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October 01, 2021
When training your shoulders, you need to look at things from all angles. By that we mean aesthetics, strength, mobility and durability. This is exactly how we approach kettlebell shoulder workouts. We choose kettlebell exercises that hit all aspects of shoulder development.
In this article, you are going to learn about the anatomy and function of the shoulder and what makes kettlebell training special. Then, we are going to demonstrate 15 kettlebell shoulder exercises for strength, size, stability and mobility, all of which we will use to create 5 unique, challenging and effective kettlebell shoulder workouts.
In this article, we are going to be working on both strength and stability (and of course hypertrophy) of the shoulders. So, that means we need to look at the deltoids and the rotator cuff complex.
Your deltoid is a large muscle that lies over the shoulder joint. It’s what gives your shoulders a rounded contour.
The deltoid, while one muscle, has 3 distinct sets of muscle fibers called heads.
The three muscle heads of the deltoids are referred to as the anterior (front), lateral (middle) and posterior (rear) delts.
Each head of the deltoid produces different movement of the shoulder joint.
And all three heads work together to produce abduction of the shoulder joint and overall stability.
In terms of exercises...
Our goal is to incorporate all of these movements into our kettlebell shoulder workouts so that you can have the best possible development of your deltoids.
ROTATOR CUFF MUSCLES:
Your rotator cuff (RTC) consists of 4 muscles called the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor muscle and the subscapularis.
These muscles work together to stabilize your shoulder joint and keep your humerus (upper arm bone) in your shoulder socket. They also assist in raising and rotating your arm.
While these muscles are small and deep unlike the deltoid which is a superficial muscle with a lot of growth potential, your rotator cuff should not be overlooked. Strengthening these muscles is very important for overall shoulder health, mobility and durability.
The beautiful thing about training with kettlebells is due to the nature of its design, they do a fantastic job of strengthening the rotator cuff muscles because they require more shoulder stability.
So, with kettlebell shoulder workouts and exercises, we are going to be filling two needs with one deed, strength and hypertrophy of the deltoids AND strength and mobility of the rotator cuff complex. This is true and complete development of the shoulders.
Kettlebells are fantastic for the shoulders on multiple fronts. With kettlebell shoulder workouts, and kettlebell exercises in general, you can gain strength and size in your deltoids, as well as optimal range of motion, AND you can strengthen and improve mobility of your rotator cuff complex.
Kettlebells do a fantastic job of targeting the delts - i.e. overhead presses, bottoms up presses, snatches - and due to how they are designed, the load positioning, and simply how they are used, they require greater stability demands which automatically digs deep into your shoulders to strengthen your rotator cuff complex.
Moreover, kettlebell training often involves exercises that move you through multiple planes of motion and through large ranges of motion, which enables you to optimize your shoulder mobility and its strength through all movement functions.
All in all, kettlebells are great for both strengthening and developing your deltoids as well as strengthening and mobilizing your rotator cuff complex.
Are kettlebells hard on your shoulders?
On the whole, kettlebells are great for shoulder health as they provide strength, mobility and stability, which leads to overall shoulder durability. However, if used improperly, meaning with poor form and/or too heavy of weight, you can hurt your shoulder. That said, this is true for any equipment or even bodyweight and calisthenics training.
If you are coming off an injury, be sure to start light or consult your doctor or physical therapist.
Remember, the shoulder is a complex and complicated joint. It’s a joints that is very susceptible to injury. So, be sure to learn the movements correctly and then increase weight load. If you do this, you will not only avoid injury, but you will make your shoulders incredibly resilient to it.
Like dumbbells, kettlebells can build up the shoulders both in terms of strength and size, as well as fix muscle imbalances that often develop with equipment like barbells.
But what makes kettlebell training special, particularly for the shoulders, is its unstable nature.
Although dumbbells are good for shoulder stability too, as you will be using your arms independently of each other, they are perfectly balanced with a load that is placed directly over the palm of your hand. A kettlebell is not. Kettlebells make your often under-utilized stabilizer muscles fire off at a much high degree.
Not only does this help you maximize the strength of your shoulders, but more importantly it helps you to build injury resilience. And while you’d think this would make kettlebells more dangerous for the shoulder joint, it is actually the opposite. Because you must balance the kettlebell and really focus on stability, you will find the path of least resistance when moving a kettlebells, which is safest. So, you get all the gains without the strain.
Related: Benefits of Kettlebell Training
To train your shoulders with kettlebells, you must focus on a few things...
Strength, Stability, and Range of Motion (mobility).
This means full concentric and eccentric contraction, isometric contraction, unilateral exercises, explosive movement, and so on.
Moreover, you must work your shoulders through all movement patterns and functions. That way, you can hit all of the muscles that surround your shoulder joint (deltoids and RTC).
Shoulder Flexion, Extension, and Abduction.
So, when doing a shoulder workout, you want to have a variety of exercises that hit the muscles from different “angles” and that focus on strength as well as stability.
The 15 kettlebell shoulder exercises below achieve just that. We have kettlebell press variations, stability based exercises, flys, rotational movements and more. Our goal is to build your shoulders to be strong, aesthetic, mobile and durable.
Here are 15 of the best kettlebell shoulder exercises for strength, hypertrophy and rotator cuff stability. After we run through all of the exercises, we will incorporate them into various kettlebell shoulder workouts.
Exercise 1: Half-Kneeling Overhead Press (0:15)
Exercise 2: Kneeling Windmill (0:51)
Exercise 3: Halo (1:40)
Exercise 4: Sushi Roll (2:07)
Exercise 5: Rotational Press (2:47)
Exercise 6: Kettlebell Shoulder C.A.R (3:19)
Exercise 7: Kettlebell Rear Delt Fly (4:05)
Exercise 8: Single Arm High Pull (4:37)
Exercise 9: Hang Snatch (4:57)
Exercise 10: Hang Snatch with Rotation (5:22)
Exercise 11: Bottoms Up Press (5:57)
Exercise 12: Crossbody Lateral Clean (6:21)
Exercise 13: Seated Press (6:48)
Exercise 14: Kettlebell Dead-Bug (7:21)
Exercise 15: Tactical Snatch (7:50)
The half-kneeling overhead kettlebell press is a fantastic exercise for shoulder strength and hypertrophy. It completely eliminates the possibility of using your legs to help lift the kettlebell overhead, which is great for deltoid isolation.
Of course, your triceps and upper chest will be activated as well when pressing overhead.
Another great thing about this exercise is the half-kneeling position and the fact that you only use one arm at a time. This position is stable for single arm presses, yet at the same time, it quickly highlights any errors and imbalances. And this doesn’t just apply to your shoulders, but also your core and glutes as they must be activated to maintain spine and hip stability.
All in all, it’s a very well rounded exercise for a shoulder workout. It will help you build shoulder, core and hip strength and stability while also honing in on asymmetries.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: This is an all around deltoid exercise, but it is especially targeting the front and side delts. It is also good for rotator cuff stability.
How to do a half-kneeling overhead kettlebell press:
Note: If you feel like you are sinking or folding during the lift, even when really focusing on having good form, it’s likely that you are using too heavy of a kettlebell or you are fatigued. Stop when your form breaks down. i.e. If you aim for 10 reps but your form starts to fault at 8 reps, then stop the set there and rest, then see how many you can do with good form on your next set if you plan to have another.
Best Rep Range: The kettlebell half-kneeling overhead press is most effective in a range of 5-12 reps. Use a kettlebell weight that challenges you in this rep range (of course, a heavier kettlebell for the lower end of the range if possible). Also, start with your weaker side and match the reps on your stronger side so you can fix any imbalances in size and strength.
The kettlebell windmill is one of the best shoulder stability exercises there is. It’s a go to among kettlebell trainees and athletes alike.
With the half-kneeling position, you'll place more emphasis on the shoulder than the hips and lower body, as a standing kettlebell windmill demands much more from the lower body.
As such, we like to do kneeling windmills for overall shoulder health. This exercise, along with Turkish Get Ups, is the ultimate durability movement. Having good shoulder durability is just as important as having powerful shoulders that can move heavy loads explosively.
The kettlebell windmill digs really deep into the shoulder in an isometric manner, working all of the small muscle fibers around your shoulder capsule as well as your deltoids. Moreover, it does so through rotation of the shoulder joint as you will be leaving your arm straight up as your torso moves toward the ground.
But that’s not all...
With this particular exercise, we also added a press into the movement. So, first you press and as the kettlebell comes overhead, you perform the windmill. With that, you also get deltoid activation through isotonic contraction (lengthening and shortening - stretching and contracting). This turns the windmill into a durability and strength and hypertrophy exercise. It’s basically an all-in-one movement for the shoulders. PLUS, like any windmill it works your obliques and core for spinal stability and boosts your hip mobility!
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front, Side, Rear Delts, Rotator Cuff Complex.
How to do a kettlebell windmill with shoulder press:
Best Rep Range: Aim for 5 very well controlled windmill presses on each side. Usually 3-6 reps is the best range for this exercise.
The kettlebell windmill is a complex movement, so for a more in-depth look at this exercise, including common mistakes to avoid and best progressions, check out this article we wrote: Kettlebell Windmill Exercise Guide.
The kettlebell halo is a great shoulder and upper back mobility exercise. We usually like to start our workouts with this exercise as it ensures the shoulders are primed and fluid for what’s to come.
Note: While it’s mainly a mobility exercise for the shoulders and scapula. It is also an effective exercise for strengthening your deltoids, rotator cuff muscles AND even your core.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front, Side, Rear Delts
How to do kettlebell halos:
Best rep range: Aim for 10-20 reps each way. This exercise is meant to be light weight. Focus on good form and improving range of motion.
This is an exercise we like to call the Sushi Roll, courtesy of Jarrod Cardona of The Training Spot in Orlando.
It’s very similar to an arm bar, but both legs will be straight out.
Like the arm bar, this exercise is great for strengthening your shoulder stabilizer muscles (rotator cuff) as well as opening up your chest.
Also, because your legs are straight out, it places a higher demand on your stability (and with that shoulder stability).
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Rotator Cuff Complex - subscapularis, teres minor, supraspinatus, and infraspinatus)
How to do a kettlebell sushi roll:
Best Rep Range: 5-8 reps on each side. However, as little as 3 reps can still be effective depending on the weight.
Here we have the single arm kettlebell rotational press. It takes the standard overhead press and turns it multiplanar as you will be rotating while you press overhead.
The standard single arm kettlebell shoulder press is great for core strength as you are pressing with just one side requiring your core to activate for spinal stability (to avoid lateral flexion - aka bending to the side). With the rotation, you take the demand for core strength up several notches.
Overall, this is a very dynamic exercise that is going to force control through your entire kinetic chain, from the ground up. As you press the kettlebell, you are rotating your hips and torso to the opposite side of the pressing arm. Because you are not just rotating at the torso, but also the hips, your working side’s leg must rotate in the same direction by coming up onto the ball of your foot. This makes it a very athletic movement. So, for our athletes out there who want to build pressing power and core, hip and glute strength through rotation, this is an excellent kettlebell exercise to incorporate into your shoulder workouts.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front and Side Delt (Rear Delt secondary)
How to do a kettlebell rotational press:
Best Rep Range: 6-15 reps
C.A.R. stands for Controlled Articular Rotations. So, this kettlebell exercise strengthens your shoulder through a perfect expression of what the joint is capable of.
On the whole, this is a superb exercise to achieve and maintain greater control over your shoulder mobility, as well as to improve your shoulder stability and durability, and thus overall shoulder health. It’s also a great way to self-assess your movement capacity and build kinesthetic awareness at the shoulder level.
We like to use this as a warm up exercise to prime the shoulders via tension and force through a wide range of motion. This range of motion is not one that is often focused on by beginners, so this will prep and teach your mind and body of its importance.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Rotator Cuff Complex, Front Delt, Side Delt
How to do kettlebell shoulder CARs:
Best Rep Range: Aim for 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps each side.
You are probably used to seeing people do rear delt flys from a bent over position when using free weights. However, this one is done from a tall standing position.
It’s a simple exercise, but it’s definitely not easy if appropriately loaded.
The reason this works so well for the rear delts is due to the kettlebell positioning. Unlike a dumbbell where the load is evenly distributed at the center of your hand, the majority of the kettlebells weight is positioned behind your hand, so when performing the fly motion, it does really well to activate your rear delts like this.
Another thing to note is that your middle delts will be significantly more activated than with a bent over rear delt fly from the standing position simply due to gravity. Your side delts will be working to keep your elbow up laterally.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Rear and Side Delts.
How to do a kettlebell rear delt fly:
Best Rep Range: We like to use a higher rep range for this one. Aim for 10-15 reps.
The kettlebell single arm high pull is total body exercise, but it does emphasize the shoulders due to the pulling motion.
This exercise is going to work your hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, and quads thanks to the swinging motion. The first half of the movement is a kettlebell swing (the high pull is a progression to a single arm kettlebell swing, so be sure to master the swing first).
As you swing the kettlebell up past your hips, you are going to start pulling the kettlebell up in line with your shoulder, bringing your elbow to shoulder level and then back behind you. With that, you are going to work your abs, rhomboids, lats, traps, arms, and shoulders.
In terms of the shoulder movement. It’s sort of like a hybrid front raise, lateral raise, and fly/row. As such, you are going to hit all three heads of your deltoids effectively.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front, Side, and Rear Delts
How to do single arm kettlebell high pulls:
Best Rep Range: 8-16 reps (but as many as 20 can be effective as long as form stays on point)
The hang snatch is another full body ballistic exercises that emphasizes shoulder strength and stability.
It should be noted that you are not pressing the kettlebell overhead, you are pulling it overhead from a swinging motion between your legs.
So, it’s an explosive exercise for your shoulders on the way up. You are whipping it up overhead by driving your elbow up. This is great for the front delts and even your upper chest (it’s a forward flexion motion of the shoulder joint), and the side and rear delt play an important role for stabilization, as does your scapula and back muscles.
However, you'll want to slowly lower the kettlebell down to a front rack position like you would with a shoulder press. As such, your deltoids will be working in the same way they would with an overhead press on the eccentric phase.
Furthermore, as with any swing and single arm swing, your hamstrings and glutes will also be activated through hip extension and your core for stability.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front, Side, and Rear Delts
How to do a hang snatch:
Note: A “hang” snatch means you are not bringing the kettlebell to the floor like a standard snatch. Moreover, this variation involves a slight swing (it’s not as exaggerated as a normal kettlebell swing, but the motion is there so you can produce more power from your lower body and thus load with a heavier bell).
Best Rep Range: 5-12 reps
This is the same base movement as the previous exercise but with rotation added into the movement.
So, as you snatch the kettlebell overhead, you are going to rotate at your torso in the direction of the working side. Your hips will remain squared forward.
Note: The rotation should begin when the kettlebell is moving past your shoulder height.
When your arm is up overhead, your core will be twisted so your shoulders are almost at 90˚ from center in the direction of the kettlebell’s side.
From here, you rotate back to forward position with the kettlebell still overhead, and then lower the kettlebell to the racked position and repeat.
With all that, you are working all of the same muscles as a regular hang snatch in addition to your oblique sling system, giving you more power and explosion through rotation.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front, Side, and Rear Delts
How to do a kettlebell hang snatch with rotation:
Best rep range: 5-10 reps (Note: you'll be using a lower weight than you do with a standard hang snatch).
The bottoms up press is an excellent kettlebell shoulder exercise created by famed kettlebell coach Pavel Tsatsouline.
Holding the kettlebell in this position offers various benefits.
First, it places more demand on your rotator cuff muscles (and core) as to stabilize the kettlebell in the bottoms up position.
Second, because the kettlebell is in this position, you will automatically be working on greasing the groove of your pressing motions, finding the path of least resistance and most stability.
Lastly, the bottoms up press is actually easier on your elbow and shoulders as the pressure is directly in the palm of your hand (similar to a dumbbell), forcing you to keep your wrists straight and your elbows in a good position (as you’ll be pressing from a neutral grip with your elbows forward).
Note: It’s also a great alternative and rehab movement for those who have shoulder pain when pressing with their arms in a lateral position.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front & Side Delts
How to do bottoms up presses:
Best Rep Range: 8-15 reps
The crossbody lateral clean is a ballistic rotational exercise.
Before trying this exercise, make sure you have mastered the clean first. It is a very technical total body movement that emphasizes the core and shoulders.
Rotation will occur at both the hips and torso, making this a very effective exercise for athletes who do rotational sports. Nevertheless, it is effective for any trainee as this will help you build power, strength, mobility and stability through all three planes of motion, and most importantly the transverse plane.
In regards to the shoulders, the crossbody rotational clean motion does a great job of enhancing mobility while also building dynamic strength and stability. Not only will it make your shoulders more powerful, but it will make them more fluid as well.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Deltoids & RTC
How to do the crossbody lateral clean:
Note: Be sure to watch the video as this exercise is best learned through watching it. We also have a Kettlebell Training e-Guide with a step-by-step instructional video for this exercise and many others (including workouts).
Best Rep Range: 6-12 reps (start light until you get the form down pat).
This seated press doesn’t require any bench or seat. You will be doing this from the floor.
By sitting on the floor, you are taking your legs completely out of the equation, allowing for the best possible deltoid isolation.
The movement itself involves shoulder flexion and abduction so it’s going to emphasize your anterior (front) and lateral (side) delts.
With that, the kettlebell you are using will feel harder than when doing a standing press, simply because your body is at a biomechanical disadvantage.
Shoulder muscles worked: Front & Side Delts
How to do a single arm kettlebell seated press:
Best Rep Range: 8-15 reps is best but as low as 6 reps and as much as 20 reps can be effective as well, so actually 6-20 reps.
This might look like a core exercise, and that’s because it is, but it is also good for your shoulders, chest, and lats.
We like to do this exercise at the end of a kettlebell shoulder or upper body workout to really burn out the shoulders and get the core working through flexion which is great for the abs (as all the other exercises have focused on core rotation or anti-rotation, which is great for the entire core, but especially the obliques).
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Side & Front Delts.
How to do the kettlebell dead bug:
Best Rep Range: 10-20 reps
The tactical snatch is just like the hang snatch but more dynamic as you will be switching hands as the kettlebell comes up. This forces you to really focus on shoulder stability and is great for coordination as you shift the weight contralaterally each rep to your other hand.
Don’t attempt the tactical snatch until you’ve first mastered the hang snatch.
Shoulder Muscles Worked: Front, Side, and Rear Delts
How to do a tactical snatch:
Best Rep Range: 16-24 reps (so, 8-12 each side).
The kettlebell swing is not actually a shoulder exercise, but it does work the shoulders. Just not like beginners may think. Although you are bringing the kettlebell up to shoulder level with your arms, the force is created by your hips (glutes and hamstrings) through explosive hip extension. That said, your shoulder will be working to stabilize the kettlebell and keep your shoulder joint in place. Furthermore, they will be moving through a large range of motion, which is great for mobility. On top of that, you still do get some good deltoid activation even though you shouldn’t be using your shoulders much to swing the kettlebell up. The heavier you go, the more this becomes apparent.
Related: What Muscles do Kettlebell Swings Work?
Using the kettlebell exercises above, let’s create 5 effective workouts that you can do. Each workout will use a different protocol (workout structure). Moreover, each workout will have a selection of exercises that provide the best variety for the shoulders as to eliminate redundancy and hit all angles.
Be sure to warm up before any workout.
This workout is based on sets and reps, which we’d call a traditional protocol.
Rest 30-90 seconds between sets.
For this one we are going to use a circuit protocol. There will be 3 circuits, each with 3 exercises and done for 3 rounds. Once one circuit is done for 3 rounds, you move on to the next until all three circuits are completed.
20 seconds rest between exercises in the circuit, 30-60 seconds between rounds and 60-90 seconds between circuits.
This is a HIIT workout. It is total body with emphasis on the shoulders.
The interval time scheme is 30/15, meaning 30 seconds work followed by 15 seconds rest until the workout is over.
So, as soon as you complete an exercise for 30 seconds, you rest 15 seconds then move on to the next.
Each exercise will only be done once. This is one large round.
Total Workout Time: ~11 minutes
This is an As Many Rounds As Possible workout.
You will have two sets of AMRAPs, each done for 6 minutes. You will rest 2 minutes between the first and second AMRAP. So, the total workout time is 14 minutes.
Only rest when truly needed during the AMRAP. The goal is to push yourself.
Record how many rounds you complete so if you do this workout again, you can attempt to do more.
Again, you can rest during your AMRAP, but try to keep it short. i.e. if you need a quick rest, take 10-20 seconds and get back to it..or simply slow down your pace.
This is meant to be a quick workout to burn those delts, as well as calories!
This is a mixed protocol shoulder workout. It contains 3 blocks. Each block has a different protocol.
You will rest 2-5 minutes between blocks.
Block 1 (Stability Workout):
Block 2 (EMOM - Every Minute On The Minute):
- Tactical Snatch x 8 Reps for 6 minutes
Block 3 (Sets x Reps):
Related: SFS FIVE Kettlebell Workout Package
The shoulders can handle quite a bit of volume. Ultimately, you should aim to train your shoulders for 8-20 sets each week, but this can be divided into different training sessions.
For example... If you do two upper body and two lower body workouts each week, you could split those sets into two sessions. If you do shoulder specific workouts, you could get the total volume (sets) done in one workout. If you do full body workouts, you could split it up into 3 or 4 sessions.
All that said, for best development of your shoulders (both strength and size), there is a happy medium between volume and frequency. Ideally, you want to aim for training your shoulders twice a week, so your total weekly volume would be split into two sessions that are spread apart by a couple/few days.
Note: Beginners can see fantastic results with higher frequency and lower volume per workout, whereas more advanced trainees need to emphasize volume more. For most intermediate lifters, the middle ground between volume and frequency is optimal (which would call for a training split like an upper lower or some hybrid form of a body part split like chest/shoulders, back/arms, legs/core).
You don’t have to do kettlebell only shoulder workouts of course. You can mix them into your routine just like you would any other equipment (i.e. barbells, dumbbells, cable machines).
If you are more of a conventional lifter, you will see some great results if you add some kettlebell exercises into your workouts. Kettlebells will hit your shoulders differently and that is always great for progression and shocking your muscles.
If you are an avid kettlebell trainee, then you can stick to kettlebell only workouts, but we’d recommend mixing in other equipment as well. As you become advanced, variety is a very important aspect of progressive overload. Plus, it’s always nice to keep things fresh.
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More Kettlebell Training Resources:
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about kettlebell training or shoulder workouts.
Be sure to check out our Kettlebell Training e-Guide and our SFS FIVE Kettlebell Workout Package which has 5 full length follow along workouts that we are sure you’ll love (and make for the perfect weekly routine).
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