25 Aug Kettlebells Vs. Dumbbells: When To Use Which Tool
Kettlebells are extremely effective training tools, we all know that.
So are dumbbells.
The key is to know which tool is the right tool for the task, the right tool for what it is you want.
There are clear exercises that should be performed with a kettlebell and not a dumbbell (and vice versa).
I have to be honest, nothing irritates me more than when I see a YouTube video or article about “kettlebell training” when the exercises shown are simple exercises that could just as easily be done with a dumbbell (or other training modality).
In other words, claiming the exercise is a “kettlbell exercise” when it’s not.
That’s NOT kettlebell training, not even close (for example, a video showing biceps curls with a kettlebell is NOT kettlebell training, folks).
You shouldn’t swing a dumbbell and you shouldn’t curl a kettlebell.
Honestly, I’ve used dumbbells for decades in my training and this is what I’ve found.
Dumbbells are great tools.
Kettlebells are great tools.
But it all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish (i.e. training goals).
There are clear differences between the two and for the key exercises – they are not interchangeable.
Here’s what I did here to make this really simple for you.
I put together these 3 lists of exercises.
The 3 lists are “kettlebell only,” “dumbbell only,” and then “dealer’s choice.”
Let’s take a look and then I’ll explain a little bit more.
KETTLEBELL ONLY (these are “preferred” with a kettlebell)
- Goblet squat
- Front squat (racked squat)
- Racked lunges
- Deadlift (to learn the DL pattern)
- Racked carries
- Turkish get up
- Renegade rows
- Russian twist
- Push press
- Single kettlebell chest press on bench
- Bottom’s up work (which cannot be done with a dumbbell)
- Double kettlebell work needs to be mentioned here
DUMBBELL ONLY (these are “preferred” with a dumbbell)
- Biceps curls
- Concentration curls
- Preacher curls
- Hammer curls
- Triceps kickbacks
- Overhead tricep extension
- Forearm work (flexion/extension)
- Lateral shoulder raises
- Rear deltoid work (reverse fly)
- Front raises
- Bilateral chest press on bench (flat, incline, decline)
- Chest flys (flat, incline, decline)
- Seated DB press (different from a KB press, I’ll explain why)
- Arnold press
- Shoulder shrugs
DEALER’S CHOICE (could be done with either, matter of preference)
- Farmer’s walks
- One arm rows on bench
- Single leg DL
- Stiff Leg DL
- And, there’s probably a few more I’m not thinking of right now
These lists represent the basics, the fundamentals.
You might be wondering about a few exercises, so let me explain my rationale for some of them.
There are exercises like the Turkish get up or the press that could be done with either, yes.
Again, the list represents my “preferred” modality.
Let’s take a look at the press
It’s my experience and conclusion that the press is best performed with a kettlebell.
The simple reason is that the pressing motion with a kettlebell is done in a plane of motion called the plane of the scapula (POS).
The POS is the most optimal position for the shoulder joint to press from because it’s the natural plane of motion for arm elevation.
The offset handle of the kettlebell and the way we press from the “rack” position allows us to press very efficiently in the POS.
It’s a biomechanically more efficient way to press.
And, it’s actually more comfortable with a kettlebell, as well.
What about the Turkish get up, which could be done with a dumbbell?
Again, the preferred tool would be a kettlebell due to the offset handle and the way the kettlebell center of gravity rests on the forearm, which makes it a much different experience compared to the dumbbell.
Are they both challenging when performing a Turkish get up?
Yes, they are.
But, the preference would be a kettelebell due to the shape and design of the kettebell, which seems to be more comfortable and efficient when performing the get up.
It’s a close call with this one, but I’d give the edge to the kettlebell.
How about a swing?
This is where there’s a massive difference between the tools.
You can’t swing a dumbbell effectively.
It doesn’t work and if someone tells you it doesn’t make a difference if you swing a kettlebell or a dumbbell, that person hasn’t learned how to properly swing yet.
The tools are designed differently.
The ballistics (swings, cleans, and snatches) are much more effective with a kettlebell compared to a dumbbell, it’s not even close.
Again, it has everything to do with the offset handle and center of gravity of the kettlebell.
These same reasons are why I felt others on the “kettlebell only” list are best with a kettlebell, but you could make a point that that they could be done with a dumbbell, as well (ex. windmill).
For some of the exercises, it will come down to preference.
The kettlebell and the dumbbell each have roles in strength training.
But, they are used for different purposes and there are clearly some exercises that are best with a kettlebell, just as there are exercises that are best with a dumbbell.
In general, kettlebells are much better for total body strength and conditioning, especially the ballistics (the fast, explosive exercises).
Dumbbells are better to target specific muscle groups, such as the biceps, triceps, and different regions of the shoulder complex and back.
Dumbbells are great for a bodybuilding style approach.
The lists above are my “preferences” when deciding to use either a kettlebell or a dumbbell.
Which is best?
It all depends on the training goal.
When you know your training goals, the tool selection is the easy part.
Hope this helps.
Choose your tools wisely and choose the tool based on your desired goals.
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