Before I discuss how a kettlebell is different from a dumbbell, let me get one this out of the way: it is called a “kettlebell,” not a kettle-ball, cattle ball, cattle-bell, cow-bell, kettle bell, etc. It is spelled as one word and has nothing to do with a cow. Calling it any of those things is akin to calling a dumbbell a dumb-ball, dumb-bell, or stupid-ringer (I’m not sure about that last one, but you get my point).
Let me also get another special point said and done with: a kettlebell is not better than a dumbbell, nor is it worse. Both tools are inanimate objects that are nothing more than lumps of cast metal. They are not special in any way, but how you use them is.
Now on to the reasons why kettlebells are different from dumbbells.
#1: Kettlebells Have Smooth Handles
Dumbbells typically have some type of surface that allows you to grip them more firmly, kettlebells do not. Ideally, kettlebells have a smooth handle with just a hint of grittiness (for more on ideal kettlebell handle smoothness, Click Here). The reason is simple, kettlebells need to be smooth because the handle will be moving within your grip for most ballistic exercises, like Kettlebell Swings, Kettlebell Snatches, and Kettlebell Cleans. Conversely, dumbbells have a gripped surface for isolation movements like curls, front raises, and military presses. While you can use dumbbells for some ballistic movements (like Snatches from the Ground), they may not be as ideal for high repetition sets,
#2: Kettlebells Are Spherical
While both kettlebells and dumbbells can be considered “round” (unless the dumbbell has hex weights), the kettlebell has a spherical weighted side. This may not seem useful until you consider the myriad of drills that this design supports. The most widely used is with Figure 8 exercise variations. The Figure 8 is a common kettlebell drill in which you stand with your feet apart, pass the kettlebell from one hand to the other in between your legs, and whip it around to the front of your body using a hip snapping motion, and repeating. The roundness comes in handy during the Figure 8 to Hold variation where you launch the kettlebell into your opposite hand during the “whipping” motion of the standard Figure 8. With the “ball” of the kettlebell sitting in your palm, you can press, curl, squat, or lunge before dropping the weight forward into your next repetition.
#3: Kettlebells Can Be Gripped in Many Ways
Unless you want to get silly with your dumbbell (by “silly” I mean dangerous), you can only hold a dumbbell by its handle while performing drills. The offset weight of the kettlebell, combined with its large, curved handle, allows you to hold it in a variety of ways. This gives you the ability to perform both new exercises and standard exercises in a completely new way. The ways to hold a kettlebell include Rack Position, Pistol Grip (Bottoms Up), Side Handle, and Palm Grip (and this list doesn’t include a variety of 2-handed positions). To read more about kettlebell grip strength training, Click Here.
#4: Kettlebells are Unbalanced Weights
One of the biggest differences between kettlebells and dumbbells is that the weight is offset and unbalanced. The handle of a kettlebell weighs much less than the “ball” of the kettlebell, whereas dumbbells are balanced from end to end. In addition to allowing for a variety of different drills (mentioned in reason #2) as well as different grip positions (mentioned in reason #3), this offset weight makes a kettlebell more “functional” than a dumbbell (with “functional” being defined as applicable to common, everyday tasks). How often do you grab a tool in daily life and find it completely balanced? How often is that box you’re going to pick up packed perfectly with YOU in mind? Not very often. The kettlebell is more similar to regular, everyday items: imperfect and uncooperative.
In addition, the unbalanced weight of kettlebells allows you to rest them on the back of your arm while holding the handle. This provides the ability to perform drills like the Turkish Get Up, Strict Press, and Squat unlike you would with a dumbbell.
#5: Kettlebell Weights are Less Incremental than Dumbbells
Kettlebells typically come in 4 to 8 kilogram (9-18lb) increments, whereas dumbbells come in 1 to 2 pound increments on the smaller range and 5 pound increments for the heavier weights. The reason for this disparity is twofold: history and commoditization. Kettlebells originated in Russia with a unit of mass called a “pood” (16.38 kilograms or 36.11 pounds). While the pood has been abolished as a unit of measurement in most circumstances, it stuck for girevoy sport (kettlebell sport) to this day. The 4-8kg increments are relative to this original measurement system. Secondly, kettlebells are not yet a commodity in the United States fitness industry and are still relatively new here (one of the only places on earth that uses the pound versus kilogram measurement). Keeping the kilogram measurements makes global use of the kettlebell more consistent. While kettlebells may eventually become a standard commodity, the increments will most likely remain the same.
There you have it! Kettlebells are another tool that should be added to your gym. They are different from dumbbells in a number of ways you may not have considered before.