Dumbbells vs Kettlebells: Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 18, 2022

In terms of free weight resistance exercise lifting modalities, the dumbbell and kettlebell are just as popular as the ever-present barbell, with both implements presenting a quite similar level of effectiveness and functionality.

However, both dumbbells and kettlebells begin to differ in terms of load distribution, angle of resistance and a host of other technical factors that may alter the sort of training stimulus and results that an exerciser is seeking to induce.

While the dumbbell and kettlebell are generally considered to be interchangeable for the most part, savvy athletes and exercisers wishing to up their game can take advantage of the small but significant differences between the two lifting implements so as to exemplify a certain aspect of their training routine.

What are Dumbbells?

what are dumbbells

Dumbbells are a type of free weight exercise equipment generally taking the form of a short handle with two weights of equal heaviness on both sides of the handle, allowing the exerciser to either use them individually or as a pair so as to induce bilateral or unilateral muscular activation when needed.

What are Kettlebells?

what are kettlebells

Kettlebells are also another form of free weight exercise equipment that take the shape of an inverted letter “U” shaped handle with the weight attached to the bottom of the handle, altering the distribution of resistance in comparison to the dumbbell and providing a different form of grip for the exerciser.

The kettlebell, while used in a similar manner to the dumbbell, is in fact its own form of training modality and as such must be utilized in a slightly different manner that takes advantage of its ability to facilitate dynamic and explosive compound movements more effectively.

How do Dumbbells and Kettlebells Differ as Modalities?

Primarily, dumbbells and kettlebells differ in the manner of which the weight is distributed throughout the exerciser’s body, with dumbbells placing the weight in an equal measure on both sides of the hand, thereby providing a more stable and controlled source of resistance.

dumbbell sumo deadlift

This is not the case with the kettlebell, which not only precludes the use of certain hand grip forms as the handle retains its reverse “U” shape, but also places the weight some distance beneath the hand itself, causing more momentum to be added into every movement and altering the manner in which the resistance is loaded onto the exerciser’s musculature.

kettlebell sumo deadlift

This difference in stability between the two lifting modalities can equate to their usage being more suitable for different forms of training, such as in the case of the kettlebell’s more momentum based mechanics allowing it to aid in isometric type training stimulus.

The opposite is just as true with dumbbells, whose capacity to act as a balanced and stable source of resistance allows them to be used in a more controlled manner, as would be required in isolation exercises that require slow and focused muscular contraction, such as in the case of bodybuilding and powerlifting accessory movements.

In addition to this is the fact that kettlebells can generally be used with a two handed grip due to the shape and size of its handle, something that is not as applicable with most brands of dumbbell due to the narrowness of their handles.

This difference, while relatively small, can make a difference in the performance of certain exercises such as goblet squats or overhead triceps extensions wherein being able to retain a two-handed grip can greatly improve the exerciser’s safety and training effectiveness.

Are There Different Kinds of Dumbbell?

Generally, dumbbells are quite similar in function and appearance between brands and variations - with the largest difference, if there is any at all, being whether the weights at both ends of the handles are of an adjustable nature or not.

The majority of dumbbells are of a fixed nature wherein the weights are securely attached to the handles and cannot be changed or removed, requiring that an additional pair of dumbbells be purchased if the exerciser wishing to utilize progressive overload or otherwise use a different amount of weight.

This issue is easily remedied through the usage of adjustable dumbbells, which allow the exerciser to change how much weight is attached to the handle, thereby removing the need for additional pairs of dumbbells.

Are There Different Kinds of Kettlebell?

For the most part, there is only one form of kettlebell - with all different brands and concepts of the kettlebell generally sharing the same design and function, meaning that kettlebells are pretty much the same no matter where they are purchased from.

Small distinctions may be found in the material that kettlebells are made from - but the largest difference is primarily in the weight of each kettlebell, with different origins and uses (such as competition kettlebells) having differing “jumps” between weights.

Grip Differences Between Kettlebells and Dumbbells

The particular shape of a kettlebell’s handle means that it is somewhat more suitable for the usage of certain grip forms that the handles of a dumbbell would be, especially during the performance of a few specific exercises like the bicep curl or kettlebell swing, wherein the handle of a kettlebell will place significantly less stress on the wrists and forearms of the exerciser.

In addition to this, the handles of kettlebells are usually thicker and larger than that of most dumbbells, requiring greater grip strength to keep a hold on during particularly explosive and power-based exercises that may swing the kettlebell around in the exerciser’s hands.

Conversely however, the more secure and balanced nature of dumbbells and how they load resistance onto the limbs of the exerciser allow the exerciser to maintain a better grip on the handles of the dumbbells, allowing for longer sets and a more controlled manner of movement - reducing the risk of overextension injuries and improving the effectiveness of isolation exercises.

Are There Exercises Exclusively for Dumbbells or Kettlebells?

For the most part, dumbbells and kettlebells may be used in much the same types of exercises with little to no difference in the sort of training stimulus, muscle group activation or mechanics involved.

However, certain exercises specifically created for usage with a kettlebell may see far superior results when used in such a manner.

These are usually exercises that take advantage of the dynamic and momentum based movement of kettlebells, such as kettlebell swings, cleans and windmills - all of which are of an explosive nature that may be difficult to recreate with dumbbells alone.

how to do a kettlebell single arm swing

In addition to this, kettlebells have seen significant use in the purview of functional athletic training, wherein both aerobic and anaerobic training stimuli are combined in a single workout session that improves the overall athleticism and capacity of function of the exerciser - usually in the form of CrossFit, professional sports training programs, or similar regimens.

Otherwise, few - if any - exercises that normally utilize dumbbells preclude the use of kettlebells as well, meaning that the list of exercises that exclusively use dumbbells instead of kettlebells is quite short, and unlikely to be applicable to most modern forms of resistance training.

Which is Better for Explosive Training?

As dumbbells are superior to the kettlebell in terms of precision and stability, it is the kettlebell itself that is more applicable in the use of explosive training for the purposes of building power and strength in an athlete.

The kettlebell’s previously mentioned capacity for utilizing momentum, alongside its increased recruitment of stabilizer muscle groups equates to an explosive training stimulus that is rather difficult to achieve with dumbbells alone.

This is all the more applicable due to the shape of a kettlebell and the distance of the weight in relation to its handle, with the tension placed on the exerciser’s muscle groups changing depending on how the kettlebell is held as gravity and biomechanics are brought into play.

Which is Better for Safety and Rehabilitation?

While kettlebells are occasionally used in physical rehabilitation or other forms of dynamic recovery programming, it is dumbbells utilized in a slow and controlled manner that superior for the purposes of rehabilitation and maintaining low risk of injury.

This is due to the fact that the distribution of weight that dumbbells induce is far safer and places less stress on the various smaller muscles of the forearms and hands - as well as the reduced momentum of the dumbbells resulting in less shear force on the exerciser’s joints.

Such a controlled and stable manner of usage will also reinforce the exerciser’s adherence to proper form throughout whatever exercise they are performing, a stark contrast to the larger and less stable arc of movement normally involved in traditional kettlebell exercises.

Which is Better for Progressive Overload?

Once more, dumbbells are the clear winner when it comes to inducing progressive overload in an exerciser, as the majority of kettlebells are made with far larger differences in weight increments - making inducing strength-based progressive overload not only more difficult with said kettlebells, but also unsafe and potentially impossible at the higher levels of athletic training.

This is not as much the case with dumbbells, which usually separate their increments of weight by as little as 2.5 pounds or 1.25 kilograms, depending on the brand and whether the dumbbells are of an adjustable manner or not.

Generally, when a strict training routine utilizes the concept of progressive overload in order to produce training results, it will also make great use of strict and measurable exercises that do not rely on many other factors than the exerciser’s own physical strength output capacity alone - of which primarily make use of stable and fixed training modalities, such as the barbell or dumbbell.

Which is More Suitable for Novice Exercisers?

More momentum and explosiveness in a movement equates to a higher risk of injury if performed with incorrect form cues or a lack of understanding in relation to proper exercise mechanics - two hallmarks of a novice exerciser.

As these factors are major characteristics of kettlebells and their subsequent dynamic exercises, it is dumbbells that are considered more suitable for usage by novice exercisers or other individuals new to free weight resistance exercises.

Not only is the usage of dumbbells considered safer for individuals with a poor understanding of form cues and exercise mechanics, but it is also more likely to induce strength developments and muscular hypertrophy over a longer period of time as the slow and controlled repetitions of dumbbells recruit muscle fibers to a greater degree.

In addition to this, many exercises considered to be primarily performed with a kettlebell will require coaching from a professional if performed by novice exercisers due to the complex form of said exercises - as well as the fact that programming for said exercises may be more difficult for novices without help.

In Conclusion

Neither kettlebells or dumbbells are superior to the other in terms of general training, as they share many characteristics and benefits that make them perfectly suitable choices in the majority of workout programs - with only a few niche circumstances placing one in a more effective position than the other.

Both exercise modalities are capable of inducing significant muscular hypertrophy, strength adaptations and any other number of training benefits in a similar and nearly parallel manner, making the decision on which to use up to the exerciser’s own preferences and training requirements.

References

1. Meigh NJ, Keogh JWL, Schram B, Hing WA. Kettlebell training in clinical practice: a scoping review. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2019 Sep 3;11:19. doi: 10.1186/s13102-019-0130-z. PMID: 31497302; PMCID: PMC6719359.

2. Otto, William & Coburn, Jared & Brown, Lee & Spiering, Barry. (2012). Effects of Weightlifting vs. Kettlebell Training on Vertical Jump, Strength, and Body Composition. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 26. 1199-202. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f233e.

3. Morris, S.J., Oliver, J.L., Pedley, J.S. et al. Comparison of Weightlifting, Traditional Resistance Training and Plyometrics on Strength, Power and Speed: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01627-2

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2022