Cheap DIY Dumbbell Alternatives At Home

16

MARCH, 2021

We don’t always have access to dumbbells. Dumbbells are heavy, cumbersome and are difficult to transport. It’s important to be able to find alternatives for dumbbell exercises using lighter equipment and common household items.

Here are our top picks for how to get through a killer dumbbell workout at home only using dumbbell substitutes.  

dumbbell alternatives convenience vs effectiveness

Price Vs Effectiveness Plot Summary For Dumbbell Alternatives 

Generally speaking, the more you pay for alternative dumbbell solutions, the better the result. Books, water and sand – are generally freely available or can be cheaply purchased. None of these dumbbell alternatives are particularly effective, however.  Cement dumbbells are a more effective solution – however will set you back a similar amount to actual dumbbells while being an inferior solution. Resistance bands hit the perfect balance between cost and effectiveness – they are cheaper than standard dumbbells but allow for most dumbbell exercises. 

dumbbell alternatives convenience vs effectiveness (2)

Convenience Vs Effectiveness Plot Summary For Dumbbell Alternatives 

Generally speaking, the more you pay for alternative dumbbell solutions, the better the result. Books, water and sand – are generally freely available or can be cheaply purchased. None of these dumbbell alternatives are particularly effective, however.  Cement dumbbells are a more effective solution – however will set you back a similar amount to actual dumbbells while being an inferior solution. Resistance bands hit the perfect balance between cost and effectiveness – they are cheaper than standard dumbbells but allow for most dumbbell exercises. 

Water Bottles And Containers As Alternatives For Dumbbell Exercises

Water can be found almost everywhere and is a great way to make heavy weights at home. Water is particularly useful because water bottles and containers are so common. Almost any container can be used as a portable weight.
Obviously the bigger the capacity of the container, the heavier your weights can get. Each Litre of water translates to exactly 1 Kg of weight. Denser liquids will result in heavier weights. For instance using salt water from the sea will increase the weight of your water container by about 3%, while using oils will decrease the weight of your container as they are less dense.

Bottles can be used for common dumbbell arm exercises such as dumbbell curls and tricep extensions, while bigger, heavier containers can be used as alternative weights for dumbbell squats and other leg exercises.

water bottle weights

Sand Weights, A Heavier Alternative To Water

Sand is great, because unlike many other solids, the weight can be adjusted precisely. Sand weights can typically be made heavier than water weights of the same size, but are perhaps slightly less convenient to make. Sand doesn’t slosh around like water, and is usually better for more dynamic dumbbell exercise alternatives. 

There are 2 major disadvantages of using sand to create dumbbell alternatives. The first is that it takes some time to fill a container with sand, whether this is a water bottle or a backpack. This time should be used to workout instead!

Second, sand is messy and even with the most secure container or backpack, you are likely to leak sand, if not during the exercise, then definitely during the making of your makeshift dumbbells! 

sandbag exercise

Books As Weights

Books can also be used as makeshift weights. An advantage of books is there’s no setting up time – just take a book from yourself and you have a weight. However, books are cumbersome to transport, and each book is a different weight and shape, making symmetrical exercises difficult to do. Moreover, despite books being heavy, it is difficult to grip more than 1 book with each hand, and even then, a heavy book will likely strain your grip strength.

A great way around this is to use a backpack. Obviously this will largely limit you to leg exercises, but it will allow you to carry multiple books at the same time. Despite this, sand is usually a better alternative as it can take the shape of your backpack, whereas books awkwardly stick out and don’t allow a uniform weight distribution.

book weights

Building Concrete Weights And Cement Dumbbells

Concrete and cement are similar materials that can be used to create cheap dumbbell alternatives as well. Or so you thought. Actually, making these dumbbells yourself can be time consuming, pricey and will require some craftsmanship. The dumbbells are made from a metal bar dipped in buckets containing cement. Once the cement dries, you’re left with something that resembles a typical dumbbell.

Cement is not particularly expensive, however it’s tough to get your hands on a small quantity, as it is usually sold in bulk. The weights you make, if not reinforced, will likely erode over time – making them dangerous to train with. Overall this is a messy process that will result in a questionable set of dumbbells and will likely be more trouble than it’s worth!

cement dumbbells
Resistance Bands, A Modern Alternative To Dumbbells

Resistance bands are another great alternative to dumbbells, and are typically cheaper. In fact, resistance bands can be used to reproduce almost every dumbbell exercise, and can also be used to replicate cable exercises, and can assist with bodyweight exercises by reducing your effective bodyweight. Resistance bands also have a ton of other uses – just check out our Article on The Many Uses Of Resistance Bands. This makes resistance bands much more versatile than dumbbells, and not to mention much lighter and more convenient to travel with.

Despite how light they are, resistance bands can create a ton of resistance and can help you grow muscles at the same rate as dumbbells and weight training. Resistance bands also have a few small shortcomings. The main one is that the force they generate is not equal throughout exercises. The longer the resistance band, the greater the restoring force it produces, hence as you continue to push or pull the resistance band, the force increases. This is not the case with dumbbells as the force of gravity remains the same, and therefore the resistance provided by dumbbells does not change throughout resistance exercises.

Another drawback, is that resistance bands are stretched and lose tension with prolonged use. This happens very slowly however, and typically only becomes an issue after 1-2 years of heavy use. Cheap resistance bands are also known to snap, however more expensive ones with layered designs do not.

pull ups bands
Kettlebells Vs Dumbbells

Kettlebells are another alternative to dumbbells. They cost about as much and have a similar level of convenience. Dumbbells and kettlebells allow for similar exercises, but certain exercises are easier with one or the other.

Dumbbells are generally better for exercises that require symmetrical movements such as shoulder press, chest press and flies. Kettlebells on the other hand allow for unique dynamic exercises such as kettlebell swings. For most people, especially beginners and those with lower back pain, there is no reason to buy kettlebells over standard dumbbells.

I’m Not Convinced With Dumbbell Alternatives And I Want The Real Thing.

Although there are many dumbbell alternatives, there’s just something familiar and satisfying about real dumbbells. If you’re really set on getting yourself a pair of dumbbells then you should at least consider some improved dumbbell designs.

Although modern dumbbells are still quite pricey, there are some cheaper alternatives that provide a good standard of quality and some enhanced features. For the longest time, dumbbells have been cement or steel rings clamped onto a metal stick. The process of changing weight was at best annoying and at worst impossible.

Luckily in the 21st century dumbbells have been largely reinvented. One of the best modern dumbbell designs is called the Smart Adjustable Dumbbell. This design features easily removable disks that can be taken off with a single twist of a switch – this mechanism ensures a fast way to change your desired weight while retaining the highest level of safety. These dumbbells are not only affordable, but let you focus on training rather than fiddling with dumbbell screws.

Written by Vic

Melbourne-based Personal Trainer, Calisthenics Athlete and the Founder of Street Workout St Kilda. Super passionate about bodyweight training and the art of movement.
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