Jan 29, 2015
Bell Power

Dumbbells and kettlebells provide unique advantages that can add value to any strength regimen, but only if you know how to fit them into a functional training approach.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. His daily thoughts on training athletes can be viewed on his blog: www.functionalpathtraining.blogspot.com.

Athletic trainers and strength coaches are constantly inundated with marketing claims about the next “latest and greatest” training aid or exercise method. Many of these pitches are laden with buzzwords, puffery, and half-truths about the training approaches being plugged and the science that supposedly backs them up.

Of course there have been some significant achievements in the training aid marketplace in recent decades, so I don’t want to paint all new products and systems with a broad brush. But despite the never-ending barrage of new ideas, the most basic and time-tested equipment is sometimes still the most practical. Such is the case with two of the oldest types of training implements: dumbbells and kettlebells.

Dumbbells have been around for so long that some early versions were literally “dumb (soundless) bells,” from which the clapper had been removed so someone could lift the heavy metal objects repeatedly without making a racket. And kettlebells were a staple of Eastern European training long before achieving their current revival of popularity in the West.

This article will give you some practical advice on getting the most out of dumbbell and kettlebell work. Using my experience with both modes of training for various sports and in the rehabilitation environment, I’ll discuss what these implements can and can’t do for athletes who use them, and cover ways to make dumbbell and kettlebell training as functional as possible.


Regardless of the type of strength training, the goal of any sound program is to develop strength that an athlete can use in his or her sport. To accomplish this, I think of training as the process of moving through a spectrum of different movements and muscle actions with varied modes and loads to elicit maximum adaptation. Moving across the spectrum is a means to an end, and the end is a stronger, more functional athlete.

In my opinion, traditional approaches to strength training have been too heavily influenced by convenience. Many lifts and exercises focus on movement in a single plane with one joint because these movements are easy to describe to athletes, easy to relate to what we see in anatomy textbooks, and easy to evaluate through visual observation.

But performance in any sport is a multi-dimensional activity that takes place in a dynamic environment. Thus, truly functional performance involves moving the whole body in all three planes–sagittal, frontal, and transverse–using as many joints and muscles as needed to produce and reduce force. This is a key reason why the freedom of movement achieved with dumbbell and kettlebell training is so valuable.

Athletic movement involves synergists, stabilizers, neutralizers, and antagonists all working together. The central nervous system constantly modifies movement patterns in response to gravity, ground reaction forces, and momentum. Each activity is further refined and adjusted by feedback from the body’s proprioceptors.

Strength training, at its core, is actually coordination training with appropriate resistance, with the main goal of enhancing linkage and connectivity to produce more powerful and efficient movements required in an athlete’s sport. Dumbbells and kettlebells are excellent tools to train multi-dimensional movements and enhance power and coordination.

Because of their versatility, dumbbells and kettlebells can be used for resistance in all the essential movements needed for comprehensive athlete development:

• Pulling • Pushing • Squatting (and derivatives like lunges and step-ups) • Rotation • Bracing

In a well-designed program, all these movements should be incorporated through multi-plane, multi-joint movements that involve the full range of motion and high proprioceptive demand.


To design a functional training program and decide when and how best to incorporate dumbbells and kettlebells, it’s important to ask the following questions:

• What are the strength requirements of the sport? • What muscle groups are used in the sport, and how can dumbbells and kettlebells be used to engage those muscle groups? • What are the primary movement requirements and force reduction requirements? • In what direction(s) are the greatest forces applied? • What is the range of movement, and are dumbbells and kettlebells the best way to introduce resistance within that range? • What are the most common injuries in the sport?

Dumbbells and kettlebells can both be viable modes of resistance in virtually any athlete’s training program, but they’re not a stand-alone training method. They must be part of a comprehensive program to achieve optimal results.

Kettlebells in particular have become something of a training fad lately, and despite their clear value, some claims regarding their benefits are a bit over the top. There are no “Russian secret” kettlebell training methods that single-handedly produced the huge, intimidating Soviet athletes of past generations, as some of the more ambitious marketing hype would lead you to believe.

In fact, kettlebells were a staple of U.S. and European gyms and physical education programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Just like climbing ropes, Indian clubs, and various other training implements, they fell out of favor as physical education moved away from movement gymnastics and toward team sports. There has been revived interest in kettlebells over the last 10 years, and today they can frequently be seen in commercial fitness centers and high school, college, and pro team weightrooms.

So how do you fit them into a comprehensive strength program? I think kettlebell training is best added as a later step in most progressions, after an athlete has built a solid foundation of strength and is starting to look for variability and different adaptive responses. Safety is a major reason behind this approach, since improper technique with a kettlebell can quickly put unwanted stress on the wrist and elbow. Mastering correct mechanics for the various movements performed with a kettlebell is essential to gaining optimum return and minimizing injury risk.

I am currently working with volleyball players, who rely heavily on swinging movements in their sport. For that reason, the swing-based mechanics of kettlebells are an excellent fit. On our total-body training days, I use the basic two-arm kettlebell swing for two sets of six, followed by one set of six one-arm swings with each arm and one set of six “swing and catch” movements with each arm. We then do jump shrugs with the kettlebell, and that leads into either high pulls with the kettlebell or kettlebell cleans (for the more advanced athletes). This is just one example of how kettlebells can be incorporated into a sport-specific program for highly trained athletes.

Dumbbells, meanwhile, are appropriate for practically all levels of athletes, even those just being introduced to strength training. The most common alternative to dumbbells is a bar, which can be limiting because its minimum weight is often more than a beginner can lift with proper technique. In addition, the athlete has to adapt and “fit” to the bar, fixing the hands in one position relative to the torso. Because the user is unable to turn his or her hands when using a bar, greater stress is placed on the elbow and shoulder, especially with inexperienced lifters.

A dumbbell, meanwhile, places virtually no restrictions on movement and positioning. For total-body movements like high pulls, cleans, and snatches, the maneuverability of dumbbells provides a major advantage. I have found that dumbbells are the best way to teach total-body pulling movements, such as the high pull, clean, and snatch, and once the athlete is proficient, we progress to bar work for added resistance and greater variety.

One of the most frequent questions athletes ask when working with dumbbells or kettlebells is how much weight they should lift. I use percent of body weight as a guideline to start, with the amount obviously depending on the movement and complexity of the exercise.

Whole-body movements demand a higher percentage of body weight than pressing movements, and the load should never be so great that the athlete cannot perform the prescribed sets and reps with the desired tempo and range of motion. Remember that rep speed–not just load–is critical for power development.

Also, it is important to have dumbbells available in 2.5-pound increments, or to use magnetic add-ons of 1.25 or 2.5 pounds to fine-tune the load. The standard five-pound increments commonly found on dumbbell racks are generally not sufficient to customize a progressive workout.


If you want to make muscle power as functional as possible, nothing is more important than coordination and synergy between muscle groups and body parts. Dumbbells and kettlebells force this synergy while also requiring each limb to work independently, eliminating the potential for one side to compensate for the other at any point throughout the range of motion.

For deconditioned athletes and beginners, one of the most common factors limiting performance is a weak link somewhere in the kinetic chain. Once you’ve identified a weakness, dumbbells are versatile enough that you can customize a lift or movement to address the deficiency, and transition from lighter to heavier weight as the athlete makes progress.

Another advantage is that many beginners, especially female athletes strength training for the first time, find dumbbells much less intimidating than bars. I find that they quickly “dive in” with dumbbells, while with the bar they are hesitant to increase load or even to begin lifting.

When working with more advanced athletes engaged in high-level performance training, one of the best selling points for dumbbells and kettlebells is simple availability–they provide a weightroom without walls. With these implements’ easy portability, they can be used on a field, court, track, pool deck, or practically anywhere else athletes find themselves.

For all these reasons, dumbbells and kettlebells are valuable tools for athletes looking to build functional strength. And like with all pieces of equipment, the key is determining how best to use them based on an individual’s ability, experience, and performance goals. There’s good reason why some training tools have stood the test of time.


Every strength training method carries some degree of injury risk, especially if a proper progression is not followed and technique is not emphasized. The unique design of the kettlebell presents some challenges that must be overcome to minimize risk. Here are some points of advice on making kettlebell training as safe as possible:

• Even though kettlebell work is thought of primarily as a form of upper-body exercise, instruct athletes on proper leg stance to reduce the risk of poor body alignment during various movements.

• Teach the most basic swings and let the athlete get comfortable with those before moving on to more complex movements.

• Start with light kettlebells, and don’t progress to heavier ones until the athlete displays mastery of technique–and then, increase the load only in small increments.

• Don’t focus on the quantity of reps at the expense of quality of movement. A large number of reps with less-than-optimal technique provides fewer advantages and poses a much greater injury risk than a smaller number with excellent technique.

Sidebar: WHICH TO USE? This article discusses dumbbells and kettlebells more or less interchangeably at times, because from a training perspective, they provide many of the same benefits relative to other types of strength work. But each is a unique resistance tool, and while the dumbbell can be used for practically any single-arm lift, the kettlebell has more specialized applications.

The shape of the kettlebell and the placement of its handle provide a weight distribution that significantly increases the difficulty of lifting it. That’s one reason why I recommend kettlebell work only for intermediate and advanced lifters. Mastery of swing mechanics and variations of the swing are essential for safe and effective kettlebell training. I use the swing and its permutations as a lead-in to pulling movements, and I find that swinging with a kettlebell is very helpful for developing the muscle memory and timing of multi-joint movements necessary for proficient pulling.

I don’t typically make the kettlebell my only resistance training tool for an athlete. Instead, I blend it with other methods in the same workout. This is partly for practical reasons and partly strategic. Practically, I just do have not a wide enough range of kettlebell weights to accommodate the diverse needs of the athletes I’m working with. Strategically, I think kettlebells are perfect for certain movement patterns (like the aforementioned swinging) and great for adding variety to a workout, but by themselves they do not offer the range of possibilities necessary for comprehensive strength training.


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