Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells – Which is Better for Building Muscle?
While kettlebells and dumbbells have their place, which is better for building muscle or overall fitness routines? Let's dive in and pick a winner!
Dumbbells and kettlebells are two of the most used and effective pieces of equipment in any weightlifter’s arsenal. Both offer a huge range of benefits to any workout and although they are similar in design, they each provide different benefits to your workout.
In this article, I will explain the different benefits of using each. After reading this, I hope you have enough knowledge of both lifting options to tailor your workouts to perfection.
With a mix of both kettlebell and dumbbell exercises, you will have the potential to increase your strength, break through plateaus, and see an increase in aerobic ability.
What is the Difference Between Kettlebells and Dumbbells?
Kettlebells and dumbbells are very similar on a fundamental level but have some crucial differences.
A kettlebell is like a cannonball with a handle, whereas dumbbells are handles with weights on either side. This means that although they are both essentially weights with handles, the way you interact with each of them is quite different.
Dumbbells work by giving you a balanced exercise set. Placing weights on either side allows you to perform your exercises with stability. This means you have more options for one-handed exercises and better control than kettlebells.
Kettlebells, however, use an off-centered weight system. This means the weight is heavier than the handle. During movement, a kettlebell will want to carry on in the direction you first move it. This means stopping it from doing so requires more effort than stopping a dumbbell.
Because of the way they are designed, kettlebells are much more suitable for aerobic-strength exercises. Some kettlebell exercises that show what we mean here include the kettlebell swing and the kettlebell squat. These exercises require explosive power.
By using a range of muscles to propel the kettlebell in the desired direction and then using a variety of muscles to control or stop it, you get a great workout that targets multiple muscle groups.
Dumbbells, on the other hand, require a lot less stabilization. This means that the exercises associated with dumbbells, like the bicep curl, are great at targeting singular muscles with precision.
So Which is Better for Building Muscle?
Regarding muscle building, having your eggs in more than one basket is always better. Your body quickly adapts to whatever you put it through, so sticking to one method is a bad idea.
Mixing it up with kettlebells and dumbbells is the most effective way to build muscle. That is not to say there is no optimum time to use each piece of equipment.
Due to their design, each option lends itself to individual goals. Don’t worry, and if you are confused as to which one to pick, I’ve split them into individual goals here:
Novice Lifters: Dumbbells
If you are new to lifting or have never been shown how to use a kettlebell properly, stick to dumbbells. At the beginning of your lifting journey, you will see much better gains using dumbbells.
Simple dumbbell exercises include basic curls, tricep extensions, chest presses, side raises for shoulders, walking lunges for your legs, and many others.
If you have never been taught how to use a kettlebell properly, you will likely pull a muscle or injure yourself. Please heed my advice. I’ve seen injuries from swinging the kettlebell incorrectly.
Dynamic or Aerobic Exercises: Kettlebells
The kettlebell reigns supreme if you plan a workout around explosive aerobic exercises. Hands down.
If a weightlifter competes in aerobic sports like running or football, the kettlebell will allow you to gain muscle and train your aerobic conditioning.
They are also great if you are time-restricted in the gym or can only work out a few times a week, as the kettlebell hits several different muscles simultaneously. It allows you to squeeze more out of your workouts when you’re short on time with your gym workout.
There’s a handful of basic exercises you’ll want to learn and do properly once you’re ready to get started.
Basic Movements: Dumbbells
For basic movements and if you are looking for exercises that will enhance your main lifts. Dumbbells are the best choice and are also great for when you lack motivation in the gym. Doing a bicep curl is much easier than a round of kettlebell swings.
Because they are more straightforward, they offer a better ability to focus on a muscle. You will get a much better mind-to-muscle connection using dumbbells, and you can focus on the squeeze and control a lot better than if you are using a kettlebell.
Changing Up Your Routine: Kettlebells
If you’ve hit a plateau or want to change your usual routine, kettlebells are great. We all get so used to the same trusted exercises. Swapping for a kettlebell routine can shock the system and keep us from getting too bored with the same old lifting plan.
You can knock out some kettle squats and get your heart pumping quickly. Kettlebell squats are all-around great, and you can superset them with many other exercises.
Grip Strength: Kettlebells
Due to the awkwardness of using a kettlebell, your grip strength improves much faster than using a dumbbell. Because of this reason, many advanced lifters will implement a hardcore kettlebell routine to rapidly increase their grip strength.
So if you are struggling with your pull-ups, swap your regular arm-day routine for a kettlebell one to see massive improvements.
Adding a Challenge During Maintenance: Kettlebells
If you have ever dealt with a maintenance period, you know how dull it can be. You don’t want to up the weights too much, so you leave the gym with more in the tank to give. A great way to spice things up during these periods is to throw a couple of kettlebell exercises in.
This will allow you to give your usual all without increasing the weight. With the aerobic aspect of kettlebell workouts, you will finish your workouts feeling exhausted, curing those maintenance period blues.
Gaining Strength: Dumbbells
Apart from grip strength, if you want to see gains in the weights you lift, you will typically see a more significant increase in muscle strength using a dumbbell routine. Because you’re targeting the specific muscle you want, that muscle will grow much faster.
Dumbbells provide highly focused and isolated exercise options, such as doing rows for your back.
Kettlebells are great for training multiple muscle groups. However, if you want to progress through the weights quickly, I advise you to stick to dumbbells.
Another problem with kettlebells is that they tend to come in large weight increments. This means that you may find it difficult if you are trying to grow muscles through progressive overload.
So, which is better for building muscle, the kettlebell or the dumbbell?
As you can see from above, this question has no definitive answer. There is a reason why most gyms are filled with a mix of both dumbbells and kettlebells.
If we’re purely keeping score on the above criteria, kettlebells barely win. They are my go-to and preference in the gym.
However, both pieces of fitness equipment are instrumental for any weightlifter’s arsenal. The best thing any weightlifter can do is to change their routines when they stop working constantly.
Kettlebells are great for improving your aerobic fitness and grip strength and targeting multiple muscles in a single exercise. If you are doing a cut, kettlebell exercises are great for turbo-charging your fat-burning potential.
If you start using kettlebells, I strongly advise sticking to the basics. The king of kettlebell exercises is the kettlebell swing. Get this exercise down, and you will have a workout that burns fat and adds muscles. All while getting you in shape and training your hamstrings, back posterior chain, and core strength all in one go.
Dumbbells are the original king of strength improvements. If you want to target individual muscles, are new to the gym, or want to progress through the weights quickly, pick up a dumbbell. There is a reason why dumbbells are the focal point of every weightlifting gym and a pair of adjustable dumbbells are incredibly versatile.
Remember, it does not matter which piece of equipment you build your routine around if you are not fueling your muscles correctly. Make sure you are eating enough protein and have your macros dialed in. Take adequate rest days to grow your muscles and get enough sleep and water. What you put into your body is exponentially more important than exercise.
If your nutrition and way of eating are dialed in, using a mix of dumbbell and kettlebell exercises will transform your body into a powerhouse – both incredibly strong and fit.
I hope to have provided you with the tools to tailor your
workout to your goals. Whether you are using dumbbells or kettlebells, I
wish you all the best in your journey to improve your body!
Tony Lee, MS, RD
Tony Lee, RD, MS, is a highly qualified and accomplished Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Sciences from Arizona State University. Tony brings over two decades of experience in dietetics, specializing in sports nutrition. Interests include studying all aspects of wellness, fitness, genetics, and peak health performance.