It’s the gym equivalent of brown sauce versus ketchup, and a question that gym-goers have pondered since the dawn of strength-training time. Which instrument of muscle-building, fat-crushing iron is better: the dumbbell or the kettlebell?
Both share DNA from the same ancient training tool: Greek halteres, a pair of crescent-shaped stones with handles. Ripped Olympians lifted them more than 2,500 years ago, swinging them to enhance their performance in the long jump. To US Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, halteres are proof that the dumbbell is the ideal tool. “There’s a reason why dumbbells are in every gym,” he says. “For targeted muscle growth, you want dumbbells.”
Don’t start curling away yet, though. Kettlebells are having a moment. They first earned an underground following in the late 1990s among trainers who had heard that kettlebells were the training weapons of choice for the Russian special forces. They went mainstream more recently with the rise of CrossFit and sold like hot (and heavy) cakes in last year’s lockdowns. “Kettlebells are exciting and versatile, especially in flows – chains of explosive exercises,” says trainer Eric Leija. “I can do anything I want to do with kettlebells that I can do with dumbbells. But kettlebells are way more fun.”
So, which is the more efficient tool for constructing your ideal physique? We assessed each bell in five key areas that are crucial to building muscle and burning fat at home. Now you can pay the iron price in confidence.
Bulging forearms don’t just make you look strong – they’re a multiplier in nearly every exercise, from pull-ups to deadlifts. Research also shows that a strong grip correlates with longevity and resistance to disease. Dumbbells effectively work your forearms but most people don’t aggressively grip the weights with all of their fingers, instead squeezing hard with the index and middle fingers while relaxing the little and ring fingers.
The fix: the farmer’s walk with dumbbells, focusing on keeping the bells level. “For as long as you’re walking, no forearm muscle can relax,” says Samuel.
Leija, however, thinks that’s boring. “Why go through all of that when a series of kettlebell moves – a swing to a snatch, say – will force you to squeeze the bell so it doesn’t go flying out of your hands? It’s far more fun being able to free-flow into different positions due to the handle and the position of the weight.”
It does sound like fun, but the time under tension of “boring” carries wins out in terms of strength gains. That’s why dumbbells are the victor here.
In the quest for strong, boulder-shaped shoulders, the military press is the holy grail, tasking you with holding the weights at your shoulders, then driving your arms overhead. It’s one of the classic strength moves, requiring core stability, shoulder power and shoulder mobility. It also works far better with kettlebells than with dumbbells. The reason? Stability and control. You want your shoulder blades to depress (move downward towards your glutes) and retract (squeeze tightly together near your spine), and the kettlebell places your shoulder and shoulder blade in those natural positions.
“It’s rotating around the back of the wrist, and it sets your wrist in place,” says Dan John, a trainer and fitness historian. This can’t happen with a dumbbell, because the load is spread out on both sides of the handle. “There’s uncertainty in pressing a dumbbell overhead,” says John, “which can lead you to arch your back or press slightly in front of your torso, thus placing excess stress on your shoulder joint.” So, even the most devout dumbbell acolyte would agree that the kettlebell is the superior pressing implement.
Do this 3-move workout from Leija to build total-body power and muscle.
Isolation movements, such as biceps curls or triceps skull-crushers, target specific areas, pushing those muscles to grow by limiting the involvement of other muscles. If your goals are aesthetic, isolation moves should have a prime place in your routine. In this respect, dumbbells are superior – especially when it comes to the nuance of biceps curls.
Your biceps have two main responsibilities. You know the first: they flex your arm at the elbow. But they also drive another motion called supination, turning your palm upward towards the ceiling.
If you grab a kettlebell and do a biceps curl, yes, you’ll still have to flex your arm at the elbow. But the physics of the dumbbell, with one weight on either side of the handle, forces you to think about supination. Samuel, who has possibly done the odd curl or two, is unequivocal: “Working to keep a dumbbell perfectly balanced as you curl up is a biceps-growing mechanical challenge that you can only garner from a dumbbell.” When an honest-to-goodness arm pump is required, the DB is the OG.
Build definition and strength with this 3-move set from Samuel.
While isolation moves help you grow targeted muscles, explosive movements – think cleans, snatches and swings – are the touchpaper for truly full-body strength. They teach muscles to work together, elevate your heart rate and allow you to build power. “You can be explosive and powerful with a kettlebell just by grabbing and swinging it. And controlling that momentum builds muscle in 3D,” says Leija.
Of course, you can do a snatch with a dumbbell and even swing one, too, but the benefits are not as great, according to Paul Fabritz, a performance coach who works with NBA Houston Rockets star James Harden. “You can do explosive exercises with both tools, but which one is more comfortable? Kettlebells give you more options for power-based movements,” Fabritz says. The beast from the east takes this round.
The kettlebell-dumbbell war comes down to the Marmite of training: legs day. Love it or loathe it – and regardless of whether you’re chasing big arms or explosive power – you need to hit your lower body if you want to build total-body muscle and scorch through fat.
Kettlebells are the best tool for lighting up your quads in front squats, thanks to how natural it is to hold them in a front rack. The act of standing with weights at your chest turns on your lats and abs, but the position is more easily held with kettlebells, which means better squats and lunges. But kettlebells do fall short in a third leg exercise: the deadlift. The aim is to work your hamstrings and glutes, and deadlifts function best when you can lower the weights over a greater distance. Kettlebells are bulkier below your wrists, so they hit the floor sooner as you lower, thus costing you crucial inches in your range of motion. This one is too close to call.
Perhaps predictably, it’s a dead heat. Both pieces of metal have their advantages and some limitations, so get to grips with the one that best suits your training goals:
Go With Dumbbells If...
You’re a beginner: Dumbbells are simpler to use, and you can find
them more easily.
You're after strength: You can’t beat dumbbells for time under tension
and isolation moves.
You’re all about beach muscle: You can better sculpt the arms and torso that you want with the precision offered by dumbbells.
Go With Kettlebells If...
You’re a bit more advanced: Getting the form right on hinge movement unlocks their huge potential.
Your goal is athleticism: Kettlebells will more effectively help you develop the explosive strength and movement that you’re after.
You’re after more excitement: One can only curl so much, after all.
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