If you keep a training log of your lifts, you’ll start to get a feel for how much weight you can lift on certain exercises. After a while in the gym, most of us can pick up a 45lb plate and somehow just know what it feels like.
When I bring luggage to the airport, I take it as a personal mission to work out the weight just by lifting up the bag and making an accurate estimate based on the fact that I lift weights up and put them back down on a daily basis.
If I can curl 50lbs with one arm but can’t curl the suitcase, there’s a good chance it’s closer to 60lbs.
Well, this ability to get a feel for the weight of something is definitely true for experienced lifters but this is less true when using different pieces of equipment, one in particular being a kettlebell.
Why do kettlebells feel heavier than dumbbells? Kettlebells feel heavier than dumbbells because both have a different center of mass which affects how the weight feels when lifted. A dumbbell’s weight is close to the wrist joint during a lift, whereas a kettlebell’s weight is further away from your joint.
This is a more unstable position and makes a kettlebell feel heavier.
In this article, we’ll cover this in more detail and give a scientific reason why kettlebells feel heavier than dumbbells whilst also mentioning which exercises this will feel most noticeable on.
Why Do Kettlebells Feel Heavier Than Dumbbells?
Kettlebells feel heavier than dumbbells for 3 key reasons:
- The weight is distributed differently. Dumbbells have a balanced weight whereas kettlebells have an uneven distribution
- The weight is transferred to your joints and muscles differently with a kettlebell
- Different exercise uses
Below, we’ll cover each of these three areas in more detail.
1) Weight Distribution
Kettlebells feel heavier than dumbbells because the weight distribution and center of the mass is different.
This means that the weight is distributed differently, which causes you to use more muscle groups and strength to lift a kettlebell versus a dumbbell. The mass is equally distributed on each side with a dumbbell, creating more stability and balance when lifting.
On the other hand, the kettlebell has its mass in the center “bell”, which means it is directly underneath your arm. There is also a space between the handle and the weight, which acts as a lever. This “leverage” can either make the kettlebell feel lighter or heavier, depending on its position.
Additionally, the weight always feels like it wants to go back in its original direction (handle facing upward), which causes the kettlebell to feel heavier.
The kettlebell weight becomes more evenly distributed when it is moving. The dumbbell is just simply easier to move because of its balanced weight at rest and on movement.
The handle is also smaller on a kettlebell. A smaller handle means that your forearm muscles need to be more actively engaged, which will result in the kettlebell feeling heavier than a dumbbell.
Similar to weight distribution, the design for both pieces of equipment significantly impacts how heavy they feel, especially during certain exercises. A dumbbell handle is flat and straight meaning you can grip it fully (tightly) whilst maintaining a balanced weight distribution.
This means that your wrist joint is placed under less tension and the muscles in your forearm don’t need to work as hard.
A kettlebell has a slightly curved handle as it resembles a hook, this means you can never fully grasp it in a central position. Ultimately, this means that during different exercises, your forearm muscles will need to work harder to control and balance the weight whilst you’ll also have more tension on your joint.
The balanced weight when it comes to dumbbells is another design feature that makes them feel lighter. The weight is balanced on either side of your wrist so you have less tension on the joint during a movement.
With a kettlebell, the weight sits below your wrist and constantly fights to get back to a balanced position. Just look at my kettlebell here as a good example. The weight is located below the handle so if you were to curl it, the weight will stay below your wrist and place more stress and tension on the joint.
3) Use During an Exercise
Finally, kettlebells and dumbbells are both used differently. A dumbbell is mainly used for isometric exercises where you move the weight from point A to point B in a linear pathway. Think of exercises like:
- Bicep curl
- Dumbbell press
- Dumbbell row
With a kettlebell, however, you’ll be moving the weight through non-linear pathways with exercises like:
- Kettlebell swings
- Turkish get-ups
During these movements, the off-center mass of a kettlebell means that the weight feels lighter when moving through a different pathway which is the complete opposite of how a dumbbell would feel when trying to replicate the same exercise!
When you try to move a kettlebell through slow, isometric contractions though, the weight will sit below your joint which causes more tension, means you need to use more muscle groups to balance it, and ultimately makes a kettlebell feel heavier as you need to work harder to complete a lift.
Linked to this, for kettlebell-specific exercises, you tend to use more muscle groups which can again lead to a kettlebell feeling lighter during movement only whereas dumbbells are primarily used to target single muscle groups.
Why Do Some Kettlebells Feel Heavier?
Not only can you notice a difference in how a weight feels between a kettlebell and a dumbbell, you can also notice that some kettlebells feel heavier than other kettlebells!
Competition kettlebells will have strict criteria in terms of calibrated weight, weight distribution in the “bell”, and diameter of the handle. This ensures consistency across practice and competition scenarios.
For non-competition based kettlebells though, the differences in design can vary. They won’t vary wildly but one specific example is the handle. The diameter of the handle can vary between cast iron kettlebells of the same weight as well as between vinyl or rubber kettlebell designs.
A thicker diameter handle can be easier to grip, whereas a more narrow competition handle will have a slimmer diameter. This means you need to grip the handle harder to grasp the weight which in turn means you need to use more muscles, primarily in the forearm in order to control the weight.
The size of the bell will also have a significant impact on why some kettlebells feel heavier than others. A 45lb (20kg) cast iron kettlebell like in the image below has a significantly large bell but a smaller handle. Newer kettlebells use a much larger handle to make it easier to grip but this leads to a smaller bell.
The difference means that the weight is closer to your joint with the smaller-sized kettlebells, theoretically making them “easier” to lift for many of the reasons mentioned in the difference between kettlebells and dumbbells above.
How Using a Kettlebell Affects Its Weight?
Using a kettlebell feels very different from a dumbbell. Kettlebells are designed for ballistic training.
Ballistic training means that weight or the athlete’s body is moved explosively. The purpose of ballistics training is to improve your explosive power and strength by activating the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Using a kettlebell requires a different form. The handle of the kettlebell is smooth, which allows the equipment to move during the ballistic exercises.
The size of the handle also allows you to hold the kettlebell in different positions. You can use several positions with one hand: Rack position, Pistol Grip, Side Handle, and Palm Grip. Other positions require two hands.
If you are new to kettlebells, start with a lighter weight. Getting used to the movement and grip is essential before advancing in the weight. You will be surprised at how heavy only 10lbs can feel! Poor form will only delay your progress, so your primary focus should be on perfecting your form before advancing your weight.
These different grips and uses of a kettlebell demonstrate why they can feel heavier than dumbbells. During ballistic movement, a balanced weight too close to a joint can actually lead to injury and will feel heavier due to the restricted movement.
A kettlebell can certainly feel heavier in one position but then significantly lighter in another because the force is shifted away from your joint. Fixed and balanced weights like a dumbbell keep force around your wrist joint at all times.
A similar concept can be seen with barbells. Olympic barbells have spinning sleeves, this reduces the amount of torque and force on your joints during explosive movements.
What Is the Advantage Of Kettlebells?
Kettlebells are beneficial because they are meant for more functional training. This means that it will better prepare you for daily tasks and objects you might carry. For example, kettlebell training would work the muscles used to bend and pick up a heavy object, like a box.
Kettlebells provide a more efficient workout. The exercises completed using a kettlebell result in more muscle groups being activated. The beauty of the kettlebell is that it will feel different throughout each movement, which requires your body to increase its stability, coordination, and therefore increases the effort required.
There are also a lot of different types of exercises you can do with a kettlebell. Often, kettlebells are used for ballistic training; they can also be used for isometric training as well.
You can get creative and add a few isometric movements together to create a ballistic, total body exercise. The possibilities are endless!
What Is The Disadvantage Of Using Kettlebells?
Nearly everyone can use kettlebells, but some may prefer more traditional methods of exercise. The only disadvantage of a kettlebell is that it may be initially awkward and challenging to learn how to use. It may cause some initial pain in the ulnar and radius.
When Should I Use A Kettlebell?
Choose a kettlebell when you are looking for a higher intensity training regime. Here are a few examples of exercises you can do using a kettlebell.
Grab a kettlebell with two hands on each side of the handle (often called the “horns”). Turn your feet outwards slightly and drop your hips down below your knees if possible. Explode back to standing position. This is an excellent exercise for the glutes and quads.
Hold the kettlebell by the handle with one hand over your head. With the other hand, draw a line down your leg all the way to the ground. Windmills are a great way to help with hip extension.
Kettlebell Racked Lunges
Grab a kettlebell in each hand and do forward lunges. This exercise is a great way to turn your regular lunges into an upper body exercise as well.
Single Arm Swings
Grab the kettlebell with one hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and begin to swing the kettlebell between your legs while keeping your back straight. Thrust your hips forward, tighten your glutes and lift your chest to help swing the kettlebell forward. This is a great exercise for your glutes, core, and shoulders.
Place the kettlebell on the floor beside you, squat down and grab the handle. Explode upwards, bringing the kettlebell up and over your shoulder, and flip it over your wrist. Cleans are great for your arms and shoulders.
A 45lb kettlebell will weigh the exact same as a 45lb dumbbell, there’s no denying that if both are calibrated. Therefore, you might think you are going crazy because a kettlebell can definitely feel heavier than a dumbbell for multiple exercises.
The truth however is that kettlebells will feel heavier than dumbbells for certain exercises. This is because the weight distribution between the two pieces of equipment is very different.
Dumbbells have a more balanced weight distribution which makes them easier to hold and lift (for certain exercises), whereas a kettlebell’s weight lies below the handle and means your forearms need to work harder in order to control and balance the weight during a lift.