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May 25, 2021
If you are looking for an upper body kettlebell workout routine, you've come to the right place. This article is going to discuss everything you need to know about building upper body muscle and strength with kettlebells. We have upper body kettlebell exercises and workouts for you to follow as well as answers to all of your kettlebell training questions. So, get your arms, shoulders, back, chest and core ready, it's go time!
Table of contents:
Yes! Kettlebells are great for building upper body muscle and strength, and they do so in a very efficient manner. This is because most kettlebell exercises are compound, multi-joint movements, so you will hit many muscles with one exercise. In fact, even your lower body will be activated during many upper body kettlebell exercises, and vice versa. Compound movements teach your muscles and body to work as one unit to produce maximum force, which makes you stronger.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you can’t hone in on specific muscles with kettlebells. While you are not likely to do many isolation exercises with kettlebell training, like you would when bodybuilding, you can if you want to hone in on areas of your body that are lagging behind. Most dumbbell exercises can be mimicked with kettlebells, one way or another, which makes kettlebells super versatile.
In terms of conditioning and endurance, there may be no better piece of equipment than a kettlebell. A single kettlebell can get your total body in tip-top shape, and with doubles, the sky is the limit.
It should be noted that you have two main types of kettlebell exercises, kettlebell grinds and kettlebell ballistics.
Kettlebell grinds involve slow and controlled movements with constant tension, like back rows and strict presses, whereas kettlebell ballistics involve explosive exercises with more complex movement patterns, like kettlebell cleans, snatches and swings.
While both grinds and ballistics can build muscle, strength and endurance, grinds are best for building muscle and raw strength and ballistics are best for endurance and explosiveness.
A good mix of grinds and ballistics will ensure your upper body looks great and is ready for anything thrown its way.
Are kettlebells better than dumbbells and barbells for building absolute strength and inducing hypertrophy? Most bodybuilders would say HELL NO, and they are probably right. Dumbbells and barbells allow you to maximize the weight load and really hone in on specific muscles because they are perfectly balanced and easier to manage, which is great for building absolute strength and muscle mass.
But, another question should be asked, and that is...
Are kettlebells better than dumbbells and barbells for building real world strength? Any kettlebell trainee would bet their bottom dollar that they are if you do heavy kettlebell training.
Kettlebells are weird and awkward...for a reason. The odd shape and offset weight will prepare you for objects you are more likely to encounter in the world. The world isn’t full of perfectly balanced objects like barbells and dumbbells, it is full of asymmetry, and kettlebell training mimics that beautifully. Again, kettlebell training teaches your body to work as one unit.
PLUS, unless you are trying to look like a Mr Olympia, kettlebells will most certainly allow you to pack on lean muscle and look great. If you know what you are doing, you can get into great shape with any equipment (or no equipment).
In general, kettlebells build athletic type bodies, so if you prefer that, then kettlebell training is most certainly enough and good as dumbbell and barbell training. But, if you want to be a massive beast, then you should definitely do barbell training.
In any case, kettlebells and barbells and dumbbells shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, they are all complimentary. Barbells can help you build absolute strength and muscle mass, dumbbells help you hone in on specific muscles, especially ones that are lagging behind, and kettlebells and bodyweight exercises help you build relative strength, explosive speed, and athleticism.
Now, if you had to choose just one for your home gym, we think kettlebells are the way to go. First, you only need one kettlebell to start, which is way more affordable, and second, kettlebells will build the strength, muscle and conditioning the average man and woman wishes to achieve. Most people these days prefer the lean athletic body, and kettlebells are perfect for that.
If you are looking to build upper body strength (and muscle) with kettlebells, you need to choose an adequate weight that challenges you in a certain rep range.
A lot of people think kettlebells are all about high reps. However, even ballistics like snatches, cleans and swings are most effective in a 10-20 rep range, and even lower than 10 reps if you are using a heavy kettlebell for the purpose of building explosive strength.
With ballistics, you want to use a load that you can be explosive with, but it is also challenging. Generally speaking, after 15-20 reps, form starts to breakdown, especially if you are using a heavy kettlebell. In any case, if your goal is to build muscle and strength, you won’t be going over 20 reps, as that when you get into the endurance zone.
Now, it’s important to note that grinds and ballistics are different.
With grinds, you are moving slower and creating constant tension, which means a lot more time under tension during a set. So, even with a low rep range, your time under tension will be high.
With ballistics, you will be using a lot of momentum and your muscles will not have constant, maximum tension. That’s ok, you can still build explosive strength like this as your muscles will be working in bursts. Focus on being powerful with each rep where needed and maintaining control with good joint stability when letting momentum take over.
Overall, a mix of ballistics and grinds is great for building versatile strength, so upper body workout routines should include both.
As for how many reps, we like to use a heavy kettlebell, relative to your strength and fitness level, for around 10 reps, as it gives you a good mix of building muscle and strength, allowing you to fill two needs with one deed.
What's more, because the workouts often involve single kettlebell exercises, you will have a lot of working time, as to hit both sides of your body, which means you will burn tons of calories and you can keep rest time a little lower.
Here are the rep ranges and time under tension you should be focused on for different training goals:
For strength, you want to choose a weight that challenges you in the 5-8 rep range. You don’t need to be going to near failure, but you should notice that the 5-8 rep range is the max you can do before your form starts to get a little suspect.
For hypertrophy, aim for 7-15 reps. This should take you 30-60 seconds for kettlebell grind exercises like presses, as you will be using a slow tempo. For ballistics, it will be considerably less time because you are moving explosively.
For endurance, 20+ reps is fine. You will need a significantly lighter load for this as you want to ensure your form isn’t compromised by the high rep range.
Remember, form is of the utmost importance. As soon as your form starts to breakdown, you should stop and rest, even if you didn’t reach the reps you intended.
If you want to build strength, progressive overload is vital. To get stronger, you need to increase the weight and reps. For example, if you are doing strict presses with a 50lb kettlebell for 7 reps, then you should go up in weight and lower the reps. Then from there, increase the reps. Once you reach 7 or 8 reps with the heavier load, you go up in weight and decrease the reps again.
For building muscle, you also need to progressive overload, but it's not just about increasing weight. You need to change up your workout structure, increase reps, decrease rest time, increase the volume of your workout, increase intensity, and so on. To build muscle, your goal is to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible, and to do this, you need to keep things fresh.
There is a lot of crossover between gaining muscle and building strength, so you should be able to do both at the same time, especially as a beginner. As you build strength, you will gain muscle. Heavy, compound exercises are the way to go, but you can still mix in some accessory movements to really exhaust your muscles.
Also, be sure you take enough rest days and eat and recover properly. Without that, you will never get stronger or bigger.
Here’s an in-depth guide to progressive overload, which applies to any kind of training equipment.
Absolutely! All you need is one kettlebell to get a great workout in. What’s more, you can really maximize calorie burn this way as you are doing more work with less rest time. After all, you have to hit both sides evenly and one side can rest as you target the other side, yet your body as a whole remains active.
Another great thing about single kettlebell training is it is less taxing on your nervous system. Obviously, this depends on your overall load though. For example, let’s say you are using a 50lb kettlebell for strict presses. With a single kettlebell, your working shoulder is pushing 50lbs and your body is dealing with a total load of 50lbs. With doubles, your shoulder would still be pushing 50lbs (same effect on the targeted muscle), but your body would be dealing with 100lbs. This is more taxing.
More taxing means you need to give yourself more time to recover!
Generally speaking, single kettlebell training allows for more training sessions per week because of it being less taxing. And as recent studies are showing, targeting the same muscle group two or three times a week is more effective for muscle growth than just once a week.
What’s more to love about single kettlebell training is that movements are easier to learn. If you are a beginner, single kettlebell training is all you should be doing until you master the movements. Only when you master exercises should you be thinking about doubles kettlebell exercises.
Finally, regarding core work...while double kettlebell training is great for your core, as it has to deal with a heavier load, a single kettlebell really makes you place emphasis on core strength and stability. Because of this, with single kettlebell training, you won’t have to waste too much time doing core specific exercises. If you do want to do some core accessory work, all you’d need are some leg raises and planks.
If you want to learn more about the differences between single kettlebell training and double kettlebell training, read this Single vs Double Kettlebell Training discussion.
Everybody is different. What’s light for you might be heavy for someone else. You’ll have to judge each exercise differently too. For example, you can likely row a heavier weight than you can press. If you only have one kettlebell size or a couple kettlebell sizes, then simply adjust your rep range accordingly.
For example, if you will only be using a 40lb kettlebell for the entire workout, your pressing exercises may be in the 8-10 rep range while your rows are in the 10-15 rep range. It’s all good, just focus on maximizing intensity and the workout will be effective no matter what size kettlebell you are using.
Scott Viala is using a 44lb kettlebell in the workout below, and he is strong and in great shape. It’s not always about the weight, it’s about how effective you make each rep.
Just be sure to listen to your body. It’s ok to scale down or scale up in both weight and rep ranges depending on how you feel during a workout or exercise. If it’s too light or too heavy, adjust accordingly. As you get more familiar with kettlebell training, you will know exactly what weight kettlebell you can handle for each exercise and workout, also with consideration to your rep ranges and overall workout goal (muscle/strength or conditioning). Rest time makes a big difference too. If you have a low weight, keep the rest time down and that weight will start to feel heavier.
So, while our workout has set, reps and rest time, adjust according to the kettlebells you have at your disposal and your fitness level.
Another tip is ‘when in doubt, start light’. Make sure you can really nail down the form. Technique always trumps the weight load. Start with what you know you can handle and then move up from there. Even if that means you are doing multiple sets for the max reps in your intended rep range. It’s all good.
Make sure you do a dynamic warm up before the workout to avoid injury and to ensure your muscles are ready to perform at their best and your joints able to achieve an optimal range of motion.
1. Kettlebell Clean to Strict Press: 3 sets x 10 reps each side
60 seconds rest between sets and 10-15 seconds rest between sides if needed.
2. Superset (3 sets):
60 seconds rest between supersets
3. Superset (3 sets):
60 seconds rest between supersets
This workout mainly targets your shoulders, back, and core, although your chest will be activated during the exercises as well and your biceps and triceps are worked during presses and rows.
If you want to target your chest more, you can add in push ups or floor presses. You could add this as a fourth exercise, with push ups being max reps for 3 sets or floor presses being 10 reps for 3 sets. If you don’t add the chest specific exercise to this workout, just be sure to add one or two chest exercises to your next upper body workout. You should be doing two upper body workouts per week if you are on an upper lower split as this workout promotes.
Below are some more kettlebell upper body exercises so you can switch things up each session. We will also give you some other upper body workout examples below using all of the exercises here
Note: we will include the exercises from the above workout in the list of exercises below...
This exercise is a total body exercises with an emphasis on the shoulders and arms and that mixes both ballistic and grind movements. The clean is total body exercise that is going to activate your biceps, back, glutes, hamstrings, quads and core AND the strict press is shoulder and tricep focused. While it is a total body exercise, it most certainly emphasizes the upper body. We like doing this kind of exercise on upper body days because it is great for building muscle of the upper body, especially the shoulders and back, while also burning a lot of calories due to the full body movement.
This is an awesome exercise because it is very dynamic. You will be resisting torso rotation so your core is going to be working hard. Your arms, shoulders, chest, and back will also be firing off (in a ballistic manner) as you whip the kettlebell around your body back and forth.
The single arm back row obviously works your biceps, lats and back. Being in a staggered stance and using just a single kettlebell also makes your core work too a much greater degree, especially as you go heavier with your kettlebell.
The clockwork clean is an awesome rotational exercise that will help you burn fat and build upper body strength and hip stability. With it being a rotational movement, your core is the main target with this one, but also your arms and back will be put to the test. The heavier you go, the more you will see just how difficult this exercise is. Be sure to start light as the movement is very complex.
This movement is back, bicep and core centric. This is a grind exercise but it is still pretty dynamic. It’s going to work your core, which includes your low back, at all angles.
The chest isn’t often talked about when it comes to kettlebell training, but there are definitely effective exercises for targeting the chest, and this is one of them. The floor press will work your chest, triceps and shoulders, as well as your core since you are using a single kettlebell here.
The goblet press is a great exercise for your shoulders, upper chest and triceps. It is also a great way to turn a single kettlebell into a symmetrical exercise, thus saving you time if you don’t want to have to do double the sets to target both your left and right deltoids.
While the halo is often considered a warm up exercise, and it is a great one at that, it can also be thrown into the meaty part of the workout. Halos are great for shoulders, triceps, and upper back, especially if the’ve already been exhausted from upper body grinds.
9. Plank Drag
The plank drag is like a plank on steroids. It involves anti-rotation and it makes your shoulders, triceps and chest work a lot harder as you will be holding your body up with one arm and then the other arm for most of the set. This is a great total upper body exercise that should not be overlooked. Isometric exercises like this, with a little bit of dynamic movement is great for building strength, and trust us, if your shoulders, chest and arms aren’t burning like crazy after each set, you aren’t doing it right.
The push press is another hybrid of a grind and a ballistic. By adding a bit of leg power, you can go heavier the kettlebell load. This is good if you want to build more strength in your shoulders. The action of pressing a heavier kettlebell than you are used to will translate to stronger strict presses. Also, because you are involving your legs and core, as a sort of “cheat”, you get a lot more calorie burn and thus fat loss.
If you love building rotational strength, you are going to appreciate this exercise. The rotational press is a spiral movement pattern that will build incredible core strength, rotational power and strong shoulders. This exercise translates really well into improved performance for rotational sports.
WANT TO LEARN HOW TO DO ALL THESE EXERCISES WITH STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS?
If you don’t know how to perform these exercises, you should check out our single kettlebell training guide. It was made in collaboration with Scott Viala. It will teach you 41 exercises and 10 complexes via step-by-step videos that you can follow along with. With our kettlebell training guide, you are guarantee to master all of the most important kettlebell exercises, and fast!
The above workout uses a traditional protocol, which is sets and reps with rest in-between each set. A traditional workout can also include supersets, as the above workout does. This kind of workout protocol is best for increasing strength and muscle mass.
Traditional Upper Body Kettlebell Workout Examples:
Rest ~60 seconds between sets
Circuits are great for increasing muscular endurance, building muscle, and losing fat. The workout can consist of one large circuit or multiple small circuits. With circuits, a lot of volume is done in a short time as rest time is minimal. We will give you a few examples of how to structure a circuit workout...
Circuit Upper Body Kettlebell Workout Example #1:
Staggered Stance Back Row x 8 reps each side
Push Ups x 15 reps
Goblet Press x 10 reps
Halo x 10 reps each way
Around the Body Stall x 10 total reps
No rest during the circuit.
Do 3-4 rounds of the circuit.
Rest two minutes between rounds.
Circuit Upper Body Kettlebell Workout Example #2:
No rest during the circuit.
Do 3 rounds of the circuit.
Rest one minutes between rounds.
No rest during the circuit.
Do 3 rounds of the circuit.
Rest one minutes between rounds.
Circuit Upper Body Kettlebell Workout Example #3:
Rest 20 seconds between exercises.
Rest 1 minute after each round.
Complete 4 rounds.
This protocol is great for muscular endurance and fat loss. Simply choose 5 different exercises (try to target all your upper body muscle groups). Set a timer for 10 minutes. Carry out all 5 exercises for 5 repetitions (each side), circuit style. That’s one round. Do as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes, resting only when needed. After the 10 minute cycle, rest for 4 minutes, then repeat another cycle. Aim to do more rounds in the next 10 minute cycle. We recommend 3-4 10 minute AMRAP cycles for a complete workout.
This protocol is fantastic for increasing muscle mass. Basically you choose a number of exercises (i.e. 5 exercises) and you perform them in a circuit, with the first round being 10 reps, the second round being 9 reps, third round being 8 reps and so on, until you are down to 1 rep. Then you are done. Rest only as needed. Don’t compromise form. If you need more rest then you need more rest. Form and effectiveness of the reps is most important, not speed. As you get stronger and more fit, you can do this workout with a quicker finishing time.
You can use more than one protocols within a workout.
For example, a single workout can contain traditional, circuit and ladder circuit protocols.
UPPER BODY KB WORKOUT:
1. Staggered Stance Back Row: 3 sets x 10 reps each side
2. Floor Press: 3 sets x 10 reps each side
3. Strict Press: 3 sets x 10 reps each side
Rest 30-60 seconds between sets
Do 3 rounds. Rest 1 minute between rounds.
Want more workouts?
At SET FOR SET, we love an upper lower split because it maximizes hypertrophy. Again, research shows that hitting your muscles multiple times a week is best for maximizing gains in muscle mass.
And for those who don’t care about building muscle, an upper lower split is just as effective for burning fat and keeping fit.
An upper lower split for kettlebells can look like this...
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Wednesday: Rest or cardio
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
Rest and repeat.
The great thing about kettlebells is they involve a lot of multi-joint compound exercises, so you will be burning a lot of calories each workout. So, while cardio is always great, you won’t have to put too much emphasis on it for the purpose of losing fat. Still do cardio for the cardiovascular benefits.
You can also decrease the rest time of your kettlebell workouts and get some cardio benefits at the same time!
If your goal is to lose fat, keep rest time low and up the reps. If your goal is muscle and strength, lower the reps, increase the weight, and give yourself enough time between sets to do the heavy kettlebell exercises at your intended rep range without sacrificing form.
An upper lower program can be done for as long as you like and as long as you are seeing progress. If you are starting to plateau then move on to another program. But, we recommend sticking with an upper lower split for at least 8 weeks and then if you do decide to change programs, come back to it a few months down the line, as an upper lower splits is one of the most effective types of programs.
Here are some frequently asked questions about upper body kettlebell training...
Treat kettlebells like you would dumbbells or barbells. If you are doing taxing workouts, then you need to recover. That likely means a couple days off from working out each week. If your workouts are light and not very taxing, and you are recovering properly, then you can train everyday.
All in all, listen to your body. If you have the energy and feel good, then workout!
By the way, be sure to switch up protocols and muscles targeted. If you are doing an upper lower split, you can likely train every day if you have great recovery habits (sleep good, eat good, stretch, etc.). That said, training every day isn’t necessary. 4-6 times a week is plenty. Even 3 days a week if you are training with a lot of intensity on those three days.
You will be using your arms no matter what muscle you are targeting with kettlebells. So yes, kettlebells are great for your arms. They will be activated at all times during a workout, whether that’s isotonically or isometrically.
Kettlebell training is especially great for building powerful forearms, as your grip will constantly be put to the test with pretty much every exercise. Remember, the kettlebell is an odd shape, not balanced like a dumbbell, so it emphasizes grip strength.
As for arm specific exercises, meaning biceps and triceps, you can do isolation exercises just like you would with dumbbells. But most kettlebell trainees don’t bother with this as rows and pull ups or chin ups are usually enough for bicep development and presses and bodyweight extensions are enough for tricep development, as long as you are using a full range of motion.
In any case, it’s nice to do some isolation exercises if you biceps or triceps are not up to par.
Here are some examples of arm isolation exercises with kettlebells.
Related: Steel Mace & KB Arm Blast Workout
Kettlebell bicep exercises:
To name a few...
Kettlebell tricep exercises:
You can pretty much replicate most dumbbell exercises with kettlebells.
As for forearms, you really don’t need to isolate them as they will be working all the time during kettlebell workouts, no matter what muscle you are targeting.
More Kettlebell Training Resources:
If you have any questions about kettlebell training, feel free to reach out to us. We are always happy to help!
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