Matching Equipment to Your Goals

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When it comes to cost, convenience, and results, there are two pieces of weightlifting equipment that stand toe to toe: kettlebells vs. dumbbells.

Similar in size, dumbbells and kettlebells are anything but the same. Each offers a unique shape, weight displacement, and set of pros and cons. Are you in the market for home gym equipment but you’re not sure whether you should go with dumbbell or kettlebells?

Or maybe you’re stocking your gym with new fitness equipment for 2021 and you’re wondering which is more popular.

Let’s take a look at both and how effective they are for achieving the most popular fitness goals: muscle, weight loss, strength, power, and athleticism.

What is a Kettlebell?

Resembling something of a farmer’s tool, a kettlebell is a solid piece of cast iron or cast steel. It’s shaped like a ball with a flat bottom and a handle at the top.

All of the weight is directly beneath the handle, which offers the athlete an interesting selection of speed and power-based movements. More on this below.

 

Benefits of Kettlebells

Before we jump into which is better for your fitness goals (kettlebells vs. dumbbells), let’s highlight a few benefits of kettlebells.

Fitness Goal Versatility: Kettlebells are often used for the top goals in fitness including strength and power. This is why kettlebells are so popular among cross training or CrossFit crowds.

Get Those Hips Involved: Kettlebells help you focus on one area that’s often neglected: the hips. Movements like the kettlebell swing force you to engage the hips and strengthen an area that is at high risk for overcompensation.

Build That Back: Given the explosive nature of many kettlebell exercises, especially those that involve a swinging motion, kettlebells are great for developing your posterior chain. Take the kettlebell swing as an example. This one movement targets the muscles from your traps to your calves.

woman performing dumbbell squats

What is a Dumbbell?

Just like we discussed in our article on dumbbells vs. barbells, a dumbbell is a short, weighted bar or handle with enough space for you to grip it with your hand.

On both sides of the handle, you’ll find either fixed or adjustable weight plates.

 

Benefits of Dumbbells

Here are a few benefits of dumbbells that we want to point out before deciding whether dumbbells or kettlebells are better for your fitness goals.

Ideal for Most Fitness Populations: Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or you’re recovering from an injury, dumbbells are going to be your go-to option. They are easier on connective tissue, which decreases the risk of injury from too much strain on your joints.

Every Muscle Does its Job: When a stronger muscle takes over for a nearby weaker muscle, this is called overcompensation. Over time, this can increase your risk for injury. Using dumbbells is a form of unilateral training where each side must do the work for itself, helping to prevent overcompensation issues.

Better at Activating Certain Muscles: Studies show that dumbbells increase muscle activation during certain exercises more than other fitness tools including barbells and kettlebells. [1]

 

Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells: Basic Differences

There are a few simple differences between kettlebells and dumbbells that could be a dealbreaker if you have certain restrictions or preferences.

Construction and Material

A properly constructed kettlebell will be made from cast iron or cast steel. You can find cheaper plastic kettlebells out there but if you’re serious about your fitness investment, you’ll want to real thing.

Dumbbells are also cast iron but the ends with the weight are usually covered with neoprene or a durable rubber for protection.

Weight Displacement

With a kettlebell, the actual weight is directly below the handle while with a dumbbell, you’ll find the weight on both ends of the handle.

We’ll discuss this more below but for two-handed exercises, a kettlebell will win out but for isolation movements, dumbbells are the way to go.

Cost and Investment

Kettlebells tend to be more expensive than dumbbells due to their unique design, especially if you buy a proper cast iron or cast steel one.

With that said, it’s important to remember that with proper care, kettlebells and dumbbells can easily last for decades.

 

Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells: Matching the Equipment to the Goal

We love both kettlebells and dumbbells, but one might be better suited for you depending on your fitness goals and the style of the workouts.

Muscle Building

If your goal is straight hypertrophy or muscle growth, dumbbells are going to be the winner. Sure, you could use kettlebells for exercises like the bench press and bicep curl but it’s going to be awkward for your grip due to the weight displacement.

Dumbbells are the classic muscle-building tool, allowing you to focus on unilateral development and simple weight adjustment.

Weight Loss

Dumbbells and kettlebells are equally great for weight loss. It just depends on what type of workout you’re doing.

Kettlebells pair well high-intensity intervals, just like in CrossFit workouts, so you’ll be able to burn an insane number of calories in a short period of time.

If you prefer resistance training at a slower pace, focusing on 15 to 25 repetitions for each set of an exercise with dumbbells will help you reach that caloric expenditure.

Strength and Power

Again, it’s a tie between kettlebells and dumbbells. The difference will lie in the workout you prefer.

If you’re focusing on calisthenics and explosive movements during a cross training workout, nothing can beat a kettlebell. They are designed for those swinging and hinge movements.

But if you are going for that traditional powerlifter or bodybuilder-style strength, stick with the classic dumbbells. The even weight displacement allows you to perform exercises like the bench press, squat, and deadlift without an awkward hand grip.

Athletic Movements

Kettlebells have dumbbells beat here but not by much. Kettlebell workouts tend to focus on core strength and overall stability, two things that are crucial for athletic training and competitions.

While dumbbells can be used for sports-focused workouts and training, kettlebells are specifically designed for this style of fitness.

Again, take the kettlebell swing as an example. The handle allows you to focus on the hip hinge, keeping everything in alignment, and getting that kettlebell in the air without sacrificing form. You’re not worried about how you’re holding the kettlebell.

You could use a dumbbell for this same movement (we’ve all done it here at Iron Bull… for better or worse), but you’re going to have that added element of awkwardness in the grip. This is just like when you try to use a kettlebell for a classic dumbbell exercise like the bench press.

So, for athletic-focused workouts, kettlebells are going to be better suited for most exercises.

 dumbbells vs kettlebells

Which is Better: Kettlebells or Dumbbells?

The short answer: it depends on your fitness goals, exercises, and budget.

If you want to get big, get strong, or lose weight and budget isn’t an issue, we’d say go with dumbbells.

If your sole focus is on becoming a top-level athlete or improving your PRs in CrossFit, kettlebells might be the better pick for you.

Whichever one you go with, we would still recommend throwing in a couple exercises of the other if you can. It’s always a good idea to vary your training instruments, methodology, and goals.

 

References

  1. Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R, Fimland MS. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(5):533-8. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916. PMID: 21225489.

Source
Matching Equipment to Your Goals is written by David Sautter for ironbullstrength.com

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