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A kettlebell workout is often touted as a cardiovascular endeavor, but those of us in the “heavy weight is always better” world often forget the physiques that have been forged with repetition rather than maximal load1.
A full-throttle kettlebell strength workout, with all of its moving pieces and high-rep ranges, is going to ignite the posterior chain like few other programs will.
So put down the barbell and pick up one of the best kettlebells with a workout designed to build muscle and muscular endurance.
The Best Kettlebell Strength Exercises
Holding the kettlebell, even while doing literally nothing else, is going to start to fatigue your upper back. Over the course of a 20- to 30 -minute kettlebell workout, you really won’t put the weight down for very long.
This systemic loading of the torso2 is what helps to build muscle over the entire body (I call it building armor). When we start moving fast (something gym-goers often neglect) while driving the weight forward with the hips, we create a fantastic recipe for total body strength.
Here are a few of the best kettlebell exercises for building strength.
Why Do Them: This is a classic bodybuilding exercise you will sometimes see people at the gym doing with weight plates. It’s a nice way to feel your “yoke” and drive blood through your shoulders. It’s not a major lift, and can be used more as a warm-up or a finisher.
How To Do Them:
- Hold the kettlebell with both hands in the “goblet” position.
- Raise the kettlebell to be in front of your face.
- Going clockwise, and not hitting yourself in the face, make a circle around your head with the weight.
- Repeat going counter-clockwise.
Kettlebell Goblet Squat
Why Do Them: For training the lower body, nothing beats squats. The front loading of the goblet squat puts a lot of pressure on your core strength, so much so that it might feel more like an ab exercise if you are used to squatting with a more bent over posture (like with a low bar squat).
For our workout, we’re going to use the pause squat variation to focus on maximal power and increase time under tension.
How To Do Them:
- Hold the kettlebell with both hands and place it just under your chin.
- Place your feet under your shoulders, with toes slightly turned out.
- Push the hips back slightly, then bend the knees to drop straight down into a squat.
- Instead of rebounding out of the hole, sit down in it for a 3-count.
- Make sure to maintain posture and the lower back angle.
- Explode out of the hole into a standing position.
Kettlebell Overhead Press
Why Do Them: Ostensibly for the shoulders and triceps, this single-arm version of an overhead press works the whole body. In my opinion, working the overhead press hard helps create a physique that silhouettes well in clothing way more than the bench press does.
When you add in a little leg drive to convert a strict press to a push press, you even get to add in a little bit of lower-body training. “Cheating” in this way can also be used to knock out enough reps to get your heart rate up.
How To Do Them:
- Hold the kettlebell in your right hand in the front rack position.
- Engage your abs and glutes by bracing your core.
- Put your left hand out to the side for balance.
- Press the weight straight overhead to lockout.
Lower with control to the starting position.
Why Do Them: The undisputed champion of the full-body kettlebell workout, the kettlebell swing works everything from your hamstrings to your lats to your grip strength. If you never did anything but a kettlebell swing, you would probably still be doing alright in life.
How To Do Them:
- Start with the kettlebell on the ground.
- Stand over the kettlebell with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Push your hips back and bend your knees slightly to pick up the kettlebell, standing erect with the bell at hip-height.
- With a slight bend in your knees, hinge forward at the hips and allow the kettlebell to go between your legs.
- With momentum, straighten your legs and push your hips forward, allowing the kettlebell to “swing” upward to eye level.
- Allow the kettlebell to “swing” back down between your legs, moving with control.
Kettlebell Bent-Over Row
Why Do Them: This doesn’t differ as much from the dumbbell variation as some of the other kettlebell exercises. Kettlebells can have a slightly fatter handle, and the “weight on the bottom” design won’t allow the weight to roll out of your hand (like with a dumbbell).
RELATED: The Best Dumbbells for Your Home Gym
Single-arm bent-over rows are among the best lat exercises around. They also force the posterior chain to activate in an isometric hold. Due to these factors, the bent over row is one of the best assistance exercises for the deadlift.
How To Do Them:
- Hold the kettlebell in your right hand.
- Place your feet about hip-width and with your left foot staggered forward.
- Bend your torso down to a 45-degree angle.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades tight and draw the weight up to your torso.
- Control the weight back down to the starting position.
RELATED: The Best Bent-Over Row Alternatives
Front Rack Reverse Lunge
Why Do Them: Reverse lunges can be the most significant way to train explosively with a low-impact exercise. Rather than moving slowly through space (which usually happens on walking lunges), these give us a chance to really see the benefits of standing up with some speed3. We can use kettlebells to load the movement and put even more demand on the hamstrings and glutes.
How To Do Them:
- Hold the kettlebell in the front rack position with your right hand.
- Staying tall, extend your left leg behind you and bend the right knee to lower into a lunge.
- You can put your left hand out to the side like a tight-rope walker for balance.
- When your right leg is at around a 90-degree angle, explosively straighten it and bring your left leg back underneath you.
RELATED: The Best Lunge Exercises
Why Do Them: This can simulate a full clean and press without actually doing a clean. The kettlebell thruster is a lift you can do with one arm or with two kettlebells, one in each arm. Here, we will describe the single-armed version for simplicity’s sake in our kettlebell workout.
How To Do Them:
- Starting in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold the kettlebell in your right hand in the rack position.
- Drop straight down into the deepest squat you can without your lower back rounding over.
- Rebound immediately out of the hole as quickly as possible.
- Come straight up through to your standing position and use the momentum to extend the kettlebell overhead.
- Smoothly return the kettlebell to the rack position and use that momentum to drop down again.
Kettlebell Clean and Press
Why Do Them: You’re tired of kettlebell swings, but still want to throw some weight around, so you graduate to the kettlebell clean and press. This movement combines the lat and trap activation of a high pull (plus the force absorption of the catch) with the full power pressing power of a push push or single-arm jerk.
We’re going to use our legs to turn this into a push press. People who have mostly done strict bodybuild work can sometimes feel like this is “cheating,” but remember, we’re working the whole body with this (and strength comes from muscle unity, not isolation).
How To Do Them:
- Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold the kettlebell in your right hand in front of you.
- Unlock your knees slightly and dip to create momentum.
- Straighten your legs and use the momentum to pull the kettlebell straight up your body.
- When the kettlebell is about at shoulder height, flip it into the front rack position.
- Stand straight, then unlock the knees again to create momentum to push the kettlebell overhead.
- Catch it with your elbow fully locked out and hold for a beat.
- Gently return to your starting position.
Kettlebell Strength Workout
This is going to be a slightly different kind of circuit, and in it we will leverage one of life’s most powerful lessons; failure.
You don’t actually need to go to failure on the AMRAP sets, but in a perfect world you reach your limit on the double zeros on each exercise.
The circuits are split into upper and lower.
1 minute: Max reps kettlebell clean- RIGHT
1 minute: Max reps overhead press- RIGHT
1 minute: Max reps kettlebell clean- LEFT
1 minute: Max reps overhead press- LEFT
1 minute: Max reps bent over row- RIGHT
1 minute: Max reps bent over row- LEFT
1 minute: rest
30 seconds: Max reps overhead press- RIGHT
30 seconds: Max reps kettlebell clean- LEFT
30 seconds: Max reps overhead press- LEFT
30 seconds: Max reps bent over row- RIGHT
30 seconds: Max reps bent over row- LEFT
30 seconds: rest
15 seconds: Max reps overhead press- RIGHT
15 seconds: Max reps kettlebell clean- LEFT
15 seconds: Max reps overhead press- LEFT
15 seconds: Max reps bent over row- RIGHT
15 seconds: Max reps bent over row- LEFT
3 minutes rest
1 minute: Max reps thrusters- RIGHT
1 minute: Max reps thrusters- LEFT
1 minute: kettlebell swing
1 minute: Max reps alternating front rack thrusters
1 minute: Max reps goblet squats with 2 second pause
1 minute: Rest
30 seconds: Max reps thrusters- RIGHT
30 seconds: Max reps thrusters- LEFT
30 seconds- kettlebell swing
30 seconds: Max reps alternating front rack thrusters
30 seconds: Max reps goblet squats with 2 second pause
30 seconds: Rest
15 seconds: Max reps thrusters- RIGHT
15 seconds: Max reps thrusters- LEFT
15 seconds: kettlebell swing
15 seconds: Max reps alternating front rack thrusters
No time limit- Max reps goblet squats with 2 second pause
Benefits of Kettlebell Training
Trading the best Olympic barbell or cardio machine for a kettlebell can do even the most ardent strength training enthusiast some good over a three- to four-week training block.
The easiest way for a personal trainer to look like a genius is to ask a client “What haven’t you been doing recently?” then have them do that. If your training consists primarily of fixed or limited range of motion, getting off the ground with Turkish get-ups or getting into a deep windmill stretch will lead to new levels of soreness.
So what are the primary kettlebell benefits? Read on.
Can Double as a Cardio Workout
Because we’re dealing with weight we can refer to as “manageable” (as opposed to single repetition max effort sort of stuff) kettlebell training is most often performed as a circuit.
This means to stack reps of one exercise directly onto reps of another exercise without taking a 5-minute rest period between..
Working with low rest periods and stimulating multiple different muscle groups4 is pretty tiring! You are allowed to call this kind of training cardio, strength training, or both.
Strengthens Your Posterior Chain
Kettlebell workout programs often involve popping your hips and stacking up your joints into triple extension. Your hamstrings, glutes, and low back (posterior = backside) will all get blown up with kettlebell swings, Romanian deadlifts, and cleans.
Varying the angle slightly by doing all three of them in the same workout makes for an even more intense pump of your most functional muscle group.
It’s A Type of Functional Fitness
While the bench press may be the king of all strength tests in gyms throughout America, not every big bencher can bend down to tie their shoes without weeks of contest prep (ask me how I know).
Kettlebell workouts, in contrast, run your full body through large ranges of motion. This requires more athleticism than is needed to lie on your back and push (with apologies to my wife, and all other women who have given birth).
This athleticism is what is meant by “functional fitness.” Fitness, by its nature, is task specific. A marathon runner is not fit to snatch a big weight, nor is a heavyweight Olympic weightlifter fit to run 26.2 miles.
Functional fitness is a catch-all term for general ease of movement through life. Explosively moving a weight through space has positive outcomes5 on things like being able to shovel snow or play with your kids.
This general full-body strength is a health outcome that improves quality of life.
Can Help With Muscle Imbalances
Utilizing a single kettlebell for one-arm variations of cleans, snatches, presses, and rows allows each side of the body to “catch-up” to the other.
The best kettlebell exercises routinely use this single-arm modality, which also requires the opposite side of the body to act as an antagonist, which not a movie villain, but a stabilizer (saying that, Hans is definitely a stabilizing agent in Die Hard).
This can benefit your body from both a direct strength perspective, but also potentially correct imbalances from using muscle in one direction.
Kettlebell Strength Workout: Final Thoughts
From Russian Supermen to the modern incarnation of The 300 Spartans, the kettlebell has played a significant role in the field of strength acquisition in the 21st century.
The benefits of kettlebell training are such that almost every fitness enthusiast will be able to see some kind of gainz through its use.
Kettlebell Strength Workout: Q&A
Are kettlebells good for strength training?
They’re probably not going to help you develop maximal strength to be a champion powerlifter, if that’s what you mean. However, we have to remember that “moving weight through space” is pretty much the dictionary definition of strength training.
The best kettlebell workouts require attentiveness to the speed and force imparted to the kettlebell. Think of an Olympic shot putter, and how much force they impart into a relatively light object. That is what we are trying to do. Therefore, kettlebell workouts are definitely a type of strength training.
Above and beyond the explosive component, circuit training has been used by bodybuilders for as long as muscle development has been a prized asset.
Much of the upper body development of your favorite behemoth has probably been attained by using dumbbells way lighter than you think being used in high-rep circuits.
How do you build strength with kettlebells?
You want to focus on full-body workouts to get the most out of your kettlebell. There is nothing wrong with doing single-arm delt raises or curls at the end of your workout, but the kettlebell has to replace a slew of machines and barbell exercises to properly load the body before that (this is why people who JUST do delt raises and curls never look like they lift).
Focus on total-body exercises like the clean and press and kettlebell swing. Your upper back is going to get way more sore than if you start with iso-hold shrugs.
The barbell squat is a great muscle building exercise because of the systemic load the weight places on your body. Without the ability to load enough weight onto a kettlebell to elicit this same kind of effect, we need to be more creative with exercise selection and our order of operations.
Is a 20-minute kettlebell workout enough?
It’s a great place for a beginner to start. If you are serious about building muscle and strength with this piece of equipment, I would challenge you to push yourself by trying to first add more work into a short period of time (like 20 minutes), then try to increase the time while keeping the same work density.
RELATED: A Great Beginner Kettlebell Workout
By doing this you will avoid needing to increase the weight or change the exercise selection for longer.
What are the 4 essential kettlebell exercises?
The foundational movements for kettlebell training are the kettlebell swing, goblet squat, clean, and press. These are the kind full-body, posterior chain dominant exercises that are the emphasis of every effective strength training program.
Now, these all work the same plane of motion, so you might want to do extra horizontal pressing (push-ups) and pulling, as well as some rotational type work (windmills, Turkish get-ups).
1. Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 4;16(24):4897. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897. PMID: 31817252; PMCID: PMC6950543.
2. Burd NA, Andrews RJ, West DW, Little JP, Cochran AJ, Hector AJ, Cashaback JG, Gibala MJ, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. J Physiol. 2012 Jan 15;590(2):351-62. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200. Epub 2011 Nov 21. PMID: 22106173; PMCID: PMC3285070.
3. Tillin NA, Pain MT, Folland JP. Short-term training for explosive strength causes neural and mechanical adaptations. Exp Physiol. 2012 May;97(5):630-41. doi: 10.1113/expphysiol.2011.063040. Epub 2012 Feb 3. PMID: 22308164.
4. Schmidt D, Anderson K, Graff M, Strutz V. The effect of high-intensity circuit training on physical fitness. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2016 May;56(5):534-40. Epub 2015 May 5. PMID: 25942012.
5. Caserotti P, Aagaard P, Larsen JB, Puggaard L. Explosive heavy-resistance training in old and very old adults: changes in rapid muscle force, strength and power. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2008 Dec;18(6):773-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2007.00732.x. Epub 2008 Jan 30. PMID: 18248533.
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