While kettlebell training is undoubtedly complementary to strength & conditioning, functional movement practice, and losing fat, it is also a fantastic modality for building muscle. With kettlebells, you can build muscle and put on some serious lean mass if you know what you are doing. In this article, we are going to teach you exactly that…how to build muscle with kettlebells.
There are a few reasons why kettlebells are a fantastic implement for building muscle. First, kettlebell training lends itself to compound exercises based on multi-joint movement patterns rather than single joint isolation exercises. Not only is this a more efficient manner of training, but it also causes your body to release more muscle building hormones.
That’s the beauty of a kettlebell. You will never pick it up and think to do an isolation exercise. It just doesn’t go with the tool. Kettlebells are made for compound movements. And compound movements are king for hypertrophy.
You will be employing functional movement patterns - squat, hinge, push, pull, rotation/anti-rotation (core) - which is how we, as humans, are supposed to move. These are natural, primal movements, so they best promote hypertrophy.
Furthermore, with kettlebells, you will be working your joints through their full range of motion. You get extra depth in your movements simply by the design of kettlebells…
Take the squat as an example. Think about your range of motion with a barbell then compare it to a double kettlebell front squat. You will get an increased range of motion when doing kettlebell front squats. Moreover, you will have a lot less pressure on your spine.
So, how does this relate to building muscle? Well, an increased range of motion means you are working your muscles to their full capacity. This leads to increased muscular growth and strength.
Lastly, kettlebell training involves offset loading, both in the exercises you do and the tool itself.
The kettlebell is an offset shape, unlike barbells and dumbbells which have balanced loads. Kettlebells force your body to stabilize the joints in a unique manner. It causes your muscle to contract differently and it places more demand on them. This is great for building muscle. Then, couple that with single-kettlebell exercises and you are doubling down on the offset loading, getting even more muscle stimulation.
We can all agree that the barbell is the all-powerful tool for building muscle. However, kettlebells can be just as effective if you know how to approach your training with them. When it comes to building muscle with kettlebells, there are a few important aspects that must be in place.
We know compound movements are essential to building muscle with kettlebells. But, when it comes to kettlebell training, not all compound exercises are the same. With kettlebell exercises, you have two main categories - ballistics and grinds.
Kettlebell Grinds involve slow and controlled movements. Grinds cause a lot of tension, and time under tension, which recruits more muscles and causes the best results for hypertrophy. The basic kettlebell grinds are presses, squats, and deadlifts. Of course, there are a lot of variations of these 3 movements, which we will get into and they are also grinds.
Kettlebell Ballistics involve swinging movements through at least two planes of motion. They are dynamic, explosive movements. The main ballistic exercises are Cleans, Snatches, Swings, and Jerks. These exercises are great for burning a lot of calories and improving conditioning.
With that understanding, it's clear that Grinds should make up the bulk of your kettlebell training if your goal is to build muscle. That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate ballistics, but you should keep it to 80/20 (grinds/ballistics).
Note: Heavy, two handed ballistics can also beneficial for building muscle as they put you into an anaerobic state, boosting testosterone levels. So, if your main goal is to build muscle with kettlebells, when you do ballistics, go for two handed ballistics and go heavy (relatively speaking).
Keep reading on as after we go over the main aspects for building muscle with kettlebells, we will go over the best muscle building kettlebell exercises.
For kettlebell training to be effective for building muscle, you need to choose the right repetition range. Moreover, the weight load needs to be appropriate (i.e. challenging) for the hypertrophy rep range. You should not be going to failure each set, but the last few reps should really burn.
Rep ranges based on fitness goals:
So, if you want to build muscle with kettlebells, stay within the 7-15 rep range and make sure you choose a weight load that works.
MOREOVER, make sure you aren’t rushing through the exercise. You need a slower tempo, as to maximize time under tension. You should move slowly on the eccentric phase (negative movement), pause for second or two at peak contraction (i.e. bottom of a squat), and be more explosive on the concentric (upward motion).
If you want to build muscle, you really need to create a lot of tension in your muscle while also making sure you have enough time under tension.
Note: Goin up to 20 reps can also be good for building muscle, as long as the weight load is appropriate and you are reaching near failure on those high rep range sets.
What if I don’t have heavy enough kettlebells?
If your kettlebells are on the lighter side for the 7-15 rep range, then you can make up for this in two ways. First, stay at the higher end of the rep range, going up to as much as 20 reps. Also, minimize your rest time. Keep your rest to 30-45 seconds. This will help maximize your work volume and time under tension, which will stimulate muscle growth. With less rest, that kettlebell is going to feel a lot heavier and it will be a lot more effective for hypertrophy.
How many sets and different exercises should I do?
A muscle building kettlebell workout should include 5-6 exercises, each done for 4-5 sets.
Remember the 80/20 rule. 80% of your workout should be Grinds if your goal is to build muscle. So, 1 exercise can be a ballistic (but still keep that ballistic heavy, relatively speaking).
How much rest time between sets and exercises?
When it comes to hypertrophy training, you want to keep your rest time between 30-90 seconds.
Rest time based on fitness goals:
All in all, you want to choose a kettlebell weight that is going challenge you in the 7-20 rep range for each exercise. You should feel like you have just a couple more reps in you after each set. You will also want to keep your rest time relatively short as to maximize work volume. Your workouts should be 30-60 minutes and within that duration you will have a lot of time under tension.
Progressive overload is an essential component of building muscle, and this applies to any kind of training. By employing progressive overload you can build muscle with just your bodyweight alone, so, of course, you can do it with kettlebells to an even greater effect.
Building muscle requires adequate resistance, time under tension, and muscle adaptation through progressive overload. Progressive overload simply means you need to continually place more stimulus on your muscle as you progress through your training. So, each workout should be a little harder than the previous if you want to build muscle.
There are a few ways to use progressive overload in your kettlebell training:
Here’s a simple example of how progressive overload works…
Let’s say you did 8 reps for goblet squats on week 1, aim to do 9 reps on week two.
One thing we find very effective is keeping your body guessing while still employing progressive overload. To do this, switch your tactics up. One week add more reps, the next decrease rest time a little, and for each workout, change up the order of the exercises in your workout. Also, don’t do the same exact exercises each week. You can keep some of the main exercises, but switch the order up. Your body adapts quickly, so always keep it guessing. This will cause more stimulus on your muscles.
Overall, progressive overload is not a difficult concept. You will know if you are progressively overloading your body because each workout will be as difficult as the last. If your workouts are getting easier each week, then you are not progressively overloading your body. You are not placing enough stimulus on your muscles and your body will have no reason to continue adapting (i.e building muscle).
No matter how much time you spend training, if you are not eating right, you will not build muscle.
We are not going to go into how to eat to build muscle as there are plenty of resources on that. Moreover, it is not difficult. To do this, get plenty of protein and carbs and adequate fat. Eat 4-5 meals a day, and stop when you are nearly full. Don’t stuff yourself until you are super full. While building muscle with food is a science, it doesn’t need to be so complicated. You don’t need to count calories. Monitor your weight and adjust your diet if you are losing weight or gaining weight too fast. That said, if you want to count, go for it.
On the whole, in terms of nutrition, all you have to do to build muscle is eat more calories than your burn, eat healthy natural foods, have a high protein intake, and drink plenty of water.
You probably know all this stuff already, so we won’t beat it down in this post (if you aren’t familiar with muscle building diets, go look that up after you read this).
Just like a good healthy diet is critical for building muscle, getting adequate rest is too. This means good sleep and enough rest days.
Your body repairs itself and adapts (builds muscle!) when you rest, so enjoy that rest! Take it as seriously as you do your workouts.
We suggest having 2 off days a week and get 8 hours of sleep per night. That is perfect for building muscle and avoiding overtraining, as the last thing you want to do is overtrain. Overtraining is killer to muscle gains. Again, if you body isn’t recovering, your muscle are not growing.
Here are the best kettlebell exercises for building muscle. Remember, kettlebell grinds are the best type of kettlebell training to build muscle. So, the majority of these exercises are grinds. The exercises that are not grinds are like hybrids of grinds and ballistics, and they will tax both your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds.
Note: These exercise require nothing but kettlebells, so you won’t need a bench or chair like you would dumbbells or a barbell.
Let’s get into the exercises…
The squat is one of the best muscle building exercises you can do, and this is no different with the kettlebell. With kettlebells, you are going to be hitting more than just your lower body, your core and upper body will be built up as well because you need to hold the kettlebells in a front rack position.
What’s more, with the kettlebell double front squat, you will be going deep, hitting your muscles full range of motion.
Enough said. This is a must-have exercise for your muscle building kettlebell journey.
Muscles worked: Quads, Glutes, Core, Shoulders, Arms, Upper Back.
Just like the squat, the deadlift is an essential exercise for building muscle. For this one, you will need heavy kettlebells, relative to your strength.
Overall, this is a powerful movement that is going to work your entire posterior chain. Add this one into your lower body days, leg days, or back days, depending on how you set up your training split.
Muscles worked: Hamstrings, Quads, Glutes, Back, Forearms
The single leg deadlift is a great variation of the stiff legged deadlift, especially if you don’t have heavy kettlebells necessary for the standard deadlift.
This exercise is going to really hammer your hamstrings and low back, in the best way possible. Also, because it is a unilateral exercise (single leg), you will be working your core to remain stable throughout the movement.
Muscles worked: Hamstring, Glutes, Low Back, Core, Forearms
This is one of the best kettlebell squat variations for beginners and athletes who have trouble with the double KB front squat.
The goblet squat is a full body muscle building exercise, with an obvious emphasis on the lower body.
Muscles worked: Quads, Glutes, Core, Arms, Upper Back.
The kettlebell lunge is a very powerful exercise for developing your legs and glutes, not to mention, your core.
This particular exercise requires a lot of stability and focus, and even with lighter kettlebells, relative to front squats, you can target your lower body effectively. Move slowly through this exercise and really focus on muscle tension.
Muscles worked: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Arms.
Great variation: Split Squats! Instead of lunges, remain in the split squat stance and move up and down, flexing at the knees. This variation will put extra emphasis on the lower quads and glutes.
This exercise brings a nice change from your usual forward, up-down, or twisting motions. However, it requires good hip mobility and it will take some practice.
You will not need very heavy kettlebells for this one. At least not at first. You will find lighter kettlebells (even just your bodyweight) effective.
Muscles worked: Inner and Outer Thighs, Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Core.
If you are used to barbells and dumbbells, this one is going to be a surprise as you are going to be hitting your chest from the floor!
The exercise is simple, just get down on the floor and press up both dumbbells like you would with dumbbells on a bench. To get full range of motion from the floor, stop when your elbows touch the floor (keep the tension) and extend all the way up (pause at the top and really squeeze).
Muscles worked: Chest, Triceps, Shoulders.
The seesaw floor press is basically a variation of the floor chest press. Instead of pressing both kettlebells up at the same time, you will be pressing one up as the other comes down. Both should be moving in a very controlled manner, so that the kettlebells meet in the middle.
We really like this variation as it requires a lot of focus and tension. It’s a taxing exercise that is a lot harder than it looks.
Note: If you want to increase difficulty and hit more muscles, get into a glute bridge position (hips up off the floor). It will hit your chest and shoulder differently too. It’s like hitting your chest from a different angle.
Muscles worked: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Core (and glutes for the glute bridge variation).
The military press is the ultimate measure of strength for the shoulders. It is to the deltoids what the squat is to the quads.
The military press requires a lot of control. It is a kettlebell grind through and through. Move slowly on the negative and explode up as best you can on the concentric portion of the lift.
As soon as the kettlebells get into the clean position, press up. You want to make sure you are keeping tension throughout the entire set.
You can perform the military press it with one kettlebell or double. Both are effective, but the unilateral variation will incorporate more core stability. If you really want to hone in on building big shoulders, go heavy in the 8-15 rep range with doubles.
Muscles Worked: All Three Heads of the Deltoids, Triceps, Core.
The seesaw press is very similar to the military press except you will be pressing one kettlebell up at a time. As one kettlebell goes up, the other is coming down in an alternating fashion. The kettlebells should meet in the middle, so there is no relaxation time for your muscles during the set.
Muscles Worked: Deltoids, Triceps, Core.
While the above exercises can be done with one or two kettlebells, the bent press stipulates that you use only one kettlebell. But don’t fret, one kettlebell is going to be tough. This is not an easy exercise and it should be saved for those who are more advanced in kettlebell training.
This old-time strongman exercises will work many muscles and it also requires (and improves) mobility, especially the thoracic spine. It is a true, slow grind exercise with a very complex movement pattern. What’s more it’s going to really hit muscles that you are not often targeting properly.
With this one, start off light until you get the form down as you don’t want to injure yourself by using a kettlebell that is too heavy. That said, once you get the form down, you will be able to use a heavy kettlebell as you will be using your body as leverage. In fact, if you practice this one enough, it will be your heaviest kettlebell pressing exercise.
Muscles worked: Shoulders, Back, Chest, Core, Lower Body.
This is another total body exercises with a complex movement pattern. This one is going to require an advanced level of kettlebell training. You will be moving from the floor to a standing position and then back to the floor, using a specific movement pattern to get there.
And while this is not the best muscle building exercise, it is a great exercise to increase injury resilience and proprioception, which will help you excel in your true muscle building kettlebell grinds.
Muscles Worked: Total Body with an emphasis on the Shoulders, Back & Core.
The bent over row is one of the best muscle building exercises for the back. This is a true grind, as it requires a lot of tension via strict movement.
You will get into a high hinge position, so your low back, hamstrings, and glutes will be fully activated as you use your mid and upper back and biceps to move the kettlebells.
Variations #1: Single Bent Over Row. This will incorporate more core and it will target your lats and serratus anterior better, where as doubles will hit more of your low traps and rhomboids.
Variation #2: Do the movement form a split stance. This will also target your core heavily and it places the pulling focus more on your lats and biceps.
Muscles Worked: Back, Biceps, Glutes, Hamstrings.
Just like the other seesaw exercises, this one will have your arms opposite each other. So as one is going down, the other is pulling up. The goal is to maintain tension at all times by meeting the kettlebells in the middle.
Muscles worked: Back, Glutes, Hamstrings, Forearms, Biceps
The clean and press is a powerful movement pattern that recruits a ton of muscle. This is a hybrid of a grind and ballistic. If done with adequate weight, it will build muscle like no other.
The movement is a combination of a hinge, pull and press. It can be done with a single kettlebell or double. If you want to work on building all around muscle and power, hit this movement with doubles, but if you want to target smaller stabilizer muscles and make things more “functional”, go for a single. In any case, both ways are effective.
Muscles worked: Full Body with emphasis on glutes, back, shoulders and core.
This movement is also a hybrid of a ballistic and grind. It is just like the olympic lift, but with two kettlebells instead of a barbell (note: this movement is easier to perform with kettlebells than an olympic bar). Thus, you already know it can build muscle. Just look at Olympic lifters to see proof of this.
Overall, this is a full body movement that combines both power and body awareness. It’s going to get your heart racing like crazy and its going to especially hammer down on your shoulders and core.
You can do this movement double or single. Both are effective for building muscle but doubles will be more challenging and better for overall muscle stimulation. If you are new to this movement, start with single arm snatches.
Muscles Worked: Entire Posterior Chain & Core, Quads, Hips, Shoulders.
Be sure to add kettlebell complexes into your routine too. One complex for a few sets per workout will be very effective for your muscle building goals, plus they are great for keeping off fat while bulking up.
For those who don’t know, a complex is a series of movements, done as one large set.
Double Kettlebell Complex Example:
Double Kettlebell Front Squat x 5 reps
Double Kettlebell Snatch x 5 reps
Double Kettlebell Bent Over Rows x 5 reps
Double Kettlebell Military Presses x 5 reps
Once you complete all 4 exercises (without rest), that’s 1 set. Do 3-4 sets per complex. Rest between sets should be 1-2 minutes.
This is a very taxing protocol so don’t overdo it with complex training. 2-3 complexes per week is perfect when starting out. You could add one complex at the end of every workout or do one complex workout (3 complexes per week).
If you have any questions about building muscle with kettlebells, feel free to leave a comment below or email us! We are always ready to help.
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