When you’re lifting free weights, two of the most popular implements used in strength training workouts are dumbbells and kettlebells.
But, which is better for your workouts and specific fitness goals, dumbbells or kettlebells? What are the main differences between dumbbells vs kettlebells, and why does it matter? Keep reading to find out!
In this guide, we will cover:
- The Differences Between Dumbbells and Kettlebells
- Benefits of Dumbbells vs Kettlebells
- Benefits of Kettlebells vs Dumbbells
- Should You Use Dumbbells or Kettlebells?
Let’s jump in!
The Differences Between Dumbbells and Kettlebells
Before we delve into the pros and cons of using dumbbells vs kettlebells and vice versa, it’s helpful to quickly explain the primary differences between them.
Both dumbbells and kettlebells are weighted implements that are used for a variety of resistance training exercises for all of the major muscle groups in the body.
However, the shape and design of dumbbells vs kettlebells differ, ultimately affecting how each of these training tools feels and is used.
With dumbbells, there is a central straight handlebar with the weight evenly distributed on both sides of the dumbbell, and the handle is designed to only be used with one hand.
Within the category of dumbbells, there are a variety of shapes and materials used to construct the weight. For example, hex dumbbells have hexagonal caps for the weight on either end of the handlebar.
This prevents the dumbbell from rolling when it is on the ground. Other dumbbells have round discs for the weight on either side of the handlebar.
In terms of materials, some dumbbells are constructed entirely from cast iron with a metal finish, whereas some use urethane or rubber to coat the entire weight, including the handle or just the weights on either side of the handlebar.
The design of a kettlebell also has a handle and a weight, but it looks more like a cannonball with a flattened bottom and a horseshoe-shaped handle protruding from the top of the “bell.”
This changes the weight distribution of this implement because the bulk of the weight is centrally located directly under the handle rather than evenly across both sides of it.
Moreover, the rounded, horseshoe-shaped handle can accommodate one or both hands, as many kettlebell exercises do involve holding just a single kettlebell with both hands together.
Typically, the kettlebell is held such that the weighted bell portion hangs below the handle, but there are kettlebell exercises, such as overhead presses or Turkish get-ups, where you invert the weight.
Kettlebells are almost always constructed of cast iron, and although certainly not always true, the majority of kettlebells come in kilogram-based weights.
Ultimately, the different design of a kettlebell vs dumbbell affects how each type of weight feels when you are performing an exercise because the center of gravity shifts differently throughout the range of motion.
This, in turn, alters the strength curve of the exercise, which refers to how the difficulty of an exercise changes throughout the range of motion of the movement.
In other words, each implement will challenge the muscles and joints somewhat differently throughout the execution of the movement range.
Benefits of Dumbbells vs Kettlebells
There are certain benefits of dumbbells vs kettlebells.
From a practical standpoint, dumbbells are much more readily available at most gyms and are less expensive if you are looking to buy your own strength training equipment for home workouts.
You can save money by purchasing them in sets or buying a pair of adjustable dumbbells to allow for a wide variety of resistances within a single unit.
Dumbbells tend to be best for beginners because they are more intuitive to use, easy to hold, and can be used for quite a variety of basic unilateral and bilateral strength training exercises that are found in most beginner strength training programs.
In most cases, if you are interested in doing bilateral exercises—performing the same exercise on both sides of your body simultaneously, such as biceps curls or overhead presses— using dumbbells is better than using kettlebells because many gyms or home users will only have one kettlebell of a given weight.
For this reason, dumbbell training can be more time efficient and approachable for novices who might not yet have the core strength, balance, and stability to perform every exercise safely as a unilateral movement.
Additionally, dumbbells are typically found in more weights, with smaller increments between each pair of dumbbells, allowing you to gradually progress the load that you are using as you get stronger.
Although kettlebells do come in different weights as well, because they are more expensive and often come in a limited number of weight options from a given manufacturer, the jump between a lighter kettlebell and the next heavier one might be too significant to transition at the same rate that your strength is increasing.
Dumbbells also provide more stability and predictability in terms of how they will move and how easy it is to control them throughout the range of motion of a given exercise.
Benefits of Kettlebells vs Dumbbells
There are also benefits of using kettlebells vs dumbbells.
In general, kettlebells add variety to a workout routine because the unique design and weight distribution of the implement allow it to be used for dynamic, metabolic exercises such as kettlebell swings and cleans and snatches.
In general, many of the common kettlebell exercises can be considered functional movements because they translate more closely to actual movement patterns used in everyday life than many of the common dumbbell exercises like standing lateral raises or dumbbell tricep extensions.
Kettlebell training may also improve athletic performance more effectively than dumbbell workouts because the dynamic, multi-planar movement patterns of some of the most common kettlebell exercises better replicate the physiological and biomechanical demands of sports and physical activities.
Studies have found that the kettlebell swing exercise is a highly effective movement for improving functional strength and decreasing the risk of low back pain.
The uneven weight distribution challenges your balance and core stability and requires the activation of smaller stabilizer muscles when you are performing basic strength training movements.
Although both dumbbells and kettlebells can improve strength, kettlebells tend to be particularly effective in this regard because the weight is often swung around or wielded with some amount of velocity, requiring you to have a firm grip to control a kettlebell.
Grip strength is not only helpful for improving the maximum loads you can lift for strength training exercises like deadlifts, biceps curls, and farmer carries, but it also has functional applications in everyday life, such as opening jars with ease or carrying luggage or grocery bags.
Although beginners can use kettlebells safely and effectively with proper training, kettlebells can be a great training tool for more advanced athletes looking to take their fitness to the next level.
For example, kettlebell exercises are quite common in CrossFit training because they can be used for challenging exercises that combine a cardio and strengthening component in one.
Should You Use Dumbbells or Kettlebells?
Due to the differences in the strength curve and muscle activation for an exercise using dumbbells vs kettlebells, whether it’s better to use dumbbells vs kettlebells or kettlebells vs dumbbells primarily depends on your strength training goals and the exercises you plan to perform.
For example, when considering muscle activation, one study found that performing a seated dumbbell overhead press induced greater activation of the anterior deltoid muscle in the shoulder than when the same exercise with the same load was performed with a kettlebell.
However, this was the only muscle that the researchers were looking at during the study, so it’s not possible to draw conclusions about the activation of stabilizer muscles during these movements.
On the other hand, if you are looking to increase your power, which refers to your ability to explosively and rapidly develop force, kettlebell training may be superior to dumbbell exercises.
It is definitely possible to increase power with both, but many of the exercises that are more conducive to using kettlebells, such as kettlebell swings, cleans and jerks, and kettlebell snatches, are naturally geared toward building explosive strength and power.
Indeed, one study found that kettlebell swings were an effective means for improving maximal strength production and power.
Similarly, the dynamic nature of many of these kettlebell exercises can provide more of a cardio workout. Research has even found that kettlebell HIIT workouts can be as effective as sprinting HIIT workouts while also being more sustainable.
Overall, while there are certain distinct advantages of dumbbells vs kettlebells and kettlebells vs dumbbells, using either form of resistance in your strength training program can be a highly effective way to increase your strength, build muscle, improve your body composition, and develop more power.
Incorporating both kettlebells and dumbbells into your workout routine is the best way to capitalize on the unique benefits of each training tool while adding variety to your fitness routine to become a more well-rounded athlete.
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