Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells: Which is Best for Your Fitness Goals?

May 4, 2021

Equipment Guides

What’s the difference between kettlebells and dumbbells? They’re both hand-held free weights used by beginners and pros. They both come in different increments, and they both work for some of the same exercises (think rows or weighted lunges). But as you might guess from their designs, they’re actually made for two different types of fitness goals. Here’s how to decide which one is right for you.

Kettlebells and dumbbells are usually made from cast iron or steel, but in completely different shapes. A kettlebell is sphere-shaped with a flat base and a curved handle on top. A dumbbell has a straight handle with weight evenly balanced between the two ends, and is sometimes coated in neoprene or plastic.

Can you build muscle with just kettlebells, or just dumbbells? Absolutely. As long as you’re doing the right warm-ups and keeping good form, you’ll build muscle with either. But for more specific fitness targets, you might want to choose one over the other.

  • Dumbbells, for example, are best for controlled reps that target muscle growth in one area—like curls for the bicep.
  • Kettlebells, on the other hand, are better for explosive movements that burn fat and build strength across multiple muscle groups—like kettlebell swings for the arms, legs, and glutes.

What are the benefits of kettlebell training?

Both the benefit and challenge with kettlebells is keeping your balance while moving them, because their full weight is in the center instead of being split evenly like a dumbbell. Beginners can definitely benefit from kettlebell workouts, but it’s important to start with low weight and reps until you get used to them. For more advanced lifters, kettlebells are a great addition to your home gym if you’re looking to do cardio and build muscle at the same time. And if you’re trying to save space, an adjustable kettlebell is a great option.

What are some common exercises performed with kettlebells?

Kettlebell exercises are usually dynamic, high-power movements like snatches, jerks, and swings. These types of full-body exercises give you a high-intensity workout that’s equal parts cardio and weight training. Just make sure to master the technique first, without weight, before you start swinging those kettlebells.

What are the benefits of dumbbell training?

Dumbbells are easier to hold and move because there’s equal weight on both sides. That’s why they’re good for beginners, because they’re less likely to slip out of your hand or throw you off balance. But they’re essential for the pros too, because their shape lets you do precise, consistent reps that isolate specific muscle groups.

If you’re just getting started with dumbbells, you might want to choose the neoprene-coated kind. They can be easier to grip than bare iron or steel, and their softer edges make them less likely to damage your floor if dropped. If you’re an experienced weightlifter, rubber-coated hex dumbbells are the most popular choice. Or, if space-saving is a priority for your home gym, think about investing in adjustable dumbbells that you can load with different weight increments.

What are some common exercises performed with dumbbells?

Use dumbbells for classic upper-body exercises that target the arms, chest, and back, like curls, overhead presses, and rows. You can also add them to lower-body or ab exercises like squats, lunges, and sit-ups to make those movements more challenging.

Now that you understand the difference between kettlebells and dumbbells, you can choose the right one for your goals. Just keep an eye on your form, and you’ll be bulking up or toning down in no time.