Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells: Which Should I Choose?

Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells - Which Should I Choose

Photos: Pond5

You just got to the gym. You can turn right for the dumbbell rack. Or left for the kettlebells. Where are you headed?

If your choice is dumbbells, know that they have an advantage over weight machines or barbells because of the instability component, which forces your body to recruit more muscles. They also allow you to do multi-joint exercises that target your upper and lower body, says Gregory Johnson, CSCS, head trainer at Varimax Fitness in Sacramento, CA. Another point for dumbbells: It’s easy to keep a set at home. (Note: If you’re really aiming to beef up your strength, the instability of dumbbells will prevent you from lifting heavier weights. A more stable barbell is better in this instance.)

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Kettlebells can be used in the exact same way as dumbbells, says Johnson (think: overhead press, bicep curls, rows, lunges — you name it). “Depending on the exercises you do, there may be no difference between the two,” he says. Want to do a single-arm row with a kettlebell? Go for it.

Then again, some people argue that you shouldn’t use kettlebells as a traditional weight, instead encouraging pendulum-style movements, like kettlebell swings. Since the weight isn’t balanced like a dumbbell, your body must work harder to stabilize and adapt to the changing center of gravity. One particular advantage: shoulder scapula stability. “This is important for your overall posture. If you can’t retract your shoulder blades, you’re potentially keeping them in a bad position,” Johnson says.

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“The biggest thing is that these are tools in your bag. I don’t necessarily like one more over the other,” says Johnson. So switch things up. One day, choose dumbbells, the other kettlebells. (See individual workouts below!) Or, mix them up. No one says you can’t do both in one day.

Total-Body Kettlebell Workout 

This full-body kettlebell workout from Johnson features five traditional kettlebell movements. If you want to build strength, pick up a heavier kettlebell (heavy enough that it’s challenging but you can still maintain form) and do 10 reps of each move. If you want more cardio endurance, use a lighter kettlebell and do 15 to 20 reps of each.

Take as little rest as you can between moves, which will keep your heart rate, up, says Johnson. After each set, rest up to a minute if needed. But listen to your body. “Never sacrifice form or posture for speed or tempo,” says Johnson. “If you’re losing form because you’re tired, then stop and give yourself enough of a break you can go back to maintaining your form,” he says. Complete four rounds.

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The Total-Body Kettlebell Workout

Photo: Pond5

1. Kettlebell Swings
This is a hip-driven movement, where the explosive power comes from your glutes. Use the heaviest weight of the series here.

2. Single-Arm Kettlebell Press
One tip: make sure your eyes follow the weight throughout the movement. The benefit to doing an overhead press with a kettlebell is that it’s safer on your shoulder than a dumbbell, says Johnson. Do both your right and left arm.

3. Single-Arm Kettlebell Clean
You can bring the kettlebell straight up or do a pendulum kettlebell swing here — the choice is yours, says Johnson. The key is keeping a “chicken wing arm” at your side (arm in tight, elbow by your side). Do both your right and left arm.

4. Turkish Get-Up
Here’s why you should be sold on this move: “this is one of the best exercises for your core,” says Johnson.

5. Bottoms Up Kettlebell Walks
Two ways you can do this: keep your thumb near your shoulder or fully extend your arm, holding the weight over your head (the bell or “bottom” of the kettlebell should be on top). Maintain a stable posture and a neutral spine.

Total-Body Dumbbell Workout

If you have weights at home, you don’t even need to head to your gym for this one. Johnson has his clients do this circuit at home for a quick 20-minute full-body workout. The moves switch from lower to upper body with a little core at the end. Perform 3 rounds of 15 reps. Try to take as little rest in between each move as you can without sacrificing form.

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The Total-Body Dumbbell Workout

Photo: Pond5

1. Dumbbell Squats
Pick whatever variation you like. For example, hold one dumbbell in front of you (a goblet squat) or hold one in each hand at your shoulders or down at your sides.

2. Chest Press
Hold one dumbbell in each hand. You can do these laying flat on your back on a bench or on the floor if you’re at home.

3. Dumbbell Lateral Lunge
While you probably do forward or reverse lunges on the regular, Johnson recommends working in lateral lunges to really hit your glutes. Keep one dumbbell in each hand.

4. Supported Single-Arm Row
Place one hand on your knee and hinge forward. Keep your spine straight throughout the movement (the only thing that should move is your shoulder and arm during the row).

5. Extended Sit-Up
Lay down flat on floor, knees bent, and hold one or two dumbbells directly over shoulders. Crunch and sit up to a tall spine. At the top, your torso should be straight, arms overhead, dumbbells over shoulders, and biceps to ears.