The choice whether to use kettlebells or dumbbells might seem like an easy one and it is, if you understand the strengths and weaknesses offered by both pieces of equipment. Essentially, they both offer extreme benefits to workout enthusiasts, just not the same ones.
Let’s learn more about what these two very different pieces of workout gear can offer you:
Traditional Gym Exercises (Safety and Balance)
When it comes to pure gym style exercises like pressing, curling and flye movements, dumbbells trump kettlebells easily. A dumbbell has its weight evenly distributed on both sides of the handle, making them easy to hang onto and balance during traditional focused muscle building and toning exercises. That makes them a clear choice for traditional muscle building exercises.
Kettlebells can be used for many of these movements in a pinch, but since they’re not designed for this purpose they can be hard to hang onto. They can even cause injury to weaker joints like the wrists, elbows and rotator cuffs if not used safely. This is due to their large handles and the lack of balance between the handle and the bell-shaped weight.
Range of Motion (Single Muscle Targeting vs. Multi-Joint Movements)
Because of their design and balance, dumbbells don’t lend themselves very well to the wealth of multi-joint (i.e., multiple body parts worked) movements that kettlebells do. Dumbbell exercises are typically short and straight, focusing on 1 – 3 muscle groups such as the chest, shoulders and triceps worked in a dumbbell press, or the front delts, biceps and forearms used in a dumbbell curl. The range of motion must be deliberate and relatively slow to avoid injury too.
Kettlebells offer a variety of full-body movements such as the kettlebell swing. The unbalanced nature of the kettlebell (due to the relation of the handle to the weight) allows you to safely swing the weight in full range of motion from the bottom of the movement to the top, keeping the actual weighted mass of the bell far from your head at the top of the movement and from your underside at the bottom. To try this same movement with a dumbbell would be very dangerous because the mass of weight is located on both sides of the handle, limiting the range of motion needed to complete most kettlebell exercises.
Weight Increments Offered (Certain Limitations)
When looking at these two different pieces of equipment, adjustable dumbbells allow you to add extra weight more easily, making them useful for a wide range of strength and toning movements. On the other side, few brands can accommodate more than 40 or 50 pounds at a time.
If you’re working out using fixed-weight gym dumbbells, you can find weights starting as low as 2.5 or 5 pounds with most gyms offering a selection that goes up to 200 pounds, with 5-pound increments between each. However, this option is often impractical for home users due to the cost per dumbbell.
Kettlebells don’t offer the option to add extra weight without switching to a heavier one, meaning you need to purchase higher poundages as you progress and get stronger. Commercial gyms rarely have a good selection, making kettlebells most popular with home users or specialized gyms such as CrossFit and MMA training centers. This reality isn’t a limitation though, as there are hundreds of exercises to choose from that can tax the entire body and cardiovascular system without the need for an entire rack full of different sized kettlebells at your disposal.
Anaerobic vs. Aerobic
Dumbbells aren’t very conducive to aerobics-intensive workouts without adding in other varieties of equipment like barbells, machines, and various bench apparatuses. As you’ve already learned, they aren’t the best choice for doing multi-joint movements that get your heart into the fat-burning fitness range either. Dumbbells are best used for isolation movements that build and sculpt the muscle.
Kettlebells excel when it comes to allowing multi-joint movements like swings, squats, lunges, and more, and it’s easier to switch between many of these exercises without the need to change weights –when, and if fitness is the primary goal of your workout. However, when heavier kettlebells are added to exercises like front squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, kettlebell swings, snatches, jerks, rows, etc; kettlebell workouts can build a lot of quality, sculpted muscle.
So Which is Better for You?
If your goal is to one day become a professional bodybuilder or powerlifting champion, or you want to build slabs of muscle mass to impress the opposite sex, dumbbells allow you to perform focused muscle and strength building movements that can lead to bulkier muscles. More muscle is also advantageous for football, hockey and rugby players who can benefit from the extra protection more muscle mass offers.
Dumbbells are superior to barbell and many machine movements because they tax both sides of the body equally, negating the possibility of your dominant side sharing the brunt of the load which can lead to uneven development. They’re also easier to handle when it comes to controlled pressing and curling movements than kettlebells are.
Kettlebells, on the other hand, also help to build muscle and strength, but most important they help to tone and sculpt muscles while offering more cardiovascular conditioning exercise flexibility too. This makes them advantageous for people who play sports that require equal parts explosive speed and strength such as combat sports of all kinds, track and field, hockey, soccer, CrossFit, and many others.
The other beneficial factor that pertains to kettlebells and their toning/sculpting ability has to do with their unbalanced design, which can be a hindrance when performing movements like the bench press. However, when considering that more muscle groups need to be engaged to balance them in various movements, kettlebell users are working muscles that traditional weight lifters and many other athletes never get to use.
Kettlebells offer the most versatility to home users who want to get in shape, burn fat and build a strong balanced physique without getting too bulky like a powerlifter or bodybuilder. There are hundreds of exercises available and you’re only limited by your creativity if you ever come to a point where you think you’ve already tried everything.
If you’re unsure of which equipment you want to add to your home gym, give both a try by seeking out a local gym that offers a free week or two-long trial, and which offers a great selection of dumbbells and kettlebells you can use. During this time, try to get a feel for what exercise you like and how much weight you think will benefit you most. This will help limit startup costs, while ensuring you never feel limited by poundage requirements as you continue to build your collection.