Dumbbells might hog most of the attention on the gym floor, but kettlebells can be unsung heroes. When you grip a kettlebell, your muscles have to adjust to all kinds of swinging instability at the ends of your arms, not just a static weight, offering an extra strength-boosting challenge. Which is why an upper body kettlebell workout can be such a great option for arms, back, and chest day.
Why kettlebells are great tools for upper body workouts
“With a kettlebell, there is a space between your hand and the actual load, and this added distance acts as an additional lever arm,” Kelvin Gary, founder of NYC’s BodySpaceFitness, previously explained to Well+Good about the difference between kettlebells and dumbbells. That means that the position of the weight, and the fact that it can change throughout a move—whether that’s swinging under your wrist or getting hoisted up and over in a snatch—challenges your muscles in a different way than the load of a dumbbell, which remains statically on either side of your hand. “The added benefit here is that it’s more stimulus for your body to have to adapt to, thereby increasing the need for coordination and stability and ramping up the effort,” says Gary.
Kettlebells are typically used for moves like swings, cleans, and snatches, both because the changing position of the mass delivers that extra challenge, and because having the weight moving dynamically with your body feels a bit more natural. But kettlebells don’t need to be limited to those movement patterns. A new upper body kettlebell workout from Fhitting Room trainer Ben Lauder-Dykes, who is leading Well+Good’s Trainer of the Month Club this November, is actually anchored in more traditional arm, chest, and back exercises like rows and bicep curls.
What should an upper body kettlebell workout include?
In any strength-based workout, you want to work your major muscle groups evenly. There are many ways to achieve this, but thinking about motions in terms of their function—such as pushing and pulling—can help you make sure you’re not over- or under-working different muscles.
“Push/pull is simply one of many strategies for organizing a workout to target all major muscle groups and allow for an appropriate amount of rest between training days for the same muscle groups,” Chris Gagliardi, an ACE-certified personal trainer, previously told Well+Good about push/pull workouts. “Upper body pushing exercises target the chest, shoulders, and triceps while upper body pull exercises target the lats, back, posterior shoulder, and biceps muscles.”
Kettlebells are great for push/pull workouts because they mimic moves you do in real life, like picking up a bag of groceries. “Kettlebells offer a slight edge in design effectiveness and energy usage during functional movements,” Gary says. That means if you regularly do this upper body kettlebell workout, everyday chores might start to feel a little bit easier
An upper body kettlebell workout you can do in under 20 minutes
The moves in this upper body kettlebell workout might seem fairly standard, but the format, and added challenge of using a kettlebell instead of a dumbbell, add a fun, muscle-boosting twist. Think: single-arm rows, tricep extensions, and bicep curls. In the first block, you’ll steadily decrease the number of reps per set, then work your way back up for a total of six minutes. And then you’ll increase the intensity of the moves with a powerful clean and a close grip chest press. That leads to amped-up cardio and full-body intensity.
“A great thing about this workout is although we are focusing on primarily the arms and the back, we still get some leg work done here,” Lauder-Dykes says. “We’re bracing through our body weight and getting some core work, too.”
The five upper body kettlebell exercises included
1. Single-arm rows
Standing in a narrow lunge, bend over until your torso is parallel to the floor, then pick up the kettlebell with the front hand (opposite of the front leg), then drive the elbow up and out to bring the kettlebell toward your hip.
Form tips: Tuck your chin, brace your abs, and press your feet into the floor.
2. Tricep extensions
Standing tall, hold the kettlebell with both hands and raise it directly overhead, then bend at the elbows to lower it down behind your head.
Form tips: You can split your stance to feel more stable if you need, and you also don’t have to take the kettlebell all the way down—stay in a range of motion that you feel confident with, says Lauder-Dykes.
3. Bicep curls
Holding the weight with both hands in front of your body, fully extend the arms all the way down, then bend at the elbows to bring the kettlebell up toward the chin and hold for a second at the top.
Form tips: “Think about squeezing those elbows into the sides of the body to create a nice, stable base,” says Lauder-Dykes.
4. Row to clean
With legs in a wide squat, do one row (bringing the kettlebell in one hand up toward that hip), then put down the weight and relax that grip. Then, grab the weight again as you stand up powerfully and wrap the kettlebell to the outside of the wrist (“like a watch,” says Lauder-Dykes), and bring it up to the shoulder.
Form tips: When the kettlebell is on the floor, hinge the hips backwards so you can really use the legs to drive your body up in the clean.
5. Close grip press
Lying on your back, hold the kettlebell with both hands straight up above your chest, then slowly bring it down, and press up again.
Form tips: Lock out the arms at the top to build tension in the press.
Try the full workout for yourself to see what a kettlebell can do for you.