15 ways to compare: Bumper plates vs steel plates

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When looking to decide between bumper plates or steel weight plates for your home gym the choice can be pretty daunting… I’ve spent HOURS reading reviews on plates, spend thousands buying them and I am STILL not sure if I have the right combination of plates. Sounds like a good excuse for me to buy some more if I can get it approved by the other half..!

Whether looking to build a home gym from scratch or simply topping up your collection, deciding between bumper plates and steel plates is one of the crucial steps along the road. Most weights last for AGES if looked after so making the right choice up front might cost a little more initially, but save you in the long run (the buy once, cry once principle!)

I’ll try to stay ‘on message’ here focusing on rubber bumpers vs steel or iron plates without going down too many rabbit holes (pounds or kilos? Coloured bumper plates vs plain black? Etc.) but I’ve got plenty of other posts coming on these other differentiators too so check out the links at the bottom of the page for our other related posts!

15 ways to compare: Bumper plates vs steel plates

At a glance…

  • Bumper plates are more suitable for most home gym users than steel
  • Rubber bumpers are quieter and less invasive than steel plates
  • They are better for CrossFit and Olympic lifting
  • Having a consistent diameter makes them better for lighter deadlifts and floor work
  • BUT they tend to be more expensive than steel plates

Should I get bumper plates or steel plates: Which is best?

Few people NEED bumpers, but for most home gym owners bumper plates are a better choice as they are more versatile, make less noise and vibrations in use and simply look nicer.

A MASSIVE advantage for bumpers is that they are usually FULL SIZE plates (450mm diameter). This means you can work properly from the floor with lower weights without using blocks to prop the bar up as you would with iron. This is great for Olympic lifts but also lighter deadlifts, rows, lifters generally lifting lower weights due to goals, age, gender, preference or any other valid reason!

You would be better with iron if you are budget conscious (steel plates are cheaper than bumpers usually), if you are a very strong lifter (lifting > 290kg as you will begin to run out of space on the bar for the thicker bumper plates) or if you are a COMPETITIVE powerlifter where you will likely want your equipment to mirror the spec lifted in your federation (probably calibrated steel plates.)

Most of us would have a long and happy lifting career with a mix of BOTH bumpers and iron – if you’re on the fence then start with a set of bumpers for the reasons outlined here, then simply add iron if needed to suit your lifting. At that point it will be easy to add on a pair of heavy matching bumper plates, or save a few quid and grab some iron to bulk out the few lifts that need it.

So, for most people, start your home gym with a set of bumper plates as they are quieter, safer on your garage floor and more versatile for general weightlifting uses.

A Bulldog Gear bumper plate beside a Rogue calibrated plate
Bumper plate beside a calibrated steel plate

All of this said I lifted with steel plates for years and had no issues. I built a thick, sturdy lifting platform and just made my family put up with the noise 🙂

What is a bumper plate?

The key properties that define a bumper plate are as follows:

  • Materials – predominantly made from rubber with a steel insert to go over the barbell sleeve
  • Diameter – all bumper plates are standard diameter (45cm / 450mm) so a 5kg plate is the same as a 25kg plate.

These two defining properties coalesce to make a pretty awesome weight plate. The rubber material dampens any drops and the equal diameter across the plates spreads the impact of any drops over a wider area. This combines to make bumper plates the least invasive to use in a home gym – they are quieter and throw off less vibrations than steel plates.

Bumpers are designed with Olympic weightlifting and CrossFit in mind and are built to withstand drops from overhead height. Because of this they are a solid disk with no holes for gripping as you see on some steel or iron plates. Designs between brands are as a result pretty similar, but with differing build quality and warranties (as usual!)

There are different materials and design tweaks for bumpers that impact the pricing of a set, but in general:

  • Thinner plates = more expensive
  • Coloured plates = more expensive (compared to plain black)
  • Wider diameter / more robust steel core = more expensive
  • Finer weight accuracy = more expensive

Bumper plate construction

The basics on what makes a bumper plate are covered above, but to expand a little on each of the main areas let’s have a quick run through the main aspects of a bumper weight plate:

Rubber construction

Every manufacturer will have their own recipes on how they build their plates, but they will ALL be rubber of some description.It’s normal for new plates to smell a little of rubber – this wears off over time. This doesn’t bother me but some find it a bit off putting.

Do bumper plates smell? Not these ones at least - even when brand new!
Do bumper plates smell? Not these ones at least – even when brand new!

Vulcanised and crumbed rubber plates tend to feature on plates that can be used outside or on thinner platforms. The trade off is the plates tend to be thicker and bounce higher.

Virgin rubber is also super popular and still offers a durable option, but with a slightly thinner profile and less bounce.

Plate thickness 

As covered above the density of the rubber material will determine the thickness of the plates. 

Thinner is generally more expensive and is more sought after as it allows us to load more weight on the bar.

Bumper plate vs steel plate: Comparing thickness
Bumper plate vs steel plate: Comparing thickness

Of course if you’re not limited by the barbell capacity this doesn’t really matter to you.

Metal core

To mount the plates on a barbell they pass through the the steel centrepiece. Given the majority of the plate is RUBBER, the binding of this to metal insert is a key area of weakness.

On bumper plates this is the area you are most likely to see wear and tear if the metal core breaks away from the rubber body of the plate.

A basic steel core is a steel cylinder which is bound to the rubber. Mid range plates would have this core insert more firmly moulded in to the plate which helps longevity.

Top end plates like competition or training plates have larger, more durable steel cores that are far larger. This is for durability purposes and to prevent the core from breaking away in regular use.

Example metal hub on a high end competition plate
Example metal hub on a high end competition plate

While competition plate endurance is superb, we probably don’t need that for a home-gym. That said, a billy-basic sleeve that is poorly bound to the plate can come loose even in a home gym environment, so it is worth going for something in the mid-range for longevity.

Coloured vs black

Some plates come in the IWF colour codes (so red = 25kg, blue = 20kg, yellow = 15kg, green = 10kg) and others plain black.

It is also common for plates to have partial colour coding – so coloured flecks in the crumbed rubber, coloured writing, coloured stripe, etc.

This is handy to identify weights on the bar at a glance which is MORE useful for bumpers than iron as they are all the same diameter.

Cost goes as you would expect – MORE colour = MORE expensive with pure black plates generally the most affordable. 

Comparison: Bumper plates vs steel plates

I’ve pulled a comparison of the different plate types in to a table below. There is no one right answer, but hopefully the below helps you work out which suits your priorities:

No.PropertyBumper PlatesSteel Plates
1NoiseQuieterNoisier
2VibrationLessMore
3DroppableYesNo
4Suitable for CrossFit?YesNo
5Suitable for Olympic lifting?YesNo
6Suitable for powerlifting?YesYes
7Weaknesses in constructionSleeve collar is a weak point if not well madeChipping, scratches, rust are risks
8Weak pointsCheap steel inserts can break awayCan crack in extreme circumstances
9CostMore ExpensiveCheaper
10Must use collarsYes – steel inserts let plates slide around if not collaredNo
11ThicknessThicker plates – MAY limit total that can be loaded on barbellGenerally thinner plates compared to bumpers
12Weight capacity on barbell sleeve210kg – 290kgVirtually unlimited
13Grab handlesRarelyCommon
14Gym flooringMore forgivingBrutal
15Diameter45cm / 450mmVaries

Best forThose wanting quietest and least invasive lifting at home; CrossFit athletes; Olympic lifters; Those interested in having the ‘best’ or most aesthetic gear; Those wanting to do work from the floor <60kgHeavier lifters (180kg+); Budget conscious; Competitive powerlifters

Bumpers are better for CrossFit and Olympic lifting

One of the core differences is the ability to drop a bumper plate. Something to consider is not all drops are intentional – if you miss a snatch or clean then a drop might happen by accident. I can power clean with steel plates fine, but I am always working within my comfort zone doing these as I know I can’t really afford a miss / drop!

This is also becoming a more important property as CrossFit continues to gain traction. The athletic-come-weightlifting-come-strength nature of it is awesome, but it does add a ton of time pressure to workouts and there is no question that dropping weights is faster than trying to lower them more gently.

So, for those interested in CrossFit – grab some bumpers!

Bumpers are better for lighter lifts from the floor

Something else to consider is the consistent diameter of bumpers – having full size (450mm) 5kg and 10kg plates means you can work from the floor properly from 10kg + your barbell weight. This is super handy for lighter lifters or for dynamic movements as you don’t need to prop the barbell up on blocks to get the right starting height when working from the floor. The downside is this can be more fiddly to load / unload the bar as you might want to jack it up for each change whereas with smaller steel plates you can slide them on with the big plates in situ.

Full size change plates (45cm diameter) are super handy when lifting from the flor with lighter weights
Full size change plates are super handy when lifting from the flor with lighter weights

Steel plates are better for the STRONGEST lifters

Checking a barbell I have to hand and the range of bumpers offered by Bulldog, you can fit around 210kg of Bulldog Ballistic bumpers, 250kg of Bulldog Hybrid Bumpers or a whopping 290kg of competition or training bumpers on a barbell.

Comparing thickness of calibrated steel and a regular bumper - only an issue if you’re a very strong lifter
Comparing thickness of calibrated steel and a regular bumper – only an issue if you’re a very strong lifter

If you can lift (or aim to lift) more than these weights at any one time then steel plates may be better for you simply to fit more weight on the bar.

Bumper plates often feel easier to lift

By virtue of being thicker bumper plates move the weight distribution on the barbell outwards compared to an equivalent steel plated barbell. The further out the weight, the more whip a barbell will exhibit.

Not everyone likes this, but it CAN feel easier to lift for SOME people as the whip basically shortens the lift as the barbell bends a little more keeping the plates in contact with the ground a little longer before lift off.

Combine with a thinner deadlift bar for the ultimate PR fest!

I can vouch for this personally – I noticed a step change moving from thicker plates to calibrated Rogue steel plates which felt much stiffer off the ground – even with the same barbells.

Bumpers are kinder to your garage floor

As noted above bumpers are predominantly a rubber construction and therefore are not as harsh on your floor or house as steel plates.

Some bumpers are suitable for use on bare concrete outside, with MOST recommending at least 18mm matting.

For steel plates aim for a homemade Olympic platform with layers of plywood and crumb rubber matting to protect your floor. I would go with AT LEAST 36mm of plywood and 18mm of crumb rubber if you’re planning to lift heavy (this is what I have) – but many people prefer even MORE protection. You should check with your local builder to see what the recommend for your particular installation.

Accuracy is similar… For a price…

Both bumper and steel plates can be incredibly accurate (+/- 10g) if you’re prepared to pay for the privilege. 

A slightly larger margin for error is probably acceptable to most of us, and is more reasonably priced in both bumper and steel plate sets. 

Tell me more about steel plates?

This is much easier to explain – it’s a weight plate that’s made of steel. I don’t think many of us are that precious over which metal (pun intended!) our weights are made out of so when we say steel it might be iron or some other metal based material.

Nice picture of my Rogue calibrated plate vs a bumper – both are great

Metal plates are usually cast in a mould which allows for a variety of shapes and sizes to be available, and they come in a variety of finishes – raw metal, simple coatings or paint, all the way through to rubber coatings or tougher “e-coats” which are less likely to corrode.

Some of the differentiators that are worth looking for when looking at steel plates are:

  • Finish – painted or another finish? Colour coded in line with IWF / IPF schemes or not?
  • Accuracy – calibrated plates run to +/- 10g (yes GRAMS!) with cheaper weights coming in within a few percentage points (or just not mentioning accuracy if they’re really cheap…) 
  • Design – lips and grips are what to keep an eye out for. I like the ‘six shooter’ design for handling in a gym but day-to-day I am using calibrated steel Rogue plates with a lip that makes grabbing them a bit easier.
  • Shape – circular and full diameter for 20kg / 25kg plates is pretty much a must. Flat edges / seven sided plates are grim.

Prices for iron plates are usually a little cheaper than bumpers, but it all comes down to specification. Again the more accurate and nicer finished steel plates will cost more than the sloppier ones. Where you sit on the value of these premium plates is up to you and your budget.

Conclusion

So we can conclude… Bumper plates are better than steel plates for MOST people, if you are happy to pay a bit more for the privilege.

A BAD bumper plate that is poorly made is NOT necessarily better than a GOOD iron plate though, particularly as the bond between the metal centre and the rubber can perish on cheaper bumper plates so try and buy from a reputable brand with warranty options to keep yourself covered.

Both steel and rubber weights are fantastic so you will not be disappointed if you go for steel plates as long as you have your eyes open to the pros and cons laid out above.

One word of caution – I would again suggest buying a reputable brand that will be around for the long term regardless of your choice between steel vs rubber plates as you WILL want to add more plates in the future and the ability to add matching plates one or two pairs at a time is AWESOME.

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