When you love lifting, but you only have the money and space for a singular kettlebell, it’s very tempting to opt for the heavier bell. And don’t get it twisted — heavy kettlebells are great for increasing strength and building muscle. But a heavier kettlebell can make it kind of hard to get in a quality upper body workout. Just because you can easily swing weight with precision or front squat, it doesn’t mean you can press it overhead or curl it.
So what are you to do if you want to train your upper body with a kettlebell that might be too heavy for your traditional lifts? You won’t have to skip upper body training or whittle it down to pushups and pull-ups (which are also great exercises) — you’ll have to rethink what exercises you’re doing. What follows are the 10 best kettlebell upper body exercises — all of which can be done with a single kettlebell — along with a rundown of how and why to integrate each of these moves into your programming.
Best Single Kettlebell Upper Body Exercises
- Two-Handed Kettlebell Shoulder Press
- Kettlebell Bent Over Row
- Kettlebell Upright Row
- Unilateral Kettlebell Floor Press With Glute Bridge
- Unilateral Kettlebell Pushup
- Two-Handed Kettlebell Skull Crusher
- Two-Handed Kettlebell Curl
- Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
- Kettlebell Clean and Press
- Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
Doing single-arm presses with a kettlebell is great. That said, don’t think that’s your only option when you have one bell sitting around. You can overload your shoulders with more weight by holding the kettlebell with both hands and pressing it straight over your head. Because of the kettlebell’s design, your grip will be really narrow. That’s fine, but it may feel different at first. Treat this exercise as you would any other heavy shoulder press variations.
Benefits of the Two-Handed Kettlebell Shoulder Press
- Develop core strength and stability by lifting a heavy bell over your head with strict control.
- Emphasize grip strength since the bell’s odd shape will force you to engage all that finger and forearm power (no matter what specific grip you choose).
- Target your delts to improve overhead strength and pressing power.
How to Do the Two-Handed Kettlebell Shoulder Press
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart (wider if you need more balance) and choose whether to hold the kettlebell with both hands by the handles or cupping the bell between both hands (as shown in the video). Whichever grip you choose, make sure everything’s secure as you hold the kettlebell at chest height. Press it over your head (using a little bounce from your knees to make it a push press if you need to) before engaging your triceps to help you bring it back down slowly.
This shouldn’t be a surprise pick for this list. The single-arm row (traditionally done with a dumbbell) builds a lot of back muscle and recruits your ab muscles, as you need to resist rotation from the single-sided row. Keep your form extra strict for this one. Whenever you’re in a hinge position for an extended period of time, it’s tempting to kip your reps. But if you want maximum benefits from your kettlebell bent over rows, make sure you’re maintaining a roughly parallel torso throughout your entire set.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Bent Over Row
- Practice engaging and maintaining a hip hinge, translating into increased lockout confidence and strength with your deadlift.
- Increase hypertrophy in your lats and traps without putting your shoulders in a potentially compromising overhead position.
- Develop anti-rotational strength in your core.
How to Do the Bent Over Kettlebell Row
Hold the kettlebell in one hand, resting at your side. Hinge forward at the hips, keeping a neutral back, until your torso is close to parallel with the floor as you can get it (until you start feeling a stretch in your hamstrings). Pack the shoulder of the side that’s holding the kettlebell and engage your lats to initiate the upward pull of the kettlebell. When the bell reaches about your chest height, lower it back down slowly. Repeat your reps on the other side.
Because you’re taking a narrower grip with the kettlebell, you’ll have a more extended range of motion than the more traditional upright row. You’ll get all of the same muscle-building benefits, but maybe even more so as a longer ROM equals more tension, and more tension equals more muscle. As always with upright rows, make sure the lift comes from your upper lats and traps, rather than yanking up through your delts. Because your hands will be closer together, the kettlebell upright row can help you maintain neutral wrists (instead of bringing them into risky flexion at the top of the lift to try to get more height) throughout the lift. Pro-tip: engage your lats and keep your wrists from flexing inappropriately by imagining that you’re pulling the kettlebell handle apart.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Upright Row
- Practice core stability and bracing to maintain a steady torso throughout the lift (to avoid kipping).
- Improve full-body coordination by ensuring that your whole body works together to execute the lift with proper form. That is, without hiking up your wrists at the top of the lift or yanking through your delts mid-lift.
- Develop end-of-range strength, especially if you take a one or two-second pause at the top of each rep.
How to Do the Kettlebell Upright Row
Set up with your feet in roughly your conventional deadlift stance. Place your kettlebell between your feet so the handle is level with your midfoot. Hinge forward and deadlift the kettlebell to starting position. From here, use your upper back to pull the bell up to your body, tracing just outside of your chest, driving your elbows up toward the ceiling until you can’t pull the kettlebell any higher.
This exercise is really a hybrid movement consisting of two exercises — the floor press and the glute bridge. The floor press works your chest and triceps muscles, and the shortened range of motion you’ll experience from pressing from the floor will allow you to lift heavier. So, you’ll be able to overload your muscles with heavier weight. You don’t need to do a glute bridge to reap this movement’s upper body benefits, but why wouldn’t you? By holding the glute bridge, you’ll tax your hamstrings and glutes in the process — and who couldn’t benefit from a bit more lower body work?
Benefits of the Unilateral Kettlebell Floor Press With Glute Bridge
- Practice your leg drive without a bench, maximally engaging your glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves in an otherwise upper body-focused lift.
- Address any strength or muscular asymmetries by focusing on only one side at a time.
- Develop anti-rotational strength by holding your torso up during unilateral lifts.
How to Do the Kettlebell Floor Press With Glute Bridge
Lie on your right side and grasp the kettlebell in your right hand. Roll toward your left until you’re flat on your back, with the kettlebell ready to be pressed up. (This weird little rolling ritual is actually super essential because it will prevent you from wrenching the kettlebell into place after you’ve already laid down. This can place stress on your shoulder joint.) Shift so you can set up as you would for a glute bridge, with your knees bent and both feet firmly on the floor. Drive your feet down and squeeze your glutes, pressing your hips up as far as they’ll go without hyperextending your back. Once you’re holding the glute bridge, press the kettlebell up for a unilateral floor press. Keep your hips raised throughout your set, and make sure to roll the bell into place when you switch sides.
With a unilateral kettlebell pushup, you won’t be lifting the weight — but you’ll still be taking advantage of its odd shape to build some serious grip strength and stability. By pressing yourself with one hand elevated on the kettlebell’s horn, you’re increasing your range of motion on one side. You’re also creating an element of instability, which will recruit small, lesser-known but equally-important stabilizer muscles. If you’re not shaking at the end of a set, consider banging out more reps.
Benefits of the Unilateral Kettlebell Push-up
- Address strength imbalances by working on one side at a time.
- Increase the range of motion accessible in most pushups by elevating your starting position on one side only.
- Enhance your grip strength and stability by maintaining a neutral wrist and perfect balance while also performing an offset pushup.
How to Do the Unilateral Kettlebell Push-up
Place your kettlebell on the ground in front of you with the handle positioned in the direction you would place a dumbbell for renegade rows (so that when you grip it, your right palm would be facing your left, for example). Get into a push-up position with one hand on the kettlebell’s handle and one hand on the ground. Complete your push-up and either train to failure on one side at a time, or — for an extra challenge — drag the bell underneath you and position it for the opposite hand between each rep, and go to failure that way.
This is very similar to a skull crusher, with the main difference being that you can maintain a more neutral hand position, which feels better on the elbows to some folks. Because of the shape of the kettlebell and the fact that you’re doing these on the floor, your range of motion will be more limited. That’s ok. Focus on lifting with a slow and controlled tempo as a way to increase your time under tension. This limited range of motion will allow you to lift more weight, too.
Benefits of the Two-Handed Kettlebell Skull Crusher
- Target your triceps for increased strength and hypertrophy.
- Improve your shoulder health by engaging your front delts without putting your shoulder girdle in a compromised position.
- Improve your grip strength by squeezing the kettlebell throughout the lift.
How to Do the Two-Handed Kettlebell Triceps Press
Start by rolling the bell up into position as you did with your unilateral floor press. Grab the kettlebell by the handle and squeeze it tight with both hands. Keeping your elbows locked in, press the bell up like you would for a close grip bench press (except your palms face each other this time).
With so many kettlebell moves focused on ballistic power, it can be easy to overlook a simple but effective lift when you’re only working with a single, heavy kettlebell — the two-handed kettlebell curl. It’s more of a grinding lift than you might typically associate with kettlebells, but you’ll appreciate the pump and strength you build. A significant benefit of this move is that it’s easy. Curling — whether with a barbell, a dumbbell, or a kettlebell — is a simple mechanic, so this is a safe move to add to your training program.
Benefits of the Two-Handed Kettlebell Curl
- Target your biceps as the primary mover, which is rare with kettlebell movements.
- Maximize forearm engagement by maintaining the proper position throughout the lift (which a kettlebell makes more challenging than a dumbbell or bar).
- Challenge your core strength by keeping a rigid torso throughout the lift.
How to Do the Two-Handed Kettlebell Curl
Stand (or kneel if you want to involve your core more directly) with both hands on the kettlebell handle, with the bell facing down. Perform what is essentially a close grip EZ-bar curl, keeping the kettlebell stable between your hands. Squeeze your biceps at the top of the rep, and take your time on the descent as well. These can and should be done to failure.
Carrying around heavy weight is not for the faint of heart — especially when you’re working with kettlebells. Their round shape will force you to maintain extra rigidity to make sure the bell isn’t constantly bouncing off of your outer thigh throughout your kettlebell suitcase carry. The plus is that you’ll gain more coordination, grip strength, and conditioning (as this is tough on your cardio, too).
Benefits of the Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
- Practice engaging your lats while holding heavy weight below waist level (as you do while deadlifting).
- It builds core strength by constantly resisting lateral flexion throughout the move.
- It addresses grip and core strength asymmetries by focusing on one side at a time.
How to Do the Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
Hold a kettlebell in one hand at your side. Pack your shoulder and draw both your shoulders down toward your heels. Lead very slightly with your hips and walk, steady and controlled. Even as the weight will naturally pull your body down to one side, resist the pull toward lateral flexion. Try to carry the kettlebell as though you weren’t carrying anything at all (i.e., don’t tilt to the opposite side to compensate and don’t let the weight pull you down — stay centered).
The kettlebell clean and press is one of the bread-and-butter moves of lifting heavy kettlebells unilaterally. This dynamic move takes you through multiple movement patterns — from a hip hinge to a clean to a front rack to an overhead press — on one fluid motion. It recruits your hamstrings, upper back, core, and shoulders primarily. It also is a foundational kettlebell movement that you should aspire to learn if you plan on working with kettlebells regularly (which we think you are if you’re reading this article).
Benefits of the Kettlebell Clean and Press
- Develop full-body strength and power, with an emphasis on your upper back, traps, and lats when you’re securing the bell in the front rack position and pressing it overhead.
- Enhance full-body coordination by recruiting most of your major muscle groups in one move.
- Improve your power by emphasizing ballistic movements.
How to Do the Kettlebell Clean And Press
Set up with the bell between your legs with your feet about hip-width apart. When you grasp the bell, you should do so such that the web between your thumb and index finger is tucked into the curve of the handle. Your thumb should be facing the wall behind you. Explode up using force from your lower body, keep your elbow in close to your ribs, and tuck your hand and arm underneath the bell to catch it in the rack position. Once you’ve secured the weight in the rack position, brace your core and press the bell overhead. Slowly lower it back to rack position and repeat.
Depending on your perspective (and the skill of the person you’re watching), the kettlebell Turkish get-up can look completely badass or totally ungainly. But once you know how to perform it correctly, this is one of the ultimate full-body workouts in just one single kettlebell move. It works your core while also promoting shoulder stability and full-body mobility as you go from lying to standing. This is not an easy movement and should be approached slowly.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
- Improve full-body coordination by flowing through each step of this complex movement.
- Enhance overhead strength and stability by maintaining a packed shoulder and an overhead bell throughout the entire lift.
- Reveal and address any strength and stability asymmetries, which this exercise will make abundantly clear.
How to Do the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
Lie on your right side and hug the kettlebell to your chest, with the pad between your thumb and index finger hugging the side of the handle (instead of in the middle). Roll onto your back, bending your right knee with your right foot flat on the ground. Extend your left leg and arm out to your sides, about 45 degrees. Press the bell up overhead and pack your shoulder. Press your left palm into the ground. Keep your left foot down, get up onto your left elbow, and maintain eye contact with the bell. Press up from your elbow onto your left hand. Ground your right foot down and press up into a hip raise. Weave your left leg under your torso to bring yourself into a lunge position. Windmill the bell up to straighten your body. Lunge to stand up, maintaining eye contact with the bell so that you’re in a standing position with the bell pressed over your head. Reverse each movement until you’re back in starting position.
The Benefits of Training With a Single Kettlebell
Whether you’re trying to outfit your own home workout space on the cheap or trying to generally save yourself precious time by cutting down on time it takes to navigate between many different pieces of equipment — training with a single kettlebell is all about efficiency.
But it’s not all about saving space, time, and cash (which are important enough on their own). Working out with just one kettlebell fights off those asymmetries you develop when working with barbells, not to mention inherently enhancing the challenge to your core by nature of the off-balance load. You’ll also get the chance to really hone in on your full-body coordination, which is definitely a requirement of manipulating a heavy load on one side only.
Why a kettlebell instead of a dumbbell? Let’s face it — kettlebells are weird. But they’re weird with a purpose. The odd shape of the bells simulates the awkward, offset-weighted objects you’re likely to mess around with in everyday life, from grocery bags to laundry baskets.
Working with kettlebells helps acclimate your body to the demands of other oddly-shaped and weighted objects, which translates into a much easier time navigating your day-to-day life. (And, if you’re thinking of it strictly in terms of gym gains — offset weight means improved stabilizers and grip strength, and that will translate directly into bigger barbell lifts.)
How to Train Your Upper Body With a Kettlebell
First things first: always make sure you’re warmed up. It’ll do you absolutely no good to run through a set of kettlebell cleans and presses if your shoulders aren’t prepped for all that work — you’ll get injured way before you get stronger. Warm-up similarly to how you would for your typical upper body training sessions, but pay special attention to waking up your core and tapping into your full-body coordination. Think about doing inchworms, T-pushups, and the world’s greatest stretch.
Once your muscles are adequately toasty, remember that you should ramp your way up to working with heavy kettlebells the same way you would work up to a heavy back squat — gradually. If you’ve only got one kettlebell, spend a lot of extra time and energy on your movement prep to make sure your body is truly primed to move a big amount of weight. If you have dumbbells or kettlebells lighter than the one you’ll ultimately use for your workout, use those to ramp up until you’re ready to settle into your working weight.
You’ll want to take some moves to failure — these are generally moves like pushups or the two-handed kettlebell curl. Others, you’ll want to stay way in the low rep range: think Turkish get-ups, which require so many micro-moves within one rep that you’ll need to scale down the overall rep range to maintain movement quality. For moves like the kettlebell clean and press, make sure you’re respecting the fact that it’s an explosive, ballistic exercise — especially if you’re moving heavier weight, you don’t necessarily want to shoot for high reps. Choose quality first, every time.
What’s light to someone else might be heavy to you. Judge your exercise selection and rep ranges based on what is best for you right now. This process can help you notice and work on imbalances (“hmm, why can I easily curl what I can’t press?”) and get you stronger for your next set of overhead presses with a barbell. Here are a few training recommendations before you get started.
- Judge your rep ranges based on your assessment of how heavy is heavy — if you complete four reps at this weight, will you be able to complete four more for another two or three sets comfortably?
- What if the kettlebell is heavy but still light enough for multiple sets of eight reps? Go for eight.
- Listen to your body and program your rep ranges accordingly.
More Kettlebell Training Tips
You can, indeed, make some serious gym gains armed with just one kettlebell. Now that you know about the best upper body kettlebell exercises check out these kettlebell training articles before you keep swinging.
- The Complete Kettlebell Exercise Guide For Beginners
- 10 Questions You’ve Always Had About Kettlebells, Answered
- Can You Train With Kettlebells Every Day?
- 9 Kettlebell Benchmarks To Strive For
- 5 Kettlebell Circuits That Will Maximize Your Endurance
Featured image: Srdjan Randjelovic/Shutterstock