While both fitness equipment staples are great strength training tools, there are some pretty major differences between what a kettlebell vs. a dumbbell can offer. And it’s definitely something to consider the next time you’re looking at the weight rack.
The first and most obvious difference between the two lies in their shape. A kettlebell is a round, bell-shaped weight with a curved handle on one side, while a dumbbell is weighted on either end of a thin straight handle. But how you hold the weight is a factor, too. “A kettlebell is usually held with both hands, allowing a person to choose one heavier weight,” says John Gardner, a NASM-certified personal trainer and CEO of Kickoff. Dumbbells usually come in twos, Gardner says, which means you can divide the weight on either side of your body for a more “even” workout.
Here’s an example: “When performing squats with weights using a kettlebell, you're holding it to your chest in the center, whereas using a dumbbell, you'd hold one in your left hand and the other in your right,” Gardner says. Differences like this not only affect your experience while working out but also how your muscles are targeted. Here, experts break down the unique benefits of kettlebells versus dumbbells so you know which one to choose during your next workout.
The Benefits Of Kettlebells
The main attraction of a kettlebell is its user-friendly shape. Because it has a handle that sticks up, “it’s typically best for compound and full-body movements designed to build strength, endurance, and explosive power,” Ella Magers, a certified personal trainer, tells Bustle. You can quickly transition the weight between your hands or move seamlessly through an exercise, like when doing kettlebell swings or halos.
Kettlebells are also balanced differently than dumbbells, with more weight on one side. According to Magers, this means the kettlebell will shift and move throughout an exercise, which forces you to utilize your stabilizing muscles for a full-body workout.
The shape also comes in handy if you want to improve your overall muscle endurance and cardiovascular health. As Gardner says, “They are extremely efficient when opting for HIIT workouts as they allow you to perform movements faster.”
When To Use Kettlebells
Use a kettlebell when you want to improve your overall strength and power, or when you want to boost your cardio through those explosive movements, says Joey Thurman, CES, CPT, FNS, a certified personal trainer with fitness platform kuudose. A good place to start is with kettlebell swings, where you grab the handle of the kettlebell with one or two hands and swing the bell between your legs. “This is meant to use momentum and cue a great hinge pattern,” he tells Bustle.
Other options include deadlifts, where you might find it easier to hold a kettlebell rather than a heavy bar or two dumbbells, Thurman says. Rows are kettlebell-friendly, too. “I like kettlebell rows as the weight is directly beneath your hand in line with the line of pull, where gravity is at its highest,” he explains. A kettlebell row targets your back, shoulders, glutes, and core. According to Gardner, kettlebells are also perfect for goblet squats, where you hold the weight at your chest and squat, as well as snatches, where you lift the bell quickly off the ground to overhead.
The Benefits Of Dumbbells
Dumbbells are useful for developing strength through eccentric movements, aka exercises that slowly contract your muscle. “With dumbbells, the weight is distributed evenly, which allows for more stability and for you to more easily stay in control throughout the movement,” Magers says. This is why dumbbells are also considered safer than the more wobbly kettlebells, especially for beginners.
Also, using two dumbbells at the same time allows you to work the muscles on both sides of your body evenly, Gardner adds. Compare this to kettlebells where your stronger side might take over to compensate through a move.
This weight distribution may make it easier to increase how much you’re lifting, too. “It’s easier, for instance, to workout with 20 pounds via 10 pounds on each side than focusing on a 20-pound kettlebell,” says Gardner. “When you increase the weights with dumbbells, you can increase reps and elevate the heart rate in the process as you use more power overall.”
When To Use Dumbbells
Go for the dumbbells when you want to do arm exercises like lateral raises, push presses, and skull crushers, says Gardner. The reason? All of these exercises work best when you hold a dumbbell in each hand, as that ensures you’re working both sides of your body equally.
Dumbbells are also ideal when you want to target a specific area. Again, this is due to the balanced weight distribution and linear grip of the dumbbell, which makes it easier to perform those slow, controlled eccentric movements in order to isolate a specific muscle group, says Magers. Think tricep kickbacks, bicep curls, and hammer curls.
The Bottom Line
While both tools will help you build strength, the main difference lies in how the weight is distributed and what that means for your muscles. “Either way, these can be swapped for lots of exercises,” Thurman says. “The main thing is you are lifting — and that's a win.”
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Van Gelder, L. (2015). EMG Analysis and Sagittal Plane Kinematics of the Two‐Handed and Single‐Handed Kettlebell Swing: A Descriptive Study. Int J Sports Phys Ther. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4637916/
John Gardner, NASM-certified personal trainer
Ella Magers, certified personal trainer
Joey Thurman, CES, CPT, FNS, certified personal trainer