While a lot of kettlebell movements are about explosiveness, most of the ones you’ll use to specifically target your shoulders are about the opposite — they’re all about slow, steady control. That control is great for shoulders, especially when rehabbing an injury. It may require using less weight and paying even more strict attention to form than usual (though you should always be paying strict attention to form).
Why Kettlebells, Not Dumbbells?
Sure, you can do any of these moves with dumbbells. And don’t get me wrong — dumbbells are great. Both dumbbells and kettlebells allow you to even out any imbalances that might develop from constantly moving barbells.
But kettlebells have a bit of an edge over dumbbells — the unstable nature of kettlebells make them spectacular at firing up often under-utilized stabilizer muscles, especially when doing a bottoms-up move. And when using kettlebells to maximize shoulder strength, bottoms-up moves — holding the handle firmly enough and balanced enough that the bottom of the bell is upright and securely facing the ceiling — are going to become good friends of yours. Or worst enemies. Frenemies, perhaps. Either way, they’ll help build rocking good shoulders.
When you’re selecting weights for all these movements, think with your lifting notebook, not your ego. Start super conservative — yes, it’s okay if the bells you’re lifting with look puny next to your biceps — and build from there. You want to lock in perfect form rather than an injury doing something you thought would look badass. Sustaining an injury is not badass, it’s dumb.
Integrate these moves into your programming along with your other shoulder accessory work, as needed. Keep in mind that some of the moves (like the kettlebell snatch) require greater full-body energy and central nervous system investment than others (like windmills), so be mindful of your recovery needs as you integrate these shoulder-building kettlebell moves into your repertoire.
You really do want to use a low weight for this one. Your goal is to build shoulder stability and increase your kinesthetic (body) awareness so that when pressing heavy bars overhead, you’ll have a better intuitive knowledge of the bar’s path and how it relates to your muscles and trunk.
Hold a light kettlebell by the handle, with the bell resting on the back of your forearm. Make sure it’s not pulling your wrist back — as with all of these moves, ensure a neutral wrist. Press the bell over your head with a stance slightly wider than hip-width. Carefully (don’t strain your neck) look up until you’re making “eye contact” with the bell. Maintaining that eye contact, use your free hand to trace down the length of your leg (on the opposite side of your body from the bell — so if the bell is in your right hand, trace down your left leg with your left hand).
Some people will find it easy to make contact with the ground with their fingers or even their palms (AKA some people are flexible). If that’s you, kudos! If not, don’t force your hamstrings through discomfort. It’s okay if your hand stops around your knee or just below. Keep your shoulder packed and slowly rise back up to fully standing.
Training Recommendation: 3 sets of 10 per side, light weight.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to do the full Turkish get-up here if you don’t want to (thought you’re certainly welcome to). Here, we’re only going to focus on the first few movements. When you start the movement, make sure your shoulder is packed, as though someone’s standing over you and pressing directly down on your kettlebell-holding fist, driving your shoulder into the ground.
Keep this structural integrity as you squeeze your glutes and core, keeping the heel of your extended foot on the ground and maintaining eye contact with the bell as you lift your torso’s weight onto the palm of your empty hand. Hold the position strong — with your shoulder still packed, with eye contact firmly on the weight — for a few seconds, and then slowly lower yourself back down.
Training Recommendation: 3 sets of 6 per side, moderate-heavy weight after your form is locked in.
Bottoms-Up Overhead Farmer’s Walk
You’ve heard of farmer’s walking, and you’ve heard of overhead farmer’s walks. But are you ready for the bottoms-up version? (Bottom of the kettlebell, not bottom of you.) Grasp the handles of the bells firmly enough that you can press them overhead — keeping your shoulders packed! — with the bottom of the bell facing up toward the ceiling. The massive instability that this will naturally cause is great for your shoulders (not to mention your grip strength), and it’ll get even better when you start walking. Keep your gaze straight ahead, breathe, and don’t rush.
Training Recommendation: 5 sets of 30 feet, moderate-heavy weight after your form is locked in.
Bottoms-Up Shoulder Press
Just like the bottoms-up farmer’s walk, you’re going to take a classic and make it even harder. Fun, right? The move itself is fairly straightforward — you’re going to perform a shoulder press, just like with dumbbells, but with kettlebells, bottoms-up. Never hyperextend your back to get more lift, and always keep your glutes, quad, and core tight to protect your back during the lift. And, pro-tip: if you want to lift heavier (only when you’re genuinely ready), have a spotter hand you the bells. If you’re by yourself, go unilateral so you can literally hand yourself the bell.
Training Recommendation: 3 sets of 8, moderate weight, or 3 sets of 6 per side if unilateral
You’re going to keep these bells close together — just outside shoulder width, or even at shoulder width — establish a solid grip on the handles, and… push-up. Keep it more of a tricep push-up, with absolutely no elbow flare, to maximize both effectiveness and safety for your shoulders. You’ll want to go as deep as you can, with a tight core and glutes making sure your body remains in a plank the entire time.
The kettlebells will allow you to get a broader range of motion than even dumbbells will, so go full range and enjoy. For an extra challenge, choose two slightly different weights so that your push-up is imbalanced. Just make sure to switch sides and balance it out each set!
Training Recommendation: 4 sets to two reps shy of failure (whatever that means for your body is alright!)
Kettlebell Upright Row
A single, heavy-ish kettlebell, and you. That’s all you need for this badass trap and shoulder-builder. Deadlift the bell safely to hip level to get into starting position, and then — squeezing your glutes and core to maintain a neutral back — draw your elbows up close to your ears, as high as you can go without elbow pain or yanking with your wrists for extra pull (never do that).
Imagine that you’re trying to cup your chin between your two thumbs at the end of the lift. Let it down slow and controlled. If your stomach and/or chest gets in the way of this move, that’s OK! You can get similar benefits with an upright row performed at an angle with a cable, or — if you want to keep it kettlebell — adjust the bell path so it works with your body!
Training Recommendation: 4 sets of 6, moderate-heavy
Ah, the kettlebell snatch. Only dive into this lift if you have the proper shoulder mobility, can destroy (in a good way) a kettlebell swing, a kettlebell clean, and have long-since mastered the kettlebell high pull. If you’re ready to go for it, though, the kettlebell snatch is awesome for developing both powerful and stable shoulders.
You’re basically going to transform a kettlebell swing into a high pull, then — in one fluid motion, such that there is no forearm flop — push through the bell into a momentum-based press. Flip the bell back over your hand, back down into a swing, and repeat.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets of 4, moderate-heavy
Build Those Shoulders
If you’re ready to start using kettlebells to build some badass shoulders, get out there and get started. Just remember — seriously — that you’re looking to build your shoulders, not your ego. So take it slow and always make sure your form is completely locked in. Once you do, well… just focus on having fun!