When it comes to basic weights, there are two types: the good old dumbbells and the (relatively) new kid in town, the kettlebells. Both have their merits, but the argument remains – which is better when it comes to getting results? Are kettlebells better than dumbbells?
If you were after a lengthy debate where I weigh-up the pro’s and cons of each and then give a final analysis and crown the winner on this one, then you’re going to be disappointed! Actually when all is said and done, a kettlebell is not better than a dumbbell, and it’s not worse either. Both are inanimate lumps of metal and are not, in themselves, special in any way, but how you use them is.
What’s The Difference Between A Kettlebell And A Dumbbell?
Kettlebells have grown in popularity over the last couple of decades as people have learnt to better understand how to use them. The kettlebell is designed to extend from the hand which allows for better control in full body workouts when compared to the dumbbell. Kettlebells are suited to exercises where strength and power are needed and you’ll often find them used in CrossFit and other resistance-based cardio as they have been proven to significantly improve cardiovascular health and performance.
Dumbbells on the other hand are typically used for more isolated movements suited to weight training. Whilst the weight of a kettlebell is offset and unbalanced providing more functional movement, dumbbells are balanced from end to end with a gripped surface and better for isolation movements like curls, front raises and military presses. Whilst you can use a dumbbell for more explosive movements (such as snatches or swings) they may not be as ideal for high repetition sets.
Let’s run through a few different scenarios as to when a kettlebell might be better to use than a dumbbell, and vice versa.
Explosive movements: Kettlebells
When it comes to dynamic explosive movements, kettlebells are your go-to. If your goal is powerlifting, or you’re competing in a sport that requires explosiveness (basketball, sprinting, CrossFit etc) then research suggests that kettlebells lead to greater gains. You’d typically choose kettlebells for exercises that recruit major muscle groups and involve lots of full-body movement such as snatches, windmills, cleans, and swings, to name a few.
Basic movements: Dumbbells
Dumbbells are great for little bits of everything. You can start with more basic movements like the shoulder press, chest press, row or squats (with dumbbells held at the shoulders) and the advantage is you’re not swinging the weight around like you typically would with a kettlebell in a snatch or swing – making the moves more straight-forward.
Adding variety to your workouts: Kettlebells
If you’re tired of doing the same old burpees or mountain climbers, try using kettlebells during a HIIT workout. They’re really easy to integrate into a workout finisher such as 30 to 60 seconds of swings to finish things off.
New to the gym: Dumbbells
Unless you have some experience of using kettlebells, it’s best to stick with dumbbells if you’re a newbie to working out at home or in the gym. In this instance dumbbells are the best choice for weight training unless you’re taking instruction from a personal trainer on how to integrate kettlebells into your workouts.
Improving your grip strength: Kettlebells
The handle of a kettlebell (referred to as the horn) is often thicker than a dumbbell so they can be ideal for improving your grip strength. For example a bent-over row performed with a kettlebell can strengthen the grip and help prep you for more challenging exercises such as pull-ups.
According to some past studies, basic weightlifting exercises performed with a dumbbell, such as power cleans and squats, when compared to dynamic moves with a kettlebell, led to much greater improvements in strength over a six-week period. So if your goal is general strength and fitness, sticking to dumbbells is fine as there’s likely no advantage to using kettlebells.
For an extra challenge: Kettlebells
Kettlebells provide increased instability when performing exercises due to the centre of gravity being moved between six to eight inches away from the hand, so you’re not only working to lift the weight, but to stabilise it too. Conversely, dumbbells provide more stability. Trainers tend to love kettlebells because of that instability and that they challenge your body more as you are not only moving the weight but working harder to try to stabilise it as you’re lifting. If you’re new to exercising, it’s best to start with dumbbells and work up to using kettlebells as you progress.
Weight progression: Dumbbells
You can easily make your workouts more challenging with a dumbbell and you don’t have to be constricted to using them in slow isolated push or pull movements. You could use them to perform hang cleans and squat cleans – both explosive movements – before upgrading to kettlebells. Also, kettlebells don’t come in as many small incremental weights like dumbbells and it may be tougher to find a good fit for you. Generally – especially when it comes to selectorised dumbbells you can buy for the home, or when you’re choosing from a dumbbell rack in the gym – you are provided with a greater selection of weight options. If you’re at the gym, these are usually stacked in five pound increments meaning it’s easy to move up in weight gradually.
So, are kettlebells better than dumbbells? As I said at the beginning, there really is no difference between them but the way in which you use them and how you incorporate them into your workout depending on your level of fitness and the results you’re trying to achieve.
Basically, make them work for you! If you’re a newbie, or looking to perform basic strength exercises, then pick up the dumbbell. If CrossFit or more explosive moves are better to help you achieve your goals, then grab a kettlebell. The takeaway from this is to choose which one works best with your exercise plan and fitness level, and always consult a certified instructor if you’re unsure or have any questions.
If you’re looking for a kettlebell workout that will have you burning fat, increasing endurance and gaining strength then take a look at my review on the Extreme Kettlebell Cardio Workout: Awaken the Athlete Within by Keith Weber – be warned though, it’s not for the faint-hearted!