Apple music or Spotify. Iced coffee or hot. Burrito or burrito bowl. All day long, you make a million little decisions, so it makes sense if you show up at the weight room wanting to shut your brain off and turn your body on. Before you can do so you have one last decision: kettlebells or dumbbells?
To help you figure out which of the muscle-making metals is better-suited to your strength-training goals, read on. Below, physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of digital workout platform Movement Vault, weighs the pros and cons of each tool, explaining exactly when you should grab each and why.
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The Benefits of Kettlebells and Dumbbells
Kettlebells and dumbbells each offer unique advantages that — should you have the luxury of choice — you should consider to most efficiently work toward your fitness goals. But whether you're using a kettlebell or dumbbell to strength train is far less important than the fact that you're strength training at all.
"The perks of strength training cannot be understated," Wickham says. "Strength training can increase your metabolism, reduce risk of injury, support sports performance and help you live the life you want to live, independently."
Research also suggests that lifting can support mental wellbeing, support healthy body fat levels, and improve heart health. And these strength benefits are afforded to anyone strength training — no matter their device of choice.
Go ahead and train with what you have available. And when both are in reach, keep the following tips in mind.
3 Times You Should Choose a Dumbbell
1. Doing Chest and Shoulder Presses
Before you can begin movements like the chest and shoulder press, you need to be able to lift the weight up to your chest or shoulders — usually, with a clean.
"Getting two kettlebells into positions is going to be more awkward compared to getting two dumbbells into position," says Wickham, who suggests sticking with dumbbells for these movements for that reason.
Bonus: Because getting two dumbbells into position is easier, you'll likely be able to press more weight with dumbbells, which will translate to greater upper-body gains over time.
2. You’re Brand New to Lifting
Due to their shape, a kettlebell's mass primarily ends up on one side of your wrist and hand. This means that how heavy (or light) the weight feels is dependent on how you hold and position it, which means using the kettlebell takes some getting used to.
"It usually takes some time for someone to get familiar with the kettlebell and be comfortable enough to use it during a workout," Wickham says.
Dumbbells, on the other hand, have a handle that's positioned evenly between two equal-weight ends. This means there's less of a learning curve for holding and positioning dumbbells than kettlebells, he says. So if you're new to strength training, you may want to stick with dumbbells to start.
3. Performing Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises are a type of movement that target just one muscle group (think: biceps curls, triceps extensions and lateral raises). Especially popular amongst bodybuilders and athletes with aesthetic-based goals, Wickham says isolation exercises narrow in on one muscle group and work it to failure.
Dumbbells are the superior equipment choice for isolation exercises, due to their symmetrical shape and single-hand handle. "You can do isolation exercises with kettlebells, but it's less awkward with dumbbells," he says. Need proof? Try biceps curling a kettlebell!
3 Times You Should Choose a Kettlebell
1. Doing Posterior Chain Movements
Your posterior chain — that's the group of powerful muscles that run along the backside of your body — is best strengthened through movements like Russian kettlebell swings and deadlifts.
While it's possible to do swings and deadlift variations with dumbbells, because the kettlebell has a larger handle that accommodates the girth of two hands, the kettlebell is your best option here, Wickham says.
2. During Flow Workouts
Strength-training flows — a series of compound exercises seamlessly strung together into a movement-turned-dance combo — have become increasingly popular recently. If you want to mirror some of these routines you've seen on Instagram, Wickham says it's best to pick kettlebells.
"For more advanced, artsier movement combinations, kettlebells are best," he says. According to Wickham, the size of the handle makes it's easier to switch hands within a single flow or add in a two-handed movement.
3. For Grip-Strength Training
If you were to list off the muscle groups you want to strengthen, odds are your hand and forearm muscles wouldn't make the cut. But Wickham says they should!
"Grip strength isn't just essential for day-to-day activities, it's also essential for being able to lift as much as you want to lift during other weighted movements," he says. The deadlift, clean, and snatch, for example, can all be limited by a weak grip.
After all, if you can't hold onto the bar, you won't be able to pull it to your thigh or into the front-rack or overhead position. Ultimately, that means that weak grip can stall your strength progress throughout your body.
To strengthen these often-ignored muscles, Wickham recommends incorporating kettlebell swings, farmer's carries and kettlebell holds into your routine. As the names as the exercises suggest, kettlebells are king here.
Bottom Line: Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell
At the end of the day, while the kettlebell vs. dumbbell debate is an interesting one, playing with iron is always the better option than skipping a workout because you don't have the most ideal exercise equipment. Because, as Wickham says, "you can pretty much do every strength training exercise with either one."
- Obesity: "Weight training, aerobic physical activities, and long-term waist circumference change in men"
- JAMA Psychiatry: "Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease"