Today’s battle features two giants of the gym.
It’s kettlebells vs dumbbells, as I ask the question of which is better for building muscle and strength?
But before we get stuck in, I need to tell you something…
I’m a big fan of using both within my training plans, as do the majority of my clients. That’s because they are both proven methods for building a leaner, stronger body.
But check out this email from Rachel, one of the thousands of free members here at RussHowePTI.com.
I started lifting weights recently, and I’ve been happy with my progress so far. But this guy from work keeps telling me that whatever strength gains I make with barbells and dumbbells, he could get me in half the time with kettlebells.
It’s kinda starting to grate on me, like he’s belittling the progress that I’m really proud to have achieved.
So I wanted to ask you, if you had to compare kettlebells vs dumbbells, are they really as superior as he is saying?”
Don’t Be That Guy
I’ve helped some of my clients to get into their best ever shape with the use of kettlebell training, but there is one guy at the gym that I really cannot stand.
You may have encountered this guy before, too.
He has a tendency to recommend his own favourite tool as the way everyone should train.
This could be anything from kettlebells, to Insanity, or dumbbells, so-called functional fitness, crossfit, etc.
So the first thing I want to point out is that any trainer who recommends you only use one specific form of training is not worth your money. They’re already limiting your potential with their closed-mindedness. Strength gains are strength gains whether they were achieved with a bar or a kettlebell.
You should be damn proud of them.
Old School Vs Old School
Can you build muscle with kettlebells?
Kettlebells have made a comeback in the last 10-15 years, featuring prominently in boot camps and fitness classes.
But they’ve been around a lot longer than that.
In fact, their existence can be traced back throughout hundreds of years to Russia.
There are some fascinating studies on this subject of using kettlebell training for strength gains, the problem being that most people simply don’t know where to look for them.
So comparing something like kettlebells vs dumbbells would usually wind up coming down to personal opinion (with the gym bro claiming free weights will give you more strength, and the kettlebell guy saying kettlebells will give you more strength).
Thankfully, you looked in the right place, and this debate can now be ended.
Kettlebells Vs Dumbbells – Head TO Head
Let’s look at some science.
One of the things you’ll often hear kettlebell fans saying is that “due to the explosive nature of most of the exercises, kettlebells will build your strength better than any other piece of training kit.”
So, in 2012, researchers from California State University, Fullerton, looked into this subject with an extensive study pitting kettlebells vs dumbbells for pure strength gains. (1)
Let’s look at the results.
The team of researchers compared a kettlebell group using a 16kg kettlebell to perform a six week routine of goblet squats, accelerated swings and kettlebell swings, versus a free weight group using 80% of their one rep max for high pulls, squats and power clean.
As you can probably already see, these exercises were each chosen because of how closely they resemble their opposite numbers.
The results were published in the Journal Of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2012, and showed that the free weight group increased their strength significantly more than the kettlebell group.
This included increasing their one rep max on squat by 15% (compared to the kettlebell swing group increasing their squat strength by just 5%).
Meanwhile, the free weight group also used power cleans to increase strength by 10% and vertical leap by 4%, compared to the kettlebell group’s 4% and 1% increases.
Take Home Points
Let’s get something straight:
Kettlebells are awesome.
In fact, one of my favorite exercises is kettlebell swings and I credit that with getting some of my clients into their best ever shape.
But dumbbells win when it comes to increasing strength.
And for anyone to suggest choosing purely one form of training (any one form) as the only way to train, well, that is the sign of a poor trainer with a closed mind and limited potential for you to grow.
In order to build your best body we must take various aspects of different forms of training and combine the things which work for us.
There is no “one system fits all”. Otherwise we’d all be doing the same training program, and my job as a trainer would be f**king easy. Take a look at how many full routines built around different goals are available on my website, and you’ll see what I mean.
So instead of a blinkered kettlebells vs dumbbells approach, think more kettlebells and dumbbells.
Heck, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, machines, squat racks, Smith machines (yes, despite the fact that clueless broscientists like to hate on them) all of them are useful tools which have a place in my gym.
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- Otto, W. H., et al. Effects Of Weightlifting Vs. Kettlebell Training On Vertical Jump, Strength, And Body Composition. J Strength Cond Res. (2012).