January 08, 2021
"Kettlebells or Dumbbells, Which Are Better?" is a question we often come across from both novice and experienced lifters alike. People new to weightlifting wonder if they should buy dumbbells or kettlebells (or both) to start off their fitness journey, while seasoned weightlifters with many years of dumbbell training are intrigued by the unconventional and highly attractive nature of kettlebell training but they aren't sure if it is right for them. So, because this topic comes up in our circle regularly, we thought an in-depth comparison of Kettlebells vs Dumbbells was in order. Who better to put this together than Jan Libourel, a man who has been using kettlebells for many years and dumbbells for more than half of a century.
Below, you will find all of the answers you need when deciding between kettlebells and dumbbells...or both!
By Jan Libourel
This discussion was undertaken at the suggestion of the good people at SET FOR SET. The task has proved to be a somewhat daunting one. In the first place, the Net is rife with such articles. Second, they all pretty much say the same thing. Third--and most frustrating to me--there is little in the general consensus that I can disagree with. If I could have demolished the prevailing wisdom with brilliant and well-reasoned criticisms, the task would have been much easier.
Really, there is not a great deal that can be accomplished with kettlebells that cannot be done with dumbbells and vice-versa. In fact, the original "dumb bells" first mentioned in the early 18th century were in all probability bell-shaped hand weights that were actually more akin to modern kettlebells than what we call dumbbells today. During much of the 19th century, almost any sort of hand-held exercise device was called a "dumbbell." The term covered Indian clubs; barbells were originally called "two handed dumbbells; the kettlebell, when it first appeared on the physical culture scene, was also considered a sort of dumbbell, and in some languages like French and Spanish, kettlebells are to this day called "Russian dumbbells." (I discuss this in more detail in my August 3, 2020 post on this blog entitled "Fitness Miscellany" under the subsection "Hell's Bells.”)
It is often claimed that dumbbells are superior to kettlebells for building muscle size and overall bodily strength. At least some of this claim is based on an experiment that pitted one group of trainees that were given 35-pound kettlebells to train with, while the other group were given the use of much heavier free weights and weight machines. Whether such an experiment can drape itself with the mantle of "science" would seem open to question. Nonetheless, I believe there is some merit to this position. Certainly for muscle building--putting a better peak on your biceps or chiselling those pecs--dumbbells are in all probability the superior tool. However, if you are not interested in building a competition-quality physique and merely want to build an attractive, toned muscular body without an enormous amount of workout time, the kettlebell may be a better choice for you. By the way, if you really believe that you can build a body that can hold its own in today's physique competitions with nothing more than good genetic potential, clean living, a high-protein diet and lots of hard training, then I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you!
Kettlebells are presumed to be the superior tool for total body fitness and strengthening the posterior chain. They are also supposed to be superior for cardio training. I would ask, "Why?" When weights of any kind are used for cardio training, the emphasis would be on higher reps with lighter weights, and many of the best exercises such as the squat or power clean can be done equally well with the kettlebell (or a pair of kettlebells), dumbbells or a barbell. At least such has been my experience.
Related: 50 Best Kettlebell Exercises
The classic kettlebell exercise for strengthening the posterior chain (a term I was unfamiliar with until I became a kettlebeller) is the swing. More than 56 years ago when I began training with dumbbells, I performed overhead swings with a pair of dumbbells. These were pretty much identical to what kettlebellers call "American" swings, beloved of Crossfitters but criticized as hazardous by other exercise mavens. I soon worked my way up to performing them with 62-pound dumbbells and continued to do so for many years without any ill effects that I could discern. Could I have done the same with a 124-pound kettlebell with its different balance? I don't know, it certainly sounds very daunting to me today, but then many of the poundages I could handle 40 or 50 years ago seem pretty daunting now! (I did throw my back out once doing bent-over rows with a heavy barbell, but that's another story.)
At present, I can still perform fairly high reps with "Russian-style" swings using a 75-pound kettlebell. (The "bear" from Zoobells--how appropriate for Russian swings!). At times I would have liked to have had access to a heavier kettlebell for swings and maybe goblet squats, but I'll be damned if I will fork over $120 or so (plus shipping) for the mere five-pound weight increase offered by an 80-pounder, and the jump to an 88-pound bell, the next heavier common weight, might be too much for this old-timer. (I'll be turning 79 before the end of winter.)
This leads into one of the major points in the kettlebells vs. dumbbells debate. With adjustable dumbbells, if you want to make a minor increase in resistance, you merely clamp on a couple of lightweight plates on each bell and be done with it (Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Weight Dumbbells). With kettlebells, you have to go to a heavier bell. Not only is this vastly more expensive, but the increase in resistance in much more drastic since kettlebells are most commonly sold in increments of approximate 4 kilograms. Thus kettlebells in the weights most commonly used by male trainees are typically offered in 35 pounds (16 kg.), 44# (20 kg.), 53# (24 kg.), 62# (28 kg.) and 70+ pounds (32 kg.). Kettlebell doctrine is that the body needs to be jarred radically into adjusting to heavier weights. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't, in my experience anyway. I have found it easier to hit sticking points with kettlebells than with dumbbells, but then this may be partially a matter of age in my case. One personal example is that I found doing one-handed lifts--cleans & presses and snatches--with my 36-pound kettlebell was becoming insufficiently challenging, but the transition to a 45-pound bell limited me to performing very few reps. The solution was to buy a 40-pound bell, which met my needs very well. I note with pleasure that SET FOR SET is wisely including a 40-pound bell in addition to the more traditional weights in their forthcoming lineup of kettlebells. Some lines of kettlebells come in five-pound increments. This makes weight increases less drastic but increases expense as you acquire a full complement of kettlebells. Some people address this problem by tying, taping or clamping light exercise plates to their heaviest kettlebell. This strikes me as makeshift, cumbersome, inelegant and potentially dangerous if the taped-on plates should break loose and go flying.
Related: What Size Kettlebells Should I Buy?
Related: What Size Dumbbells Should I Buy?
A major advantage of the kettlebell is that for many exercises it is off-balance, providing what is called a "displaced load." You have to bring more muscles into play to perform many kettlebell exercises. I had to learn this the hard way after I got my 36-pound Onnit "chimpanzee" kettlebell. When I tried to clean and press it as I would a dumbbell, I found to my mortification that not only could I not press it, but I got a nasty pinched nerve. Some exercises are definitely more challenging with a kettlebell. For others, in which the kettlebell is used as a "dead" weight as in bent-over or upright rows, farmer's carries, stiff-legged deadlifts, etc., there is really no practical difference between the kettlebell and free weights. Back in the days of my youth and young manhood, major purveyors of free weights would offer kits consisting of an exercise barbell, dumbbell handles with sleeves and collars, plates and other accoutrements including kettlebell handles that would slip over your dumbbell bars. For a long time, I could never figure out what the kettlebell handles were good for, but I now realize this was an attempt to create the offset loads of actual kettlebells. How these rigged-out hybrids compared with regular kettlebells as efficient exercise tools I can't say. In any event, such kettlebell handles are incompatible with the more modern style of dumbbell bars.
Related: Benefits of Offset Loads
Theoretical discussions are fine as far as they go, but I think they are always trumped by hands-on experience. To this end I decided to perform two sequences of five high-repetition exercises to see how many reps I could perform with each type of equipment . For the first sequence, I used the kettlebells first and the dumbbells second. For the second sequence, I reversed the order, with the dumbbells first, followed by the kettlebells. The first exercise I performed was the one-handed clean and press. Since my left shoulder is troubled by arthritis, I limited this to my right hand. I used a 36-pound kettlebell and a dumbbell of identical weight. The remaining exercises were all two-handed. I used a pair of 20-pound dumbbells and a 40-pound kettlebell. If these weights sound a little sissified to you, remember that I was shooting for high repetitions, I have a bum shoulder, and I am no longer the man I once was! My next exercise was the power clean. I cleaned the kettlebell to the "goblet" position and the dumbbells to a shoulder rack position. This was followed by swings--overhead "American" swings. Finally, I did squats--goblet squats for the kettlebell and the dumbbells again in a shoulder rack. The results showing the number of reps performed for each exercise follow:
Clean and Press: (First Series) KB 10, DB 9; (Second Series) DB 6, KB 6
Power Clean: (First Series) KB 23, DB 20; (Second Series) DB 17, KB 13
Swing: (First Series) KB 20, DB 25; (Second Series) DB 13, KB 18
Squat: (First Series) KB 19, DB 24; (Second Series) DB 21, KB 16
Well, these results indicate there is not too much practical difference between these pieces of gear. The only comments I can make is that I found squatting with the dumbbells in the shoulder rack position markedly easier than the goblet squat with the kettlebell, and my gimpy left shoulder felt a little bothersome while performing power cleans.
In a recent post on this blog (Adjustable Dumbbells vs Fixed Weight Dumbbells), I suggested that you get pair of adjustable dumbbells, including handles, collars and four 1 1/4-, 2 1/2-, 5- and 10-pound plates. These will give you two 42-pound dumbbells and will probably cost you a bit under $100. When you have maxed out with these, get four 20-pound plates. When your dumbbells are loaded to capacity, you will have a pair of 82-pounders, and you can get in a lot of hard training with these. Your costs at this time will probably be a bit less than $300. To get the best from dumbbells, you will also need an adjustable incline bench, and this will run up the expense appreciably. Except for the bench, storage demands are minimal. An extensive set of fixed-weight dumbbells will be much more expensive and will require one or more racks. All of this I discuss in detail in the blog post just referenced.
There are more variables with kettlebells. The usual "starter" weight recommended for active men is 35 pounds. Despite all my previous training, I found this gave me a tough workout...for about a month, whereupon I was ready to segue to a heavier bell. Prices for a plain kettlebell in this weight range from about $49 to $60 on three sites I checked (shipping extra). For the next customary weight increase (20 kg., 44 pounds), the price range was $58 to $70; it was $67 to $86 for 53 pounds (24 kg.), $75 to $100 for 62 pounds (28 kg.), and $89 to $115 for 70 pounds (32 kg.). You can, of course, get much heavier kettlebells, up to 200+ pounds, but costs and shipping will rise accordingly. You may also decide to train with double kettlebells. However, many kettlebellers will combine kettlebells of different weights for certain exercises. I do it myself for exercises like sumo squats or Romanian deadlifts. Kettlebell mavens like to claim the unbalanced weights are more "real world." This may or may not be making a virtue out of necessity. You can also spend a good deal more on "face" kettlebells. They are fun and make training more enjoyable (I think), but they do run up the tab.
From what I have said so far, there would seem to be little reason for preferring kettlebells to the more economical adjustable dumbbells. Nonetheless, if (perish the thought) we had to forsake our home for much smaller quarters, the first resistance equipment I would take would be my complement of SET FOR SET macebells (of course!), followed by all or most of my seven kettlebells. My extensive assortment of free weights (close to a half-ton) I could sell off with far fewer regrets. Kettlebells just have a certain charm, allure or "sex appeal" that I can't rationally explain. This particularly true of my three face kettlebells (the Onnit chimp, the Ironskull Fitness bulldog and the Zoobells bear), but it is also true of my plain kettlebells to a lesser extent. Free weights just seem sort of "blah" by comparison. Perhaps the relative novelty of kettlebells--I've been training with them for less than five years, free weights for 56 years--can explain this, but some other exercise people have said the same thing, so I know it isn't just my personal idiosyncrasy. Training with a kettlebell just seems more fun.
Related: 18 Benefits of Kettlebells
Although the title of this piece is "Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells," they are by no means mutually exclusive or adversarial. Both are excellent pieces of exercise equipment. For some exercises, you will probably find kettlebells better, for others dumbbells. They are not terribly expensive in the overall scheme of things and can be acquired incrementally. I have had some excellent workouts combining both dumbbells and kettlebells and still sometimes combine some dumbbell moves with my kettlebell workouts. Even if you have a good dumbbell set, consider adding some kettlebells for training variety, and vice-versa. And don't forget the macebells!
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