Kettlebell vs. dumbbell

Which piece of strength workout equipment is truly better than the other?
  • 11 May - 17 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly

When you're ready to tear through a round of heavy goblet squats or single-arm chest presses in a crowded gym, you might pick up the first weight you can get your sweaty hands on – no matter if it's a kettlebell or a dumbbell. And if you're getting fit from home, you might simply be stuck using one type of weight during every single workout.

But does the kind of weight you use for strength-building exercises really matter? Here, we break down the key differences between kettlebells vs. dumbbells, when each type of weight is most beneficial, and if you need to mix both tools into your routine.

The differences between kettlebells and dumbbells

1. Weight distribution

Thanks to their distinct shapes, kettlebells and dumbbells have different weight distributions. A kettlebell has a bell-like shape, featuring a ball flattened on one end and a curved handle on the other, so its weight is distributed right underneath the handle. A dumbbell, on the other hand, consists of a straight handle with two equally sized weights on each end, so the weight is evenly distributed. In turn, a kettlebell inherently provides less stability than a dumbbell, therefore it asks more from your body to keep steady.

This design difference is what gives kettlebells a slight leg up on dumbbells when it comes to improving your own stability. If your stability is limited, you may compensate your form when performing complex exercises, increasing your risk of injury or muscular imbalances.

2. Handle shapes and range of motion

Another key kettlebell vs. dumbbell distinction is their handles – the shape and how that impacts your movement patterns. Since a kettlebell's handle is above the weight, it can accommodate two hands when gripped on the outside or the inside (think: positioning your hands in the free space between the bell and the handle), while a dumbbell generally has room only for one.

These differences are particularly significant when it comes to the power and range of motion you can achieve during certain exercises. The kettlebell's handle – combined with its uneven weight distribution – makes it ideal for ballistic exercises, such as kettlebell swings, cleans, and snatches. During a kettlebell swing, for instance, you'll use one or two hands to explosively swing the weight through a large arc of motion from the floor to your eye level, which helps develop power. As the weight falls back to the starting position, the muscles in your lower and upper body, as well as your core, will contract to slow the descent, turning the glue-building exercise into a full-body move.

While this swinging motion can be done with a dumbbell, it may not be as effective (or comfortable) due to the tool's equal weight distribution and straight handle. Simply put, the shape and weight distribution of the kettlebell will allow for a more fluid, safer motion in most cases.

When to use kettlebells vs. dumbbells in a workout

To determine which strength-building tool you should incorporate into your workout, first think about the goal of the individual exercise at hand: Is it strength, stability, or power?

For example, you can certainly build strength with kettlebells, but generally, if you're trying to really build more strength and have more reps, the dumbbell is going to be something you're going to want to reach for versus a kettlebell since it's more stable. Similarly, dumbbells can be useful tools for building power and tackling ballistic exercises, but by and large, choosing a kettlebell is going to be more beneficial because you're going to be able to really grip that handle as you're moving through a greater range of motion… they're really built to be moved around more dynamically. You should also consider which muscles you're aiming to target: If you're looking to target those stabiliser muscles, a kettlebell may be a better pick.

The takeaway

In the kettlebell vs. dumbbell debate, there's no one clear-cut winner. In our humble opinion, you can do all the same exercises with either of the two (yes, you can still swing a dumbbell). With proper training knowledge and basic understanding of exercise selection, you can really do the same with both.

Not to mention, both types of weights have their advantages, which is why we suggest incorporating kettlebells and dumbbells into your strength-training routine.