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Kettlebells vs Dumbbells: Which is Best? (2023)

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Kettlebells and dumbbells are two of the most versatile tools in the gym, but deciding which is best for you depends on several factors. In general, kettlebells are better for conditioning and power development, while dumbbells are better for building muscle, addressing imbalances, and targeting certain areas. However, I recommend using both for variety and results.

If you’re wanting to train with free weights – maybe you’re looking to add some to your home gym – you’ve probably wondered if kettlebells or dumbbells are better.

I understand the struggle since both are versatile and effective for building muscle, losing weight, improving athleticism, and more.

But while they can each contribute to those goals, their different designs lend themselves better to certain ones.

In this article, I’ll take you through the key differences between kettlebells and dumbbells, including their main styles and benefits. I’ll share their pros and cons and compare them based on three key training goals.

By the end, you should be able to tell which is right for you.

Let’s dig in.

What is a Kettlebell?

What is a Kettlebell

A kettlebell is a unique strength and conditioning tool with a round base and a thick handle on top. The offset weight distribution provides a unique stimulus across dozens of movements, like squats, lunges, pulls, presses, carries, and other dynamic exercises.

Kettlebells are effective for every strength level, from beginners to advanced. While they’re normally represented in kilograms, pound versions are also available from some manufacturers. They generally range in weight from 4 kg (9 lb) – 92 kg (203 lb), giving you a ton of variety, whether you’re looking to build muscle or lose weight.


Benefits of Kettlebell Training

Kettlebells are some of the most versatile training tools because of their unique free weight design. Since the weight’s center of gravity sits further from your hand, a kettlebell is excellent for improving coordination and mobility. The weight distribution requires full-body control, which you’ll naturally develop as you train with kettlebells.

Another benefit of kettlebells is that they help build stabilizer muscles that aren’t used as much in traditional movements. For example, holding a kettlebell in an overhead position with the bell resting on your forearm trains shoulder stability in ways other implements cannot. Not only does this lead to a healthier and more functional shoulder, but it can have a positive carryover to your traditional lifts.

Kettlebell Squat

Additionally, kettlebells can positively impact other lifts by helping you develop power. Moving heavy weight quickly during swings, cleans, etc., will teach you how to create more power more efficiently. These movements also require a level of mental toughness, which is helpful when setting PRs in the gym.

It’s not always about going heavy, though. Kettlebell training with high reps and low weight is a very effective conditioning modality. Don’t believe me? Pick a weight you can swing 50 times and do that for 3 sets.

Lastly, kettlebells are outstanding at building grip strength. The thicker handles will tax your grip in ways you may not have experienced, especially during unilateral movements. I love using them for carries and isometric holds to strengthen my grip for deadlifts.


Types of Kettlebells

Kettlebells come in three primary types: Cast Iron, Competition, and Adjustable. Each has pros and cons and varies based on design, materials, and more. Let’s take a closer look.

Cast Iron Kettlebell

Cast Iron Kettlebell

Cast iron kettlebells are the most common style you’ll find because they’re affordable and effective for beginners through advanced athletes. As the name implies, they’re constructed with cast iron but may have powder coat, Cerakote, E-Coat, or other coatings for enhanced aesthetics and durability.

Cast iron kettlebells get larger as you move up in weight. In addition to the bottom section getting wider, the handle gets thicker, ranging from 29-42mm, depending on weight.

With a more curved handle, cast iron kettlebells are great for all movements, including kettlebell swings, goblet squats, and snatches.

Competition Kettlebell

Competition Kettlebell

Competition kettlebells are a special class with specific size requirements for kettlebell sport (yes, that’s a thing). Unlike traditional kettlebells that change in size, a competition kettlebell remains the same size no matter the weight. These bells have a 5.5″ base diameter, a 35mm handle, and an 11.1″ height.

This uniformity allows for more consistency, allowing you to master your technique across all weights. Competition kettlebells also have a straight, uncoated, and slightly thicker handle than the curved handles on traditional kettlebells. This shape is better for single-arm movements and may be more comfortable on the forearm for some lifters.

Adjustable Kettlebell

Adjustable Kettlebell

Adjustable kettlebells are ideal for home gym owners with limited space and/or a limited budget. These kettlebells have adjustable weights and typically range from 8-32 kg.

The biggest benefit of an adjustable kettlebell is that you can effectively consolidate several kettlebells into one, saving you space and money. My top recommendation is the REP Adjustable Kettlebell, which replaces 5 fixed kettlebells up to 24 kg. It uses a fast dial system, but others include plate-loaded, pin selectors, and even sand. There are even competition adjustable kettlebells that offer the best of both worlds.

However, the downside to adjustables is that they typically aren’t as durable as fixed options. If you go this route, I recommend picking one that’s mostly or entirely made of steel.


What is a Dumbbell?

What is a Dumbbell

A dumbbell is a handheld free weight with a shaft and weights on each end. Dumbbells are among the most versatile pieces of gym equipment because of how many movements they offer across every muscle group.

Like kettlebells, dumbbells are great for all strength levels, from beginners to advanced lifters. Depending on the type of dumbbell, they typically range from 5 – 125 lbs, but lighter and heavier options are available.

Further reading: Top Home Gym Dumbbells


Benefits of Dumbbell Training

One of the biggest benefits of training with dumbbells is that they provide endless variety in terms of exercise selection and execution. From lower to upper body movements, you can perform virtually any lift with a dumbbell. They’re especially good for accessory movements to complement the main lifts, but you can easily replace barbell exercises with dumbbells.

One reason you may train more with dumbbells is they can reduce injury risk. To put it simply, a dumbbell provides more movement freedom and better range of motion for some people. Take the bench press as an example. Some lifters with shoulder issues have a hard time bench pressing with a barbell, but with dumbbells, they’re able to find a more suitable position. Dumbbells can also help strengthen stabilizer muscles, which are important for maintaining healthy joints.

Dumbell Lunge

Another benefit of dumbbells is that they can help even out muscle imbalances. When you’re training bilateral movements often, you may find one side to be stronger than the other. For example, barbell curls may lead to one arm being bigger or stronger than the other. By training unilaterally with dumbbells, you can bring them in line and see improved results.

Lastly, dumbbells are fantastic for isolating individual muscles. By targeting certain areas, you can increase strength, performance, and aesthetics. Additionally, isolation exercises can have a positive impact on the mind-muscle connection, leading to more efficient workouts and a better training effect.


Types of Dumbbells

Dumbbells come in two types: fixed and adjustable. These vary in design, weight ranges, materials, etc., depending on your training style, budget, and more.

Fixed Dumbbells

What is a Fixed Dumbbell?

Fixed dumbbells are what most of us have seen and used in a commercial gym. A fixed dumbbell has two weights attached to a shaft with a straight or contoured handle. Although they’re made of steel, many are coated in rubber, urethane, or neoprene for additional durability and floor protection.

Fixed dumbbells are extremely convenient, allowing you to easily perform drop sets, super sets, and giant sets. They have a wide weight range starting as low as 1 lb and going as high as 200+ lbs, typically in 2.5 or 5 lb increments.

The biggest downside of traditional dumbbells, especially in a home gym, is that they’re more expensive and take up more space.

Adjustable Dumbbells

What are Adjustable Dumbbells

Adjustable dumbbells are the best choice for most home gyms because they take up practically no space and are much more affordable. Rather than investing money and space on a full set of fixed dumbbells, adjustables can effectively replace dozens of them in a single pair.

These dumbbells have adjustable weights that you can quickly change with a dial, pin, or by loading individual plates. Depending on the brand and design, you can adjust them in a few seconds. Weight ranges vary, but most top out at around 80 lbs. However, some can go as high as 200 lbs.

I recommend the NÜOBELL dumbbells for most people because they blend speed with performance and offer an 80 lb weight capacity with 5 lb increments.

Further Reading: Should You Buy Fixed or Adjustable Dumbbells?


Kettlebells vs Dumbbells for Muscle Growth

Both kettlebells and dumbbells are effective at building muscle, but there are conflicting findings in some studies as to which is better. To preface, these studies looked at the overhead press and the impact of surrounding muscles between dumbbells vs kettlebells.

The first study in 2018 found that dumbbells led to a statistically significant increase in EMG activity in the anterior deltoid, indicating more muscle recruitment. A later 2022 study found no significant differences in muscle activity in the upper trapezius muscles, but it did find something interesting. In all muscles other than the upper trapezius, they found high muscle activity during kettlebell pressing.

Dumbbells Chest Press

Clearly, more research needs to be done to definitively say whether kettlebells or dumbbells are better for muscle growth, but it’s something to consider.

Ultimately, I recommend using both for stimulating muscle growth. For those looking for max strength, the extra stability of a dumbbell may allow for heavier loads and more reps. However, the offset weight distribution of a kettlebell can be effective at producing growth by challenging the body in unconventional ways.


Kettlebells vs Dumbbells for Power

When training for power development, it’s important to move weight quickly. While you can do that with dumbbells and kettlebells, it translates particularly well with dynamic movements across multiple planes.

Kettlebell Swing

A kettlebell holds a distinct advantage in this category, given its design and weight balance. One study found the kettlebell swing created a large mechanical demand that could be useful in strength and conditioning for developing the ability to rapidly produce force.

Dumbbells are a good option for generating explosive power on traditional movements like the chest press, but dynamic exercises like the clean & jerk, swing, and snatch are better suited for kettlebells.


Kettlebells vs Dumbbells for Conditioning

Kettlebells and dumbbells are both great conditioning tools, but I give the edge to kettlebells since the dynamic nature of the movements works the whole body.

Swinging a light kettlebell for a lot of reps is a killer workout that will elevate your heart rate in no time. It’s also possible to perform consecutive kettlebell movements in what’s known as a kettlebell flow. During a flow, you’re constantly moving the kettlebell through movements like snatches, lunges, swings, etc. It’s a surefire way to get a great cardio workout.

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Dumbbells are also effective for conditioning by hammering out a lot of reps at lighter weights. I especially like incorporating drop sets and super sets, which are also great for building muscle.

Additionally, you can use kettlebells and dumbbells in your HIIT training alongside a treadmill, air bike, or other traditional cardio equipment.


FAQs

  • What are the Main Differences Between Kettlebells and Dumbbells?

    Kettlebells and dumbbells mainly differ in their shape and weight distribution. A kettlebell has an offset balance that moves the center of gravity further from the body. This creates unique training challenges that work well for power development, conditioning, and traditional strength training through dynamic movements. Dumbbells have a balanced weight distribution with a center grip, making them better for stable exercises. Dumbbells are great for building strength, isolating muscle, and conditioning.

  • Are Kettlebells or Dumbbells More Versatile?

    While both can add a lot of variety to your training, dumbbells are more versatile. Their balanced design opens up more exercise options, and they carry over better to strength training with traditional tools like barbells. However, kettlebells are still very versatile and may offer better variety based on your training style.

  • Which Should I Add to My Home Gym: Kettlebells or Dumbells?

    Ideally, you will have access to both, but I recommend that most people start with dumbbells because of their versatility. However, this highly depends on your training style – some people will be better off starting with kettlebells. You should also consider your budget and space. If you have a large budget and ample room, a set of fixed dumbbells or kettlebells is the most convenient. Alternatively, I recommend adjustable options if you're tight on space or saving money.


Final Thoughts

When comparing kettlebells vs dumbbells, consider your training goals first and foremost. From there, consider the cost and space requirements to see which type would be best for you.

If you’re looking for the most versatility and want to focus on building muscle size and strength, I recommend dumbbells.

If you’re looking to develop more power and increase your conditioning, I recommend kettlebells.

That said, you can accomplish a lot with both tools, which is why I recommend using both. If nothing else, you can experiment and find the one you prefer more. From there, you can invest further in a more comprehensive setup with a wider weight range.


References

  1. Błażkiewicz, M., & Hadamus, A. (2022). The Effect of the Weight and Type of Equipment on Shoulder and Back Muscle Activity in Surface Electromyography during the Overhead Press-Preliminary Report. Sensors (Basel, Switzerland)22(24), 9762. https://doi.org/10.3390/s22249762
  2. Dicus, J. R., Holmstrup, M. E., Shuler, K. T., Rice, T. T., Raybuck, S. D., & Siddons, C. A. (2018). Stability of Resistance Training Implement alters EMG Activity during the Overhead Press. International journal of exercise science11(1), 708–716.
  3. Lake, J. P., & Lauder, M. A. (2012). Mechanical demands of kettlebell swing exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research26(12), 3209–3216. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182474280
Adam Hensley
Adam Hensley
Adam is the founder of Garage Gym Lab. He serves as the chief content creator with over two decades of training experience. When he's not testing equipment and writing about all things fitness, Adam loves spending time with his wife and two children.

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