Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dumbbells vs. Kettlebells - Will The Battle Ever Be Decided?

Having used both kettlebells and dumbbells for years in my garage gym and in commercial gyms, it's safe to say that they both have their place in the fitness arena.  The popularity and usefulness of both are evident but when it comes to having to decide between the two, that's when we've got to really analyze which of these tools get the job done the best.

Before we commit to one versus the other, it's important to note that most any tool when used consistently with intensity can afford us some great results.  If it's gathering dust or only pulled out one to two times a week then it won't matter if it's absolutely stellar at what it does, we won't see any benefit from it.

We're going to stack up the dumbbell versus the kettlebell for those folks that need to make a choice either because their limited space or budget [who doesn't have those two issues?]  If at the end of the day we see one as a clear stand out for our goals then we can make the best choice when outfitting our home gym.

One Handed vs Two Handed - For the most part, both the kettlebell and the dumbbell are one handed tools.  Both are designed to fit comfortably in the hand with the dumbbell leading a bit in this category due to the availability of the contoured handle.  It's a bit more ergonomic and can reduce hand/grip fatigue with prolonged use.

Since developing grip strength and endurance in the grip are part of the goal, we don't see contoured handles as a huge winner but it's something to make note of.

The kettlebell has a leg up on the dumbbell with it's wider handle, though.  Movements like the two hand kettlebell high pull or two handed kettlebell swing are popular movements that are hard to mimic with the dumbbell because of the shorter handle the dumbbell has.

Floor Friendly - We've got to tip the scale in the dumbbell direction for this category.  No matter what the weight, dropping from too high and you've got some dancing to do to avoid getting bitten, but the Rubber Hex Dumbbell can make minor collisions more friendly for your floors, knees or whatever else might be in the path.

Smooth Grip versus Rough Grip - Most dumbbells have a chrome plated steel handle with light to moderate knurling to enhance their 'grip-ability.'  Since many of the movements are virtually static the chrome is an adequate choice.  Some manufacturers are also adding rubber coatings or rings to make the grip a bit more 'sticky'.

The kettlebell wins in the grip category in our book due to it's textured yet smooth handle.  With just enough variation in the surface of the handle due to the casting process, the kettlebell handle can make the athlete feel much more confident in their grip.  And that edge the kettlebell has in the grip category is all part of the design due to some of the movements that the kettlebell offers.

Balance - Let us start off by saying that perfect balance isn't always your best friend.  Let's take a look at the plank push up for just a moment.  With both hands firmly on a level floor, the movement is  fairly isolated.  Place each of your hands on a medicine ball or slam ball and we've got a whole new ball game.  Instability in the movement recruits a bunch more muscle and forces even more concentration.  That's a good thing.

Due to the shorter handle and overall design of the dumbbell, it's only possible to grip it one way - dead center.   That means every time you pick it up it will feel balanced in your hand and no matter where you are moving it, that center of balance stays consistent to your hand.

The balance of a kettlebell, however, is completely different from that of the dumbbell and that's pretty evident from first glance.  Not only is it shaped and weighted differently, but the horseshoe shaped handle gives you a bunch of options on where to place your hand[s] when you pick it up.  That, in itself changes the balance and feel of the weight as you push, pull or swing.

And that variation in grip can change up the intensity of an exercise that will force more muscle to get involved as well as require your undivided attention when working through the movement.

Challenge:  Here's a quick exercise to try even a few reps on that will point out the balance differences between these two great tools immediately.  Work through a few reps of the one arm shoulder press.  The first round with a dumbbell, round two with a kettlebell [positioned like the picture to the left], then round three with the bottom of the kettlebell pointed up.

Versatility - This is big in our book.  We're not big believers in single use equipment unless it's stellar at what it does [like the jump rope or the Concept 2 Rower].  If you only have one use for a piece of equipment you've invested in, it might not get as much attention Day 30 as it did during the first week.  Versatility ranks high in keeping us moving forward with our fitness goals.

The great news is that both the dumbbell and the kettlebell rank really high in this category.  Both of these tools have a wide variety of exercises that they bring to the table because they can be moved to most anywhere on the body - the hip, the shoulder and overhead.   We spelled out nineteen different ways to use the kettlebell in an earlier article and that's just scratching the surface.  The dumbbell doesn't trail that far behind but our vote leans toward the kettlebell here.

Switch It Up -  The kettlebell has some really interesting and challenging movements that just can't be copied with the dumbbell.  Exercises like the figure eight and the single arm passing swing rely upon the balance, shape and larger handle of the kettlebell for success.  That larger horseshoe shaped, textured handle makes changing hands mid movement a fun way to move the weight.

Neither choice is wrong, but we tend to favor the kettlebell versus the dumbbell as it stands out in many of the above categories.  And one of the ways we love to get in a great workout with any equipment that is always changing is with the deck of cards.  Assign one movement to each suit - kettlebell swings, pushups, kettlebell goblet squats, kettlebell kayaks, sit ups, lunges...  Each face card counts as ten, Aces can be one or eleven [or even 10 of each].  And keep the jokers in as 30 second rest cards if you like.  Shuffle the cards then draw them one at a time, completing all the reps before drawing the next card.