9 Kettlebell Lifts That Will Improve Your Bench Press

Changing up your routine by adding kettlebells might just be what your bench press needs!

If you keep benching and feel like you’re hitting a plateau, or even if you’re seeing progress but want to add a little spice to your training, kettlebells are your new best friend. Sure, they’re typically more associated with conditioning and lower-body momentum than strength and upper body-building, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a solid upper body — and a solid bench — with kettlebells.

 
Kettlebell Push-up
Image via UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock

Kettlebells? For My Chest?

Yes, indeed. The unstable load of the kettlebell — by nature of its odd shape — does two amazing things for your body, and for your bench press. First, the instability of your kettlebell lifts will challenge your stabilizer muscles in a way that just grinding it out with a barbell simply won’t do. And the better your stabilizers, the better your bench.

Second, the instability of kettlebells can actually give your joints a lot of much-needed love and relief. Because the bells hang more freely from your hands than barbells, they allow for unilateral moves and unique wrist positions that even dumbbells don’t easily accommodate. Your shoulders and elbows will thank you for giving them a break, all the while making you stronger and a better overall athlete.

So, yes. Kettlebells. For your chest. Here are some of the coolest moves for when you want to beast your bench, using kettlebells to help.

[Related: 5 ways kettlebell training improves your barbell lifts]

You can integrate any of these movements into your regularly scheduled programming as accessory work, or you can mix and match them to form complete benching days on their own if you really need a change of pace. Either way, these nine moves are just nine more reasons why kettlebells are a game-changing training tool.

Kettlebell Push-ups With Renegade Row

This is a technical one, and is really going to challenge your stabilizer muscles. Make sure you can confidently do kettlebell push-ups first — using heavy bells works well because they give a broader base of support and will often have thicker handles to give more support. Setting up with your legs wide will give more support, too. Don’t let your wrists cave inward. You’ll need to activate your core even more than normal to stay steady on the handles. Because of the shape of the bell, these push-ups will increase your range of motion, and that’s only going to help develop your bench.

Once you’ve mastered the push-ups (being able to do at least 10 perfect reps), try the move with renegade rows. This will require you to balance your weight on one kettlebell while lifting the other — slow, controlled — in a row. Your range of motion doesn’t have to be huge — keep your back steady. Imagine balancing a water bottle on your back and don’t want it to fall. Ensuring your body stays balanced above the bell can be challenging, so make sure you do these when you’re well warmed up, but still fresh.

Training Recommendation

Three sets to failure — keeping your reps even on both sides.

Kettlebell push-up man
Image via Sofi photo/Shutterstock

Bottoms-Up Floor Press

This move is exactly what it sounds like. Settle in for a regular floor press, except you’ll be pressing kettlebells in the bottoms-up position. Hold the handle, gripping firmly and steadily enough to keep the bottom of the bell facing the ceiling. In essence, you’ll not only be performing a floor press: you’ll also be working the hell out of your grip and stabilizers to keep the bells steady. Feel free to go light on these — it’s not about ego — but if you really feel the need to go heavier, have a buddy there to help you get into position and then to spot.

Training Recommendation

Three sets of eight to twelve reps.

[Related: Floor press vs bench press – which is better?]

Alternating Floor Press

This time, you’ll be in the same position, but (mercifully) the bell won’t be in the bottoms-up position. Instead, grip the handle off to the side, with the pad where your thumb meets your index finger hugging the curve of the handle. Slip your grip through so that the bell is resting comfortably on your forearm. Well, I say comfortably. But it should be comfortable in the same way that a barbell front squat is comfortable: it’s definitely not causing muscular pain, but the heavier you go, you obviously feel the pressure of the weight on your skin. You want to stay in the not-causing-muscular-pain range, and to do that, you’ll need to focus — hard — on keeping your wrists stable, never arching backward toward the weight of the bell. If you need to, curve your wrists forward to counterbalance the backward pull of the weight — if done properly, there should not be any pain or excess pressure in the wrist.

Then, proceed like you would an alternating floor press with dumbbells: one weight suspended above you while you move the other through the pressing motion.

Training Recommendation

Three sets of eight to twelve should get you on the right track.

Kettlebell Bench Press

You can really load up on this lift without worrying about your shoulders — because for this benching move, your palms will be facing inward, towards each other. With the bells resting comfortably on your forearms (do not bend your wrists backward), you’ll be able to lower the weights to a much broader range of motion than you would with a barbell, or even with dumbbells. And, since your palms are facing inward, it won’t only be your chest that’s getting a broader range of motion (building your pecs up nicely) — your triceps will also get extra taxed. What more can you ask for, really?

Training Recommendation

Try three sets of twelve of these to start with, using lighter weight than you might normally just to get a feel for it. You can gradually shift into sets of six when you’re ready to go heavier.

Turkish get-up guy
Image via Jules43/Shutterstock

Half Get-Up

Position the bell the same way you did with the floor press — the weight resting comfortably on your forearm and your wrist neutral. Get set up for a Turkish get-up (one extended leg and one bent-knee leg) — keeping both feet firmly on the ground so the motion is coming from your core and your chest — and push through your core and upper body until you’ve risen halfway off the ground. But instead of going into a full get-up, return back down to the starting position and repeat. This will focus the Turkish get-up to solely on your upper body, and will force a lot of stability into your movements, training your core to actively support your chest. Remember to keep your shoulder packed at all times and always maintain eye contact with the weight to prevent neck strains.

Training Recommendation

These can be exhausting, so three sets of four or five (on each side).

[Related: The complete guide to performing the Turkish get-up]

Stability Ball Press

Proceed with this move in the same way you do the kettlebell bench press: same grip, same hand position (palms facing in). Except this time, you’ll be not on a bench, but laying on a stability ball (make sure the stability ball is made to accommodate this kind of movement and weight). Keep your knees bent comfortably and your feet wide where they meet the ground if you need extra balance. Your body should be in contact with the ball across your shoulder blades. Keep your neck as neutral as you can. Find a spot on the ceiling to focus on the whole time. Your core will need to stay engaged to stabilize against misguided momentum.

Training Recommendation

Three sets of fifteen to get a solid pump from the extra tension in your core and the increased range of motion in your chest.

Kettlebell Skull Crusher (Double)

Your bench isn’t all about chest. Triceps are a huge part of your lockout, and if you neglect them, you’re neglecting full bench training. Grab two kettlebells — start light — and position your hands just like you would for an EZ-bar or barbell skull crusher: wrists neutral, elbows facing the ceiling and tucked tight into the body . The shape of the kettlebell will force your stabilizers to work harder while actually putting less pressure on your elbows. Because the bells allow your wrists and forearms a freer range of motion than barbells or even EZ-bars, you’ll get the same benefits from this move with less potential elbow pain.

Training Recommendation

Three sets of twelve reps.

Kettlebell Overhead Extension (Double or Single)

Same thing here: less elbow pain because of the shape of the bell. Approach it the same way you would a dumbbell overhead extension: with either one bell or two, hold the handles in the center, maintain a neutral wrist, and keep your movement slow and controlled as the weight lowers behind your head and extends back up. Like with dumbbells, start light and move gradually because the goal is to get a feel for the movement and the dimension of the bells so you don’t clock yourself in the back of the head. Don’t worry about going heavy: focus on form and keeping those elbows close to your ears.

Training Recommendation

Three sets of twelve reps. Again, don’t worry about lifting heavy. Focus on full extension.

Close-Grip Kettlebell Push-ups

For most moves, you hold the bell by the handle — whether bottoms-up or down position, the handle is still the point of contact and grip. But for this move, you’re going to lay the bell on its side, handle facing away from you. Use a big bell with a steady, flat part of the side rather than being completely round to give yourself added stability. Grip the body of the bell like a medicine ball, and sink into a close-grip push-up. Go slow, focus your form, and make sure your elbows don’t flare. Your triceps — and therefore your benching numbers — will thank you

Training Recommendation

Three or four sets to failure.

Get Lifting

Kettlebells can be about busting out cool momentum-based moves, but they’re also a great tool for slow and steady lifting. The odd shape is going to give you major benefits in terms of increasing your range of motion and challenging your stabilizer muscles, and trust me: integrating these accessories is going to help your bench in all kinds of delightful ways. And with so many new moves to learn, the process will be delightful, too.

Featured image via Sofi photo/Shutterstock

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

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