It’s a fact! In many gyms, you’ll be told that kettlebells don’t build muscle. I’m here to tell you that a weight is a weight, whether that is a sandbag, dumbbell, barbell, barrel of beer, or kettlebell. If it adds resistance to your training, then you build muscle.
In most cases, if not all, when there is talk about building muscle, it will be training for hypertrophy. In other words, train to get bigger, bigger biceps, triceps, glutes, quads, lats, calves, etc. The one thing kettlebells are known for worldwide is the kettlebell swing. The kettlebell swing is a ballistic exercise, usually used for cardio or endurance. It’s a known fact that you don’t get big from cardio or endurance exercises, and therefore the kettlebell is immediately dismissed as a tool to build muscle.
To build muscle you want to work slower, include more and longer rest periods, and work in the 6 to 12 reps scheme. Don’t take this rep scheme as gospel, because it gets more complicated than that, in fact, explaining how to program for building muscle is not what you’re here for today, so, I’m not going to complicate the matter and I will stick to what you came for, that is, the best kettlebell exercises for building muscle.
Taco Fleur – Kettlebell Expert
First, allow me to quickly introduce myself so you know why this scrawny looking old guy is talking about the best kettlebell exercises to build muscle. Because I can hear it already “See, I told you kettlebells don’t build muscle”. I’ve been swinging, snatching, and pressing kettlebells for over a decade, I have plenty of qualifications, I’ve swung a kettlebell 1/3 my bodyweight for 11,111 times, achieved rank 2 in Kettlebell Sport. I’ve got CrossFit qualifications. Enough about that, I just wanted to make it clear that I know kettlebells, and what I like to do with them. My goal is not to get big, but rather to be able to move and have the strength for other things I do. Getting big is a full-time job, and it’s not one I enjoy, hence, I’m not huge, but I would say that after having owned 3 gyms all over the world, trained over a thousand people, ran workshops, and certifications, that I would know what I’m talking about. Also, don’t confuse strength with big muscles. A small scrawny looking guy might be able to press a 32-kilo kettlebell with ease, whereas a huge awesome buff muscly guy might not.
So, with that out of the way, let’s dig into those kettlebell exercises that are going to give you the muscles you’re looking for.
Kettlebell Shoulder Press
This kettlebell exercise is to work the deltoids and everything around the shoulders. The target muscles for the shoulder press are the deltoids—there is a whole lot more that comes into play with this exercise—and all the muscles around the chest and back, some are for movement, and some are for stabilization. Due to the unilateral qualities of the kettlebell, you can literally press from all angles possible.
The shoulder press is usually performed in a standing position, this requires work by the legs, hips, and core. If you want to isolate the press more, i.e. focus more on the target area, then you can do this seated. However, when you perform this seated with nothing to rest against, again, you’re required to do something else in addition to the press, you need to pull yourself forward. Pulling yourself forward requires a lot of hip flexion, and also requires flexibility which might be lacking. So, if you want to make this easier, and you do, if you want better results, then you put something against the wall to rest against. You don’t want to rest against the wall itself, because then you’ll be pressing and the wall will be in your way. You can use a box jump or something else that’s not any higher than your shoulders when sitting down.
With this press, your objective is always to press without any momentum, if you’re using momentum you might as well be doing another exercise or you’ll need to go down in weight. However, this is not always true, it depends on what you got programmed, maybe you want to work on the eccentric phase (negative) of the press. Training the eccentric phase of the press can allow you to progress to heavier weights. Let’s say that you can’t press a 32kg strict, then you push press it up (or jerk it), and you work on slowly lowering it back into racking position. Even just getting the weight overhead and working on static overhead holds will help you progress with the kettlebell press.
Kettlebell shoulder press video:
Static overhead holds video:
If you want to incorporate variations of the kettlebell press, have a look at the following video which has over 50+ press variations, it also includes the seated press.
50+ kettlebell press variations video:
Kettlebell Bent Over Row
This exercise targets the back, in particular, the rear delts, trapezius, and rhomboids. What it exactly works depends on the angle from which you row. The bent over row requires you to come into a hip hinge, and isometrically contract the glutes to keep the pelvis up, i.e. stay in the bent over position. This is great if you want to work the core muscles, but if you want to focus on the target muscles, then again, you want to bring in something to lean on. You can take a box jump or bench, and put your non-working hand on it. Like with the shoulder press, if you want to focus on a muscle group, then you want to work just one side with heavy weight.
With any row variation, the focus is always on the posterior muscles. This means that you do not want to be curling that weight. If the weight you’re using is too heavy, or you’re training to or past fatigue, then you’ll be starting to curl the weight, which is the opposite of rowing. A curl is where the hand comes towards the shoulders and engages the elbow flexors.
The closer you keep the weight into your ribs, i.e. shaving your ribs on the way up, the more you’ll be working your rear delts. The more you bring that elbow out and away from the ribs, the more you’ll be engaging the rhomboids and getting movement through the shoulder blade which would otherwise be static.
Kettlebell Floor Chest Press
This exercise targets the chest. It’s different from the bench press as you won’t be able to go deep, i.e. you won’t be able to go further than the floor with your elbow. This is a great thing because that angle can be cause for injury. Just like with the row, during the press you want to look at the angle between your elbow and ribs, the shorter this angle is, the more you’ll be working in the triceps press zone, which is a great exercise, but not what we’re working here. We want to focus on the chest muscles, we do this by increasing the angle to 90° max. Furthermore, we want to provide stability, instability is good if we want to train that, we don’t right now, because we want to focus on the target muscles. To provide stability you want to put your feet out a little wider and knees slightly toward each other, then you want to slightly press into the ground with your feet to provide a stable base, i.e. not have the body shift from side to side while trying to press the weight up. To get the weight in the position you need to assist with the other hand, from here you want the weight to remain directly above your elbow, and press up until the weight is directly above the shoulder.
Kettlebell Racked Squat
This exercise targets the quads. As with all previous exercises, you want to remove the need to do anything else but focus on that which provides resistance to the target muscles. With this exercise you want to hold the kettlebells as close to your chest as possible, elbows tucked (if you can stay upright), or you can even rest the kettlebells on the shoulders, after all, what you want from the kettlebells is to provide additional weight to the squat, and not to tax the core more.
It’s All Relative
I have to mention that usually the weight of the kettlebell goes up to 48kg/106lbs, take two and you have 96kg/212lbs. There are companies producing kettlebells that weigh more, but in general, that’s the max weight. So, with that said, sometimes this is used as an excuse not to train with kettlebells for building muscle. But, honestly, to be able to handle that much weight you have to be really strong already, so, it’s all relative.
It’s Not The Greatest For Biceps
I’m not going to lie and tell you that kettlebells are great for bigger biceps. Yes, you can work with the kettlebell to train the biceps, but, it can become awkward and there is a steep learning curve figuring out where to hold it and what path to have it travel. Personally, I prefer to use chin-ups for the biceps, but if you’re in this to build the biggest muscles possible, grab something that is easier to hold, like the dumbbell.
Kettlebells to work the biceps video:
The kettlebell has unilateral qualities, which means you can work with one kettlebell at a time, this is also true for the dumbbell. I mentioned that with one kettlebell you can focus more and lift heavier weight. However, this does not mean you should always be working with just one kettlebell, you’ll also want to pick up two kettlebells sometimes, and rather than maybe pressing 32kg in one hand, you might be able to press 30kg in each, and that’s fine. Working with two kettlebells can sometimes be easier, it depends on how strong your core is, if you got a weak core, then any torque from working with one kettlebell will make your training harder. Don’t go and take that info and work only with two kettlebells, as I said, you need to mix it up, you need to work on your core muscles, you need to work on those muscles that keep you upright, and that support the weight. Look at the whole package, don’t neglect what might look like insignificant areas to train, that will get you injured in no time.
Now that we’ve gone through some of the best kettlebell exercises to build muscle, let’s look at putting all these awesome muscle growing kettlebell exercises together and create a great workout. Luckily for you, I’ve already done just that. If you watch the video I included, you’ll see a workout I put together using all of these four exercises mentioned. In the workout, you’ll be performing 1 rep every 8 seconds and then rest for the remainder of the minute. It works like this.
Every 8 seconds you perform one slow rep, that’s 6 reps in total per minute, and you rest the remainder of the minute. Perform the next exercise, continue until you’ve done all four exercises.
Following is a video of the workout. You’ll notice I’ve replaced the floor chest press with the chest push up. The floor chest press allows you to press more weight, but the chest push-up is a good alternative if you do not have the environment to lay on the ground.
Four kettlebell exercises is not everything you need to get the job done, you need more, but if we only had room for two more exercises, then it would be kettlebell skull crushers to work the triceps, and pull-ups to work the lats. Yup, you can’t do pull-ups with a kettlebell, but it’s an exercise you should include in your training.
Training with kettlebells is a lot of fun, with this article I hope to have sparked your passion to discover more about kettlebells, because honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kettlebell training. Hope to our paths will cross on your kettlebell journey. Stay strong.