These three simple tools can help you push, pull, and swing your way to a stronger and fitter body. Their small size and simplicity allow for a greater range of motion during exercise, challenging your muscles in ways no other equipment can. You can only go so low, for example, with a Barbell Bench Press. When the bar hits your chest, that’s it. But with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a sandbag in each hand, you can bring the weight lower, calling more muscle fibers into play and stimulating more growth. That’s just one advantage of using a humble dumbbell, kettlebell, or sandbag. Here are more reasons why you should use them for the unique exercises in this article.
They Keep Your Muscles Guessing
Research has proven that muscles adapt quickly to exercise. Perform an exercise for the first time, and you’d better be ready to try something new four to six workouts later because that’s about when your muscles become smart enough to do that same exercise using less effort and energy. When your muscles are no longer being challenged, they aren’t growing and you are wasting your time.
Even the tiniest of tweaks to any exercise can evoke a change that keeps your muscles progressing. And that’s the neat thing about this muscle-making trinity. It’s hard to tweak an exercise machine (or even a barbell) beyond adding more weight or changing the height or angle of a bench or cable, but dumbbells, kettlebells, and sandbags allow you to make hundreds of technique adjustments, both large and infinitesimal, that work your muscles differently.
They Fit Every Body Type
If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable performing some pushing, pulling, or swinging motions when using certain exercise machines or performing barbell exercises, the reason could be your unique shape. That’s because many exercise machines are built to accommodate an average-sized person. But what if you aren’t average? If you are short or tall, have long or stubby arms or legs, or have shoulders that are very wide or very narrow, your shape puts you at a mechanical disadvantage on the machine, making a certain push, pull, or swing movements awkward or even painful. Dumbbells, kettle-bells, and sandbags, on the other hand, work with everybody type because they aren’t in a fixed position like machines or even barbells. Using them, you can adjust your body more freely, aligning your arms or legs wherever they need to be for the most effective push, pull, or swing exercise.
They Can Work One Arm at a Time
Bilateral training is a fancy name for using both arms or legs at the same time to push, pull, or swing. Unilateral training is a fancy name for using one arm or leg or one side of your body for exercise. The problem with performing bilateral exercises all of the time, as you do with a barbell or weight-stack machine, is that your weaker limb quits first. This limits your growth and causes muscle imbalances.
If building symmetrical muscles is your goal, the best approach is often one-sided, unilateral exercises, which work each side of your body independently so you can put more stress on the muscles that need to catch up. What’re more, unilateral exercises kick your proprioceptive muscles into action. These are the mini neurological helpers that intuitively respond to your movements all day long, making slight adjustments to your posture to keep your body in perfect alignment and in balance. Doing a Single-Arm Press, for example, forces your core to stabilize your spine because of the unbalanced weight you’re holding. By training unilaterally, you exercise your stabilizing muscles, chisel your core, and correct muscle imbalances, reducing your risk of injury.
Finally, unilateral training keeps your heart rate elevated for twice as long as bilateral training, since training one arm or leg at a time doubles your effort, forcing your body to burn more calories overall.
While dumbbells, kettlebells, and sandbags offer many similar musclebuilding and metabolism-boosting benefits, each has its own distinct qualities that make it special and ideal for certain tasks. Let’s look at each.
The Dumbbell Edge
The dumbbell has been sculpting amazing physiques since the first Greek athletes hefted halteres, crescent-shaped stones with handles, back in the 5th century BC. Halteres were originally used as jumping aids: An athlete would swing the weights forward to propel his body farther during a long jump competition.
By AD 200, the Greek physician Galen had published De Sanitate Tuenda, a medical text that described the benefits of using these tools to strengthen the body. For centuries afterward, other people wrote about the benefits of using resistance implements similar to dumbbells, with the most influential being Girolamo Mercuriale.
Considered to be one of the most famous physicians of the Renaissance, Mercuriale published De Arte Gymnastica, an illustrated medical text showing chiseled, muscular men lifting dumbbells and heavy sheets of rock, in 1569. Around the beginning of the 18th century, dumbbell training became more popular among men. Even an 80-year old Benjamin Franklin once credited his longevity to living temperately, not drinking wine, and performing daily exercises with a dumbbell.
So where did the name come from? Historians believe the word dumbbell was first coined centuries ago in England when bell ringers who often practiced ringing church bells to condition their muscles for the task needed a quieter way to practice. They removed the bells’ clappers so they remained silent as the ringers built up their strength, essentially making the bells noiseless, or “dumb.”
Some kettlebell and sandbag movements particularly some of the most effective moves you can perform using either tool require you to use both hands to handle the weight. This can limit the number of singlehand exercises, seated exercises, and other creative moves you can perform with them. But one pair of dumbbells can offer you thousands of unique options, depending on how creative you are. Here are some other upsides of this popular fitness equipment.
They’re the Easiest to Master Even the most basic kettlebell and sandbag exercises such as the Swing and the Clean still require a certain degree of practice before you become proficient. However, even the most elaborate compound exercises that target multiple muscles are fairly easy to pull off with fewer mistakes with the well-designed dumbbell. That means using dumbbells can minimize your learning curve so you can start implementing a push, pull, and swing routine much sooner than you could with other tools.
They’re More Muscle Specific Many kettlebell and sandbag exercises are extremely effective at creating a better metabolic burn because they involve as many muscles as possible to push, pull, or swing the weight. But a lot of dumbbell exercises are simpler in their mechanics, giving you more options when you want to target and isolate specific muscles particularly smaller muscle groups such as your biceps and triceps without sharing the effort with other muscles.
They Build Strength Best It’s quite simple: The more weight you can safely handle to overload your muscles, the stronger those muscles will become. Even though kettle-bells and sandbags can make you unquestionably strong, if overall strength is what you seek, dumbbells let you handle the most weight in a safer, easier-to-control manner.
The Kettlebell Edge
Although some speculate that it originated in ancient Greece, many historians believe the kettlebell (or girya) was first developed in the 1700s by Russian farmers, who used it as a simple tool to help measure grain and goods and as a counterweight on farm equipment. Since that time, the cast-iron weight resembling a cannonball with a thick handle has become a fitness mainstay throughout Russia. During the late 1800s to early 1900s, Ukrainian and Russian strongmen and circus performers used it to wow audiences with feats of strength.
Once kettlebells became recognized on a wider scale for their ability to combine strength training, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility training in one workout, their popularity spread throughout the Soviet Union. In the 20th century, kettlebell lifting became the country’s national sport, and the exercise tool was embraced by everyone from local athletes to Olympians and even the Red Army. In the last 2 decades, the kettlebell has finally been recognized, on a global scale, as a valuable workout tool for increasing power, endurance, stamina, strength, agility, and balance. Kettlebells tax both the cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal systems through progressive, functional, total-body movements. Here are more key benefits of this oddly shaped resistance tool.
The Handle has Hidden Benefits Dumbbell and barbell bars are easy on the hands. When using them for some exercises, it’s actually easy to cheat by hooking your fingers around the handle without using your thumb or by letting the weight rest more along with your palms (particularly when performing certain pushing exercises, such as Shoulder or Chest Presses). But kettlebells don’t allow that luxury. The handles are much thicker and a bit longer than those on typical strength training equipment, and many kettlebell exercises are quick, explosive, ballistic movements that require a tight grip of the handle at all times.
Those two differences alone force your fingers, hands, wrists, and forearms to work much harder to balance and simply manage the weight during the push, pull, or swing exercises. The thick, heavy handle exercises your hand and finger muscles to build a vicelike grip that will allow you to hold heavier amounts of weight for longer periods of time when training a side benefit that can help you achieve greater results from exercises that rely on having a stronger grip, such as Deadlifts and Rows. The more you can lift, the more lean mass you’ll gain and the stronger you’ll be.
Another advantage of its long handle is hand placement. This design allows you to switch your hand position midway through an exercise so you can perform more hybrid lifts, like the Snatch and the Clean and Press. And unlike dumbbells, which are predominantly gripped at the center of the handle, a kettlebell can be gripped by the handle, by the horns (the sides of the handle), or around or underneath the ball, allowing you to alter a certain lift to make it easier or harder.
Their Shape Serves a Purpose Although you can use kettlebells and dumbbells interchangeably for many exercises such as Presses, Curls, and Rows the kettlebells’ odd shape affects your muscles in a slightly different way as you push, pull, or swing them.
Unlike dumbbells, which are symmetrically balanced so their weight is distributed evenly in the center of your hand, the weight of a kettlebell hangs a few inches below its handle. With the kettlebell’s center of gravity shifted away from your hands, your muscles need to work harder through a greater range of motion. Depending on how you hold the kettlebell, its center of gravity actually shifts as you move through an exercise. This makes it unstable and more difficult to maneuver, which calls into action those stabilizing proprioceptive muscles mentioned earlier, as well as major muscle groups, particularly your shoulders, hamstrings, hips, lower back, and core. This is one reason why you’ll notice that a kettlebell feels heavier than a dumbbell of the same weight, even if you perform the same exercises with each tool. All that extra stabilization makes your entire body work just a little bit harder than if you were using a dumbbell, which can increase the intensity of your workout.
They strengthen the Mind-Muscle Connection A lot of exercises that target specific muscles are so linear in a movement that they take almost no thought to execute. You can actually fall into the habit of daydreaming while exercising, and you lose focus and workout intensity as a result. Kettlebells don’t let that happen. Because most kettlebell exercises require a much higher level of coordination to perform, your mind is left with little choice but to concentrate and work more in tandem with your muscles. That teamwork approach also applies to complex exercises that work your upper body, lower body, and core all at once. Moving (or positioning yourself around) the kettlebell takes some concentration and a full-body effort that is dependent on all of your muscles working collectively. Unlike many dumbbell exercises that may teach certain muscles to learn to work together such as your chest, shoulders, and triceps when doing a Chest Press many classic kettlebell exercises require your upper body, lower body, and core to all work synergistically to push, pull, or swing the weight. Even though you don’t recognize that you are using your brain to make these adjustments, you are, because the movements are complex.
The Train Muscles Men Often Forget: One of the most basic and, by all accounts, one of the most effective kettlebell exercises is the Swing. This simple yet complex move targets many of the muscles that guys love to ignore the ones they can’t see in the mirror. Every time you swing the kettlebell between your legs and raise it to chest height or clean the kettlebell up to your shoulders, you’re using posterior chain muscles of your body your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. These “behind you” muscles are often ignored, but they’re vital to total-body development, overall strength, and injury prevention, and they’re vital if you want to excel at any activity that involves jumping or sprinting. If you use kettlebells, it’s impossible to forget your posterior muscles because they’re constantly being employed through most kettlebell exercises.
They’re Way Safer Than You Think Even though getting a kettlebell into certain positions such as racking it by your shoulders may initially cause the weights to brush or bang against your forearms (until you master the form), kettlebells are surprisingly safe. In fact, kettlebells require less wrist, shoulder, or upper-back flexibility than barbells or dumbbells, and they may be a smarter way to train to prevent back pain. Many traditional exercises used to work your posterior chain tend to place a higher degree of compressive force on your spine. Consider Squats and Deadlifts, for example. They can create a catch-22 situation since the exercises meant to strengthen your back could simultaneously place your spine at a greater risk of injury. Kettlebell swings, on the other hand, can strengthen these same muscles with less compressive force and a lighter weight load, reducing your risk of injury.
They Boost Metabolism and Burn Fat Push: pull or swing a kettlebell with perfect form for just 1 minute and you’ll never look at other cardiovascular activities, such as running, bicycling, and stair climbing, in the same way again. Most kettlebell exercises are ballistic, high-repetition, full-body movements that affect your body in much the same way that sprinting does. It’s a high-intensity pace that burns off unwanted body fat and drastically improves your cardiovascular health while simultaneously building quality muscle and boosting your overall strength by utilizing a greater percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Trainers like the efficiency of kettlebell training, saying it can virtually cut your workout time in half. “Instead of lifting weights for half an hour and doing the treadmill for another half hour, you can get everything done with kettlebells in 20 minutes,” said Michael Shade, kettlebell instructor at Sports Club/LA in Miami, in ACE FitnessMatters.
Consider this recent clinical evidence: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin– La Crosse discovered that after 8 weeks of twice-weekly 20- minute workouts of alternating single-arm Snatches (intervals of 15 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest), participants burned an average of 400 calories. “They were burning at least 20.2 calories per minute, which is off the charts,” said lead researcher John Porcari, Ph.D. “That’s equivalent to running a 6-minute mile pace” or cross-country skiing uphill at a fast pace.
Total-body workouts like the kettlebell Snatch routine can provide much higher-intensity workouts than a standard weight-training routine. Heart rate data from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse study, which was sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), demonstrated just how intense kettlebell workouts can be. The average heart rate during the kettlebell Snatch workout was 93 percent of the kettlebell HR max for all subjects. “But some people averaged, for the 20- minute workout, 99 percent of heart rate max,” said Porcari. “Anytime you’re using that much muscle effort, it’s going to be a vigorous workout.”
Another point that makes kettlebells potentially a better fat-loss friend is how joint-friendly they are. Running, cycling, and other high-intensity aerobic activities typically place stress on your knees and joints. To make matters worse, these same activities typically work one side of your body while neglecting the other running, for example, primarily works the muscles behind you (lower back, hamstrings, and glutes) but not the muscles in front of you (quadriceps and abdominals). Over time, this can allow stronger muscles on one side of your body to overpower weaker muscles, causing a muscular imbalance that can increase your risk of injury and lead to posture and joint issues.
The Sandbag Edge
The invention of the sandbag may predate both dumbbells and kettlebells, but experts seem to find its origins harder to lock down than the other two. The reason is obvious: Unlike dumbbells and kettlebells (tools created for the sole purpose of building strength, power, and coordination), people have been putting stuff in sacks and hauling them around for centuries. Whether it was to trade and store a product like flour, sugar, or rice; to fortify military positions; or to act as a means of flood control, animal skins or other bags filled with some heavy, shifting substance have been building muscle on men for as long as men have been shouldering stuff in sacks. That said, sandbags have been commonly used by athletes (primarily wrestlers) for a few hundred years. In the early 1900s, they gained popularity among strongmen as a means of both building and displaying their strength. These awkward objects soon became favored by other types of athletes and soldiers who were either participating in combat sports or looking for a training tool that mimicked the dead weight and unstable resistance of an opponent. In the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines used sandbags fortifying their bunkers as tools to keep their muscles in shape. As these soldiers know, there are many reasons to make sandbags a part of your workout gear.
They’re the Least Expensive Solution: Your body doesn’t care how much money you blew on a piece of exercise equipment. All that matters to your muscles are getting a great workout. You can’t buy a cheaper fitness tool than the one with a name that describes the only two materials you need to make it: sand and a bag.
Even though there are pricy sandbags on the market—ones with convenient straps and other features built-in that can make maneuvering the sandbag easier it only takes an investment of a few dollars to make your own sandbag. Even the most basic sandbag, which you’ll learn how to make in the next chapter, will allow you to perform sandbag exercises just as effectively as a higher-end product.
They Develop a Bone-Grinding Handshake: Although dumbbells require a strong grip during certain movements and kettlebells demand a constant grip throughout most movements, your hands and fingers get a break at certain moments, especially once these weights are positioned where they need to be
But with a sandbag, your hands and fingers must work constantly to pull off most exercises. You may even find yourself constantly gripping and regripping the bag just to maintain control as you push, pull, or swing it an inconvenience that can dynamically boost your grip strength.
Workouts Are Never the Same Twice: Because the sandbag has a shifting center of mass that constantly changes as you raise and lower it, your body has to adjust to manage and stabilize its ever-changing shape. That makes each and every repetition no matter whether you’re pushing, pulling, or swinging the sandbag slightly different than the previous one. All of that extra muscle recruitment means that your body has to use more energy as you exercise, which could potentially help you burn additional calories and blast extra fat.
they Build Strength You Can Use Think about the last heavy thing you had to pick up and move a bag of water softener salt, an old refrigerator you were throwing out, or your 5-year-old nephew. Was the heavy object perfectly balanced? Did it have convenient handles for gripping? When it comes to developing functional strength and power, neither a dumbbell nor a kettlebell beats a sandbag. Many of the push, pull, and swing exercises for sandbags genuinely mimic real-life movements and lifts that the average guy makes every day. Pick up a heavy garbage bag, lift your kid out of a car seat, toss a suitcase into the overhead bin—those are all movements you can mimic with a sandbag.
They’re Unconventional: Because of its unique features particularly its conforming shape and lack of heavy metal a sandbag is ideal for replicating a range of push, pull, and swing exercises that are either impossible or simply not safe, to do with dumbbells or kettlebells (or most other traditional strength training equipment, for that matter).
They’re the Most Travel friendly: Even though sandbags may take up the most space when filled, they generally take up the least amount of space and weigh the least when empty. That makes a sandbag the smartest play of the three if you plan to take your push, pull, and swing routine on the road. All it takes is investing in some sand once you reach your destination, and sand averages $3 to $4 for 50 pounds at any hardware store. Or better yet, it’s absolutely free if you’re traveling somewhere near a beach. (Psst— remember to practice leave-no-trace lifting: Put back the sand before you leave the beach.)