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When buying a weight set, there are a number of things to take into consideration: durability, size, portability, maximum weight, comfort and price. These sets may range from the very cheap, which can only accommodate a small scale of weight, to ornate sets made of the highest-quality metals with easily customizable weight amounts.
One of the first things to look at in a weight set is how long you want it to last and how durable it is. There are a number of cheaper, plastic sets available, filled with sand or some other material for weight. While this offers its own advantages, it will undoubtedly wear over time and eventually become unusable. In contrast, a traditional set of cast iron weights will last as long as you do and take any abuse you dish out on it.
Size may also be an important factor to consider in the purchase of a weight set. If size is not an issue and you want fully-functional weights, one of the hybrid machine-free weight sets might be an ideal purchase. While this takes up a large amount of permanent floor-space, it also offers the chance to work a wide range of muscle groups and to switch freely between machine-weights and free-weights. If, on the other hand, size is very important, you may consider a set of adjustable or plastic dumbbells, which can easily fit in a suitcase or beneath a bed.
Portability is another consideration, particularly for those who want to bring their weight set with them when they travel. For most people, the only thing manageable to travel with is a set of dumbbells. Dumbbells, however, can be quite heavy to carry around with you for any large distance. Dumbbell systems do exist, however, which attempt to solve this problem with a removable ballast. These dumbbells tend to be hollow rigid plastic forms, which can be filled with sand or water upon arriving at your location. This makes them light to travel with, but able to be weighted up once you're ready to lift. This type of weight set, however, is not very durable and should not be expected to last more than a few years.
The flexibility of weight that a weight set can accommodate is another thing to look at. Most barbell systems allow for additional weight to be added, and extra iron plates can be purchased if more weight is needed than that included in the set. Many dumbbells are of a fixed weight, but adjustable dumbbell systems are available for a slightly higher cost. These dumbbells are ideal for those who want to build muscle through single-arm exercises, but don't have room for fifty dumbbells of differing weights.
Traditionally, most weight sets were very uncomfortable, with either smooth iron which could slip when wet, or textured iron or chrome which over time could wear away at skin. Nowadays, there are many alternatives to wearing gloves or just dealing with the abrasion. Many weights now have rubberized grips that allow for a very secure hold while being softer on your palms than metal.
Lastly, price is always a factor in buying a weight set. Simple dumbbell sets can range from US$20 to US$70, barbells from US$30 to US$250, and full bench systems from US$200 to thousands of dollars for higher-end machine-weight systems. A cheaper set is often just as durable as a more expensive set, but with less frills and customization potential. It is therefore important to decide what features you will need with your weight set and choose the most affordable and appealing set that fits your needs.
@helene55, I agree. I have a nice metal weight set at home that I use regularly, and when I travel I try to make do with exercises that don't require weight- like push ups- and finding new things to lift or carry, like bottles or even chairs, to give myself new workouts. As long as you make yourself do something when you travel, it can help break you out of a rut without being derailed.
Admittedly, if I traveled every week, like some people do, I might invest in a travel set anyway.
While the empty weight sets mentioned here are convenient, there are also much more old-fashioned solutions for this, such as traveling with empty bottles that can be filled with water, or lifting books, cans of food, or whatever else you can find when you get to your location, though this is of course much less accurate. At the same time, I find this need to problem-solve to be a nice challenge for myself when I go somewhere new, and would rather do that than worry about maintaining a "travel" weight set that might not last very long.