Build Strength With This Upper Body Kettlebell Circuit

Introduction | Benefits of upper body kettlebell circuit training | How it works | Upper body kettlebell exercises

A guy completing an upper body kettlebell circuit at the beach.

This upper body kettlebell circuit will help you build strength. In addition, this workout is also designed to develop muscular endurance and functional physical fitness.

You can build strength with this upper body kettlebell circuit

Few people see the kettlebell as a strength developing tool, more a sadomasochistic means of self-torture. And while it certainly is that, if used correctly kettlebells are one of the best training tools for forging functional strength and explosive power.


In fact, the superior strength-building abilities of the kettlebell have long been recognised. In 1913 a Russian strongman and leading strength development theorist wrote: “Not a single sport develops our muscular strength and bodies as well as kettlebell training,” (The Russian Kettlebell Challenge).

This upper body kettlebell circuit can also build bigger muscles

The erroneous assumption that kettlebells can’t build muscle stems from the way in which they are typically used. Traditionally, the girevik – or kettlebell lifter – will perform hundreds, even thousands, of repetitions over the course of a single kettlebell circuit.


After a vigorous warm-up, the girevik will set a 10-minute countdown timer and aim to complete as many reps as possible. He or she might AMRAP three or more different exercises in a single workout.


The reason why kettlebells are used in this way is because Girevoy Sports competitions are organised around three events: snatch, jerk and long cycle. The kettlebell competitors must execute as many reps of these exercises as possible in 10-minutes. The lifter who amasses the highest number of reps in the allotted time wins.


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Blending the old with the new brings the best of both worlds

Granted, while lifting kettlebells in this way will improve muscular endurance, it won’t build bigger muscles. But, if classic kettlebell training is blended with more conventional methodologies – sets, reps, rest, repeat – they can build both bigger and stronger muscles.


The founder of Ironman magazine, Peary Rader, reported in 1952 of a bodybuilder who, after hitting a seemingly unsurmountable plateau, included kettlebell clean and jerks into his routine. Rader recounts the story thus:


Jim has always been a “hard gainer” and found it almost impossible to make progress. He went on this program of clean and jerks. … He immediately began gaining weight very rapidly and was amazed that the practice of this one lift or exercise could have such a profound effect on his body.’


You’ll be elated to learn that the clean and jerk features in this upper body kettlebell circuit.

Benefits of this upper body kettlebell circuit

Organised around four upper body kettlebell exercises, this circuit has been designed to build strength in the back, chest, shoulders and arms – biceps, triceps and forearms. If this upper body kettlebell circuit is incorporated into your weekly training routine, you should begin to experience an increase in upper body strength.


In addition, because the workout includes elements of classical kettlebell training methodologies, you will likely notice improved muscular endurance and stamina.


Plus, the 10-minute alternate arm clean and jerk AMRAP (an optional challenge for those who really want to push themselves), will help burn fat thus improving muscular tonality. Remember, though, these benefits will only be won through much persistence and perspiration.

How this upper body kettlebell circuit works

Though the 4 upper body kettlebell exercises have been organised into a conventional workout format (sets, reps, rest, repeat), they are to be treated as a circuit. So, starting with the first exercise, bent-over rows, complete 10 repetitions.


Concluding the 10reps of bent-over rows immediately move on to the second exercise and repeat the same number of reps.


Once you have progressed through all 4 exercises, take a 2-minute rest. As soon as your rest is up, begin the second circuit at the first kettlebell exercise. Repeat 5 times through.


If you’ve got enough energy in the tank after completing all 5 circuits, pit yourself against the 10-minute alternate-arm clean and press AMRAP. Simply set a 10-minute countdown timer and, without stopping (if possible), see how many reps you can amass. Over 100 is excellent.

Upper body kettlebell circuit

10-minute progressive warm-up: 2000-metres row at a gentle pace. Incrementally increase intensity over the final 1000-metres.

#1: Kettlebell bent-over rows (5 sets of 10 reps)

Muscles worked: the bent-over row primarily works the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius and biceps. But also, the erector spina, the muscles that support the lumbar and thoracic region of the spine, are isometrically engaged along with a whole host of other synergist muscles.


  1. You’re going to perform the kettlebell bent-over row exactly as you would with an Olympic barbell. The only difference being, of course, is that you will be rowing two KBs.

  2. Stand over your bells ensuring to adopt a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance.

  3. Grasping the handles execute a perfect deadlift.

  4. From the upright standing position lower until the kettlebells are level with your knees. There should be a slight bend at the knee. Remember: to adopt the correct postural alignment you must ‘hinge’ at the hips. Do not round the back or flex at the knee.

  5. If you’re in the correct position your back should be ironing board-flat, your knees slightly bent, your eyes fixed on an indefinite point to your front, and a big pair of kettlebells dangling majestically between your legs. Lucky you!

  6. Now, to execute the bent-over row, simultaneously pull the kettlebells until your hands touch your upper torso.

  7. Momentarily pause then return.

  8. Repeat for the stipulated number of reps.

Note: if you only have one kettlebell you can perform the KB bent-over row as you would with a dumbbell.

#2: Kettlebell floor pullover and press (5 sets of 10 reps)

Muscles worked: pullovers and presses primarily engage the pectoralis major – aka the chest – and the anterior deltoid. However, because the kettlebell is such an awkward training tool, many synergist muscles are recruited to stabilise your position while executing the movement. These muscles include the biceps and those of the core.


  1. Lie on the ground with your arms outstretched grasping the handles of pair of kettlebells. You should look like you’re in the crucifix.

  2. Splay your legs apart – about two shoulder widths. Positioning the legs like this helps stabilise the body.

  3. Now, when you’re ready, contract the pectorals and press – or ‘fly’ – the kettlebells together until the handles ‘clink!’ together.

  4. When performing this movement, the shallow angle at the arm must not change. Imagine your arms to be rigid structures that cannot flex, like the boom of a crane. The chest muscles literally compress the fixed arms together.

  5. With the kettlebells poised precariously over your head you have three options:

  6. Option 1: lower the bells behind your head to perform the pullover;

  7. Option 2: execute a chest press by bending at the elbow;

  8. Option 3: once you hear that satisfying ‘clink!’ lower them back to the start position and repeat.

#3: Kettlebell standing overhead press (5 sets of 10 reps)

Muscles worked: the standing overhead press targets the deltoids – all three heads: anterior, medial and posterior – as well as the biceps, forearms, chest, traps and abdominals. Of course, this exercise also engages a barrage of synergists.

  1. Taking a reverse grip, your index finger and thumb pressing against the body of the kettlebell, pull it back between your legs and up-end it. If you’re in the correct position there should be a 90ᵒ angle at your elbow joint and the kettlebell, its base pointing to the ceiling, should be poised in front of your chest.

  2. Ensuring that there is a slight bend in the knees, drive the kettlebell over and above your head.

  3. The kettlebell should pass directly in front of your face and not to one side.

  4. At the topmost position there should be a slight kink in the elbows: NEVER LOCKOUT A WEIGHT BEARING JOINT!

  5. Under control lower the bell back to the start position.

  6. Repeat for another nine repetitions.

#4: Kettlebell upright row (5 sets of 10 reps)

Muscles worked: upright rowing is a superlative shoulder and trapezius developer. If you're desirous of possessing a pair of boulder-like shoulders and hulking traps, start upright rowing.

  1. Firstly, think about your positioning before picking up the kettlebell. You’ll need a nice solid base so adopt a slighter wider than shoulder-width stance. A bit of flex in the knees wouldn’t go amiss either.

  2. Assuming that you are standing directly over a kettlebell, and not behind it (a common error), keep the back straight and squat down to grasp the handle.

  3. Stand back up.

  4. Maintaining correct postural alignment pull the kettlebell evenly with both arms until the handle is millimetres from your chin. It is normal for your elbows to protrude excessively: you should look as though you’re about to do the chicken dance.

  5. From here simply return the bell back to the start position.

Kettlebell alternate arm clean and press cycle (10-minute AMRAP)

Muscles worked: it’s easier to name those muscles that this immense exercise does not work. They are:

  1. Standing over the kettlebell with a shoulder-width stance (or slightly wider), grasp the handle and, in one fluid movement, swing it back and execute a clean. In this position, the kettlebell should be resting in the nook of your arm.

  2. Taking a shallow dip at the knee use your quadriceps to get a bit of momentum in the kettlebell. Assist the upward flight of the bell with shoulder and arm strength.

  3. From here return the kettlebell back to the original start position but ensure to change hands between the legs so that you can perform the next repetition on the opposite side.

  4. When performing the clean and press there are two natural pause points. The first pause point is at the midway transition between the clean to press. After cleaning the KB into the nook of the arm take a second to mobilise your body before pressing. The second pause point comes at the topmost position when the bell is above your head. Hold here, gather your composure, and then allow the kettlebell to drop back into the nook of the arm deflecting it straight back out as it does so. Change hands between your legs and repeat.

 

Enjoyed this workout? Get your hands on 50 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits Vol. 1.


Circuit training is one of the best forms of physical exercise for maintaining and increasing overall fitness. A well-designed circuit will provide a great cardiovascular workout, strengthening the heart and lungs in the process, whilst also improving muscle endurance and developing functional strength. This unique combination, of fat burning and muscle building, which singular exercises, such as running, cycling, swimming or weights cannot give, will help to sculpt a lean defined physique.


 

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Blog Author

Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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