Review: Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells

I was looking at Bowflex's "SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells" before the pandemic, but the price tag made me hesitant. During the pandemic the price skyrocketed, as people bought every form of exercise equipment they could lay hands on. If you could find the Bowflex dumbbells at all, they were commonly $400 for a single (instead of the pre-pandemic price of $400/pair). There were also lots of knock-offs circulating, again at $350-$400 for a single. I gave the idea up. But last month the Bowflexs resurfaced at Best Buy for $450 for a pair. I'd made up my mind by then and jumped on the opportunity. (I may have got lucky - Amazon's prices seem to still be sky-high.)

Let's take a look at them, and see what you can and can't do with them.

photo: Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells - fresh out of the box, still with the shipping straps on

somewhat complicated adjustable dumbbells each with number dials on both ends

First off, each dumbbell lives in its own big ugly plastic tray. And this isn't an option, because when you lift the dumbbell out with anything less than the maximum weight (52.5 lb.), it leaves behind some of the plates and they have to be held upright and in the right position. The next thing I noticed was something I'd been warned about by other reviews: the spindles are quite long, and that limits your range of motion in some exercises (at least shoulder press and chest press, probably others). For comparison, my fixed 30 lb. dumbbells are 29cm in length, my twist-lock dumbbell spindles are 35cm, and the Bowflex are 42cm (see the second photo). It's not a lot, but you'll notice. And you probably shouldn't crash the ends of the dumbbells together as the Bowflex has the setting mechanisms on the ends.

This brings us to another thing you shouldn't do with them: you can't drop them. At the gym, a lot of people exhaust themselves with a tough set and then just drop the dumbbells on the gym's padded floor at the end of the set. Do that to these items and they'll stop working in short order. They're heavily built, but it's a complex mechanism that wouldn't do well with significant mis-treatment.

Another weird thing about these is that rotational orientation suddenly becomes very important. Bowflex knows this, so there's a huge red band on one side of the spindle that's effectively a "THIS SIDE UP" warning. If the dumbbells rotate in your hands while you're working out (I don't find this to be much of a problem) you'll have to rotate them back before putting them back in the tray.

Putting the dumbbells back is another odd issue. Just as you can't drop them on the floor, you have to put them back into the tray with some precision. Think about that: you've just deliberately exhausted a muscle group, you're holding two 40 lb. dumbbells, and you're being asked to put them back with precision? This can be tricky. On the plus side, the dumbbells can be placed on any flat surface when they're out of the tray, so you don't have to put them back right away.

What this all adds up to is that these things are very fragile compared to most other forms of dumbbell. For me this isn't a huge deal as I'm usually careful with my gear - but it's odd to have to think about dumbbells that way.

Another consideration: they don't come with any kind of stand. Bowflex sells one, and it looks very good, but I didn't buy it (it's around $200CA). I have instead sacrificed a chair so that when I'm picking up a pair of dumbbells I don't have to do it from the floor. Getting these off the floor at the higher weights would be a real pain.

I've given you a stack of negatives, but let me wrap this up with the positives: they replace five or six dumbbells. Bowflex would claim they replace 11 dumbbells (5 pound, 7.5, 10, 12.5, 15, 17.5, 20, 22.5, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 52.5), and this is technically true, but no one other than a gym would have that many sets around. But no matter how you look at it, it's a huge space savings. Having said that no one would have all those different weights around, it's also really handy having the relatively fine gradations of weight available.

The adjustment mechanism is mildly annoying in that you have to adjust both ends of both spindles every time you want to change weights, but it works quickly and smoothly. And especially if you compare this with trying to manoeuvre plates onto or off twist-off spindles ... this is a huge win.

I can't give you a perspective on the long-term durability of these things, having only owned them a couple weeks. But from what I can see, I'm fairly impressed with the overall build quality and am hopeful for them continuing to work well.

In the end yes, they're expensive, and there are compromises to make this system work, but I'm very happy with them and would recommend them given the listed caveats.

photo: Size comparison, and a better view of the mechanical plate juggling

adjustable dumbbells set to 25 lb., sitting next to the tray with the remaining plates, with a 30 lb. standard dumbbell and a twist-on dumbbell spindle (both smaller) for size comparison.

One amusing thing this blog entry has pointed out is that I had no tags for "Exercise," "Health" (newly created), or "Sport." Although I do have entries for "Sepak Takraw" and "Olympics." This despite the fact that I've been working out routinely for decades - I guess it's a given in my life I don't talk about all that much.