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Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells: Which One Is Right for You?

Posted by Casey Stenehjem on Jun 21st 2021

Aaron “Az” Lawrence performs a dumbbell twist curl with a set of YBells
Aaron “Az” Lawrence performs a dumbbell twist curl with a set of YBells.

Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells: Which One Is Right for You?

You’re walking into a gym to do some resistance training. There are barbells, machines, dumbbells, and kettlebells. Which one do you choose? You’ve heard that a kettlebell workout is great for strength training, but should that replace dumbbells?

Let’s unfold this great debate of kettlebells vs. dumbbells and decide what might be best for you.

What Do Kettlebells and Dumbbells Have In Common?

To state the obvious, both kettlebells and dumbbells are free weights. They’re both resistance training tools and work well with your high-intensity resistance training (HIRT) workout routine. They’re also relatively affordable pieces of equipment that are easy to organize and store in your home gym.

You can do some movements with both tools with a minimal difference, but chances are neither the kettlebell nor the dumbbell is always right all of the time.

How Kettlebells and Dumbbells Are Different

The differences are subtle, but small changes can have a considerable impact on your weight training routine.

1. The Shape

The most significant differentiator between dumbbells and kettlebells is the shape — Kettlebells are a sphere shape with a handle at the top. The bottom of the kettlebell is significantly heavier than the top handle. With dumbbells, the weight is dispersed evenly with a handle between the two sides to hold on to.

2. The Center of Mass

The difference in design also changes the center of mass for each weight. The center of mass of your equipment will dramatically shift the stress put on the specific muscles and joints with each movement.

Since a dumbbell’s weight is equal on both sides, the center of mass is in the middle of the handle. This gives you the ability to isolate and rotate with specific muscles and joints. Simply put, dumbbells are best for targeting specific muscle groups.

With an uneven weight distribution between the sphere and top handle, the center of mass on a kettlebell is much closer to the sphere. When you’re holding a kettlebell, the majority of the weight sits on the back of your wrist, which changes the isolation ability in the majority of movements.

The handle also allows you to change between movements quickly. That’s why Kettlebells are best used for power movements such as a swing, clean, or snatch.

3. One Hand vs. Two

Another unique difference between kettlebells and dumbbells is the handle length. Kettlebell handles give you the ability to use one or two hands at a time compared to only being able to fit one hand on a dumbbell.

How do Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells Affect Specific Movements?

Both kettlebells and dumbbells have their purpose and placement within a workout or training program. Let’s break this down with some specific movement examples.

If you were to do a bicep curl with a kettlebell, you’d quickly realize it doesn’t offer the same isolation as a dumbbell. And with the center of mass shifted away from the handle, the kettlebell lacks the dumbbell’s ease for rotation.

On the other hand, if you were to try to do a swing with a dumbbell, you’d realize that the lack of hand space on the handle and having the weight closer to your body isn’t optimal and dramatically changes the effectiveness of the swing.

What’s the Goal of Your Workout?

Another crucial consideration when choosing between kettlebells and dumbbells is the goal of the workout. What you are trying to achieve may shape what you decide to use.

Dumbbells Have Higher Impact on Building Strength and Muscle

If your fitness goal is to build strength and muscle, isolation is more of your focus. Dumbbells are used more commonly for isolation. Here are a few dumbbell strength training movements you can add to a workout program:

  1. Dumbbell deadlifts
  2. Dumbbell bent-over row
  3. Dumbbell bicep curl to press
  4. Dumbbell lateral flys

That isn’t to say you can’t use kettlebells for building strength and muscle. You just won’t be able to isolate your muscle groups as well. Here are some good strength movements you can try with your kettlebells:

  1. Goblet squat
  2. Front rack walking lunges
  3. Kettlebell bottoms up shoulder press
  4. Kettlebell chest press

You should note that when it comes to strength training, the movements that stand out are movements that involve rotation (such as a bicep curl), long levers, and center of mass distribution (lateral flys vs. bottoms up press).

Kettlebells Offer More Potential for Weight Loss and Cardio Training

With either weight loss or cardiovascular training goals, the focus of your workout will lean heavily on compound exercises and full-body movements. The kettlebell is perhaps the most robust tool for these workout categories. Due to its structural differences, it opens up the potential to do compound exercises and combinations with ease.

Here are a few kettlebell cardiovascular and weight loss movements to build into a workout program. These kettlebell moves can easily transition from one to the next.

  1. Kettlebell swings
  2. Kettlebell snatch
  3. Kettlebell complexes (such as a combination of a one-arm swing, into a clean, into a squat, and press)

You can use dumbbells for some compound movements to assist in weight loss and cardiovascular training, but variation is much more significant with kettlebells. Here are a few examples:

  1. Dumbbell thrusters
  2. Single-arm dumbbell clean
  3. Renegade row

Consider an All-In-One Tool: The YBell

It’s important to note that the learning curve is a bit higher with kettlebells. However, training with dumbbells and kettlebells combined translates well to any objectives you might have in a workout program. We recommend both for any level of athleticism, from beginners working out in their home gym to advanced athletes.

This is why, once again, the YBell powers through. Choosing one tool over the other can limit your potential growth and development as you train. Both kettlebells and dumbbells have their purpose in a workout. YBells give you the best of both worlds, along with the ability to perform double-grip med ball exercises and push-up stand exercises. It’s an all-in-one tool that gives you unlimited training options compared to traditional fitness equipment.

Casey Stenehjem

Casey has been a health and fitness professional since 2009, after graduating with a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science. She has helped hundreds of people achieve their fitness goals. From working with beginners, youth, older adults, and almost everyone in between, Casey loves to blend her diverse knowledge and experience to help guide her clients to where they want to be. Her philosophy is simple: meet people where they are today in order to help them learn, grow, and excel through education in nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes unique to them.

Casey’s certifications include:

  • Z-health R-phase, Z-health I-phase, Z-health S-phase, Z-health T-phase, Z-Health Strength and Suppleness  
  • Functional Range Conditioning Level 1
  • NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist
  • ACE Certified Personal Trainer  
  • Precision Nutrition Level 1  
  • USA Weightlifting Certified