Many people feel that kettlebells are simply unnecessary and overpriced compared to the good old dumbbell. So what exactly sets kettlebells apart from dumbbells? In this article, I will try to lay out the unique differences between a kettlebell and dumbbell and their training modalities.
1. Ways of gripping
Many first timers pick up a kettlebell and grip it the same way as they use dumbbells. A ‘death grip’ is used for dumbbell training, meaning you grip the dumbbell tightly with your hand, regardless whether the dumbbell is overhead or not. This is of course to prevent the dumbbell from falling out of your hands. With the kettlebell, you do not want to maintain a death grip because its just inefficient and tires your forearms easily. For example at the overhead position, the kettlebell is positioned diagonally across your palm and rest against the ‘hip of the hand’. This is a mechanically sound position and it allows the wrist and forearm to relax which cannot be accomplished with a dumbbell.
2. Compound and isolation movements
Compound movements are movements that target more than a muscle group and involves multiple joints movements (eg. knees, hips and ankles in a squat) while isolation movements only target a single muscle group and involve only movement of a joint (eg. elbow flexion in a bicep curl). Dumbbells are often used for isolation movements due to the symmetrical design and definitely good for strength development and in certain rehabilitation situations. On the other hand, kettlebell lifts like the swing, clean, jerk and snatch are compound movements which targets the whole body and teaches the whole body to move as one unit. Of course, you can perform isolation movements like the bicep curl with the kettlebell but you will not be able to extol the unique benefits that kettlebells have to offer due to its design and offset centre of gravity.
Now, some will argue that you can substitute the kettlebell lifts with a dumbbell too. We are talking about lifts like cleans and jerks. In the kettlebell clean, the kettlebell is rested in the rack position whereby the elbow is rested against the hip. It is because of the unique shape of the kettlebell that this rack position can be achieved and it is just way too awkward with a dumbbell. Not to mention that you will need to maintain a death grip on the dumbbell at all times.
How about swings? Sure, you can perform swings with a dumbbell too. So don’t buy a kettlebell just to perform swings only.
3. Different training modalities/goals
We will need to look at primary function of kettlebells in order to differentiate kettlebell training from traditional strength training. A kettlebell is a fixed weight, so it is fair to say that a good way to measure progress is to increase the repetitions. One way of training with kettlebells is to lift it for relatively high repetitions (30-200 repetitions) without putting the kettlebells down. This training modality is unique to kettlebell training due to its special design compared to traditional strength training where the weight is put down after 5-15 reps. What it does build is work capacity and fitness with a good amount of strength that can be used in everyday activities.
If your goal is for max strength and/or mass development, you will eventually outgrow kettlebells (not too mention it will be expensive to get a whole set of kettlebell) so a set of barbells/adjustable dumbbells will be more suited to your goals.
In conclusion, I think the reason for the debate and confusion is too many people make the mistake of attempting to use kettlebells like traditional weights. To fully utilise and exploit the unique benefits of kettlebells, it is essential to seek expert instruction from a trainer.