Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells for Strength Training

A kettlebell swing.

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Dumbbells have long been a fixture in gyms thanks to their wide variety of uses. The kettlebell—an iron-cast piece of equipment that looks like a ball with a handle— dates back hundreds of years. Whether dumbbells or kettlebells are better for strength training is a tricky question. While proponents of each have strong opinions about this, the truth is that it really comes down to personal preference.

You certainly don't have to choose between the two. In fact, they can be used as complementary tools, rather than competitive ones, to help you reach your strength-training goals.

Dumbbells
  • Readily available

  • Best for basic movements

  • Provide more stability

  • Easier for beginners

  • Good for bilateral training

  • Easy to hold

  • Inexpensive

Kettlebells
  • Great way to add variety to workouts

  • Best for complex movements

  • Challenge the center of gravity

  • Add cardio to resistance training

  • Improve functional fitness

  • Increase grip strength

Advantages of Dumbbells

Dumbbells are easily found in nearly every gym, and there are hundreds of exercises that you can do with them. It's also easier to increase weight in smaller increments with dumbbells, as kettlebells of varying weights may not be as available. Other pros of dumbbells to consider:

  • Dumbbells are much easier for beginners. Since the exercises that involve them are more static, there's less risk of injury for those without much experience. They are a great way for beginners to learn the basics of strength training and see improved physical performance.
  • Dumbbells are great for bilateral training—working both sides of the body at the same time, such as in bicep curls or lateral raises.
  • Dumbbells are easy to hold. Gripping kettlebells can be a little more challenging for things other than swinging exercises.
  • Dumbbells are cheaper to purchase than kettlebells.

Advantages of Kettlebells

The ability to swing kettlebells provides training for muscle groups across planes other than vertical (sagittal) and horizontal (transverse). Kettlebells are popular in CrossFit but have become more and more common in other workouts as well. Among their other benefits:

  • Kettlebells provide a better cardio workout because of the extra movement involved in the standard exercises.
  • The swinging action of kettlebells creates a fluid movement, which may be easier on the body. Bonus: A kettlebell swing can activate the entire posterior chain of muscles in a way that dumbbells can't. A 2016 study even found that kettlebell training is effective in lower back pain treatment.
  • Kettlebells improve functional strength, which is typically defined as strength that is applicable in everyday life situations (like carrying heavy grocery bags). Functional strength is developed by an appropriated all-round training program, which may include kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, cables, and other forms of training.
  • Kettlebells increase grip strength because of their thick handles. Improved grip strength can help with exercises like pull-ups.

Including kettlebells in your training for variety can be beneficial, but they are not superior to dumbbells or any other weight training equipment when included as part of a wide-ranging fitness program.

A Word From Verywell

There are pros and cons to any exercise. When crafting your strength routine, choose exercises and equipment that are convenient, safe for you, and that will best help you reach your goals. Learning more about the basics of weight training can help you find your path to a stronger you.

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Article Sources
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  2. Edinborough L, Fisher JP, Steele J. A comparison of the effect of kettlebell swings and isolated lumbar extension training on acute torque production of the lumbar extensorsJ Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(5):1189-1195. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001215