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June 15, 2021
When it comes to kettlebell training, bicep exercises are not likely the first thing to come to mind. Most people’s kettlebell training focuses on compound exercises and complex movement patterns. We are talking about big grinds and explosive ballistics.
Be that as it may, if your biceps are lagging, it's time to take action. Not only will big, strong biceps make you look more impressive, but they will also help your workout performance on so many fronts. Strong biceps allow you to lift heavier, and for longer, and they play a key role in injury prevention of the elbows and shoulders.
And although compound pulling exercises do a good job of building bicep strength, it’s typically not enough to develop your biceps to their fullest potential.
By isolating your biceps, you can work them through their full range of motion and give them the attention and boost they need to grow.
The 10 kettlebell bicep exercises we have for your here will do exactly that. The best part is, all you need is one kettlebell!
Your biceps are comprised of two muscles - the brachialis and the biceps brachii.
The biceps brachii is the bigger of the two biceps muscles, making up much of the bicep muscle group. It’s a two headed muscle, with a long and short head, that spans from the shoulder to the elbow on the front of the upper arm. Both have a point of origin at the scapula, just near the shoulder joint, and they join to form a single muscle belly which is attached to the upper radius bone of the forearm. With that, the biceps brachii acts on both the shoulder joint and elbow joint. Its main functions include flexion of the elbow (bending the elbow to raise the forearm up - i.e. a curl), forearm supination (rotating the forearm so your palm faces outward), and forward flexion of the shoulder (bringing your upper arm forward and upward like an upper cut movement). So, if you add resistance to these movements, your biceps brachii will be fully engaged.
The brachialis is located on the anterior side of your upper arm. Its point of origin is your humerus (upper arm bone near your shoulder) and it runs down your upper arm attaching to the ulna bone of your forearm just at the elbow. Most of the brachialis lies underneath the biceps brachii, except near the cubital fossa (aka elbow pit). The brachialis job is flexion of the elbow (bringing your hand towards your shoulder, or in fitness terminology, a curl). So, with any curl movement, your brachialis will be activated.
Because the biceps act on flexion of the elbow, every compound pulling exercise (i.e. rows, pull ups, chin ups) will activate (lengthen and contract) the biceps in an effective manner.
Your bicep brachii will also be activated during movements that involve forward flexion of the shoulder. So, exercises like front raises and low to high chest flys will also activate the biceps.
But here’s the thing, while compound pulling exercises do a great job of developing the biceps, most of these big movements won’t move your biceps through their full range of motion.
If you want full development of your biceps, you need to stress them with adequate tension through their entire range of motion, so you get maximum eccentric contraction (stretching tension) and concentric contraction (contraction tension).
To do this, we must “isolate” the biceps with bicep specific exercises, which all have one thing in common, they are some form of curl.
We put isolate in quotes because you can never truly isolate the biceps, as your forearms activate isometrically to stabilize the movement, so they will be worked, and if you don’t keep your elbow pinned in place during a curl, thus raising your upper arm forward, your deltoid will help power the movement to some degree.
The point is, if you want to develop your biceps to their fullest potential, you need to isolate them with curls. Curls are the biceps primary function and they lengthen and contract them fully. Moreover, you can really focus on just your bicep, building a strong mind-muscle connection to produce maximum tension.
Now, it’s important to understand that there are many variations of bicep curls. By changing angles, hand positioning, and load placement, you can alter how the stress is placed on your biceps. These training variables are crucial if you want full development of your biceps.
TIP for More Bicep Brachii Activation:
Your brachialis functions solely on the flexion of your elbow, so all you need to do to activate this muscle is elbow flexion. However, your biceps brachii also acts on forward flexion of the shoulder and forearm supination. So, to activate your bicep brachii completely during curls, you can slightly rotate your forearm outward as you perform the curl, and once you reach peak contraction, slightly raise your elbow up. This last part is important as you don’t want to raise your elbow up to perform forward flexion of the shoulder until you’ve reached the very top of the curl. Your elbow should be pinned in place for the entire curl, it’s just the end of the curl where you can slightly bring your elbow up to maximize contraction of the biceps brachii.
Kettlebells can be used to target the biceps just like dumbbells with traditional bicep exercises. However, the design of the kettlebell offers some unique training variables for these exercises as you can grip the top of the handle, the horns of the handle, the bell, and you can hold the kettlebell with the bell facing up or down. These training variables allow you to overload the biceps with high tension and contraction in many different ways, causing micro-trauma and metabolic stress, which is essential for hypertrophy.
As with any fitness equipment, kettlebell exercises for the biceps consist of variations of curls, as well as any compound pulling exercise. Because this article is about isolating your biceps with kettlebells, we will only be looking at the best kettlebell bicep curls.
Here are the kettlebell bicep exercises we will demonstrate for you:
(None of these exercises require a bench or anything else, so you can do them literally anywhere)
But, before we get into the exercises, let us answer a few common questions and go over how to get the best results when doing these exercises.
Generally speaking, kettlebell curls are going to be harder than dumbbell or barbell curls of the same weight load simply because of the kettlebell's awkward nature. Dumbbells and barbells are perfectly balanced with the load evenly centered on your hand, where as kettlebells have an odd weight distribution that places the load behind your wrist.
Now, this doesn’t mean kettlebells are better or worse than dumbbells and barbells, they are just different, and different is always more difficult at first.
Be that as it may, harder isn’t necessarily better. What’s really good about kettlebells curls is that they challenge your biceps in a different way, regardless of the difficulty.
Like Arnold Schwarzenegger use to say “Shock The System”. This is an important aspect of building muscle.
So, whether you are used to doing dumbbell curls or you never do any kind of bicep exercises, kettlebell curls will surely shock those biceps into growth. There is no question that kettlebells can build big arms.
Now, we we are not saying kettlebells are better than dumbbells or barbells for bicep exercises, but they are surely effective. In a perfect world, you’d mix it up between kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells and even other training equipment like steel maces and resistance bands.
Obviously you need to do bicep exercises and big compound pulling movements to make your biceps bigger, but there is a little more strategy involved that just that.
You need the right reps, volume, and tempo, as well as a progressive overload plan if you want your biceps to grow. And, of course, you need good diet and sleeping habits.
Reps for Bicep Growth:
The best rep range for hypertrophy is around 8-15 reps with a kettlebell weight that is challenging enough to bring you to near failure each set.
While the 8-15 rep range is ideal, in some case it may be good to go with a lower rep count (i.e. when using a considerably heavier kettlebell) or going with a higher rep count (i.e. when using a light kettlebell). By using a heavier kettlebell and doing lower reps, you can build strength and hypertrophy, and with a lighter kettlebell for higher reps, you can improve hypertrophy and endurance. Strength, hypertrophy and endurance are all important for your biceps. So, while 8-15 is ideal for hypertrophy, we recommend that you work through all different rep ranges (3-20+ reps).
And regardless of what a lot of people say, you can build pure size with any rep range (yes, even 1 rep) and you will also gain strength with higher rep ranges too.
Volume for Bicep Growth:
By volume we mean total sets or working time. So, considering a rep range of anywhere from 6-15 reps, you should aim to do around 20 sets per week of strictly bicep exercises if you want to develop your biceps properly. You can do this in one workout or split between two workouts during the week. This will be enough volume to grow your biceps.
All that said, it really depends on your fitness level. You may require more volume than that. But this is a good place to start. You can always increase the volume, which is a part of progressive overload.
Tempo for Bicep Growth:
Tempo relates to the speed of your reps. It’s good to practice being both explosive and slow and controlled with kettlebells. However, it’s usually best to be slow on the eccentric phase (the downward phase - lengthening of the bicep). You can switch it up on the concentric phase, doing some sets slow and some more explosively.
Now, in terms of muscle growth, the general consensus is that 20-60 seconds of time under tension is best for hypertrophy and anywhere from 4-20 seconds for strength. 40+ seconds is when you get into the endurance range too.
Progressive Overload for Bicep Growth:
Progressive overload basically means that you are gradually making your workouts harder over time. By doing this, you can continue to stress your muscles enough to stimulate muscle growth and force adaptation, as if you were to do the same reps, sets, tempo, exercises, etc. every workout, your muscles will adapt to this stimulus and no longer be stressed enough to cause hypertrophy.
The main methods of progressive overload are:
It’s important that you employ progressive overload methods into your training if you want to build muscle.
Below we will give you some cues and tips as well as how each variation targets the biceps.
This ballistic curl feels and looks like what you’d expect from a kettlebell bicep exercise. It’s dynamic, a little explosive, and it has a large range of motion.
What’s great about this kettlebell exercise is that it moves the biceps through its full range motion and you can use a heavy kettlebell.
This is because the arm is fully extended with the palm facing in and then as it is curled up the hand rotates with a slight supination of the forearm to the top of the movement. This is literally the biceps entire range of motion.
You’ll also notice that there’s a little cheating going on with this exercise, but that’s perfectly fine because this exercise is meant to be done in a dynamic manner with a heavy kettlebell (relative to your strength level). You should be using a considerably heavier kettlebell for a ballistic curl than you would with a strict curl.
All in all, even though you are purposefully “cheating”, this exercise is fantastic at building strength and hypertrophy because you can use a heavy kettlebell and it moves the bicep through its full range of motion, which means both your bicep brachii and brachialis are engaged entirely with both stretching tension and contraction tension.
This is your power kettlebell bicep exercise.
This is kind of similar to a concentration curl, but your elbow will not be pinned to your leg for stability. The hanging curl does a great job of isolating the biceps through a wide range of motion. It will develop the long head of your bicep, which is responsible for the mountain-like peak in your biceps.
If you are using a single kettlebell for standard two handed curls, this is the way to do it. You’ll need a cast iron kettlebell for this as cast iron kettlebells have a wider handle (competition kettlebell handles will be too narrow to have both hands palm up on the handle).
This is essentially a close grip bicep curl. So, you will be targeting the outer head (long head) of the biceps more, which makes up the biceps peak, whereas wide grip curls emphasize the inner head of the biceps.
This is the kettlebell’s version of a hammer curl. You’ll be grabbing the kettlebell by the horns of the handle and with the bell facing up.
The hammer curl activates the brachialis, biceps brachii, and brachioradialis (a forearm muscle). In particular, it emphasizes the long head of the bicep brachii and the forearms. So, if you want to build some powerfully Popeye-like forearms, hammers curls are a must.
Who said you need a preacher bench to do preacher curls. By getting into a squatting position, you can use your knees to do preacher curls. And trust us, this is just as effective for the biceps!
Like concentration curls, the kneeling preacher curl is fantastic at isolating the biceps. Besides providing big time bicep activation, the kneeling preacher curl is great because it allows you to really slow down on the negative movement (or eccentric phase). With this exercise, you should move very slowly as you lower the kettlebell down to a full stretch.
Studies show that stretching tension is the most effective type of tension for improving muscle growth and building strength. So, while contraction tension is very important, stretching tension is king.
The cop hold is when you hold the kettlebell with the bell in the palm of your hand. This completely changes the dynamics of the curl because the weight load is centered in your hand for the most part. It’s actually more similar to a dumbbell curl because of this.
Like a single arm dumbbell curl, this kettlebell exercise works the entire bicep, but emphasis is placed on the short head of the bicep.
The single arm bicep curl has the same movement mechanics as the cop hold curl but the loading mechanics are different as the weight is below the wrist. This provides tension on your biceps differently, especially towards the top of the movement, and it requires more forearm tension to stabilize your wrists. Also, because the kettlebell is sort of hanging below, there will be a little movement of the bell during the curl, which causes some instability and thus more muscle activation.
This single arm bicep curl activates the the brachialis, biceps brachii, and brachioradialis (forearm muscle also involved in elbow flexion). Your biceps brachii short head is most emphasized during this kettlebell exercise.
This is called the armpit curl because you are trying to curl the kettlebell up towards your armpit.
It should be noted that this isn’t a bicep isolation exercise. In addition to your biceps, it is going to work your lateral and posterior deltoid as well as your serrates anterior.
We really like this exercise because it hits the biceps from a completely different angle. You will be able to use a heavy kettlebell and get a great contraction too. It’s a good mass builder.
The single arm reverse curl is just like the single arm bicep curl but you will be using an overhand grip. With this simple change of grip, the movement hits your muscles differently.
The overhead grip will work your brachialis and biceps brachii like all curls, but it emphasizes the long head. Moreover, it creates a lot more tension on your forearms.
As with the single arm bicep curl, you will need strong wrists for this one and there will be instability due to the bell moving as you curl it up (which, again, maximizes muscle activation).
Your core will also be activated to a greater degree as it is a unilateral exercise. This applies to the other single arm kettlebell bicep exercises too.
This is definitely not a “bicep” exercise, but it is a powerful exercise that works your biceps. Like all cleans, your legs, glutes, back, arms and core will be working to power this movement. It is a ballistic movement, so you are going to be moving explosively and you should use a heavy kettlebell (start light if you are learning the movement).
It’s called a hang clean because you won’t be bringing the kettlebell to the ground each rep, you will hang it between your legs with your arm fully extended.
Do Kettlebell swings build biceps?
Kettlebell swings aren't considered a bicep exercise, but they do place considerable emphasis on the biceps during the bottom portion of the swing. Overall, the kettlebell swings is a full body exercise that builds explosive power, and with that, you get a good release of natural human growth hormone, which obviously will be beneficial in the development of your biceps.
You can throw these exercises into your current kettlebell workout routine. Just choose 1-3 of them and throw them into 2 to 3 of your workout per week. If you do some kind of split, do them on days where you train back or pulling exercises. You can also do a kettlebell arm workout once a week if you really want to hone in on your arms.
Overall, there are no rules for when you can do bicep exercises. We just recommend that you do around a total of 16-20 sets that focus on your biceps per week if you want to develop your biceps to their highest potential. As for reps per set, biceps will respond best to reps in the 8-15 rep range. However, some heavier bicep kettlebell exercises like ballistic curls will do well in the 6-8 range too.
It’s not necessary to do a bicep only workout, but if you really want to place emphasis on the development of your biceps, doing a biceps or arm-only workout once or twice a week is perfectly fine.
So, what is the best kettlebell bicep workout for mass?
The best bicep workout is going to involve various exercises that hit your biceps in different ways. You want to do exercises that complement each other, not repeat one another. Your workout should have enough volume and time under tension. You also want to use various rep ranges with different weight loads if possible to improve strength, hypertrophy and endurance.
Here is a good example of a well-rounded kettlebell bicep workout...
Kettlebell Bicep Workout:
Feel free to adjust the reps based on the kettlebell weight you are using. You want the rep count to be challenging enough to bring you to near failure (a couple reps left in the tank) each set while still maintaining good form. This means you may do less reps as you move through your sets.
Also, you can adjust the number of sets you do. If your muscles are fully exhausted after 10-12 sets, then that’s all they need, in which case you could do 2 sets instead of 3. Conversely, you can add sets. All in all, the goal is to have your biceps fully exhausted by the end of the workout.
Let us know what you think of these 10 kb bicep exercises in the comments below. If you have any questions about training your biceps with kettlebells, please feel free to reach out to us.
More Kettlebell Training Resources:
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December 09, 2022
December 09, 2022
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