When you think kettlebells, most people envision the swing, which—though it uses the arms to hold the weight—is a very lower-body hip-dominant exercise. Indeed, kettlebells aren’t designed as an equal sub for dumbbells—they’re meant to be used dynamically, through controlled movement.
“Kettlebells benefit the upper body by allowing complete stabilization and activation,” says San Diego-based Lauren Brooks, personal trainer, kettlebell master instructor, and founder of laurenbrooksfitness.com. “The shape of this clunk of iron forces your body to stabilize in a way that creates solid grip, forearm, lat, bicep, and shoulder strength, to name a few.”
Anyone who is looking to put on big mass in their arms and upper body should look to kettlebell training as a way to develop a stable shoulder complex,” adds Samantha Carmean, CSCS, a certified kettlebell instructor and personal trainer in NYC and founder of mindfulmeathead.com. “Healthy joint function and positioning leads to more optimal muscle fiber recruitment, which gives you bigger, stronger muscles.”
These 10 workouts, designed by Brooks and Carmean, combine kettlebell and bodyweight work to maximize results. Be sure to warm up before diving in, especially joint mobility exercises such as walkouts, scorpions, and thread-the-needle side planks. “I highly recommend performing a few light weight Turkish get-ups (each side) to tune up total body dynamic mobility and stability,” Carmean says. “Get-ups are the bomb.”
After the press, slowly lower your arm down to the racked position (where it is at the top of a clean), and then do the 20-to-40 meter carry. Repeat the circuit with the same arm for 2 sets, then switch sides.
Then, add a rep of each of the first two moves for another set, working your way up to 5 reps of each move before switching to the second arm to begin again. Rest in between sides up to 2 minutes.
Double kettlebells (one in each hand) means double the fun! Rest between sets up to 2 minutes.
8-10 Double Clean and Press
6-8 Bottoms-Up Press
10-15 Single-Arm Rows with Kettlebell
Only do as many reps as you can with good form. Do the first circuit, resting as needed between sets, then take a 1 to 2 minute break before doing the second set. Bottoms-up position for the press is even harder to control, thanks to the shape of the kettlebell.
8-10 Bottoms-Up Clean to Squat each side
Again, rest as needed and for 1 to 2 minutes between circuits, and only do as many reps as you can sustain with good form.
*This simply means you’ll lower the kettlebell with control from the extended arm finish of the snatch back to the rack position—the “negative” portion of a press.
1 Double Clean to Press
1 Pull-up or Chin-up
Ladder up – x2, x3, x4, etc., all the way to 10 reps. “For example, set number 3 would be clean + press; clean + press; clean + press; then set the bells down and perform three pull-ups or chin-ups,” Carmean explains.
If you’re feeling adventurous, repeat the ladder down. Rest in between sets for up to 2 minutes.
8 Seesaw Press each side
10 Pushups on kettlebells
6 Neutral-Grip Pull-ups
5 Renegade Rows
A seesaw press is a double press where instead of pushing both kettlebells up at the same time, you alternate sides, shifting your posture so that you’re looking up toward whichever kettlebell is overhead. For the pushups, be sure your kettlebells are secure on the floor and your body is aligned above them so they don’t move out from under you; place them on their sides, handles resting on the floor and hands on the bells, for more security.. Start with three sets of each circuit, then work up to five. Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets.
2 Single-Arm Clean
3 Single-Arm Press
20m-40m Single-Arm Overhead Carry each side
Do on one side, then the other, and repeat for a total of 12 to 15 sets. Think: “Clean. Clean. Press. Press. Press. Hold and carry.” Switch hands and repeat. Rest for up to one minute between sets.
8-10 Double Floor Kettlebell Press
8-10 Body Rows
8-10 Single-Arm Kettlebell Rows each side
8 Single-Arm Press each side
8 Snatch each side
Floor presses activate the chest and triceps while allowing the floor to help hold the shoulders stable—a real favor when it comes to controlling those lopsided kettlebells. Do the body rows from a TRX or Smith bar, set as low as you can control for the minimum rep count. Rest a minute or two between sets and between circuits.
1 Double Clean
1 Double Press
1 Renegade Row
1 Pushup on kettlebells
20m-40m Double Farmer Carry
Ladder the reps up as you go to five per exercise. Repeat the rep cycle for 3 to 5 total rounds (do yourself a favor and start with three), resting between sets up to 2 minutes.
2 Turkish Get-up
3 Mixed-Grip* Pull-ups each side
5 Clean and Press each side
12 Body Rows
5 Bottoms-Up Cleans each side
The Turkish get-up is really a full-body, core-heavy move, but man does it challenge the shoulder stability to keep that kettlebell straight overhead the whole time. Want more? Try it bottoms-up.
*Mixed-grip means that you should hold the bar with one hand overhand and the other underhand. Do three, then switch your hands for the second three.