On lucky days, my friend Andrew drops a dumbbell alert in my Slack group chat. He tells us which sites — Rogue, SPRI, NordicTrack, Bowflex — have them in stock, which are shipping, and what kinds of weights are available. If you get to his messages five minutes late, the weights are almost always sold out.
“Finding dumbbells that deliver within a reasonable time (less than a month) is like trying to acquire concert tickets for a pop legend without ever knowing when the tickets go on sale,” Andrew told me. “I checked in up to five times a day on my most reliable sites, hoping that I would get lucky that two dumbbells in the weight I want will be available.”
Dumbbells, like Nintendo Switches, yeast, and bidets, are one of those things that have become extremely popular during the pandemic and extremely hard to find. People are spending more and more time at home and they’re buying things that they never needed or possibly wanted before. The sudden surge in demand has created shortages of the most seemingly disparate things.
There’s also a shortage of knowledge because so many of us are first-time buyers. Gyms made these decisions for us. Trying to buy them now includes questions not just pertaining to the weight, but also shape, material, and which companies to purchase from and which to avoid — a dumbbell can go for $40 or $150 depending on where you’re purchasing it. Friends like Andrew, who have done the research and the work, are godsends. Their recommendations are valuable and trustworthy.
For gym-goers, obtaining your own weights and working out from home had always been a possibility. But justifying the purchase was hard, especially with the rise of gyms and boutique fitness studios.
The pandemic swung the pendulum the other way — so much that it’s hard to rationalize going back before a vaccine is created. Depending on where you live, gyms may not be open (which has led to the rise of “speakeasy” gyms), and disconcerting research shows that they are looking more and more like coronavirus hot zones. Working out from home with dumbbells — for one reason or another — is looking more and more like the future of fitness. Just as soon as you can get your hands on some.
America’s dumbbell shortage is what happens when huge demand collides with a broken supply chain
“March 15th and 16th — that was kind of the weekend that America changed,” Colleen Logan, the vice president of marketing at Icon Health & Fitness, the family of fitness brands that includes NordicTrack, told me. “We started seeing crazy, crazy sales every day. We finished March 200 percent higher than March of 2019. We finished April 400 percent higher in sales versus 2019. We finished May 600 percent higher than our sales in 2019.”
Bowflex, which I still remember from my childhood for that commercial, saw an astronomical rise in its sales, too.
“The second quarter of 2020 was one of the strongest quarters ever for our company; highlighted by record sales. Net sales increased 94 percent to $114 million compared to the same period last year,” said John Fread, director of global marketing communications at Nautilus Inc.
Those numbers are staggering, but Logan and Fread said that once the pandemic hit, that kind of demand could be expected.
Gyms were shut down, and people who were into fitness began purchasing home equipment. Logan said her company had already seen spikes in sales and app usage following closures and lockdowns in countries like Italy and China. Peloton and Bowflex, like NordicTrack and the Icon brands, saw a massive sustained increase in sales, too.
Boutique fitness companies saw that wave as well, although it looked a little different. Barry’s (formerly known as Barry’s Bootcamp) responded by offering online classes at home where you could opt for bodyweight, resistance bands, or weighted classes.
Fitness professionals like Charlee Atkins, a trainer and founder of her fitness company Le Sweat, were probably best-equipped for the shortage. Atkins was teaching workouts from home before the pandemic and was producing workout content for her exercise app. Weights were a necessity for her job. But even she found herself searching for more options.
“Luckily, I had a set of Bowflex adjustable dumbbells going into quarantine, but I still found myself needing more options over the last few months,” Atkins told me. “I recently ordered a few kettlebells from Rogue after scouring their site every day.”
While one could ostensibly use jugs of water or books in a backpack as dumbbell alternatives, you’d probably, with consistent workouts, get strong enough that you’d need heavier and heavier things. That’s the goal.
“The way we build muscle is by overloading the body enough to stimulate muscle breakdown and growth,” Atkins said. “You can overload the body with bodyweight, but at some point you are going to have to add more.”
But that colossal increase in demand from home fitness enthusiasts is just one side of the shortage.
Logan explained that over on the supply side of the shortage there was actually a two-fold problem. The first layer is that dumbbells are a small fraction of the consumer dollar share of exercise equipment sold for home use; treadmills, which are priced much higher, are still the biggest sellers, in both numbers and revenue. According to a 2019 report from the National Sporting Goods Association, around 3.9 million units of free weights were sold in 2018 compared to 5.2 million motorized treadmills.
In an average year, those sales usually start in the fall, hit their peak with January’s New Year’s resolutions, then taper off as it gets warmer and people are more likely to venture outside or go back to the gym. 2020 wasn’t an average year. And store inventories were not at all equipped for such a massive surge in demand.
Ramping up production wasn’t simple, however, for one reason: 95 percent of the world’s dumbbells are made in China, Atkins said. To curb the virus spread, China instituted strict lockdowns from January to April; highways and public transportation were shut down, which affected manufacturing supply chains.
“The factories couldn’t open,” Logan said, explaining that the shutdowns affected more than 35 million residents in China in January and would affect global supply chains because workers couldn’t come in. Even if retailers got orders in at the turn of the New Year, there wasn’t anyone to make the dumbbells. By the time the first wave of Americans were ordering weights for their lockdown workouts, they were already out of luck.
“It takes a month or so to get the products made and get them to the port,” Logan continued. “Then it goes from China to the United States” — landing, she says in Long Beach, California — “and then if they’re going to the East Coast they have to go through the Panama Canal.”
Once weights do get to America, ports, too, are subject to lockdowns and social distancing, adding even more delays. The weights, through their shipping delays and lockdowns, seemingly complete a March of the Penguins-like migration.
“We had to triple our capacity for the second half of this year and have spent the last few months seeking out new factories to work with,” Fread said. “For reference, it can take up to months — if not longer — to ramp up a new factory. Globally, product demand continues at a high level, so we’re constantly making changes to our operations to deliver products as fast as possible.”
It’s August now and fitness equipment companies like Rogue Fitness and SPRI still don’t have a full stock of dumbbells. SPRI is sold out of all dumbbells above 30 pounds while Rogue doesn’t have any under 95. Dick’s Sporting Goods, Modell’s, and Big Five all have low to zero availability and aren’t shipping their weights. They’re scarce on Amazon, too, with some shipping in the middle of next month via Prime. EBay has a supply, but they’re marked up — a 15-pound pair on eBay is currently selling for $169; on Rogue Fitness a similar set sells for just under $40 (when they are in stock).
The pandemic has brought the fitness industry to your home
The dumbbell and exercise Slack I have with my friends isn’t just about alerting when those sites have stock, it also where we can pool reviews and ask and answer questions. We talk about online classes that we’re taking, who our favorite instructors are, and whether or not we like recent purchases like a new pair of shorts or my Peloton.
“The thing about all this for me is learning and thinking more about dumbbells than ever before,” friend of Vox.com, Eater social media manager, burgeoning fitnessphile, and Slack participant Adam Moussa told me. “Dumbbells were a thing I would pick up at the gym and they were simple. But now it’s like, “Do I need hexagonal? Rubber-covered? Is concrete covered in silicone just as good? What the fuck is an adjustable dumbbell set and why is it $4,000?”
To answer his question, an adjustable dumbbell set is a fitness holy grail. It’s a pair of dumbbells that, thanks to fasteners and switches, can be as light as 10 pounds or as heavy as 55, depending on the brand. The 10-55 range is NordicTrack’s set. The appeal is that you don’t have to spend money on every incremental set of weights between 10 pounds and 55 pounds, and they take up much less space. Living in a New York City-sized apartment and only possessing two pairs of weights — a set of 25s for arms and 50s for legs and chest — having a range of weights would be a luxury. Retailing for $599 and shipping within a week or so, adjustable dumbbells are definitely that.
That’s pricey. But in the context of replacing a gym membership or fitness classes, the cost of adjustable dumbbells could quickly equal or exceed those expenses if that’s where your money used to go. But even casual gym-goers might be able to justify the spend since weights at home are the only option when gyms aren’t open.
“When it comes to at-home workouts, initially people are looking for bodyweight routines or ones that include a small piece of equipment, such as resistance bands,” Atkins, the trainer and fitness company founder, said. “You have to progress the workout at some point.” She says that after people take her heavyweight class using dumbbells heavier than 10 pounds regularly, “they always say, ‘I’ve gotta get heavier weights, I didn’t realize how strong I’ve gotten!’”
Since the pandemic and shutdowns began, Atkins has built out her app and her workouts to keep up with the demand. Trainers like Atkins, who offer classes on Zoom or Instagram Live or on apps, were better-equipped for the new reality. Same goes for companies like Barry’s, which offered and continues to offer at-home classes. And in its own way, the pandemic accelerated the trend of home, virtual, or online classes.
“I would say the people that are exercising are exercising at home more,” Atkins told me. “I think many people are starting to realize how much you can do from home with minimal equipment, space, and time.”
As Atkins points out, lockdowns have eliminated a lot of the time we were spending outside of the house. Not being able to go to a restaurant or a movie or, yes, even the gym means more time spent at home — a huge reason why home improvement and hardware stores are seeing a rise in sales and traffic.
Gym-goers finally had a reason to make an exercise equipment purchase. And for companies like NordicTrack and Bowflex, the sheer magnitude of the demand and the spirit behind it took them by surprise.
The demand for exercise equipment doesn’t surprise Logan and her team when it comes to regular gym-goers, but, she says, “What’s really great is that we’ve seen that all of a sudden a bunch of people who maybe hadn’t prioritized exercise in their lives, for whatever reason, now are taking it up.”
Logan, Fread, and Atkins believe that the pandemic has swung the pendulum toward working out from home. Home workouts are here to stay, and because of that people will continue to lift weights, spin, run, and everything in between in their living rooms.
But there’s a lingering question that isn’t far from the one I terribly misgauged in March, which is: How long does this last? As gyms and studios open up — New York City announced gyms could start opening on August 24 as long as they adhere to new safety protocols — will people feel safe going back?
In June 2020, a OnePoll survey found that one in four of the 2,000 gym-goers asked do not plan to return to the gym even after the pandemic ends. Similarly, a Morning Consult poll for the week of August 17 found only 14 percent of respondents said they would feel comfortable going to the gym in the next month.
“When the dust settled, I had spent $450 on six weights,” Khalid El Khatib, a friend and fellow Slack group dumbbell shopper, told me. “But I don’t regret it. Even as gyms reopen, I’m going to stay extra safe by staying home to lift.”
Lifting weights at home to stay safe and in shape feels different from working out surrounded by people, but there are some things that don’t change. “I’ll keep taking ‘gym selfies’ in front of my own mirror,” Khalid said. He doesn’t even have to wear a mask.
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