The Benefits of Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells and Barbells

Dumbbells and barbells are the most commonly used implements for weight training that can be found in any gym. However, in recent years another workout tool has grown in popularity to rival both of these modalities: the kettlebell.  

Dumbbells have been around for thousands of years with early versions called halteres, used for training in ancient Greece. Their design hasn’t changed much over the millennia. The barbell is a relatively new training tool, only dating back to the mid-1800s. The barbell quickly gained prominence in the gymnasiums of Europe and became a staple of strongman shows as well.

Kettlebell history is a little less clear. We know kettlebells were used in Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1700s as counterweights for measuring grain. Some research shows they go back much further, however, possibly even as far back as dumbbells. Dumbbells and barbells may currently be the staple equipment for strength training, but the kettlebell offers many unique benefits that these traditional tools do not.

Unique Shape

Kettlebells have often been described as a cannonball attached to a handle. The offset weight design provides a different stimulus for the body compared to the evenly distributed weight of a dumbbell or a barbell. The ball and handle design of the kettlebell makes for a longer movement arm, which significantly increases the torque generated around the joints and thus the force required to move the weight.

The uneven weight distribution makes the kettlebell a very practical tool. In everyday life, you rarely lift evenly balanced objects like dumbbells. Kettlebells more closely mimic every day objects found outside the gym, making them a much more functional tool.

Grip Strength

Weight training is a great way to improve your grip, which is essential for strength. While all three modalities (dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells) will help to improve hand, wrist and forearm strength, kettlebells provide the biggest challenge to your grip.

Dumbbells and barbells have lines etched into the handles in a process called knurling, which makes the handle easier to hold onto during sweat sessions. Kettlebell handles, on the other hand, are smooth, making them harder to hold and more taxing on your grip. Kettlebells are ideal for swing, clean, and snatch movements, where the smooth handle allows the bell to glide across your hand without tearing the skin.

Greater Muscle Activation

Kettlebells have been shown in research studies to produce higher rates of muscle activation than dumbbells for exercises like swings, especially in the posterior chain muscles. The shape of the kettlebell requires the lifter to use a different grip than dumbbells or barbells. Not only do you have to utilize more muscle fibers per muscle group, but you also experience deeper muscle activation.

Can Be Held in Many Ways

Dumbbells and barbells are designed to be held in only one way. Barbells, as well as dumbbells, are typically lifted using both hands, although you can do a few exercises using one hand. Kettlebells can be held and lifted in multiple ways: place one or both hands on the handle, hold the handle in the middle, place your hand off to one side of the horns, hold the handle and turn the kettlebell upside down in a bottoms-up position, hold the kettlebell in the rack position, hold the kettlebell by the ball and squeeze with both hands or balance in one, and more.

All of these different positions provide different training effects, especially for the neuromuscular and nervous systems.

Better for Dynamic Movements

Kettlebells are the perfect tool for dynamic movements such as swings, cleans and snatches. The swing is responsible for the rise in popularity of the kettlebell over the last decade. Kettlebell swing is a full-body, compound movement that has been dubbed as the “new king” of exercises. Kettlebell lifting builds muscle, increases endurance and power, strengthens the whole body, and burns calories. A dumbbell can be used to perform single arm swings, but it’s not as safe or comfortable as using a kettlebell. Additionally, the kettlebell allows for many progressive variations of the swing using one or both hands. You can even go as far as juggling kettlebells.

The benefits of barbell cleans and snatches are well known and have gained popularity in mainstream fitness, but mastery of these complex barbell movements can take years and many every day athletes are not mobile enough to perform them safely. Kettlebells offer a much more accessible introduction to the Olympic-style exercises, especially from a mobility standpoint. While kettlebells still require proper instruction and plenty of practice, kettlebell cleans and snatches can be performed safely by almost anyone.  

Another dynamic movement the kettlebell lends itself to is throwing. Humans developed the skill of throwing objects with lethal force and accuracy thousands of years ago as a way to hunt for food, and the skill eventually made its way into sports and fitness. Kettlebells are well suited for throwing and catching drills, whereas dumbbells and barbells are not.

Great for All Environments

Walk into almost any weight room and you will see rows of dumbbell racks, squat racks, and benches loaded with bars and plates. However, you rarely see dumbbells and barbells being used outside the gym. The kettlebell is a very versatile tool that can easily be transported and used anywhere, such as for outdoor training at parks, sports fields, and beaches.

Having a variety of tools to use is beneficial, and by no means are we saying that kettlebells should replace dumbbells or barbells. All three modalities offer great benefits to your health and fitness. Including kettlebell exercises into your repertoire of workout tools can help you take advantage of their unique benefits and expand your training arsenal.

About Kettlebell Kings

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