When you’re prepared to power through a round of demanding goblet squats or single-arm chest presses in a crowded gym, you might grab the initial weight you can obtain with your perspiring hands – regardless of whether it’s a kettlebell or a dumbbell. And if you’re getting in shape from home, you might find yourself limited to using only one kind of weight for every single workout.
But does the type of weight you use for strength-building exercises truly make a difference? Here, fitness experts break down the significant distinctions between kettlebells and dumbbells, when each weight is most advantageous, and whether you should integrate both tools into your routine.
The Contrasts Between Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell: Weight Distribution
Due to their distinct shapes, kettlebells and dumbbells possess different weight distributions, as stated by Allison Tenney, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with an RKC kettlebell certification in Austin, Texas. A kettlebell resembles a bell, with a flattened ball on one end and a curved handle on the other. Therefore, its weight is concentrated directly beneath the handle. Conversely, a dumbbell consists of a straight handle with equally sized weights on both ends, resulting in even weight distribution, according to Tenney. As a result, a kettlebell inherently offers less stability compared to a dumbbell, necessitating greater effort from your body to maintain balance.
This structural distinction is what gives kettlebells a slight advantage over dumbbells when it comes to enhancing one’s own stability, explains Tenney. In case you didn’t know, stability refers to the control of a joint’s movement or position. If your stability is limited, you may compromise your form while performing complex exercises, increasing the risk of injury or muscular imbalances, as indicated by information published by the American Council on Exercise.
Let’s consider a shoulder press: When executing the exercise with a kettlebell, you’ll initiate in a racked position, gripping the handle with your elbow tucked by your side, and the bell positioned on the outer side of your forearm at shoulder level. As you press the kettlebell towards the ceiling, the bell’s weight will try to pull your arm out of alignment and away from your body. Consequently, your core and arm muscles will need to exert extra effort to maintain proper form and joint stability, according to Prentiss Rhodes, a NASM-certified personal trainer and performance enhancement specialist, as mentioned previously in Shape. Additionally, the stabilizer muscles in your arm will be activated to ensure your wrist remains in a neutral position throughout the entire movement, adds Tenney.
Since a weightlift with that uniformly distributed mass, it’s inherently more steady than a kettlebell, so you can execute more repetitions with less exertion from your supporting muscles, she clarifies.
Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell: Handle Shapes and Range of Motion
Another significant contrast between kettlebells and dumbbells is their handles — the form and how that affects your movement patterns. Since the handle of a kettlebell is positioned above the weight, it can accommodate two hands when held on the outside or inside (imagine placing your hands in the empty space between the bell and the handle), while a dumbbell usually only allows for one hand, according to Tenney.
These distinctions become particularly important when considering the power and range of motion you can achieve during specific exercises. The handle of a kettlebell, combined with its uneven weight distribution, makes it perfect for ballistic exercises like kettlebell swings, cleans, and snatches, states Tenney. In a kettlebell swing, for instance, you will explosively swing the weight using either one or both hands, creating a large arc of motion from the floor to eye level. This motion helps build power, as revealed in research published in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (NAJSPT). As the weight descends back to the starting position due to gravity, the muscles in your lower and upper body, as well as your core, engage to slow down the movement, transforming this exercise into a full-body motion that strengthens multiple muscle groups.
While a dumbbell can also be used for swinging motions, it may not be as effective or comfortable because of its equal weight distribution and straight handle, as mentioned in the NAJSPT research. In simple terms, “the shape and weight distribution of the kettlebell will generally allow for a more smooth and safer motion,” adds Tim Kim, C.P.T., a certified functional strength coach and Equinox Tier 3 Trainer.
When to Use Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells In a Workout
To determine which strength-building tool to incorporate into your workout, Tenney suggests considering the specific goal of the exercise at hand: Is it strength, stability, or power?
For instance, while you can definitely build strength using kettlebells, if the aim is to increase strength and perform more repetitions, it is generally more advisable to choose dumbbells due to their stability, explains Tenney. Similarly, dumbbells can be effective tools for building power and engaging in ballistic exercises, but overall, choosing a kettlebell will likely be more advantageous because it allows for a greater range of motion and a secure grip on the handle while moving dynamically. It’s also important to think about which muscles you want to target. If your goal is to focus on the stabilizer muscles, a kettlebell might be a better choice, according to Tenney.
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The Verdict On Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
When it comes to determining which tool is best for your workout, your experience with strength training can be a useful factor, according to Kim. As a trainer, he finds that beginners often have an easier time learning how to use a dumbbell compared to a kettlebell. This is because the kettlebell has uneven weight distribution and a unique shape. On the other hand, Tenney mentions that if clients are interested in Olympic weightlifting or a similar training style that involves a barbell, she typically starts them off with kettlebells. She explains that when it comes to exercises like snatches and cleans, which are more traditional power exercises, it’s beneficial to learn the mechanics with kettlebells before moving on to Olympic weightlifting. Using a dumbbell for these movements can make it a bit harder to grasp those mechanics.
The Bottom Line On Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
In the ongoing debate between kettlebells and dumbbells, there is no clear winner. According to Kim, it is entirely possible to perform the same exercises using either tool (yes, you can still swing a dumbbell). With proper knowledge and understanding of exercise selection, you can achieve similar results with both. For instance, if you want to perform a kettlebell swing without a kettlebell, Tenney suggests holding one end of a dumbbell with both hands instead of gripping onto the straight handle.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that both types of weights have their own advantages. This is why Tenney recommends incorporating both kettlebells and dumbbells into your strength-training routine. By finding ways to infuse the dumbbell into a program that primarily uses kettlebells, you can reap the benefits of both. Having a variety of tools in your training toolbox makes the whole experience more enjoyable.