So what’s the better way to reach your goals: fun or fundamentals? To find out, we assessed both training tools in five key situations that are critical to building muscle and burning fat at home.
POPEYE-SIZED FOREARMS don’t just make you look strong. They help you in nearly every exercise, from pullups to deadlifts. Research also shows that a strong grip correlates with longevity and resistance to disease.
Dumbbells, says Samuel, work your forearms most effectively. Most people don’t aggressively grip weights with all their fingers. Too often, people squeeze their index and middle fingers hard but relax their pinkie and ring fingers.
The fix: the farmer’s walk with dumbbells, focusing on keeping the bells level. For as long as you’re walking, says Samuel, no forearm muscle can relax.
Booooring, says Leija. Why think through all that when a series of kettlebell moves (say, a swing to a snatch) forces you to squeeze the bell so that it doesn’t go flying out of your hands? “It’s way more fun being able to free-flow into different positions due to the handle and the position of the weight.” But Leija’s plan doesn’t pile uptime under tension like Samuel’s does. WINNER! Dumbbells win here.
IF YOU’VE ever chased strong, powerful, boulder-shaped shoulders, then you’ve likely tried the military press, which has you holding weights at your shoulders, then driving your arms overhead. The military press is a classic strength move, requiring core stability, shoulder power, and shoulder mobility.
It’s also a movement that works far better with kettlebells than with dumbbells. The reason: shoulder-blade stability and control. On most exercises, you want your shoulder blades to depress (move downward toward your butt) and retract (squeeze tightly together near your spine). The kettlebell places your shoulder and shoulder blade in those natural positions, says Dan John, a veteran trainer and fitness historian. “It’s rotating around the back of the wrist, and it sets [your wrist] in place,” he says. This can’t happen with a dumbbell, because the load is spread out on two sides of the handle. There’s uncertainty in pressing a dumbbell overhead, says John, and that can lead you to arch your back or press slightly in front of your torso, placing excess stress on your shoulder joint. Even Samuel can’t argue this.“I’ll give on this one,” he says. “The kettlebell is the best pressing implement out there.”
Do this 3-move workout from Leija to build total-body power and muscle.
The Kettlebell Crusher
Stand 2 feet behind a kettlebell and grasp its handle with both hands, feet set wide, knees bent, hips back. Keeping your core tight, hike the kettlebell back between your legs. Stand explosively and squeeze your glutes, propelling the kettlebell forward.Let the momentum take you backward for the next rep. Repeat for 30 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Do 3 sets.
ISOLATION EXERCISES, such as biceps curls and triceps skull-crushers, target specific areas, pushing those muscles to growth by limiting the involvement of other muscles. If your goals are aesthetic, says Samuel, isolation moves should have a place in your routine. “You need to spend some time doing isolation training to grow those arms,” he says.
Dumbbells are superior, especially when it comes to the nuance of biceps curls. Your biceps has two responsibilities. You know the first: It flexes your arm at the elbow. But your biceps also drives another motion called supination, turning your palm upward toward the ceiling.
If you grab a 20-pound kettlebell and do a biceps curl, yes, you’ll still have to flex your arm at the elbow. But the physics of the dumbbell, with one weight on either side of the handle, forces you to think about supination. “Work to keep that dumbbell perfectly balanced as you curl up,” says Samuel, “and that’s a biceps-growing mechanical challenge you can only get with a dumbbell.”
Build definition and strength with this 3-move set from Samuel.
The Dumbbell Destroyer
Lie on the floor, holding dumbbells in both hands directly above your shoulders, feet flat on the floor, core tight. Tighten your shoulder blades. This is the start. Bend at the shoulders and elbows, lowering the dumbbells until your elbows touch the floor. Press back up, squeezing your chest. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
WHILE ISOLATION exercises help grow targeted muscle, explosive movements, such as cleans, snatches, and swings, help you develop full-body strength. They teach muscles to work together, elevate your heart rate, and allow you to build power.
“You can be explosive and powerful with a kettlebell, just grabbing and swinging,” says Leija. “And controlling that momentum builds total-body muscle.”
Samuel points out that you can do a snatch and even a swing with a dumbbell, too. But the benefits are not as great, explains Paul Fabritz, a performance coach who works with NBA Houston Rockets star James Harden. You can do explosive exercises with both tools, but which one is more comfortable? The kettlebell. “Kettlebells give me more options for power-based movements,” Fabritz says.
IT’S FITTING that the kettlebell-dumbbell battle comes down to the thing many gymgoers avoid: leg training. But whether you’re chasing big arms or full-body power, you must train your legs, because you’ll build total-body muscle and burn fat.
Leija insists that kettlebells are the best way to light up your quads in front squats, thanks to how natural it is to hold them in a front rack. Simply standing with dumbbells or kettlebells at your chest turns on your lats and abs, but the position is easier to hold with kettlebells. That means better squats and lunges, but kettlebells fall short in a third leg exercise, the Romanian deadlift, says Samuel.
“I love the front rack with kettlebells,” he says. “But dumbbells are far superior when it comes to deadlifts.” The reason: A deadlift, which works your hamstrings and glutes, functions best when you can lower the weights over a greater distance. Kettlebells are bulkier below your wrists, so they hit the floor sooner as you lower in a Romanian deadlift, costing you a few inches of range of motion.
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