What should I get, a kettlebell or a dumbbell?
It’s a common question you may be asking if you are building a home or garage gym, especially if your gym space is small or gym budget is limited forcing you to choose one or the other.
To help you answer the kettlebells vs dumbbells debate in your own mind I am going to give you the objective facts and the pros and cons of kettlebells vs dumbbells.
I will compare these two styles of weights as concisely as possible, so you can make up your own mind about what is best for you and your home or garage gym.
- What is the Difference Between Kettlebells and Dumbbells?
- Which is Better and Why?
- What are Pros and Cons of Kettlebells and Dumbbells?
- The Quick Rundown (TL;DR)
What is the Difference Between Kettlebells and Dumbbells?
What I hope to convey here is that when deciding between kettlebells or dumbbells, neither is inherently better or worse.
They are tools, with some overlapping function, but essentially they are different and whether you decide to train with kettlebells or dumbbells depends on your goal and the purpose of your workout on any given day.
Dumbbells and kettlebells co-exist peacefully in many home and garage gyms where their handlers get plenty of utility from each.
I should know.
I have and use both regularly in my own gym. If you are interested, there is a snapshot of my own budget home gym in this article.
The Mighty Russian Kettlebell – What is it?
Physically, a kettlebell cast iron weight in the shape of a ball, with a handle on top usually wide enough for two hands.
If it helps you, visualize a cannonball with a handle on top. The bottom of the ball is flat.
Most kettlebell exercises use just one kettlebell.
I will talk about how the kettlebell compares to the dumbbell in a minute, so stick with me.
The Time-Honored Gym Staple: The Dumbbell
Everyone knows what a dumbbell is, but just in case…
A dumbbell is a short bar, long enough for you to grab with one hand. This bar has two equal weights at each end.
Dumbbells are frequently used in pairs, and most people rightly associate the dumbbell with strength and resistance training or weight lifting.
But more on that in a bit…
What are the Key Differences?
To sum it up succinctly and briefly as possible the key differences between the kettlebells vs dumbbells are this:
Kettlebells – Key Function
Kettlebells are used for dynamic compound exercises that use muscles all over the body at once.
Take the kettlebell swing as an example.
The kettlebell swing is basically an explosive deadlift, where you thrust a mid-level weight up with a lot of power again and again. You gain more back and leg strength, along with building endurance and cardiovascular training swinging one 35 lb kettlebell than deadlifting a pair of 65 lb dumbbells.
Dumbbells – Key Function
For targeted hypertrophy, dumbbells are superior to kettlebells.
Dumbbell exercises are designed to isolate and build specific muscles. They are the king when it comes to muscle isolation, and if you want to see gains in a specific area, the dumbbell is a great tool for that.
Comparing Different Goals and Purposes
Like I said earlier, whether you choose kettlebells or dumbbells depends on what your goal is.
With that in mind, I will cover a few different goals and training styles and talk about which is best, the kettlebells or dumbbells.
If losing weight is your goal, the kettlebell wins hands down.
The kettlebell exercises are dynamic, full body movements. They are energetic exercises that combine cardiovascular and strength in one movement. They are done with high repetition and they burn a ton of calories quickly.
Dumbbells exercises are great, but they are designed for building strength and muscle, and rarely have a strong cardiovascular component.
If hypertrophy or building larger, stronger muscles is your goal, dumbbells have the advantage.
Dumbbell exercises are generally isolation exercises, which means you can focus on one muscle or small muscle group at a time, carefully planning how to build your physique.
Keep in mind, kettlebells are a strength-building tool, and are used in strongman training, but the exercises are compound movements, not targeted isolation exercises like with the dumbbell.
The goal of CrossFit is to improve overall fitness or functional fitness. CrossFit exercises are functional movements that done with high intensity and often, high reps.
Because of this goal, CrossFit WODs, or routines, use the kettlebell far more than the dumbbells, and it is likely many CrossFit athletes would get a kettlebell before they would pick up a pair of dumbbells.
That’s not to say that dumbbells have no place in CrossFit, they do.
Functional fitness is about being a better athlete and the dumbbell has a place in that. CrossFit is including dumbbell exercises in WODs more and more.
Beginners, just like everyone else, can choose between kettlebells or dumbbells, or use both.
If their fitness goal is weight training or bodybuilding, the beginner may be better served by dumbbells.
If their goal is overall fitness, gaining functional fitness, or losing weight, a kettlebell will fit that goal a little better.
For seniors choosing between a kettlebell or dumbbell, their current fitness level and fitness goals need to be taken into account.
If I were advising my own mom, who is 76 years young and not very fit, I would recommend a lighter weight kettlebell workout. I like the kettlebell for my senior mom because the dynamic movements improve balance, strengthen stabilizing muscles, and provide a heart-protective cardio workout.
These are things I hope will keep her mobile and active for years to come.
This is one example of an easy beginner kettlebell workout for seniors. The exercises are easy and safe, the trainer moves at a reasonable pace and works for time instead of reps, so anyone can keep up, and it’s a follow along video so all she needs to do is copy the instructor.
Which is Better and Why?
I say they are BOTH extremely valuable tools and along with a barbell and power rack, are absolutely essential for your home gym.
Here is why:
Each has something unique to offer.
The kettlebell offers improvements in strength, flexibility, power, and endurance thanks to the explosive nature of the exercises.
Kettlebell movements, in general, have a reduced time under tension during the eccentric portion of a lift.
What does that mean?
The eccentric portion of an exercise is when your muscle lengthens, which happens on the second half of the exercise, as the kettlebell heads back towards the ground.
The eccentric portion of an exercise is also when most of the muscle building or hypertrophy happens.
With dumbbells, the movements are slower and controlled, and the eccentric portion of dumbbell exercises is longer, making dumbbell exercises better for muscle growth and strength.
Just one more thing on this topic before we move on. I want to talk about one specific exercise and why I think all athletes should incorporate the kettlebell swing into their routine.
The Kettlebell swing alone makes it worth buying a kettlebell!
Improves and corrects posture.
A desk job, a long commute or extended screen time has the potential to turn a person into a slouching hunchback on a semi-permanent basis, if they don’t check and correct their posture frequently.
This forward tilt makes them appear shorter, heavier, less confident and less fit.
Seems like harsh punishment for having a desk job or a long commute, but ones posture is at risk from simply sitting too much.
How can the kettlebell swing save the day?
A kettlebell swing demands you use your core and the muscles which combat or counteract the slouch one may develop from sitting in front of a computer.
The kettlebell swing engages the posterior chain, glute, hamstrings and stabilizing muscles that will have one standing tall in no time.
If your goal happens to be losing weight or looking more fit, correcting your posture with the kettlebell swing should be first on your list.
You don’t even have to lose any actual weight, correcting your posture will make you look 5 to 10 lbs lighter and more fit.
Don’t believe me?
Have a friend take a picture of you standing semi slouched and another picture of you popping tall.
Compare and prepare to be amazed.
If you need to pick up a kettlebell to get all those great benefits from the kettlebell swing, you are in luck.
What are Pros and Cons of Kettlebells and Dumbbells?
Pros of Kettlebells
- On average, a kettlebell workout burns 20 calories per minute!
- Kettlebells excel at increasing endurance, strength and explosive power.
- Most kettlebell movements are whole body compound movements powered by hip drive.
- Many kettlebell exercises are done in high repetition which means they strengthen and torch calories quickly.
- Kettlebell exercises improve joint health, flexibility, core strength, stability and balance.
- Kettlebells are superior for improving overall functional fitness and athleticism.
- The great majority of kettlebell exercises use just one kettlebell.
Cons of Kettlebells
- If used incorrectly, kettlebells can strain your wrists.
- Kettlebell exercises have less eccentric movement compared to dumbbell exercises. Eccentric movement promotes muscle growth.
- Kettlebells are usually listed in KILOS, and converting them to pounds in your head is annoying.
- Pound per Pound (or converted kilo), kettlebells are usually more expensive than dumbbells because dumbbells are usually sold in pairs.
Need more proof that kettlebells are the more expensive guys?
When you consider that most kettlebell exercises use just one kettlebell, while dumbbell exercises often use 2 dumbbells, things balance out.
Pros of Dumbbells
- Dumbbell exercises are hypertrophy based – concentric and eccentric movement is balanced leading to better muscle and strength gains.
- Dumbbell exercises target specific muscle groups so you can build muscle exactly where you want.
- Dumbbells are usually sold as pairs, which is convenient, and makes them a better value.
- Dumbbells are almost always listed and created in pounds.
- Dumbbells stay in a FIXED position in your hand, unlike a kettlebell which can twist or shift as the weight moves.
Cons of Dumbbells
- Dumbbells are wide enough for only one hand, while most kettlebell handles have room for two hands.
- Dumbbells are too wide and not balanced in a way that they can be used for swings or many of the dynamic exercises you use a kettlebell for.
- Since dumbbells are often used in pairs, a full set takes up more space.
- Bros are ALWAYS curling in front of the dumbbell rack so you can never access them when you need them (Ok, that last one was a joke, they would probably curl in front of the kettlebells too).
If your fitness goals include building muscle in a specific and targeted way, I highly recommend you invest in dumbbells.
Here I have a list of the best hex dumbbells, which I like because the hex shape prevents them from rolling and they can be used as push up stands.
If you have limited space, a popular option is adjustable dumbbells because they take up hardly any space. Here are the best adjustable dumbbells I could find.
Can You Substitute Dumbbells for Kettlebells?
Kettlebells are not odd-shaped dumbbells!
While the two weights cover some overlapping ground, at the end of the day they serve two distinct purposes.
I, personally have enough love in my heart to give BOTH of these training tools a home, but if I had to pick one over the other I would choose a kettlebell.
Kettlebells are good for endurance, strengthening the entire body in one workout, increasing explosive power, strengthening the core, increasing athleticism and speed. The exercises burn a ton of calories and shed fat fast.
For me, a kettlebell is more in line with my fitness goals.
If I was a bodybuilder or weightlifter, looking to increase the size of my muscles, I think dumbbells would be what I chose.
Dumbbells are great for carefully and specifically building your body by working specifically on local muscle groups you are trying to build.
Are Kettlebells and Dumbbells Interchangeable?
OK, time to admit it.
In some cases, yes, they are interchangeable.
Here is how kettlebells and dumbbells are ALIKE.
- Both allow you to expand your range of motion, compared to a barbell
- Both allow you to work unilaterally, or one side at a time
- Both improve joint stability and balance, compared to a barbell
- Both are weights
- There are a good number of exercises that can be done to a satisfactory degree using either one
Here are exercises that can be done well with either a dumbbell or a kettlebell:
- Overhead press
- Bent over row
- Overhead squat
And probably a hundred more exercises I cannot think of right now.
The Quick Rundown (TL;DR)
Generally, kettlebell exercises are used for explosive dynamic exercises done with high reps. They are great for overall fitness, strengthening the core, improving stability and balance and will burn calories like no other.
Dumbbells, on the other hand, are for getting specific. Dumbbell exercises are designed to work one specific muscle group and are the tool of choice for bodybuilders and weight lifters.
With that said, they do have some overlap and people have been known to use one in place of the other with no ill effects, so there you have it.
The end, my friend!
It is my sincere hope that the info contained in this article has helped you decide where you stand in the battle against kettlebells vs dumbbells. If you stand in the middle, I respect that too.
If you love garage gym news and gear as much as I do I know you are going to love the Garage Gym Power newsletter so sign up for it in the link below.
PS, while I have you…
If you are building a home gym, I have two useful resources for you. If your gym space is small, take a look at my top picks for the best equipment for a compact home gym.
If you are gunning for a weight lifting home gym, here is a list of the best weight lifting equipment for home gyms.