Choose Your Player: Barbell, Dumbbell, or Kettlebell


By Chris Ullom, O2X Strength and Conditioning Specialist

Choices, Choices

I must admit, even after almost three decades of working in the industry, sometimes walking into a new gym for the first time can be overwhelming. There seems to be an endless variety of machines and equipment to train practically every part of the body (I’ve even had to “google” some machines because I had no idea what they were for!).

But when you strip it down to what you actually need as part of an effective training program, it’s hard to beat some of the oldest pieces of equipment that exist within the realm of human performance – barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.

Even within these three tried and true modalities, it can be difficult to decide which one to use and when. While you could certainly use any of these to get the job done, knowing the pros and cons of each piece can go a long way in helping you pick the right tool for the job.

An important concept to understand when it comes to training is that your central nervous system will only recruit your prime movers (i.e. big muscles) to the degree that you can maintain postural and joint stability. In other words, the more stable the environment the stronger you can be (or the more load you can handle). If you’ve ever experienced the difference in the weight you use on the leg press vs the back squat, then you know this to be true. This principle has profound consequences when it comes to utilizing different pieces of equipment.

The Choice for Absolute Strength – and its Drawbacks

Of the three, the barbell is the most stable choice, since you can use both hands on the same implement. That, along with the fact that you can place it relatively comfortably on your back, make the barbell the choice for absolute strength. You can load it with an incredible amount of weight without your grip strength being the limiting factor during pressing and squatting. For pulling exercises, such as bent rows and deadlifts, it’s fairly easy to strap into the bar if needed.

Additionally, most people require a relatively small selection of plates to perform a comprehensive program consisting of Oly lifts, squatting, hinging, pressing, and pulling. And when combined with a power rack, it’s easy to get into position for each exercise, even when dealing with big weights.

Unfortunately, some of the things that make the barbell so awesome can also be a hindrance. Allowing you to use both arms on the same implement increases the stability of the exercise and the amount of load you can use, but it does make single arm work a challenge. Its 7-foot length can also present issues when training in crowded, confined spaces or performing multi-planar exercises. Also, if you don’t have a power rack it can be difficult getting the bar into position for squatting and pressing with significant loads. There’s also the fact that if you can’t lift 45 pounds, you’re not quite ready to train with the barbell (Of course I’m not talking about you).

The Choice with the Most History

One of the oldest pieces of equipment in the training arsenal, dating back to Ancient Greece, the dumbbell overcomes several of the limitations presented by the barbell. Since both arms must work independently, it’s a great tool to recruit joint stabilizers when pressing horizontally or vertically and variations such as alternating arms, iso holds, and single arm work are possible. The dumbbell’s smaller footprint also makes it easier to open up the full training repertoire, such as multi-planar exercises, contra/ipsilateral work, and specialty exercises like Turkish Get-Ups, Renegade Rows, and more. Also, with a complete set of dumbbells, it’s simple to switch weights as needed.

Of course, while the dumbbell opens up a wide array of training options, it comes with some limitations. Most notably, if your goal is purely absolute strength, the dumbbell’s more unstable nature is going to be a limiting factor. You may be able to bench press 250 pounds with a barbell, but it’s more difficult stabilizing two 125-pound dumbbells, not to mention just getting them into position. And a 400-pound squat with dumbbells? Have fun!

Another factor to consider is the grip strength required to solely perform dumbbell work. Training grip strength is extremely important, but you don’t want to miss a heavy triple because your grip was spent. Lastly, much like the barbell, when performing power with a dumbbell you are basically limited to moving in a vertical plane. Luckily, that’s where kettlebells come in.



Getting into the Swing of Things

Around two hundred years ago, Russian farmers would use heavy iron weights as a counterbalance to the carts that carried their produce to market. At the end of the day these guys would start swinging those weights around to see who was the strongest. Thus, the Russian sport of Kettlebell was born.

Today, the kettlebell is commonplace in almost every gym around the world. With a peculiar shape – a metal ball with a handle on top – the kettlebell not only opens the door to a unique group of exercises, but traditional exercises can be done in a unique way.

Take the kettlebell swing, for example. Sure, you could swing a dumbbell, but not with nearly as much control. Nor could you do the many variations like hand-to-hand swings, figure 8 swings, and kettlebell flows from swing to another exercise. The swing and accompanying variations also allow you to train in multiple planes of motion. The shape also means that the load will naturally be off-center (unless you’re talking about a center-mass kettlebell but that’s a topic for a different post). This challenges the systems that maintain postural and joint stability even more than the dumbbell. The Turkish Get-Up and Windmill are completely different exercises when performed with a kettlebell compared to a dumbbell. And if you hold the kettlebell in the “Bottoms Up” position, stability is challenged even further.

As great of a tool as the kettlebell is, it also comes with certain limitations. As stated previously, when instability is increased, absolute strength is decreased – meaning that users will typically use lower loads with kettlebell training. Also, many of the standard kettlebell exercises, such as cleans and snatches, require much more technical proficiency than those same exercises when performed with a dumbbell. The kettlebell snatch, for example, can absolutely destroy your forearm if you are not good with technical aspects of the catch. The forearm can also be an issue for many trainees any time the kettlebell is in the “racked” position or during the pressing exercises. Additionally, as with the dumbbell, you must have access to a variety of different size kettlebells to implement a truly comprehensive program, and heavy kettlebells and dumbbells are BIG!

The Take-Away

No single piece of exercise equipment is perfect. When I am evaluating a training tool I ask myself how dynamic the tool is – or how many different things can I do with it? A really nice knee extension machine can cost up to $5,000 and is built for only one exercise. Comparatively, barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells cost considerably less and the amount of exercises you can perform with them are limited only by your imagination and creativity. As long as you are clear about your specific training goal and know the benefits and limitations of each piece, you can get everything you need from these three legends of the free weight world.