What Is the Difference Between Kettlebell Swings & Dumbbell Swings?

The kettlebell swing recruits the glutes.
i Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The kettlebell swing is thing of beauty -- as will be your glutes and hamstrings after you do enough of them. This so-called ballistic exercise differs from typical push-pull exercises for strength training in that you get an extra boost of muscle firming from the controlled throwing motion involved. Nesties who only have a dumbbell available can try working with that -- but you may be wishing soon for the convenient handle of a KB, as trainers affectionately call this cannonball-shaped weight.

Swing Basics

    For either swing, you stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart and grasp the weight, lifting it slightly off the floor with both hands. For your first swing, you lift the weight with a swinging motion to around chest height. Allow the weight to drop in an arc to between the knees, such that your forearms engage the inside of your thighs. For subsequent swings, return the weight to chest height not by heaving it with your arms, but with a powerful motion to extend the hips, almost resembling a pelvic thrust. CrossFitters do a higher swing overhead, although this extra motion is not standard among regular Russian kettlebell exercisers. Variations include the two-arm swing, best for beginners, as well as rhythmic and fun alternate-arm swings and finally single-arm swings. Depending on your fitness level, you can go for 10 swings, 15 swings, 20 swings or work up to a timed set of 60 seconds to max your cardio benefits.

Symmetric Weight

    For the swing move, the difference between what trainers call KBs and DBs is significant. With the dumbbell, especially at higher weights, you are still essentially performing a squat combined with a motion that resembles a pull. This has its benefits, and is obviously better than sitting around not exercising. But the symmetric shape of the dumbbell -- two weights on either end of a handle -- lacks a crucial advantage of the kettlebell, particularly as it pertains to the swing.

Asymmetric Weight and Offset Handle

    The kettlebell is what is called an assymetric weight -- meaning that its center of gravity during a swing shifts constantly as it pivots slightly in your hands, given that the weight attaches to an offset handle. During a KB swing, this requires your stabilizer muscles -- the midback, lower back, rotator cuff and forearm, especially -- to work like demons to keep you balanced side to side and front to back. The kettlebell moves with a life of its own, threatening to take flight at any point if your body doesn’t work extra hard to keep control -- so perform the swing in an area where a flying kettlebell won’t hit fellow Nesties, or a wall or mirror. The handle and bell also effectively lengthen the motion of the swing, adding another 6 to 9 inches to your arm length, thus working the targeted muscles through a longer range of motion.

Grip Strength and Cardio

    The thickness of the kettlebell handle, especially compared to that of a dumbbell, also works to give you “a vice grip in no time,” notes senior-level certified kettlebell trainer Mike Mahler, of the Mahler’s Aggressive Strength website. This observation underscores the importance of trying to grip the handle tightly versus letting the kettlebell flop around. A high-repetition workout of kettlebell swings also provides a tough cardio workout, Mahler notes. Still, all is not lost if you only have a dumbbell to work with. Leading strength author David Sandler asserts in “Fundamental Weight Training” that KBs and DBs are interchangeable for many exercises.

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