Did you ever see Clash of the Titans?
Krakens… Medusa… Zeus… it was an old-school battle of epic proportions.
And today I bring you another clash of the titans (ahem!) as I pit kettlebells vs dumbbells to ask the question: which is better for building muscle?
This post came about after website subscriber Rachel emailed in this question:
A trainer at my new gym interrupted my workout to tell me any gains I’m making with weight training could be done significantly faster if I started using kettlebells instead.
Is this true?
If you had to compare the two, are kettlebells as superior as he’s claiming?”– Rachel, UK.
Don’t Be That Guy
Before I get stuck into the facts, I want to share something.
I like to use both pieces of equipment in my training plans. I’m neither Team Kettlebells nor Team Dumbbells (if either of these are a thing).
They both offer unique benefits, and I’ll run you through them further down this post, so you can choose what suits your goals the best.
But first, I’ll address a pet peeve of mine…
Have you ever had a friend try CrossFit? Or keto? Maybe the Atkins diet?
And before you know it, it consumes their entire being? What was once your buddy, is now a personality vacuum who spends all day lecturing their friends and family about why they’re “doing everything wrong” and need to be following the same thing they do?
Yeah, I’ve been there before.
So any personal trainer who recommends only one piece of equipment, or one type of training, is not worth your hard earned money.
Because in their closed-mindedness they are greatly limiting your potential to grow. Strength gains are strength gains, regardless of the apparatus used to create them.
That being said, let’s get to work on this…
Kettlebells Vs Dumbbells
Kettlebells are every bit as old as dumbbells and barbells.
Their existence can be traced back for centuries, and they’ve been long-term favourites of several top class athletes from Eastern Europe.
So despite the fact they’ve made a relative “comeback” in the last 15-20 years, they aren’t “new” by any means.
This means there’s a good body of research showing what we can and can’t do with them, so let’s look at some science.
One of the first things kettlebell fans say is, “due to the explosive nature of most of the exercises, kettlebells will build more strength than any other training equipment!”
To some extent, I agree.
The explosive nature of a kettlebell exercise, such as the snatch, make it a highly athletic move which can benefit athletes in almost every sport.
But for muscle growth?
Sadly, this is not true.
In 2011, a team of researchers from California State University, Fullerton, conducted a study pitting kettlebells vs dumbbells for pure strength gains.
The team compared a kettlebell group using a 16kg kettlebell to perform a routine of goblet squats, accelerated swings, and kettlebell swings, versus a group using free weights of around 80% of their max to perform high pulls, squats, and power cleans. The trial ran for six weeks.
As you can probably already see, these exercises were chosen because of how closely they resemble their opposite numbers.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published the results in 2012, and showed the free weights group had gained significantly more strength than their counterparts.
This included a 15% increase in their one rep max on squats, compared to the kettlebell group’s 5% increase. Meanwhile, they also boosted strength by 10% and vertical leap by 4% with power cleans, compared to the other group at 4% and 1%.
Take Home Points
Let’s get something straight; kettlebells rock.
In fact, kettlebell swings are one of my favourite exercises and I credit them with getting some of my clients into their best ever condition.
But dumbbells win when it comes to pure strength gains.
Besides, it’s pretty bizarre for anyone to suggest you use only one form of training to get in shape. You can find space to utilize both within your training plan, like I do in The Rip Down, allowing you to take advantage of the muscle building potential of dumbbells as well as the explosive, cardiovascular benefits of kettlebells.
Kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, machines, all of them have a well deserved place in my gym.
If you enjoyed this post on the benefits of kettlebells vs dumbbells for building muscle, jump onto my email list below for more free tips as they get written.
- Otto, W. H., et al. Effects Of Weightlifting Vs. Kettlebell Training On Vertical Jump, Strength, And Body Composition. J Strength Cond Res. (2012)