If you’re looking for a way to engage your upper body that doesn’t require the use of weights or machines, then kettlebells may be just what you need.
Kettlebell exercises are one of the most effective ways to strengthen and tone your arms, chest, back and core muscles.
Kettlebells are an effective workout for the upper body, but they should not be used as a replacement for resistance training.
Resistance training is important to build muscle and increase strength in the arms, chest, back, and shoulders. If you want to bulk up your arms or chest with kettlebells alone, you will need lots of reps with lighter weights.
Plus, they’re also great for burning fat! With these benefits, it’s no wonder that more people are turning to kettlebell workouts as their go-to fitness routine.
You can read more about whether kettlebells are good for the upper body by reading below.
Best Single Kettlebell Upper Body Exercises
So what are you to do if you want to train your upper body with a kettlebell that might be too heavy for your traditional lifts? You won’t have to skip upper body training or whittle it down to pushups and pull-ups (which are also great exercises) — you’ll have to rethink what exercises you’re doing. What follows are the best kettlebell upper body exercises — all of which can be done with a single kettlebell — along with a rundown of how and why to integrate each of these moves into your programming.
Kettlebell Bent Over Row
This shouldn’t be a surprise pick for this list. The single-arm row (traditionally done with a dumbbell) builds a lot of back muscle and recruits your ab muscles, as you need to resist rotation from the single-sided row. Keep your form extra strict for this one. Whenever you’re in a hinge position for an extended period of time, it’s tempting to kip your reps. But if you want maximum benefits from your kettlebell bent-over rows, make sure you’re maintaining a roughly parallel torso throughout your entire set.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Bent Over Row
- Practice engaging and maintaining a hip hinge, translating into increased lockout confidence and strength with your deadlift.
- Increase hypertrophy in your lats and traps without putting your shoulders in a potentially compromising overhead position.
- Develop anti-rotational strength in your core.
How to Do the Bent Over Kettlebell Row
Hold the kettlebell in one hand, resting at your side. Hinge forward at the hips, keeping a neutral back until your torso is close to parallel with the floor as you can get it (until you start feeling a stretch in your hamstrings). Pack the shoulder of the side that’s holding the kettlebell and engage your lats to initiate the upward pull of the kettlebell. When the bell reaches about your chest height, lower it back down slowly. Repeat your reps on the other side.
Kettlebell Upright Row
Because you’re taking a narrower grip with the kettlebell, you’ll have a more extended range of motion than the more traditional upright row. You’ll get all of the same muscle-building benefits, but maybe even more so as a longer ROM equals more tension, and more tension equals more muscle. As always, with upright rows, make sure the lift comes from your upper lats and traps, rather than yanking up through your delts. Because your hands will be closer together, the kettlebell upright row can help you maintain neutral wrists (instead of bringing them into risky flexion at the top of the lift to try to get more height) throughout the lift. Pro-tip: engage your lats and keep your wrists from flexing inappropriately by imagining that you’re pulling the kettlebell handle apart.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Upright Row
- Practice core stability and bracing to maintain a steady torso throughout the lift (to avoid kipping).
- Improve full-body coordination by ensuring that your whole body works together to execute the lift with proper form. That is, without hiking up your wrists at the top of the lift or yanking through your delts mid-lift.
- Develop end-of-range strength, especially if you take a one or two-second pause at the top of each rep.
How to Do the Kettlebell Upright Row
Set up with your feet in roughly your conventional deadlift stance. Place your kettlebell between your feet, so the handle is level with your midfoot. Hinge forward and deadlift the kettlebell to starting position. From here, use your upper back to pull the bell up to your body, tracing just outside of your chest, driving your elbows up toward the ceiling until you can’t pull the kettlebell any higher.
Two-Handed Kettlebell Skull Crusher
This is very similar to a skull crusher, with the main difference being that you can maintain a more neutral hand position, which feels better on the elbows to some folks. Because of the shape of the kettlebell and the fact that you’re doing these on the floor, your range of motion will be more limited. That’s ok. Focus on lifting with a slow and controlled tempo as a way to increase your time under tension. This limited range of motion will allow you to lift more weight, too.
Benefits of the Two-Handed Kettlebell Skull Crusher
- Target your triceps for increased strength and hypertrophy.
- Improve your shoulder health by engaging your front delts without putting your shoulder girdle in a compromised position.
- Improve your grip strength by squeezing the kettlebell throughout the lift.
How to Do the Two-Handed Kettlebell Triceps Press
Start by rolling the bell up into position as you did with your unilateral floor press. Grab the kettlebell by the handle and squeeze it tight with both hands. Then, keeping your elbows locked in, press the bell up like you would for a close grip bench press (except your palms face each other this time).
Two-Handed Kettlebell Shoulder Press
Doing single-arm presses with a kettlebell is great. That said, don’t think that’s your only option when you have one bell sitting around. You can overload your shoulders with more weight by holding the kettlebell with both hands and pressing it straight over your head. Because of the kettlebell’s design, your grip will be really narrow. That’s fine, but it may feel different at first. Treat this exercise as you would any other heavy shoulder press variations.
Benefits of the Two-Handed Kettlebell Shoulder Press
- Develop core strength and stability by lifting a heavy bell over your head with strict control.
- Emphasize grip strength since the bell’s odd shape will force you to engage all that finger and forearm power (no matter what specific grip you choose).
- Target your delts to improve overhead strength and pressing power.
How to Do the Two-Handed Kettlebell Shoulder Press
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart (wider if you need more balance) and choose whether to hold the kettlebell with both hands by the handles or cupping the bell between both hands (as shown in the video). Whichever grip you choose, make sure everything’s secure as you hold the kettlebell at chest height. Then, press it over your head (using a little bounce from your knees to make it a push press if you need to) before engaging your triceps to help you bring it back down slowly.
Unilateral Kettlebell Floor Press With Glute Bridge
This exercise is a hybrid movement consisting of two exercises — the floor press and the glute bridge. The floor press works your chest and triceps muscles, and the shortened range of motion you’ll experience from pressing from the floor will allow you to lift heavier. So, you’ll be able to overload your muscles with heavier weight. You don’t need to do a glute bridge to reap this movement’s upper body benefits, but why wouldn’t you? By holding the glute bridge, you’ll tax your hamstrings and glutes in the process — and who couldn’t benefit from a bit lower bodywork?
Benefits of the Unilateral Kettlebell Floor Press With Glute Bridge
- Practice your leg drive without a bench, maximally engaging your glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves in an otherwise upper body-focused lift.
- Address any strength or muscular asymmetries by focusing on only one side at a time.
- Develop anti-rotational strength by holding your torso up during unilateral lifts.
How to Do the Kettlebell Floor Press With Glute Bridge
Lie on your right side and grasp the kettlebell in your right hand. Roll toward your left until you’re flat on your back, with the kettlebell ready to be pressed up. (This weird little rolling ritual is super essential because it will prevent you from wrenching the kettlebell into place after you’ve already laid down. This can place stress on your shoulder joint.) Shift so you can set up as you would for a glute bridge, with your knees bent and both feet firmly on the floor. Drive your feet down and squeeze your glutes, pressing your hips up as far as they’ll go without hyperextending your back. Once you’re holding the glute bridge, press the kettlebell up for a unilateral floor press. Keep your hips raised throughout your set, and make sure to roll the bell into place when you switch sides.
Two-Handed Kettlebell Curl
With so many kettlebell moves focused on ballistic power, it can be easy to overlook a simple but effective lift when you’re only working with a single, heavy kettlebell — the two-handed kettlebell curl. It’s more of a grinding lift than you might typically associate with kettlebells, but you’ll appreciate the pump and strength you build. A significant benefit of this move is that it’s easy. Curling — whether with a barbell, a dumbbell, or a kettlebell — is a simple mechanic, so this is a safe move to add to your training program.
Benefits of the Two-Handed Kettlebell Curl
- Target your biceps as the primary mover, which is rare with kettlebell movements.
- Maximize forearm engagement by maintaining the proper position throughout the lift (which a kettlebell makes more challenging than a dumbbell or bar).
- Challenge your core strength by keeping a rigid torso throughout the lift.
How to Do the Two-Handed Kettlebell Curl
Stand (or kneel if you want to involve your core more directly) with both hands on the kettlebell handle, with the bell facing down. Perform what is essentially a close grip EZ-bar curl, keeping the kettlebell stable between your hands. Squeeze your biceps at the top of the rep, and take your time on the descent as well. These can and should be done to failure.
Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
Carrying around heavyweight is not for the faint of heart — especially when you’re working with kettlebells. Their round shape will force you to maintain extra rigidity to ensure the bell isn’t constantly bouncing off of your outer thigh throughout your kettlebell suitcase carry. The plus is that you’ll gain more coordination, grip strength, and conditioning (as this is tough on your cardio, too).
Benefits of the Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
- Practice engaging your lats while holding heavy weight below waist level (as you do while deadlifting).
- It builds core strength by constantly resisting lateral flexion throughout the move.
- It addresses grip and core strength asymmetries by focusing on one side at a time.
How to Do the Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
Hold a kettlebell in one hand at your side. Pack your shoulders and draw both your shoulders down toward your heels. Lead very slightly with your hips and walk, steady and controlled. Even as the weight will naturally pull your body down to one side, resist the pull toward lateral flexion. Try to carry the kettlebell as though you weren’t carrying anything at all (i.e., don’t tilt to the opposite side to compensate and don’t let the weight pull you down — stay centred).
Want to learn more kettlebell exercises? To know more about dumbbell kettlebell upper body exercises, check it out here.
Kettlebells are often used to replace traditional weights because they require less space and can be incorporated into workouts easier. They also don’t strain the lower back as other exercises do.
However, kettlebells should not be used in place of resistance training if you’re looking for a workout that targets your upper body specifically- here’s why! Instead, you may want to try incorporating one or two sessions with kettlebell workouts per week for maximum results.
If you’re interested in adding them to your routine but need help figuring out how best to use these bells effectively, we’ve got some great resources on our blog about different ways to incorporate this equipment into your fitness regime.
FAQs About Kettlebells Exercise
Kettlebells are great to use for your arms because it’s challenging, helps you build muscle and burns fat. It’s also a great alternative to using dumbbells, especially during high-demand times at the gym, when they’re all being used.
Yes, kettlebells can be just as effective as other free weight equipment like dumbbells and barbells for building muscle and strength in your chest. You just need to do the right exercises, apply the right load, and maximize time under tension.
Kettlebells offer a quick way to get a ripped physique, depending on your commitment. Be sure to use the kettlebell weight appropriate for your fitness level. Also, to avoid injuring your back, lift kettlebells with your knees and core, just like you would any other heavy object.