By Scott Iardella
Nothing irritates me more than a YouTube video or article about kettlebell training featuring exercises that could just as easily be done with a dumbbell or any other training modality. Kettlebells are fantastic training tools, and so are dumbbells, but they serve different purposes and are very different modalities. So, when I hear someone say, “Kettlebells are just fancy dumbbells,” it’s inaccurate and misleading. The key is t0 know which is the right tool for the goal. There are exercises that clearly should be performed with a kettlebell, and vice versa.
For example, doing biceps curls with a kettlebell is not “kettlebell training”—it’s not even close. Biceps curls are best done with a dumbbell or barbell; a kettlebell is not the tool for that particular job.
Conversely, you shouldn’t perform swings with a dumbbell because a kettlebell is the better tool due to its shape, design, and offset handle. A kettlebell is a very different tool, though, and if you really want to understand better how to use it, seriously consider taking a seminar or workshop.
Each training modality has unique benefits. Let’s take a look at a few examples of exercises that are 1) kettlebell preferred 2) dumbbell preferred and 3) good for either:
• Goblet squats
• Turkish get-ups
• Bottom’s-up work (cannot be done with a dumbbell)
• Biceps curls
• Triceps kickbacks
• Forearm work (flexion/extension)
• Front-, lateral-, and rear-deltoid work
• Flyes (flat, incline, decline)
Good for either
• Farmer’s walks
• One-arm rows
• Single-leg deadlifts
• Stiff-leg deadlifts
These are some of the basics. The thing to remember is that kettlebells are simply designed differently than dumbbells, and their design allows them to be better and more effective for some exercises. The same can be said about dumbbells.
One of the best examples is the swing. Can you swing a dumbbell? Certainly, you can, but I’ll say with 100% certainty that the swing is better and more effective when done with a kettlebell. I know because I’ve tested and compared the two methods. Of course, you have to know how to perform a kettlebell swing the right way to understand fully what I mean. Now, when you’re looking to develop bigger arms, are kettlebells the best tool? No. Dumbbells and barbell work are the way to go. In this case, the dumbbell is clearly the better tool.
The kettlebell and the dumbbell each have important roles in strength and conditioning as well as muscle building, but they are used for different purposes, and there are exercises that are better done with one or the other. They are not interchangeable but unique and distinct in their benefits.
In general, kettlebells are better for total-body strength and conditioning, especially the ballistics (the fast, explosive movements). They will also teach you a lot about human movement and how to move well under load.
Dumbbells are better for targeting specific muscle groups, such as biceps, triceps, and different regions of the shoulder complex and back. Dumbbells are great for the bodybuilding-style approach and targeted muscle building.
Which tool is best? It all depends on your training goals. When you know your training goals, tool selection is the easy part. Choose your tools wisely.
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As a physical therapist and a strength coach, Scott has spent 3 decades teaching unconventional approaches to strength & performance training for long term health and fitness results. With numerous training and nutrition certifications, Scott is also one of the world’s foremost experts in kettlebell training and the prominent host of the Rdella Training Podcast. — Scott is the author of The Edge of Strength, a comprehensive new book describing his philosophy and methodology of training and performance (now available at Amazon.com)