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Kettlebell vs Dumbbell Training

Should you start kettlebell training?
Should you start kettlebell training?

One of the nice things about working out in a gym is the wide variety of equipment available. You can make greater gains and avoid injury if you use what's most appropriate.

Two common pieces of equipment I see being used interchangeably are kettlebells and dumbbells. Since kettlebells are more trendy, I've watched them being recommended far more often than in the past. Depending on your goals, that may be a big mistake. Kettlebells and dumbbells each have specific advantages, here's when to choose one over the other.

Use Dumbbells because...

Dumbbells are balanced, making them easier to grip for the majority of isolation exercises. In fact, if you hold a dumbbell and kettlebell of equal weight, most people think the kettlebell is heaver because it's more awkward to control. For pure strength exercises, dumbbells are often the best choice because you can maintain proper form more easily through the entire range of motion. The ability to control them is also safer for beginners.

Dumbbells are less expensive than kettlebells. When setting up a home gym, if you're on a limited budget, get the dumbbells first. Dumbbells are ideal for exercises that work only one muscle or one group of muscles, but you can also use them for many dynamic kettlebell moves. However the reverse is not true, Kettlebells are not well suited for many dumbbell moves.

Use Kettlebells because...

Kettlebells aren't evenly balanced, so exercises with them tend to engage smaller stabilizer muscles to keep things under control. That's appropriate for people who are training to improve their functional abilities and some types of rehabilitation therapy.

The handle on a kettlebell makes it easier to swing and train muscle groups across various planes. That's good for exercises like the kettlebell swing, but be warned. Many kettlebell handles are so thick they're hard for people with smaller hands to grasp securely. Look for kettlebells that have thinner handles for a secure grip.

Don't do this...

Don't buy kettlebells to improve your cardio. There are lots of websites, trainers and videos promoting their cardio burning ability, but clinical trials haven't shown that to be true. If you want the most effective cardio workout, start doing intervals.

Don't sign up for kettlebell training, unless your goal is get better at handling kettlebells. Resistance training is to build muscle and cardio training is to improve your cardiovascular system. Kettlebells aren't something different, they're simply a tool you use when engaging in a resistance program.

Finally I'd like to address a clinical study that compared kettlebell exercises to similar dumbbell exercises over six weeks to see which one was better. One of the exercises was a squat with dumbbells versus a goblet squat with kettlebells.

The study concluded that dumbbell users improved squat strength three times more than the kettlebell users. (Squat strength increase was 15% for dumbbell users versus 5% for kettlebell users.)

Unfortunately they weren't making a valid comparison. A goblet squat is a corrective exercise to help reinforce proper movement patterns in a squat. They are designed to keep your upper body parallel to your shin. It also helps you stay upright, instead of hinging in the hip. The goblet squat is all about learning and reinforcing correct form. Once your body is moving properly, you can progress to traditional squats to increase strength.

Comparing those two exercises is like comparing a pickup truck to a sports car. They're both good at getting you from one place to another, but they serve very different needs.

What the study should have looked at is the effectiveness of each piece of equipment, performing the exact same exercise. Then rate ease of use, figure out which helps maintain proper form and which one helps the subject get more done, for that particular exercise.

Choose equipment that's most appropriate for the exercise at hand. Sometimes that means a kettlebell and sometimes that means a dumbbell. It's not one OR the other, it's one AND the other.

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10/12/2014