Every lifter’s been there at some point: the increment between weights for your dumbbells, barbell or cable stack is too big, leaving you with an unpleasant choice. Just like in the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, you can either go too light or too heavy. What you really need to make the workout just right is to add weights.
But you need those weights to be smaller than what’s usually on offer in a gym.
This problem presents itself in a few different ways. You may find you’re simply incapable of going up to the next highest option, which frequently happens to women on upper body work.
For example, you can easily do bicep curls with the 15-pound dumbbells, but 20 pounds is just too much. Or you can bench 50 kg at RPE 9, but 52.5 won’t budge.
Or, you may be working with a program that uses percentages, and the weight programmed falls in between the available options.
Yes, you could just do more reps at a lower weight instead of going up in weight. Yes, you could round up or down on your percentages. Both solutions often work well.
Still, sometimes you really want to increase the weight, not the volume. And sometimes you want to be precise about your percentages.
But how can you add weight to dumbbells or kettlebells? Or add weight to a barbell that’s smaller (say, a pound or a kilo) than the minimum five pounds/2.5 kg possible using the smallest standard plates?
Regardless of whether you’re using barbells, dumbbells, or cable stacks, there are ways to add weight in smaller-than-standard units so you can get the load closer to that exact number you have in mind.
Newer lifters usually don’t know about some of these (and sometimes even experienced lifters—I was a few years into my strength journey before I learned some of what I’m going to share here).
Add weight to barbells
Standard plates for barbells typically only go down to 2.5 lbs/1.25 kg. That means the least you can increase the weight using those plates is 5 lbs/2.5 kgs.
In most cases that’s low enough. But not always. This is especially true in the bench press, where increasing weight by even 5 lbs/2.5 kg can absolutely make the difference in getting the lift or not.
The answer? Get a set of fractional plates or “change plates” (that term is mostly used in Olympic lifting).
There are lots of versions/brands of these. Mine (pictured here) are Serious Steel, and come in a set that includes 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1-lb plates. This means I can add weight as low as half a pound to the bar.
Fractional plates come in kilos as well, but typically the smallest weight is 0.25 kg (just over half a pound).
I find these useful for rounding up my barbell too; my power bar and deadlift bar are both 20kg, which means they’re 44 lbs, not 45. Call me uptight, but if I say I’m lifting 200 pounds, I want it to actually BE 200, not 199.
In my humble opinion, every gym should have at least one set of fractional or change plates, but in my experience, most don’t—at least, not most commercial gyms—so if you don’t have a home gym, you’ll probably need to purchase a set yourself and bring them to the gym when needed. But they’re a very worthwhile investment if you can manage it.
Add weight to dumbbells and kettlebells
While closed plates like those discussed above work great on barbells, they obviously can’t be added to a dumbbell or kettlebell. So how do you add weight to dumbbells or kettlebells?
Enter the fractional dumbbell plate, also called dumbbell add-on weights.
These are similar to the fractional barbell plates/change plates described above, but they either have a permanent opening or they open and close.
Mine (shown here) are MicroGainz, which have a spring mechanism to open for placement and then tighten on the handle.
There are also magnetic weights for dumbbells like PlateMates, which I’ve never used personally. An obvious downside of these is that you can’t use them on rubber- or plastic-coated dumbbells. And they explicitly say not to use them with kettlebells.
However, I would assume (and their instructions suggest) that you can attach these to barbell plates too, which would make them quite efficient if you primarily use iron dumbbells and plates because you can use them for both barbell and dumbbell training.
The cable stack hack
I only learned this hack three or so years into my strength training journey, and when I did I had a true facepalm moment. How did I not think of this myself, or know that it was a thing??!
But I didn’t. Someone needed to tell me about it. So I’m telling you.
Some cable stacks allow you to add weight with rectangular rubber or plastic bars, which you may see hanging next to the stack or lying on the floor next to it.
However, I find that many gyms I visit don’t have any of these—or, if they do, they don’t actually fit on the stack because they’re random plates from some other set.
And sometimes, even if it fits the stack, the add-on plate (typically a minimum of five pounds) is too heavy. For example, I’ve currently got sets of 15 very slow triceps pushdowns in my program. Depending on which stack I’m using, I can manage somewhere between 10-30 lbs on these (the difference in cable tension and weight from stack to stack can be remarkable, but that’s a topic for another day). At the lower end of that range, I might want to add 2.5 lbs, but 5 is too much.
Put a pin in it!
Enter the hack shown here: if the pin will allow it, hang a 2.5-lb or 5-lb plate on it (or, if you’re lifting enough to allow it, you can stick a second pin into a higher hole in the stack and hang the plate on that).
If you want to add a plate larger than five pounds, you’ll probably need to find a sturdier pin to use. (You can actually purchase one—Google “gym pin”—and throw it in your gym bag so it’s there when you need it.)
Just remember that, depending on the stack, the plate may interfere with the motion of the stack, be noisy, or even a little precarious and prone to falling off, so do your reps with care. This tends to be less of a problem with slow tempo work, but if you’re doing faster reps, be careful and make sure no one (including you!) is standing too close to the stack. You don’t want the plate to fall and break something or hurt you or someone else.
What works for you?
Have you come up with a different solution to the Goldlocks problem? Used any brands of fractional plates that you love or hate? Have a great equipment or gym hack that could benefit other lifters? Share it in the comments below!