Plate Should You Use?
Bumper plates are excellent for Olympic lifts and CrossFit.
Certain strength training disciplines require you to drop the barbell after a given lift to help preserve your safety and form. For exercises like the snatch or clean and jerk, bumper plates are going to be your best option due to the more durable makeup. The rubber or urethane is far more capable of withstanding a drop from overhead than an iron plate, and the boosted shock absorption can be better at preserving your floors, too.
That said, not every bumper plate is going to showcase the same durability. Unlike iron plates that crack upon failure, bumper plates instead bend and warp from excessive stress. This failure is more common with thinner, lighter plates, so if your working sets only call for 10 pounds per side, try to control your weights down to the ground rather than drop them carelessly.
Iron plates are great for powerlifting and general fitness.
If your workouts don’t call for you to literally throw weight around, you can get by with iron plates. Exercises like the back squat, bench press and machine-based modalities won’t call for the weights to make contact with the ground, so having a plate with impact-deadening qualities is not entirely necessary. Even when it comes to deadlifts, you can still get by with iron plates provided you’re controlling the weight down to its starting position once you’ve locked out your rep. It is still wise, though, to perform iron-plated deadlifts atop a well-to-do flooring system or platform to keep your abode as protected as possible.
Another perk of iron plates is the increased weight you’re able to load up. The thinner composition allows you to reach totals beyond 405 pounds, typically the max capacity you can achieve when lifting with thicker bumpers. That’s why most powerlifters opt for iron plates — along with they’re more hard-nosed, gritty aesthetic, of course.
Bumper plates are quieter, keeping noisy training sessions at bay.
While there’s something to be said about “clanging and banging” through a workout session, all that noise can be unwanted in your home gym, especially if you have napping children upstairs, a work-from-home partner facilitating calls or nearby neighbors who prefer the serenity of a quiet street. In these scenarios, consider opting for bumper plates. The rubber composition makes some noise when dropped, but it is nowhere near the volume of a similarly-weighted iron-loaded barbell dropped from the same height.
The uniform diameter of bumper plates lends itself to this less audible training setup as well. Each plate sits flush against the next when loaded and locked into place, so there’s no room for smaller weights to jostle and clang during movement.
Iron plates are ideal for athletes on a tighter budget.
Because of their simpler design, less intricate construction and thinner makeup, iron plates are generally less expensive than bumper plates. Those savings can be great for athletes looking to save some coin for other home gym essentials as well as budding enthusiasts just getting started on their personal training paradise.
While this plate style is easier on your wallet, they do require a bit more TLC. For one, iron plates are more susceptible to rust, so it’s best to keep them stored in a dry environment and wipe them clean if you notice any pooling moisture. Additionally, an errant drop or two is no big deal, but if you routinely slam your barbells down after a completed set, your weights can begin to crack and crumble more so than the more expensive bumpers.
Can You Use Both Weight Plates at Once?
The best of both worlds is possible — you can reap the perks of both bumper and iron plates by combining forces across your barbell sleeve. You can pick up two sets of 45-pound bumper plates, for example, and then build out your working weight total with lighter, smaller iron plates like 35s, 25s, 10s and 5s. This gives your dropped weight totals that durable, floor-saving point of contact across the bumpers, and you still have enough room across the sleeve to chase higher totals.
Notable Weight Plate Brands to Consider
While the instinct to go with the cheapest options available can be enticing, this can open to door for unwanted weight variances in iron plates, or less durable (and rubbery-smelling) bumper plates. As is the case with other strength training necessities, weight plates are often a “get what you pay for” sort of deal. Considering how much you’ll be using them, however, investing in quality will soon pay for itself.
There are a number of worthwhile brands to consider when filling out your at-home weight rack, but three that have held our attention for many years in the discipline include Titan Fitness, Again Faster and Rep Fitness. For even more options, be sure to read our full guide to the best weight plates.