Dumbbells and kettlebells line most gym weight racks—and have a place in most home gyms—for several solid reasons. These go-to tools add resistance to your strength routine and that’s how you get stronger, build muscle, and improve power. Plus, you have endless options when it comes to what you can actually do with these weights, besides just picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down.
But if you’ve ever stared at the weight rack or put both in your online cart trying to decide which one to use, well, we’re here to help you answer every gym-goer’s question: Will my workout benefit more from a dumbbell versus a kettlebell?
Before we get to the bottom of this big-time fitness debate (which truthfully, many trainers would settle differently), let’s lay out the differences between a dumbbell versus a kettlebell so you have all the facts.
Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells: What’s the Difference?
Comparison 1: Load Distribution
“One major difference in a kettlebell versus a dumbbell is the point at which you hold each weight,” says Kelvin Gary, NASM-certified personal trainer, kettlebell coach, and owner of Body Space Fitness in New York City. Take the dumbbell, for example. You hold it right in the middle, so the weight is symmetrical on each side. The kettlebell, on the other hand, is loaded with more weight at the bottom, underneath the grip, rather than on either side of it.
Why does this matter? Consider a swing exercise as an example of how this changes the movement. When doing a dumbbell swing, the weight is both pointing at you and straight out through the entire move, while with a kettlebell, it’s loaded straight out in front of you at the top of the swing and changes as you lower it down and back up. This enhances the challenge on your core, as the weight reaches farther from your body at the top of the move, and changes positions throughout. “The kettlebell creates a varying degree of torque that your body has to adjust to,” Gary explains.
Also, the symmetrical load on either side of the grip on the dumbbell forces your hand and wrist to work harder to keep it steady, Gary explains. This might pay off in improved grip strength, but if you’re looking to go heavy on a move like a deadlift, it can also make your grip fatigue before your legs do.
Because of their load, kettlebells might also come in handy for a move like a front squat, as it can help with better body alignment, says Prentiss Rhodes, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) master instructor and certified kettlebell instructor based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Meanwhile, dumbbells make it easier to perform some traditional, less compound-focused moves like a biceps curl, triceps extension, chest press, or reverse fly because of their weight distribution and better grip.
So, when it comes to which type of weight you want to lift, take a look at the movements you want to perform and let that guide you toward a dumbbell or a kettlebell.
Comparison 2: Familiarity With Technique and Traditional Moves
It’s true that you need some strength-training technique to do moves with both dumbbells and kettlebells, but often times, kettlebells take a little more work to learn form and master the movements.
“Kettlebells have specific exercises where you really have to pay attention to technique or you could put yourself in dangerous situations,” Rhodes says. “That includes the kettlebell swing and any movement with similar technique, like the snatch and clean. You want to make sure you get with a qualified instructor to learn the basics, so you’re putting any unnecessary stress on your joints.”
With dumbbells, it’s somewhat easier to incorporate them into moves like weighted lunges, or the moves mentioned above like bicep curls or triceps extensions, without having to know much about them. This is also why those new to strength training might reach for the dumbbells before the kettlebells.
Comparison 3: Performing Ballistic Movements
While you can perform complexes—or a series of two to 10 exercises performed back-to-back—with a dumbbell, it’s much easier to have one move flow to the next with a kettlebell. “You have a wider range of movements and combinations you can do with the kettlebell,” Gary explains. That’s because you can pass from one hand to the next or move from a swing position to a racked position to more complex movements like cleans and snatches, all with easy transitions when working with a kettlebell.
Thanks to the ability to create flows and more easily perform heart rate-revving exercises (like swings, snatches, and cleans), you can also target your cardiovascular system pretty well with kettlebells. Stringing moves together also hones your power endurance, or the ability to produce force for long periods of time—a particularly important benefit for runners who want to make it through many miles, Gary says.
How to Choose Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells
In general, it comes down to your preferences and what you’re most comfortable with when trying to decide between a kettlebell or dumbbells, says Rhodes. You want to make sure you’re doing exercises that take you out of the posture you constantly maintain at your desk and on the run—so think back-of-body moves like deadlifts and rows. And if you feel more comfortable doing that with dumbbell versus kettlebell or vice versa, go for it.
You’ll get a great workout with either of these go-to tools, just consider your goals and abilities, Gary adds. If you want to add a power element to your workout, reach for the kettlebells. If you’re targeting muscle building, working on smaller muscle groups, maybe you go for the dumbbells. Neither option is a bad one, as long as you’re using proper form.
Of course, keep in mind general strength training rules when lifting either piece of equipment, including progressing slowly and safely. If you don’t know how to do a kettlebell swing, attempting a snatch is probably not your best bet. And if you feel your form breaking because you’re tired, take a break or stop. “Pay attention to the stop signs your body gives you,” Rhodes says.
Need a place to start with either of training tools? Here, a list of moves that work best with dumbbells versus kettlebells and vice versa.
How to use this list: Incorporate any of these moves into your next workout, following the recommended reps and sets listed below. Gary demonstrates each exercise so you can master proper form. You’ll need a kettlebell or a dumbbell. An exercise mat is optional.
The Best Exercises to Do With Kettlebells
1. Offset Racked Squat
Start standing with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly out. Bring kettlebell into racked position on right side, thumb at sternum and kettlebell at shoulder resting on the fold on between forearm and biceps. Offset your stance by raising right heel and lining right toes up with left heel. Perform a squat by sending hips down and back. Drive through feet to stand back up. Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps on each side.
The KB pay-off: You get a greater core challenge thanks to the asymmetrical load, which helps with stability on the road.
2. Bent-Over Alternating Row
Start standing with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, kettlebell between feet. With a slight bend in knees, hinge at hips by sending butt straight back and reach both hands down toward the kettlebell. Grab the handle of the kettlebell with right hand and row it up to ribcage by pulling elbow back. Lower the bell back to the floor, switch hands and repeat. Continue alternating. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps on each side.
The KB pay-off: Target the obliques with this single-sided movement, while also working the back of your upper body. This helps with posture and efficiency.
3. Reverse Tactical Lunge
Start standing with feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell in right hand down by side. Step right foot back and lower into a lunge, both knees bending 90 degrees. While at the bottom of the lunge, pass the kettlebell underneath leg, grabbing it with left hand. Then stand back up. Repeat on the other side, passing the kettlebell from left to right. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps on each side.
The KB pay-off: Because of the handle and load distribution, you can easily pass the bell from one hand to the next. This move will kick up your lateral stability in a linear movement—or how strong you stay upright while weight is moving side to side. This is great for keeping you upright and steady on the road.
4. Racked March
Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Bring kettlebell into racked position on right side, thumb at sternum and kettlebell at shoulder resting on the fold on between forearm and biceps. Pull right knee up to hip, hold for a count of two, then step back down. Repeat on left side. Continue alternating. Repeat for 20 seconds, then switch the kettlebell to the left side. Repeat for 20 seconds. Do 3 sets.
The KB pay-off: Create stability in the hips and pelvis during a single-leg movement, while also fine tuning your posture, thanks to the bell placement.
5. Suitcase Deadlift
Start standing with feet hip-width apart, kettlebell on the ground to the left of left foot. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back, slight bend in knees, and pick up kettlebell with left hand. Keep spine neutral and extend hips to stand back up. Repeat, keeping the bell in hand. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps on each side.
The KB pay-off: Go heavy to target lateral stability, strong posture, and solid spine alignment with this move, while also working those glutes and hamstrings a.k.a. the muscles that provide power as you stride.
The Best Exercises to Do With Dumbbells
1. Single-Arm Snatch
Start standing with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in right hand down in front of you. With a slight bend in knees, hinge slightly at hips by sending butt straight back. Drive through feet, pull dumbbell up in front of body, elbow high, and hop as you punch the dumbbell up into an overhead position, bicep by ear. Lower the dumbbell to shoulder and repeat. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps per side.
2. Renegade Row
Start in plank position, shoulders over wrists, both hands on a dumbbell, and feet wider than hip-width apart. You should form a straight line from head to heels. Without moving hips, row right dumbbell up to rib cage, elbow staying close to side. Then lower it back down. Repeat on left side. Continue alternating. Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps on each side.
3. Reverse Fly
Start standing, feet hip-width apart. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back, slight bend in knees. Aim for torso as close to parallel to the floor as possible and arms straight down with palms facing each other and slight bend in elbows. This is your starting position. Pull arms straight back and up by squeezing the muscles in back and shoulders until hands are in line with torso. Slowly lower back down with control to starting position and repeat. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
The DB pay-off: You get a better grip on the weight without taxing the wrists with the dumbbell. And you target your postural muscles. This will help you stand taller on the run.