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Matching your equipment to your goals is a theme with me – I love trying to optimise my training (and trying out new kit!) In this showdown we look at kettlebells, barbells AND dumbbells to work out which is best for YOUR training needs.
At a glance…
- Barbells are better than dumbbells or kettlebells for strength training
- Kettlebells are best for aerobically focused dynamic training
- Dumbbells are a great jack of all trades and are great for bodybuilding!
- If I could only use ONE it would be a BARBELL as I enjoy strength training the most!
- Kettlebells are the least versatile – so would be my last pick (but they are still great for some people!)
Kettlebells vs barbells vs dumbbells: Which should YOU choose?
We will cover each item below as well as their pros and cons – but in short:
- Kettlebells are best for ballistic, aerobic-focused circuit training
- Barbells are best for strength training and those with enough space to accommodate a barbell and rack
- Dumbbells are best for accessory training around other goals – so higher rep bodybuilding work, GPP training to compliment a strength training base, or similar
Personally I would choose a BARBELL first as I like the simple progression and satisfaction associated with strength training, but I LOVE using dumbbells for my hypertrophy-focused accessories such as shoulder and incline pressing. I find the longer range of motion gives an awesome pump!
While I have done quite a bit of kettlebell training it would be my third pick principally due to the lack of versatility to other training styles.
What are the main differences in training with kettlebells, barbells or dumbbells?
Choosing between these three implements will have a big impact on what movements you end up doing. The design differences hint at what they’re best at:
|Design||Rounded handle with weighted ball hanging underneath||7ft metal pole with rotating sleeves on the end that can be loaded with weight||Short metal pole with weights either end|
|Grip||Single or double handed||Double handed||Single handed|
|Variation||Can alter grip for various workouts – overhand, double handed, thumbs around, etc||Can alter grip width only||Free form as each hand can move independently|
|Range of motion||Long – can be swung or pressed like dumbbells||Shortest – limited by having both hands gripping the same bar||Free form – longest range of motion as weight centred around hand (kettlebell hangs down) and not limited by long barbell|
|Weight||Usually fixed weight; Large increments||Variable weights; Can be micro-loaded easily||Fixed or adjustable|
|Best for||Dynamic, aerobic focused workout circuits and training||Heaviest weight training & strength athletes||Generalists, bodybuilders and those adding variety to their existing workouts|
What are the pros and cons of a kettlebell?
A kettlebell is a weighted ball with a rounded handle protruding out of the top. The design is distinctive, and can be a bit intimidating for someone new to lifting to know just what to actually DO with it!
Kettlebells have a couple of desirable traits:
- Design lends itself to dynamic movements – the handle around the top lends itself to fast, power based training. Kettlebell swings and clean & press for example are FANTASTIC with a kettlebell and feel far more natural than doing so with the wider dumbbell
- Circuit training – following the above, kettlebells are great for circuit work like some entry level CrossFit WODs. Select an appropriately weighted KB and then follow the AMRAP based routine to feel the burn!
- Power – power is a function of work performed and TIME, so doing something QUICKLY means the POWER is higher (at the same weight). Kettlebell training is all about ballistic movements and dynamism. If you want to train your power output – pick up the KB!
Personally I think the downside to kettlebells is their lack of versatility. It is easier to replace the dynamic training moves with barbell or dumbbell work than it is to replace barbell or dumbbell work with kettlebell movements. For example maximal strength training with kettlebells is not ideal due to the sheer size of larger KB’s being awkward to work with.
Can kettlebells be used for cardio?
Kettlebells can be used as part of a high intensity cardio workout (e.g. 30 seconds of swings) HOWEVER this will pass on far more fatigue than something low impact such as biking.
PERSONALLY I prefer to keep to low impact cardio modalities for this reason and keep the fatigue low ahead of strength and bodybuilding days.
What are the pros and cons of a barbell?
Barbells are a staple of almost any gym. An Olympic barbell is a 7ft metal pole with 2 loadable sleeves on the ends. Weight can be added to the sleeves and then lifted by gripping the shaft of the barbell (which is typically 28 – 29mm in diameter.)
The best things about barbells are:
- Loading – barbell can be loaded HEAVY. Have you seen Eddie Hall’s 500kg deadlift (or Thor’s 501kg?) Both of these are done with barbells. With the correct plates you can load a SERIOUS amount of weight on to a barbell
- Accuracy of weight – when loading the barbell you can work in grams… yes, GRAMS, of weight to finely adjust the barbell for your PR attempt. With kettlebells and dumbbells you will be luck to even get 2.5kg increments in available weights!
- Ideal for strength training – when starting out weight lifting it can be comforting to focus on ONE goal at a time, and strength training is often that goal! Barbells are ideal for following routines such as StrongLifts 5×5 or Starting Strength
The downside to barbells is that they are awkwardly sized and really need a power rack to get the most out of them – if you don’t have a dedicated home gym space then manoeuvring a 7ft, 20kg heavy pole around can be difficult!
Are kettlebells better than barbells?
In short – NO. Personally I find barbells are more useful more of the time for almost all training – with the exception of POWER focused training (kettlebell swings are hard to beat!)
What are the pros and cons of dumbbells?
A dumbbells is like a handheld barbell… A short knurled handle connects two weighted ends. Both ends are usually the same weight so the dumbbell is balanced.
Most people love dumbbells for a few reasons:
- Beginner friendly – it is far less intimidating to pick up some dumbbells than it is to load a long barbell up.
- Great for bodybuilding – the lengthened range of motion available over a barbell make these an excellent choice for those looking for a quick arm and chest pump with the likes of concentration dumbbell curls and incline dumbbell bench press being staples in many serious athletes routines.
- Safer – many lifters will find themselves pinned under a barbell from time to time. With dumbbells there is no such risk!
In truth there are limited downsides to dumbbells as they are great for all round training. The main disadvantage is that they can be awkward to handle and get in to position at very heavy weights and therefore those looking to lift very heavy are often better suited to barbells which can be easily racked in a squat rack, or generally just loaded heavier.
The other negative is that it is expensive to outfit a home gym with a full rack of dumbbells as you need to buy a TON of pairs. Adjustable dumbbells offer an alternative but with the downside that they take time to set to the correct working weight each time.
Can kettlebells replace dumbbells?
Yes you can replace dumbbells with a pair of kettlebells in most movements. Getting them in to position to lift will be the biggest stumbling block if you are a strong lifter however. Overall there is little benefit to doing this unless you simply don’t have dumbbells in your gym!
Kettlebells vs dumbbells for bodybuilding
If looking to build muscle and aesthetics I would recommend DUMBBELL training over KETTLEBELLS. The increased range of motion and ability to load heavier makes dumbbells a better choice for aesthetic goals.
The exception would be if you are trying to cut weight – in this situation the aerobic nature of kettlebell circuits would be beneficial.
Fortunately we rarely need to train EXCLUSIVELY with a single bit of equipment (some home gym emergencies to one side!)
Mixing dumbbells with barbells and throwing some kettlebells in is my preference and can provide a super varied workout getting the most from each bit of equipment while not having to compromise our training goals!
It’s rarely one or the other: Use the right tool for the job! But if I had to pick just ONE? I would probably go for the BARBELL!