When it comes to working out, finding the best equipment for your training, individual biomechanics, and reaching your goals can be quite confusing. Of course, the type of equipment you choose will depend on your chosen exercise and your goal. When it comes to exercises that allow for more balance and core control, some may levitate toward dumbbells and kettlebells more (especially when the gym is crowded as they are more accessible). But how do you choose between the two? Let’s first break down the difference between the two and what exercises may provide better results.
What is a Kettlebell?
In the last 20 years, kettlebells have increased in popularity in the United States. The kettlebell was designed so that the center of mass extends beyond the hand. This implementation allows for better full-body movements, like kettlebell swings and a clean and jerk. This allows an individual focus not only on strength but also on power, which is essential for athletic performance.
Common kettlebell exercises include the clean and press, snatch, goblet squat, kettlebell swings, and the Turkish get-up. You can see these movements in almost any program from CrossFit to bodybuilding. It is a simple, yet comprehensive, training method that beginners to advanced lifters can utilize.
As research expands on kettlebell workouts and movement patterns, studies show the possible benefits on strength and power.. Several studies have suggested that kettlebell training could help improve cardiovascular performance. One study conducted by Farrar et. al. (2010), examined the %VO2 max from a single kettlebell swing workout of 12 minutes, being monitored by a metabolic cart and while wearing a heart rate monitor. Participants in the study kept their hear rate around 65% of their max during the workout. This study showed that even a 12 minute kettlebell swing workout can be sufficient enough to improve cardiovascular fitness.
Common Kettlebell Movements
Although most, if not all, exercises can be adjusted and adapted with the use of a kettlebell, the most common exercises are:
- Kettlebell swings (single/double arm)
- Kettlebell clean and jerk
- Kettlebell thrusters
- Kettlebell overhead press (single/double arm)
- Kettlebell squat (wide, narrow, elevated, goblet)
- Kettlebell deadlift (straight leg, sumo, single-leg, romanian, good morning)
- Kettlebell lunge (side, reverse, forward, pulse, walking)
- Kettlebell row (bent over, single arm)
- Kettlebell get up
- Kettlebell windmill
Please keep in mind that with any exercise, form and technique will matter most. Choose a weight that challenges you, but allows you to execute the exercise with the correct form.
What is the difference between a Kettlebell & Dumbbell?
With most exercises, as mentioned previously, dumbbells and kettlebells are interchangeable. But there are certain exercises that provide more benefits compared to the other. For example, dumbbells are better for bicep curls, while kettlebells are more efficient for swing movements. One clear advantage for kettlebells is the explosiveness and power that is gained in just a single movement, like the kettlebell swing. But the goal isn’t to place one superior to the other, but rather understand each one has a time and place. The key difference in using one over the other is how the weight is placed. For dumbbells, the weight is evenly distributed so it makes it easier to balance (which can be beneficial for beginners). While kettlebells require more core strength and balance due to the weight being unbalanced and uncentered. If you’ve worked with both pieces of equipment, it is obvious what the differences are training with one or the other
Are Kettlebells better than Dumbbells?
Kettlebells provide an advantage compared to most equipment for their versatility. They require less space for storage and training and can develop strength and power just as much or even more as traditional methods. If you are low on space, have a limited budget, kettlebells may be a great alternative for you.
Although dumbbells are just as beneficial as kettlebells, the difference is in your program, environment and training goals. Dumbbells may be more ideal for basic movements like bicep curls, chest presses, shoulder presses, lateral raises, and so on. Kettlebells, however, may be more suitable with the goal of gaining both power and strength. However, a program incorporating both dumbbells and kettlebells can best to add versatility in movements, activating and recruiting different muscle groups, and to get the best results from your training.
Traditional strength training movements can benefit most from weightlifting. One study by Otto et.al (2012), reviewed the effects from 6 weeks of traditional weightlifting (heavy resistance) vs. kettlebell training on strength and power. The study concluded that weightlifting and kettlebell training both added improvements in strength and power, but traditional weight lifting was greater. However, there were no significant differences in body composition between the two groups. Although there are limitations to the study, this has been replicated in many others as well.
To decide whether an exercise will require kettlebells or dumbbells is up to experience, preference, and your own body mechanics.
Are you new to general fitness and just now adding weights to your program? Dumbells or light kettlebells may be a better choice.
Are you looking to add more explosiveness, improve your grip strength and challenge to your training? Kettlebells can provide all of that (if done right, of course).
Looking to improve strength? Although kettlebells can do this, they are not as effective as dumbbells. Dumbbells have more variety in weight variances compared to kettlebells, which can be beneficial when trying to increase weight as huge increases just don’t happen (this of course depends on your gyms availability of equipment).
Example Full Body Workout Incorporating BOTH Dumbbells and Kettlebells
(lower body focus)
- Squat to toe touches- 30 seconds
- Plank- 30 seconds
- Glute bridge- 30 seconds
1. Elevated KB goblet squat (3 sets of 8-10 reps)
2. KB straight leg deadlift (3 sets of 8-10 reps)
Superset: 4 sets of 8-10 reps each
3.a. Bent over DB row
3.b. KB reverse lunges
3.c. DB front raise
Superset: 3 sets of 8-10 reps each
4.a. KB Bulgarian split squat
4.b. DB incline chest press
*KB= kettlebell, DB= dumbbell
Kettlebells and dumbbells both can have a place in your workout regimen. But, it’s important to recognize what one can provide over the other, what exercises benefit the most from either, and factoring in your current goals and experience. If you are currently in a strength phase, focusing on dumbbells may be more ideal compared to kettlebells to allow for those small increments in weight. If you’re looking to increase both strength and power, as well as endurance, adding kettlebells into your routine can do just that. The example workout above shows just how a traditional strength program can incorporate more kettlebell work. If you try the workout, you may find that adding both kettlebells and dumbbells can be beneficial ( and how important it is to consider your own strengths, experience and preferences).
Can you choose one over the other? I know I can’t, but I certainly have a preference over certain exercises. For example, I personally prefer kettlebells for deadlifts, squats, split squats and swings over dumbbells every time!
Remember, it’s not about them being in competition with one another, but instead finding a place for both of them in your training program.
Farrar, et.al (2010). Oxygen Costs of Kettlebell Swings. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20300022
Otto, et.al (2012). Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength and body composition. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22344061
By Tiffany Moule
Health & Mindset Coach over at Tiffanymoule.com