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Dumbbells vs Kettlebells – Build Muscle and Strength!

If you want to build muscle, get stronger, tone up, and get fit, strength training is all-but compulsory. Placing an appropriate level of stress on your muscles will make them grow stronger and bigger.

Strength training is also good for your bones and can help you lose weight faster. Even small increases in muscle size will have a significant and positive effect on your metabolic rate.

When it comes to strength training, you’ve got a world of options to explore. You can use barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, medicine balls, bodyweight exercises, and resistance training machines to sculpt the body of your dreams.

Each one works and has both benefits and drawbacks. It’s all about choosing the right tool for the job.

In some cases, barbells are best as they tend to allow you to lift the heaviest weights. They’re ideal for building strength. In contrast, machines are often safer and better for beginners because you are less likely to hurt yourself if you drop any weights.

Bodyweight calisthenic exercises are a good choice too, as you can do them anywhere and anytime. On the downside, the only way to make many bodyweight exercises harder is by doing more reps, and that can soon become boring.

But what if you have to choose between two types of training? Maybe because you only have space for one workout tool, or your budget will only cover one workout device.

What would be the right choice then?

Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells

In this article, we’re going to compare and contrast two strength training heavyweights:  dumbbells vs. kettlebells. That doesn’t mean you have to choose between these two; if you have access to both dumbbells and kettlebells, then you should use them. But, if you have to keep one and discard the other, this guide will help you do it.

History

Dumbbells and kettlebells have been around for a very long time. Both seem to have been invented around the period – the late 19th century.

Dumbbells originate in Old England, where they were used by campanologists (bell ringers) who wanted to practice their art without making any sound. The first dumbbells were literally dumb bells – with dumb meaning silent. Early dumbbells actually looked a lot like kettlebells and had a single weight at the end of a stout handle.

The origin of kettlebells is a little harder to identify, as many countries seem to have used a similar exercise tool, including Scandinavia, Russia, Scotland, India, and China. However, Russia probably holds the most substantial claim (1). This is reflected by how the weight of kettlebells is often expressed – in poods. A pood is 16.38 kilograms or about 36 pounds.

So, if you were planning on choosing between kettlebells and dumbbells based on how long they’ve been in use, you are out of luck. They are both traditional strength training tools that have been around for hundreds of years. That longevity suggests that both types of workout equipment work; otherwise, they’d have fallen out of favor a long time ago.

Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells – The Key Differences

Dumbbells and kettlebells are both classed as free weights. That means they are free to move in any direction. The term freeweight helps differentiate things like barbells and kettlebells from resistance training machines, where the weights are guided on rods. Such devices are often called fixed-weight machines.

Dumbbells and kettlebells are quite similar and can even be used for some of the same exercises. However, they’re dissimilar enough that it’s worth comparing them side by side to highlight the key differences:

Dumbbells

Dumbbells on a rack

  1. The weights are located at each end of a handle
  2. The handle is only big enough for one hand
  3. There are fixed weight and adjustable dumbbells
  4. Dumbbell weights can be round or hexagonal
  5. Dumbbells are most often used in pairs

Kettlebells

Colorful kettlebells

  1. The weight is located below the handle
  2. The handle can accommodate one or two hands
  3. Most kettlebells are fixed weights
  4. Kettlebells are used in pairs and singularly
  5. The weights are usually round and look like cannonballs with handles

Despite these differences, you can use kettlebells for many dumbbell exercises and dumbbells for many kettlebell exercises. However, some exercises feel more comfortable when performed with one type of training tool.

For example, kettlebells are perfect for swings but not so suitable for bench presses and curls. In contrast, dumbbells are ideal for flys but not as good for snatches.

Which is Best?

The simple if non-committal answer to this elusive question is – it depends! Why such a wishy-washy statement? Because the right tool for any job depends on what you are trying to achieve. In some cases, dumbbells are your best choice, but in others, kettlebells rule the roost.

Let’s take a look at some common training goals and discuss which option is best.

Building Muscle

The reality is that your muscles cannot really differentiate between types of weight. So long asMan about to flat benchpress with dumbbells whatever you are lifting is heavy enough, it will overload your muscles, and they’ll get bigger and stronger.

The off-center load of kettlebells means that they aren’t so good for common mass builders like bench presses, flyes, lateral raises, and biceps curls. That means dumbbells are the best choice for most bodybuilding exercises. That said, overhead presses with kettlebells appear to increase deltoid muscle activation, which could produce marginally better results for some exercisers.

There is a reason that bodybuilders tend to favor dumbbells; they’re generally the most effective tool for building muscle. That doesn’t mean you can’t build muscle with kettlebells, but other than shoulder presses and rows, dumbbells are usually a little more effective and easier to handle.

Winner – Dumbbells

Power

Power is your ability to generate force quickly and is a crucial part of sports and athletic performance.Man with kettlebell over his head The best way to improve muscle power is to lift weights quickly. A lot of kettlebell exercises are power exercises, such as cleans, snatches, and swings. While you CAN do these exercises with dumbbells, kettlebells are usually more comfortable.

If you want to run faster, jump higher, throw further, or kick or punch harder, kettlebells are probably your best choice.  You can still use dumbbells for power exercises, but cleaning or snatching a kettlebell feels more comfortable and natural.

Winner – Kettlebells

Cardio and Fat-Burning Workouts

Compound exercises like dumbbell squats and kettlebell swings will both raise your heart and breathing rate and burn calories. So long as you work hard and long enough, it doesn’t matter what you use to overload your muscles and cardiovascular system. You could use either or both dumbbells and kettlebells.

Try this workout to burn fat and get fit, using one kettlebell and two dumbbells:

  1. Two-handed kettlebell swing x 20
  2. Dumbbell thrusters x 15
  3. Single-arm kettlebell snatch x 10 per arm
  4. Dumbbell renegade row x 10 per arm
  5. Kettlebell goblet squats x 15
  6. Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts x 20

When it comes to cardio and fat burning, it doesn’t matter what you lift. So long as you choose compound exercises and pump out the reps to elevate your heart and breathing rate, you’ll get the results you want.

Winner – It’s a Draw!

Why Choose Dumbbells?

If you are training for muscle size, want to be able to make your workouts gradually more demanding, or prefer to do traditional exercises like curls, flyes, and side raises, dumbbells are probably your best choice.

If you train at a gym, you’ll have access to a wide range of weights, so you can adjust the demands of your workout and use different weights for each exercise in your program. If you train at home, you can buy a set of adjustable dumbbells and get more plates as you become stronger, spreading the cost of your investment.

On the downside, if you want to do explosive exercises like cleans, snatches, and swings, you may find that dumbbells don’t quite feel right, but you’ll still be able to do these exercises if you wish.

Why Choose Kettlebells?

If you are more interested in things like power, athleticism, and performance, kettlebells are arguably your best option. They’re not really suitable for the best hypertrophy training exercises but are ideal for explosive and functional workouts.

However, because kettlebells aren’t adjustable, you may only have access to a few different weights. This means you’ll have to get used to using the same weight for many of the exercises in your workout and will have to buy new kettlebells if you want to train with heavier weights.

You can end up with quite a collection of kettlebells if you start out as a weak beginner and gradually develop into an advanced kettlebell lifter.

Gyms often have kettlebells, but there won’t be as many weight increments as there are for dumbbells, which can make progressing up in weight more challenging. It’s a big jump from 20kg to 24kg, for example.

That said, because of the compound nature of most kettlebell exercises, these larger increases should still be manageable.

Bottom Line

Whatever your fitness goal is, dumbbells and kettlebells can help get you there. Both are types of freeweight which means they are useful for developing functional strength and muscle size, power, and general fitness.

While some people are ardent kettlebell fans, others prefer dumbbells, and in many cases, these training tools are interchangeable. Some exercises are easier or more comfortable with either dumbbells or kettlebells, but there is usually a way to do most exercises with either.

For example, dumbbells curls are one of the best ways to train your biceps, but you can do curls with a kettlebell, too, by threading a towel through the handle and holding each end in your hands.

However, while you can use both kettlebells and dumbbells for the same exercises, dumbbells are generally better for building muscle size, while kettlebells are better for power.

This has more to do with the way specific exercises feel and is due to the position of the weight in relation to the handle. Kettlebell cleans and snatches are much more comfortable than the same exercise done with a dumbbell.

It’s hard to separate dumbbells and kettlebells for cardio and fat burning, as both can be equally effective. Providing you work hard, focusing mainly on compound exercises, both of these strength training tools will produce the results you want.

Ultimately, deciding between dumbbells and kettlebells is a matter of choosing the best one for your goals and also your personal preferences. Space available and financial constraints will also be a consideration.

If you can’t decide between the two, maybe that’s a sign that you should be using dumbbells AND kettlebells in your workouts. After all, choosing one and discarding the other could mean you lose more than gain. Use them both and enjoy all of the benefits available!


References

  1. Who Invented the Kettlebell? https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-kettlebell-4038483

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Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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