If you want to be a bodybuilder — either recreationally or competitively — it makes sense that your first instinct might be toward barbells, dumbbells, and cable-based exercises. After all, these are the implements that you probably think of first to build muscle. But kettlebells can also be tremendously useful tools for bodybuilders.
When you’re looking to build muscle using kettlebells, you’ll focus primarily on unilateral movements that emphasize symmetry and movement quality. Kettlebells naturally lend themselves to unilateral movements that — because of their off-balanced shape — force you to pay closer attention to your form. And the more attention you pay to your form, the better off you’ll be lifting as a bodybuilder.
Best Kettlebell Exercises for Bodybuilders
- Turkish Get-Up
- Kettlebell Windmill
- Kettlebell Strict Press
- Kettlebell Sots Press
- Front-Rack Kettlebell Bulgarian Split Squat
- Unilateral Kettlebell Front Squat
- Split Stance Kettlebell Row
- Kettlebell Bench Press
- Kettlebell Plank
- Kettlebell Swing
You don’t need to incorporate all that many reps of the Turkish get-up to add a lot of value to your program. By adding two, three, or even four reps per side to your warm-up, you’ll be boosting the integrity of your shoulder girdle, activating your core, and practicing full-body coordination.
Not to mention, you’ll get your heart rate going. All of these factors are hugely important for bodybuilders preparing to lift heavy and with intention.
Benefits of the Turkish Get-Up
- The Turkish get-up improves full-body coordination and strength.
- This move targets your core and teaches you to maintain a braced core during intense movement.
- Since this is an overhead exercise with a lot of moving parts, this will improve both shoulder strength, mobility, and stability.
How to Do the Turkish Get-Up
Start lying on your right side. With your right hand, grasp the kettlebell by the handle. The padding between your thumb and index finger should be tucked into the curve of the handle. Roll onto your back. Plant your right foot on the ground with your knee bent. Extend your left arm and leg out on the ground, both at about 45 degrees.
Press the bell up toward the ceiling and pack your shoulder. Drive your heels into the ground. Without letting your feet pop up, peel your left shoulder off the ground until you’re resting on your left forearm. Keeping your heels down, press up onto your left hand. Maintain a packed right shoulder. Keep “eye contact” with the bottom of the bell.
Raise your hips toward the ceiling. Swing your left leg under your body so that your left knee is planted under your hips. Windmill up until your left hand is at your side. Straighten your left foot behind you so you’re in a tall kneeling position. Rise to standing.
Repeat all these steps in reverse order until you’re lying back on the ground with the bell still pressed up. That’s one rep. Even your reps out on both sides.
Like all strength athletes, bodybuilders need to maintain solid overhead stability and strength. The kettlebell windmill allows you to establish just that, while moving in the frontal plane of motion.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Windmill
- This warm-up move reinforces good movement mechanics in the frontal plane (side-to-side motion).
- Kettlebell windmills train your shoulders to provide more mobility, stability, and strength at the same time.
- This move targets your core — specifically your obliques — for a solid dose of direct training.
How to Do the Kettlebell Windmill
Hold the kettlebell in your right hand. Keep your right foot underneath your hip. Step out slightly with your left foot. Your left toes should be slightly pointed outwards. Press the bell overhead and pack your shoulder. Place your left hand on your thigh with your palm up. Leading with your left shoulder, rotate your torso toward the floor. Maintain eye contact with the bell and trace your left hand down your thigh and lower leg. When you reach the end of your range of motion, squeeze your right glute and hip to start straightening back up to standing. Once you’ve completed your reps, even it out on the other side.
As a bodybuilder, you might already perform strict presses with dumbbells to ensure symmetrical muscle growth. But doing this move with a kettlebell can recruit even more muscle fibers because a kettlebell’s load is distributed more unevenly.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Strict Press
- You can recruit even more muscle fibers than during a dumbbell strict press because of the offset nature of the kettlebell.
- Train your shoulders directly with a compound lift you can build the rest of your workout around.
- This move helps you develop your shoulders symmetrically by training unilaterally, and you’ll need your core to keep your torso even.
How to Do the Kettlebell Strict Press
Stand with your feet hip width apart. Clean your kettlebell to rack position. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes. Press the kettlebell overhead without using momentum from your lower body. Lower with control and repeat.
The kettlebell Sots press is an excellent option for bodybuilders looking to maximize core and leg recruitment during upper body work. You’ll build your upper body unilaterally — without the potential muscular imbalances you could develop from training only with a barbell.
A kettlebell is also a great choice here because its shape gives you the freedom to find an overhead position that works for your own shoulders.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Sots Press
- The kettlebell Sots press can help reinforce proper shoulder alignment in a position that may feel extra compromising with a barbell.
- You can provide your core and legs a major challenge with this press, along with your upper body strength and overhead mobility.
How to Do the Kettlebell Sots Press
Clean your kettlebell(s) into a front-rack position. Sink into a squat. At the bottom of your squat, tighten your core and upper back. Stay in your squat and press the bell(s) overhead. Keep your feet fully in contact with the floor. Stabilize the load overhead before lowering. Repeat for reps.
Bulgarian split squats are the frenemy of any bodybuilder who wants to train unilaterally for lower body symmetry. This move works your glutes, quads, and hamstrings all in one, with the one major downside being that it burns like heck. Plus, it’s a great leg-building option when the squat racks are all taken.
Performing this move with your kettlebells front-racked adds an extra core component, while also engaging your upper back to keep the bells stable. A front-rack load also provides more balance challenges, which recruits more muscle fibers — and that’s definitely something you want to do as a bodybuilder.
Benefits of the Front-Rack Kettlebell Bulgarian Split Squat
- Holding the kettlebells in a front-rack position provide an extra balance challenge, which recruits more muscle fibers and can help maximize growth.
- The front-rack split squat develops your legs unilaterally, helping to ensure symmetrical strength and muscle development.
- Adding front-racked kettlebells to this move allows you to challenge your upper back and core while targeting your legs.
How to Do the Front-Rack Kettlebell Bulgarian Split Squat
Stand about a foot in front of a weight bench or box. Clean your kettlebells into the front-rack position. Raise your back foot and secure it, laces down, on the bench or box behind you. Shift your feet as needed to establish a position so that you can lunge down with your front foot planted. Your front knee should track right over your toes. Sink down until your back knee nears the ground. Press through your front leg to come back to standing. Repeat for reps and keep it even on both sides.
The kettlebell goblet squat is a classic for strength athletes of all stripes. You can load quite heavy while providing an incredible challenge to your lower body and core. Your upper back will also have to work quite hard to keep the weight stabilized.
When you perform this move unilaterally — with one bell in the front-rack position — you might have to decrease the weight slightly, but you’ll be increasing the challenge to your core. With a more moderate weight, you can also get more reps in, which can be great for adding lower body training volume.
Benefits of the Unilateral Kettlebell Front Squat
- This move can add quality lower body training volume while encouraging excellent form.
- Performing a goblet squat with a unilateral load increases the challenge to your core and recruits more muscle fibers to prevent rotation.
- You can improve upper back strength and stability while you’re targeting your legs.
How to Do the Unilateral Kettlebell Front Squat
Clean a single kettlebell into the front-rack position. Brace your core. Sink down into a deep front squat. Make sure to keep your shoulders level. Drive through your feet to come back to standing. Perform your prescribed number of reps. Repeat on both sides.
If you use a bench to support your kettlebell row, you might find that the bell hits the ground before you reach your full range of motion. This is especially true for lifters with long limbs. Performing split-stance kettlebell rows can reduce that problem while also adding an element of instability.
This will challenge your anti-rotation muscles to make sure you aren’t using inappropriate momentum to lift the weight.
Benefits of the Split-Stance Kettlebell Row
- This move reinforces proper row mechanics by forcing you to pay attention to pulling the weight without tugging with your back.
- You’ll provide an extra challenge to your core and hips by spending extra energy preventing your torso from rotating.
- Split-stance work targets and trains stability while helping ensure symmetrical muscle development.
How to Do the Split-Stance Kettlebell Row
Stand a tiny bit wider than hip width apart. Step your left foot forward about a foot and a half. Establish a slight bend in both knees. With the kettlebell in your right hand, hinge forward at the hips. Your torso should be approaching parallel to the ground. With both feet flat on the floor, row the bell up. Drive your right elbow toward your right hip. Avoid rotating your torso during the movement. With control, let the bell drop down until you feel a stretch in your back. Repeat for reps. Even out the move on both sides.
Even — and perhaps especially — if you perform plenty of barbell bench presses, it’s a good idea for bodybuilders to add the kettlebell bench press to their routine. Using a kettlebell helps keep your shoulders in healthy alignment by freeing them from the strict path set by the barbell.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Bench Press
- Performing your bench press with kettlebells frees up the “bar” path, providing you with a more potentially shoulder-friendly benching option than using a barbell.
- You can load this lift pretty heavily, which can help develop your pecs in a more even manner than the barbell might.
- This version of the bench press can help combat muscle and strength asymmetries you may develop training only or mainly with a barbell.
How to Do the Kettlebell Bench Press
Place your kettlebells on your lap. Use momentum from your legs to hoist them — one at a time — to chest level. Slowly lie back on the bench. (Alternatively, you can have a training partner hand them off to you.) Brace your core. Drive your heels into the ground. Press the bells up. Pull them back down toward you, keeping your elbows tucked near your body. Repeat for reps.
Planks may not be a part of your normal routine, but bodybuilders need a lot of upper body endurance. You also need a lot of wrist stability and forearm strength as a bodybuilder. Kettlebell planks are an excellent way to help train exactly that.
With kettlebell planks, you’ll be placing heavy kettlebells on the ground and holding their handles during your planks. To maintain stability, you’ll have no choice but to keep your wrists straight and stable — this will recruit a lot of muscle fibers from your forearms. Not to mention, since you’re adding a lot of instability to the move, you’ll be increasing the challenge to your core.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Plank
- This move trains your wrists for maximum stability, which comes in especially handy during heavy pushing movements.
- You’ll train your forearms — very important for any bodybuilder — as they assist in keeping your wrists steady.
- Using kettlebells for your planks will increase the challenge to your core by increasing the move’s instability.
How to Do the Kettlebell Plank
Place two heavy kettlebells on the ground with their handles facing up. They should be about shoulder-width apart. Get into a full plank position. Take hold of the handles. Establish a strong plank position with your toes on the ground and your hands holding the handles. Keep your wrists straight. Squeeze your quads and glutes to maximize core engagement. Hold the position for as long as prescribed.
Pretty much any list of useful kettlebell exercises would be missing something without the kettlebell swing. When done correctly, the swing builds grip strength, reinforces proper hinging mechanics, engages your lats, glutes, and hamstrings, and provides a big cardio boost.
All of these are important factors for bodybuilders, who are often in search of creative, low-impact ways to improve their conditioning. Kettlebell swings do exactly that — improve cardiovascular capacity while also making you stronger.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
- Kettlebell swings improve grip strength while engaging your lats, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Swings are great for upping the intensity of your workout, providing a low-impact, high-intensity cardio option for bodybuilders.
- Swings can serve as a conditioning workout all on their own, or can be programmed during active recovery — which is a crucial bodybuilding tool.
How to Do the Kettlebell Swing
Start with your feet about hip-width apart. Set up the kettlebell about a foot or two in front of you. Hinge at the hips with a soft bend in your knees. Grasp the bell’s handle with both hands. “Hike” it behind you, striving to keep the bell above your knees. Squeeze your glutes and snap your hips to explosively swing the bell out and up to about chest level. Your elbows should be soft and your grip gentle. Repeat for reps.
Benefits of Kettlebell Exercises for Bodybuilders
Even though barbells, dumbbells, and machines may be bodybuilders’ first implements of choice, kettlebells are a spectacular bodybuilding option. Most kettlebell moves naturally incorporate your entire body, while providing unilateral — AKA, symmetrical — opportunities for muscle growth.
Improved Muscle Symmetry
Barbell training is undeniably crucial for bodybuilders, who often need to subject their bodies to heavy loads to increase training stimulus and muscle growth. But relying only or mostly on barbells can inadvertently cause strength and muscle asymmetries to develop. This is because your side-dominance can lead to one side of your body helping the other out during bilateral movements.
Kettlebells help eliminate this problem. By training one side at a time — or at least with both sides holding separate weights — kettlebells allow bodybuilders to identify and eliminate muscle asymmetries. Kettlebell training will very quickly reveal your strength imbalances when one side struggles much more than the other on any given lift. Then, you can work to correct these imbalances — which will be great for your next show.
Increased Attention to Form
Kettlebells are oddly-shaped implements, to be sure. Unlike dumbbells, their weight distribution is uneven. Because of this, kettlebells force you to pay extra attention to your form. If your wrists aren’t supporting the weight properly, for example, your forearms will tell you.
Plus, your hand will generally weave itself through the handle and the bell. As a result, your shoulders will generally have a much more comfortable path during your lifts than they might with a barbell (or even a dumbbell). This potential increase in comfort allows you to focus on your form approaching more sustainable movement patterns.
More Calorie-Burning Capacity
Most kettlebell exercises recruit muscles from all over your body. You can perform isolation exercises with kettlebells, but those on this bodybuilding list generally include your full body. That’s true even when there is an emphasis on one muscle group or another.
Because of this — as well as the explosive nature of moves like swings — kettlebells are uniquely suited to help you burn more calories during your workout. If you’re in a cutting phase while getting ready for a competition, this may be an important goal of yours. Kettlebells can help get you there while also keeping you strong.
How to Program Kettlebell Exercises for Bodybuilders
Typically, kettlebells won’t be the centerpiece of your program. However, kettlebell exercises are smart additions to pretty much any bodybuilding training. It’s not too difficult to figure out how they can integrate into your unique needs and desires.
Sets and Reps
Assuming that your main goal during bodybuilding training is to build muscle, you can work your kettlebell exercises in the hypertrophy rep and set ranges. Think lifting in the six to 12 rep range, where you’ll approach failure by the end of your set. How many sets you do will depend on the other moves in your program. Two to three sets per kettlebell move per muscle group should do the trick, assuming you’re doing other compound lifts and accessory exercises.
Keep in mind that for moves like the Turkish get-up, kettlebell windmill, kettlebell planks, and swings, you likely will operate with a different set and rep scheme. Six reps is a lot of Turkish get-ups, while 12 kettlebell swings — unless you’re going extremely heavy — is generally not that many. Think about the placement of these moves in your program: are they incorporated into your warm-up, for example? In those cases, think less about going to failure and more about the quality and purpose of your movement. Two or three reps per side should do it for Turkish get-ups, while you may opt for 30 to 60 second sets for kettlebell swings instead of a rep count.
As is typical when building out your program, choose exercises that match best with your goals and recovery needs. For example, if your major lifting priority right now is improving your barbell bench press, now is not the time to go heavy on kettlebell bench presses. You probably do want to include them to fight muscle imbalances and add some volume, but a lighter touch will work well. On the other hand, you might not want to include a heavy kettlebell strict press while focusing on your barbell bench press. That’s because you don’t want to overload your shoulders too much.
Maybe you’re focusing on improving mobility during this bodybuilding training cycle. In that case, kettlebell swings, Turkish get-ups, unilateral kettlebell front squats, and kettlebell windmills can work nicely. Putting a special emphasis on developing your quads? The front-rack kettlebell Bulgarian split squat, unilateral kettlebell front squat, and even the kettlebell Sots press might be excellent additions.
Assuming that your major lifts of the day are compound barbell exercises, you’ll want your kettlebell exercises to be performed afterwards (unless you’re in a pre-exhaust training block). That means, for example, performing the kettlebell bench press after your barbell bench press.
However, say your shoulders are giving you a hard time but you still want to train the overhead press. This might be a great time to program the kettlebell strict press as your first compound lift after warming up. The Sots press might follow for a much lighter lift that can reinforce good lifting mechanics and add some volume while also bringing your full body into the picture.
Some kettlebell moves for bodybuilders are particularly well-suited for warm-ups. The Turkish get-up and kettlebell windmill come to mind. You also might choose to add a few sets of kettlebell swings to the end of your warm-up to get your blood pumping and to get your head in the right place for lifting.
How to Warm Up for Kettlebell Exercises
Whether you’re only training with kettlebells or integrating them into the rest of your bodybuilding session, you’ll want to be thoroughly warmed up. To make sure your body is properly mobilized and your muscles are activated for your workout, incorporate some of these bodybuilding kettlebell moves into your warm-up. When in doubt, start very light and add moderate weight from there.
Sample Kettlebell Warm-Up
- Cat Cow: 2 x 30 seconds
- Scapular Wall Slide: 2 x 30 seconds
- Band Pull-Apart: 3 x 15 – 20
- Kettlebell Windmill: 2 x 8 per side
- Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up: 3 x 2 per side
- Kettlebell Swing: 3 x 30 seconds
If you’re a bodybuilder and haven’t yet added kettlebell exercises to your repertoire, you might want to get started. Kettlebell exercises for bodybuilders are great tools to improve your form, correct strength and muscle asymmetries, and engage your full body for more potential calorie burn. Whatever your specific goals are as a bodybuilder, kettlebell exercises can help you get there — try integrating some into your next training cycle and feel the difference.
Featured Image: Andrey Burmakin / Shutterstock
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