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December 12, 2021 8 min read

Today’s gyms have a lot of equipment readily available so you’re always able to mix up your workouts and adapt to the needs of your program. However, this may leave you with more questions than you’re willing to deal with.

You might be wondering if you should be using a machine, or focus more on free weights. And if you’re going to use free weights, should you be using a dumbbell or a kettlebell? In this article, we’ll go over the differences between these two pieces of equipment and how you can incorporate them effectively into your workouts. 

Black kettlebell with yellow marking with free weights and plates in front of it

Differences Between Kettlebells and Dumbbells

Dumbbells

Starting out with one of the most classic weightlifting tools, dumbbells are easily recognizable as they consist of a short bar that’s stuck between two weights. Many new models of dumbbells usually have some sort of ergonomic grip to make it easier to hang onto. The weights on each end of the dumbbell are usually round, or hexagonal.

Additionally, there are specialized dumbbells that have adjustable weights on either end, perfect for home workouts. When it comes to working out with a dumbbell, things are pretty straightforward. You can use either one dumbbell or have one in each hand. While there are many single-dumbbell exercises out there, it’s better to use both at the same time. By doing this, you’ll be balanced, allowing you to lift heavier weights. 

Kettlebells

Kettlebells are obviously quite visually and functionally different from the dumbbell. However, they’re still just as classical. The key difference between these two tools is that a kettlebell has one horizontal bar that sits on top of the weight. The weight itself usually appears as a circle with a flat bottom. Grips of a kettlebell are actually not that great for holding onto, compared to a dumbbell.

Additionally, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to find ones that have an adjustable weight. Working out with a kettlebell will be a bit different than a dumbbell. Most workouts are usually done with just one kettlebell, not two. That being said, there are still exercises that require the use of two kettlebells. 

Building Muscle

Now, let’s get down to business. If your goal is to pack on some mass, then you need to use the dumbbell. Why should you choose it over a kettlebell? Simply put, the weight is more balanced when using a dumbbell, which allows you to focus on your muscle groups to a greater extent. In particular, it makes exercises involving pressing motions and others like bicep curls much easier and effective. 

To put it bluntly, a dumbbell is going to be the better choice when it comes to hypertrophy or muscle building. That means dumbbells will find more use in the hands of a bodybuilder. The fact of the matter is that a dumbbell has a better center of gravity. That being said, there are a lot of exercises where you can exchange a dumbbell for a kettlebell, however, you won’t be putting yourself at an advantage or disadvantage. 

Exercises like the bicep curl and the bent-over row are perfect examples of when you can interchange a dumbbell for a kettlebell, or vice versa. Tool choice won’t affect what muscles get worked. The only real difference is the overall feel of the exercise, so choose what feels best to you when it comes to either of those two exercises. 

Strength Training

When it comes to training purely for the sake of strength, you need to be able to overload your muscle with heavy weight. For that reason, it’s likely that many lifters shouldn’t use either tool. This is because both dumbbells and kettlebells can limit your growth, simply because they won’t be heavy enough. While there are a lot of compound movements you can do with kettlebells, such as goblet squats, and dumbbells, like a dumbbell chest press, you’ll hit a point where you’ll simply get too strong to keep using them.

Therefore, the best option for strength training is using a barbell. You can load a lot more weight onto them, making them perfect for heavy lifts. That doesn’t mean you can’t use dumbbells and kettlebells for strength training.

For lifters who are just starting at the gym, they are a perfect way to work yourself up to the heavier, more challenging barbell. 

Power Training

For lifters who may not have heard, power training is a type of program that prioritizes movements and exercises that require high velocities. For instance, powerlifting exercises like a clean and jerk or a snatch require the lifter to move quickly and powerfully in order to complete the lift.

But, which of these two pieces of equipment are better suited for this type of training? 

In general, Kettlebells are the best choice for this type of training. The way kettlebells are built allows them to be moved around dynamically and explosively. As an example, kettlebell swings are generally known as one of the best options if you’re looking to really build explosive strength production. Kettlebells also have better handles for the dynamic exercises that are required for this type of training.

While you could conceivably use a dumbbell for power training movements, they’re harder to do and will tear up your hands a lot. This is because most dumbbells have knurled grips. Kettlebell handles also make it easier for you to lift the weight overhead as you flip it over. To summarize, Kettlebells are superior to dumbbells when it comes to power training due to their overall design. They’re easier to use and are also easier on the hands.

Cardio Training

Generally, when most people think of cardio training, they’ll think of treadmills, stair masters, or maybe even rope jumping.

Really, cardio training is anything that can elevate your heart rate and then sustain it over a period of time. So, it’s not far-fetched to say that you can do some sort of cardio training with a kettlebell or a dumbbell. Though, with this type of training, you’ll be using moderate to light weights and doing a lot of reps. 

When it comes down to it, you can really use either piece of equipment for cardio. You might be surprised to find out that running a high-intensity circuit of dumbbell curls can really get your heart going! That being said, kettlebells do have one advantage over dumbbells in this area. It’s a lot easier to perform flows, a strung-together series of intense movements.

These are perfect for cardio circuits or HIIT training, and you can use either kettlebells or dumbbells. Either one can be very effective as long as you’re using them correctly. However, kettlebells still have a little bit of an advantage due to being easier to use. 

When To Use a Dumbbell or Kettlebell

Now, we’ll go over what exercises are ideal for each of the pieces of equipment. 

Dumbbells

For dumbbells, we recommend doing these exercises to really put them to good use. These are generally static movements and nothing crazy. They’re great for lifters who are taking their first steps in a gym.  

  1. Bent-over rows: This is a classic exercise that’s great for beginner lifters or even advanced lifters who are looking to grow a bigger back. 
  2. Dumbbell chest press: For this one, you can either lay down on a bench or on the floor to limit mobility. Either way, this is a great chest exercise and can be used as an accessory to the regular bench press. 
  3. Dumbbell shoulder press: This is something every lifter should be doing if they’re trying to put some mass on their shoulders. If you don’t include this in your routine already, you should add it. 
  4. Lateral and front raises: Another shoulder exercise that is perfect for making your delts pop.  Can be interchanged with kettlebells if need be. 
  5. Bicep curl: A classic exercise that’s made to put some serious size on your arms. Can be done with one or two dumbbells, but it’s better if you can do two. 

Kettlebells

Since kettlebell workouts are great for more dynamic movements, most of the exercises you’ll see below can get pretty intense. If you’re a new lifter, you should familiarize yourself with more basic exercises.

  1. Single-arm swings:


    A great exercise that works both your core and your glute muscles. Additionally, it’s a pretty good starter exercise for people who are looking to get used to kettlebell exercises. 
  2. Kettlebell lunges: A great exercise for those who are looking to up the intensity on leg day. They’re simple, easy-to-do, and will absolutely give you a serious leg pump. It’ll also work your core and upper body more.
  3. Kettlebell snatches: A classic motion involved in more advanced lifts, this is something many lifters try out when they start power training. It can also double as a great cardio exercise as it’ll really get your heart pumping. 
  4. Kettlebell squats: Also known as goblet squats, this exercise is made all the easier due to the convenient handle on a kettlebell. It’s great if to incorporate on leg days or if you’re not quite ready to graduate to a barbell squat yet. 
  5. Kettlebell deadlifts: When it comes to kettlebell training, this is one of the best exercises you can do to really get a killer, full-body workout in. Not only will this exercise challenge your lower body, but it's a great core strength exercise as well. Additionally, if you plan on doing barbell deadlifts as a part of your weight training, this is a great way to work up to them.

FAQ’s 

1. Which one is better for beginners? 

At the end of the day, the best option for a beginning lifter is going to be whatever they have access to. As we’ve discussed, some exercises are easier when done with a kettlebell, and some are easier when done with a dumbbell. Even if you only have one of the two pieces of equipment available to you, you should be able to adapt and incorporate them into your program. And while some kettlebell exercises and movements can be difficult, they’re not the only ones you can do when using them. 

2. Can I get in a good workout with just one dumbbell or one kettlebell? 

Usually, it can be pretty tough to effectively work your muscles with such limited equipment. Some might say that you’re better off sticking to bodyweight exercises if that’s really all you have to work with. But, you can absolutely still get in a good workout with just one of each of these pieces of equipment. Kettlebells especially have a pretty wide range of workouts that can be done with just one of them. Dumbbells can be a little tricky as you should really be using two of them. Using just one can put your body out of balance. 

3. If the weights are equal, does it really matter if I pick a kettlebell or a dumbbell? 

Yes, it does. While the weight of the equipment might be the same, trying to do the same exercise will result in a very different feel. Also, some exercises are just much easier to do with a kettlebell or dumbbell, where appropriate. Just make sure you’re doing whatever is necessary to reach the goal of your workout or program. 

4. Can I do exercises like a kettlebell swing with a dumbbell? 

Technically, you can do that exercise and others that require a kettlebell with just a dumbbell. However, a kettlebell will be able to accommodate you much better due to the style and size of the handle and the way the weight is balanced. You’ll definitely find that a swinging motion is much easier done with a kettlebell. 

5. What kind of kettlebells and dumbbells should I buy? 

This is something that ultimately depends on the space you have and what your fitness goals are. Ideally, you’ll be able to buy a big rack of dumbbells with a large variety of weights, the same with kettlebells. However, if you don’t have the space for a home gym, you should absolutely look into a set of adjustable dumbbells. For kettlebells, you should get about 3. These should range from light, moderate, and heavy. Of course, you may need to buy more as you get stronger! 

Dumbbells or Kettlebells: The Choice is Yours

When it comes down to it, choosing between a barbell and a kettlebell isn’t exactly night and day. One is not necessarily better than the other, so you don’t need to pick just one. In fact, you may find that there will be training days where you’ll incorporate both of these tools into your program. 

Either way, properly using and applying kettlebells and dumbbells is a great way to get started if you’re a beginner lifter. Or, more advanced lifters can add exercises with kettlebells and dumbbells to supplement their other, heavier lifts.