Dumbbells and barbells aren’t the only weights you should grab when looking to strengthen your upper body. Try this kettlebell arm workout next time for an effective and fun alternative to your usual biceps curls. 

By Megan Falk
September 08, 2020

If kettlebells were a fairytale princess, they’d earn the name Cinderella. Scratched up, worn down, and scattered throughout the weight room, kettlebells are often skipped over in favor of fancy machines and glossy new dumbbells for bicep-building arm workouts. 

But much like Cinderella’s praiseworthy down-to-earth kindness and beauty, kettlebells have an unbeatable — and quite frankly, overlooked — value, particularly when it comes to strength training the upper body. The reason: These bells can help you hit all those tough-to-reach muscles you might not otherwise train, and they offer more potential for stability work than a dumbbell. And its perks all boil down to its unique shape. 

“Because of the way the kettlebell is shaped, it presents some odd challenges in terms of stability,” says Prentiss Rhodes, a NASM-certified personal trainer and performance enhancement specialist. “It gives you what I like to call ‘accidental training’ on some of those body parts that we don’t really think about.” That includes your forearm muscles, which have to work extra hard to keep your wrist in a neutral position when you perform presses or bicep curls, he says. 

While your forearms are probably the least of your concerns during your upper body workout, strengthening your forearm muscles can improve your grip strength, and how much power your forearms can create, according to a report published in Iowa State University's Human Sciences Extension and Outreach publication. And this power matters a lot more than you think. Not only are these muscles put into action when doing everyday activities such as opening a jar of peanut butter or carrying your groceries into your house, but they’re also working when you’re performing pull-ups and grabbing heavy weights off the rack. "[Grip strength] affects most muscle groups you use and most exercises you do," Julien Pineau, a strength expert at Strongfit, an online resistance-training resource, previously told Shape. Ultimately, if you strengthen your grip, you're helping to strengthen your entire body, he says. (Psst, this workout will seriously improve your grip strength.)

This bell shape is also what gives kettlebells an edge over dumbbells when it comes to improving stability. Reminder: Stability is about controlling a joint’s movement or position, and if your stability is limited, you may compensate your form when performing complex exercises, increasing your risk of injury or muscular imbalances, according to the American Council on Exercise. Due to dumbbells’ equally distributed weight and straight bar, they're easier to hold onto and keep stable while you complete reps than a kettlebell, explains Rhodes. 

“When we’re doing presses — either horizontally like a chest press or vertically like a shoulder press — the kettlebell wants to pull your body really hard out of alignment," says Rhodes. To perform either of these exercises, you start in a racked position — the wide bell of the weight is resting on the outside of the forearm at shoulder level, and you're gripping the handle with your elbow tucked at your side. When you press the weight straight up to the ceiling from that racked position, the heavy bell will try to pull your arm out to the side away from your body. As a result, your core and arm muscles have to put in more effort to keep your form spot on and joints stable, he adds. (Related: 7 Stability and Mobility Exercises You Should Do Before Every Workout)

Ready to test your stability and upper-body strength? Try Rhodes’ kettlebell arm workout below. If you end up going off-book, remember to start at the appropriate progression for your skill level (i.e. don't try a super challenging exercise you've never practiced before). As you gain strength and master the techniques, you can slowly add more complex, advanced techniques to your kettlebell arm workout, he says. (Related: This Kettlebell Complex for Beginners Will Turn You Into a Pro Fast)

How it works: Do 2 to 3 rounds of the entire circuit. After finishing reps on one side, rest for 30 seconds and repeat on opposite side. After completing a set (both sides) rest 1 to 2 minutes. This kettlebell arm workout should take about 35 to 45 minutes.

You'll need: Two kettlebells (light to medium weight, depending on fitness level) and a mat (optional).

Kettlebell Single-Arm Swing

The kettlebell swing isn't your typical arm-strengthening move, but for this kettlebell arm workout, its important foundational exercise, says Rhodes. Plus, your forearm muscles will be challenged with holding onto the weight, increasing grip strength, and your lats and triceps will help extend your shoulders throughout the move, according to the American Council on Exercise.

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with kettlebell resting on floor in front of you. Hinging at the hips and keeping a neutral spine (no rounding your back), bend down and grab the kettlebell handle with one hand.

B. To initiate the swing, inhale and hike the kettlebell back and up between legs. (Your legs will slightly straighten in this position.)

C. Powering through the hips, exhale and quickly stand up and swing the kettlebell forward up to chest level. The free arm should be tucked at your side, hinging at the elbow in sync with the swing. At the top of the movement, the core and glutes should visibly contract.

D. Drive the kettlebell back down and up underneath you. That's one rep.

Repeat for 8 reps, then switch sides.

Kettlebell Clean to Thruster

In this exercise, you'll get the muscle-building benefits of both a kettlebell squat and an overhead press. Since you'll only be pressing with one arm, your free arm might feel like it's just dangling at your side, completely useless. But placing that hand on your hip to keep your arm from flailing about can actually cause you to push your body out of the ideal alignment for the exercise, says Rhodes. Instead, give your arm a purpose by extending it out beside you, which will help counterbalance the weight on your opposite side.

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with kettlebell resting on floor in front of you. 

B. Thread hand through handle of kettlebell, with palm facing toward the ceiling. Drive through feet and pull kettlebell off ground and up to standing. The kettlebell should be on the outside of the forearm, and the forearm should be vertical next to chest, with elbow tight at side. Extend opposite arm diagonally out to side.

C. Keeping chest lifted and spine straight, bend knees and shift hips back to lower into a squat, until you reach the bottom of your range of motion.

D. Press through the center of the foot and engage the glutes to return to standing.

E. Keeping arm close to chest, press the kettlebell up overhead until arm is extended. Reverse movement and lower kettlebell back to chest. That’s one rep.

Repeat for 8 reps, then switch sides. 

Kettlebell Renegade Row

If you’re up for a real challenge, end your workout on the renegade row, which pushes your arms, back, *and* core to the brink, says Rhodes.

A. Start in a high plank position with hands on two kettlebell handles, feet in a wide stance. Engage quads, glutes, and core.

B. Row one arm up to rib cage, squeezing behind shoulder blade. Return kettlebell to floor, and row opposite side. That’s one rep.

Repeat for 5 reps, then switch sides.

Kettlebell Floor Press 

This unilateral exercise will improve your stability and strengthen your chest muscles with every single press, says Rhodes. Plus, you'll get the perks of training one side of the body at a time, including rectifying strength imbalances in the body and helping to prevent injury.

A. Start in the fetal position on your right side on the floor, with the kettlebell at chest level in front of you. Cradle the handle of a kettlebell with both hands at chest level. Roll onto back, while moving the kettlebell into a supported position at chest. The bell should be on its side.

B. Pull shoulders down and away from ears, engage core, and brace glutes. Straighten legs or lift hips into the bridge position, depending on your skill level. Remove left hand from kettlebell handle, extend arm out to side, and rest it on the floor.

C. Press kettlebell straight to ceiling, with forearm vertical, fist pointing directly to ceiling, and bell resting on outside of forearm. Lower kettlebell back to chest. That’s one rep. 

Repeat for 5 reps, then switch sides.

Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up

If this move of the kettlebell arm workout looks intense, you’re not mistaken. The Turkish Get-Up will teach you how to stabilize your shoulder, but if you can’t quite stand up while holding a kettlebell in the air (no shame), finish your get up once you arrive in a seated position (after step D), says Rhodes. (Related: The Step-By-Step Video Tutorial On How to Do the Perfect Turkish Get-Up)

A. Start in the fetal position on the floor, with the kettlebell at chest level in front of you. Cradle the handle of a kettlebell with both hands at chest level. Roll onto back, while moving the kettlebell into a supported position at chest. The bell should be on its side.

B. “Starfish" legs by bringing them out at a diagonal from hips. Pull heel of the foot of the weighted arm in toward the corresponding glute (so if KB is in left hand side, pull left heel to left glute), with foot flat on the floor, knee bent toward the ceiling.

C. At the same time, push weight straight up above chest with straight arms. Place free hand that isn't supporting the kettlebell briefly down on hip on same side, then move it directly out of the side of the hip on the floor. (Think hand-to-hip in one straight line.)

D. Drive free hand and foot on the weighted side into the floor, then roll toward the free arm, balancing on your elbow. Keep your weighted arm straight and gaze up toward kettlebell. Then, push through palm of free hand to straighten arm and lift torso to sit up.

E. Lift the hips and sweep the straight leg back, gently placing that knee in line with the hand that's on the ground. Eyes should still be on the kettlebell.

F. Lift hand off floor and straighten torso to come to a kneeling lunge position with both legs bent at 90-degree angles.

G. Push through front heel to come to standing. Now is when you can move your gaze from upward toward kettlebell to straight forward in front of you. Free arm can be out to the side for added balance.

H. Reverse the movement, keeping eyes on kettlebell throughout each transition.

Repeat for 5 reps, then switch sides.

More Killer Kettlebell Arm Exercises

Muscles craving more? Try incorporating these moves, courtesy of Rhodes, into your next kettlebell arm workout.

Kettlebell Arm Bar

This move of the kettlebell arm workout not only helps improve stability in your shoulder and forearm muscles as you hold the kettlebell straight up in the air, but it also stretches your chest and lat muscles while you roll from side to side, says Rhodes.

A. Start in the fetal position on your right side on the floor, with the kettlebell at chest level in front of you. Cradle the handle of a kettlebell with both hands at chest level. Roll onto back, while moving the kettlebell into a supported position at chest. The bell should be on its side.

B. Bend right knee and plant right foot on floor. Remove left hand from kettlebell handle and extend left arm over head and rest on floor. 

C. Straight above chest, press kettlebell toward ceiling, with forearm vertical and fist pointed straight up. The bell should be on the outside of forearm.

D. Press through the right foot to roll the body onto the left side. Keep the kettlebell pressed straight above shoulder and arm vertical. 

E. Continue rolling until right knee touches the floor. Slowly extend right leg as far as is comfortable. Hold kettlebell in the pressed position for 3 breaths.

F. Slowly reverse movement back to start. That’s one rep. 

Repeat for 5-8 reps, then switch sides.

Kettlebell Pullover

Before trying an overhead press, Rhodes likes to start his clients off with this kettlebell pullover, which improves flexibility and teaches you to keep your back flat, rather than arched, when performing standing overhead exercises. (To train your entire body with just two kettlebells, try this intense workout.)

A. Start laying on floor face up, with the kettlebell sitting on the floor above head. 

B. Extend arms over head, hook both thumbs through the kettlebell handle, and grab firmly with hands. The kettlebell should be on the inside of forearms. 

C. Squeeze forearms together to support body of kettlebell and engage core. 

D. Slowly raise kettlebell toward ceiling and hover over top of chest, keeping back flat on the ground throughout the entire movement. Hold for one breath.

E. Slowly lower kettlebell back to start over head on floor. That’s one rep.

Repeat for 5-8 reps.

Kettlebell Single-Arm Bent-Over Row

After so much pressing, it's super important to balance the body with some rowing exercises to strengthen the back, says Rhodes. Since most people spend their days hunched over their desks,  your lats could probably use a workout, he adds. (BTW, the row and all its variations can seriously improve your posture.)

A. Holding a kettlebell in right hand, stand with feet hip-width apart. Step forward with left foot into a lunge position, keeping back leg (right) straight. Lower torso until nearly parallel with the ground. Rest left forearm on left thigh.

B. Draw the kettlebell up toward chest by bending right elbow straight up toward the ceiling. Lower kettlebell back to start. That’s one rep.

Repeat for 5-8 reps, then switch sides.


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