Finding your way around your gym’s cardio machines is fairly foolproof. You want to run? Hit the treadmill. You want to spin? Get your butt on the bike. You want to climb stairs for 45 minutes but never actually go anywhere? Hop on the stair master. Weights, though, aren’t as straightforward, which is why the question of when you should grab a kettlebell versus dumbbell to check off your strength training is often cause for confusion.
The choice between the two shouldn’t just be based on preference…or whichever is closest. Because of their shapes, they each fit different needs, and therefore, should be used accordingly. A kettlebell has one large, spherical weight with a handle on top, while dumbbells feature two equal-sized weights with a bar in the middle.
These designs lead to differences in the way the mass is distributed. When you hold a weight, the mass is on either side of your hand, while with a kettlebell it’s directly underneath with a space in the middle. “With a kettlebell, there is a space between your hand and the actual load, and this added distance acts as an additional lever arm,” says Kelvin Gary, founder of NYC’s BodySpaceFitness. This, he explains can make the load feel either lighter or heavier, depending on its position in space.
So when should you grab for a kettlebell versus dumbbell? The answer is: It depends. Ballistic moves, like snatches and cleans, can be done with either. But according to Gary, because kettlebells will feel different at different points throughout the move. “The added benefit here is that its more stimulus for your body to have to adapt to, thereby increasing the need for coordination and stability and ramping up the effort,” says Gary. Squats, lunges, rows, and presses can also all be done with both types of weight, but you may have an easier go using the kettlebell because of the grip.
Whether you’re using a kettlebell or a set of dumbbells, you want to be sure you’re lifting the right weight. “It all comes down to sets and reps,” says Gary, who suggests doing a set and asking yourself if you can make it through the movements with good form. If the answer is no, you should take things down a notch; if it’s yes, you’re on the right track (and if it’s yes, but you feel like you could do at least four more, grab something heavier). Also, keep in mind that you’ll likely be able to lift heavier weights with lower body movements than you will with your upper body, so be sure to switch things out as necessary. Still can’t figure out which to reach for in the battle between kettlebells versus dumbbells? Allow this guide to help.
When to choose a dumbbell
Dumbbells are easier to use than kettlebells, which makes them a great choice if you’re just getting started in the weight-training game. Even if you’re an advanced lifter, Jackie Vick, CSCS, a trainer at Gold’s Gym notes that dumbbells are usually the better choice for moves that require “pressing and pulling,” because dumbbells help you feel more stable.
1. Renegade rows: In a high plank position with dumbbells in each hand, row one arm at a time, pulling your elbow toward your back and keeping your core engaged throughout the move.
2. Dumbbell snatches: Starting with the dumbbell on the ground, squat down to pick it up and drive through your lower body to lift it straight over your head. This move tones your arms and shoulders while also getting your heart rate up.
3. Dumbbell push-press: Standing with your feet hips-width distance apart a set of dumbbells at your shoulders and your knees slightly bent, drive through your lower body to lift them straight over head. Squeeze your core and glutes at the top before lowering back down.
4. Farmer’s carry: Hold equally weighted dumbbells in either hand, and walk across the floor holding your shoulders back and keeping your core tight.
5. Dumbbell bench press: Lying on a bench with equally weighted dumbbells in either hand, push them up over your chest to meet in the middle. Bring them back down, stopping before your elbows drop below the bench.
6. Dumbbell thruster: Standing with your feet hips-width distance apart and a set of dumbbells on your shoulders, Squat all the way down and drive up through your lower body to press the dumbbells over your head. If you’ve got a set of dumbbells around, and want to get started right now, try this full-body HIIT workout.
When to choose a kettlebell
If you’re looking for some higher intensity weight training, reach for a kettlebell. “Kettlebells offer a slight edge in design effectiveness and energy usage during functional movements,” says Vick, adding that they’re better for moves like swings, cleans and snatches because of the way the load is distributed. However, they can be slightly harder to use than dumbbells, so if you’re new to weight training you may want to build up to kettlebell moves.
1. Single arm swings: Standing with your feet hips-width distance apart, hold onto the kettlebell handle with one hand. Bending your knees slightly and keeping your back straight, swing the bell in between your legs with control. Snap your hips forward and lift your chest to swing the kettlebell forward. These are great for toning your glutes while also working your core.
2. Kettlebell racked lunges: Hold a kettlebell in each hand, and alternate forward lunges on each side. This helps upgrade your lunges from lower body moves into full body ones.
3. Kettlebell cleans: Unlike many other moves, cleans are actually easier to do with a kettlebell than a dumbbell. With a kettlebell on the ground, squat down and grab it in one hand. Explode up, and use the momentum to lift the kettlebell to your shoulder and flip it over your wrist.
4. Kettlebell windmills: Holding the kettlebell overhead in one hand, use the other hand to trace down your leg and lean your entire body toward the ground. These help with hip extensions, and allow you to hit multiple planes in a single move, says Gary.
5. Goblet squats: Hold a kettlebell by the “horns” (aka the side handles), and turn your feet out. Sink your hips all the way down to below your knees, and explode back up to the top. Grab a kettlebell and hop into squat position.
No matter what weight you’re reaching for, it’s important to stretch when you’re finished. Here’s one that will make your lower body feel ooey-gooey, and another series that will have your hips singing.
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