Bodybuilders have many tools in their toolbox. If you’re trying to build the physique of your dreams, there’s no reason to limit yourself to one piece of equipment, one specific machine, or one style of training. That sort of rigidity is reserved for powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and other strength athletes.
You may not think of the kettlebell as the de-facto muscle-building implement, but make no mistake — with a bit of creativity and the right working knowledge, kettlebells can help you grow more muscle than you might think.
After all, if you walk into the weight room and see the dumbbell rack stripped bare by greedy gymgoers, what are you going to do? Go home? No way. Here’s how you can use kettlebells to bulk up in the gym.
Kettlebell Training for Bodybuilders
Why You Should Try Kettlebells for Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding is all about experimentation. In a way, you’re something of a mad scientist. Every workout is an experiment to find the exact right tools and tactics for burning your muscles to a crisp.
You may not think of kettlebells as a good choice for building your body, but remember that bodybuilding isn’t a strength sport. You’ve no reason to restrict yourself to the barbell. In fact, kettlebells can go toe-to-toe with most common equipment in your gym.
Kettlebells vs. Barbells
If your bodybuilding workouts contain a lot of barbell work, you might find it hard to replicate your session with kettlebells instead.
The barbell brings with it unparalleled loading potential — you can slap on a (nearly) infinite number of plates to make your deadlifts, rows, or presses as heavy as you’d like. The weight of a kettlebell is fixed, and you can’t lift heavier than the bells your gym provides.
However, the design of the kettlebell does make it a bit more friendly on your wrist, elbow, or shoulder joints than the barbell. If standard barbell pressing causes discomfort, kettlebells could be a suitable alternative.
Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
Kettlebells and dumbbells are close cousins. Both tools are single-handed, meaning you can perform just about any dumbbell exercise under the sun with kettlebells and get the same return on your investment.
The drawback lies in availability. Most standard gyms will have a well-furnished dumbbell rack with weights that go up quite high, but they won’t often carry kettlebells of similar resistance.
Kettlebells do edge out dumbbells when it comes to dynamic and ballistic movement, though, as the handle can rotate freely in your palm on exercises like the swing.
Kettlebells vs. Machines/Cables
The very nature of machine work separates it from the “feel” of lifting a free weight, be it a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, or otherwise.
The fixed path of an exercise machine or the start-to-finish tensile consistency of cable trees makes them incomparable to kettlebell exercises, especially for bodybuilding.
You can perform certain exercises with a kettlebell or a cable attachment, sure, but you’ll experience each in vastly different ways. In most cases, the machines will end up being more useful for growing muscle simply because they serve a different purpose.
Benefits of Kettlebells for Bodybuilding
They may not be your weapon of choice for building monstrous biceps or big lats, but kettlebells do come with some exclusive and noteworthy perks for the physique athlete.
Kettlebells are all the rage. From CrossFit garages to commercial facilities, nearly every public or box gym will have a litany of different kettlebells available.
This makes them a reliable fallback option if you, for whatever reason, can’t work with your usual implement of choice. If the gym is packed and the dumbbell rack has been stripped bare, you can substitute kettlebells into your workout for most exercises and still get a good training session out of it.
Trying something new can breathe life into your workouts and even help you grow more muscle. While you can’t literally “confuse” your muscles into hypertrophy, swapping out your dumbbell rows for a kettlebell instead can be just enough of a change to elicit an adaptation.
Further, you might find yourself more mentally alert and engaged with your workouts if you decide to work with a new form of resistance. This increased attentiveness can also result in higher-quality repetitions and better technique.
More Grip Stimulation
Kettlebells are hard to grip, especially when you’re moving them fast. Their design enables you to bring a dynamic or ballistic aspect to your bodybuilding workouts.
While these qualities aren’t directly relevant to muscle gain, holding onto a kettlebell for a set of heavy swings is a heck of a forearm workout.
Unique Load Profile
When you hold a kettlebell, the actual weighty bit sits behind your point of contact, not adjacent to it. An adjustment to where the load itself is resting relative to your hand can impact how an exercise feels on your body.
For example, when you perform a chest press with a kettlebell, the weight is actually making an effort to pull your palm open. With a dumbbell or barbell, all of the resistance is pressing directly downward onto your wrist. That kind of compression may be uncomfortable and distract from your mind-muscle connection.
Drawbacks of Kettlebells for Bodybuilding
Despite all they have going for them, kettlebells are certainly not the endgame of physique development. They can be highly useful in the right contexts, but aren’t right for everyone — or every situation.
One of the main selling points of kettlebells is their freedom of movement — they don’t stay firmly fixed in your hand. This makes them great for training qualities like muscular power or stability, but poor tools for taking a muscle to the brink of exhaustion.
Any time the bell rotates or moves during an exercise, it will alter the amount of mechanical tension on the muscle you’re working. A standard curl performed with a kettlebell can feel inconsistent and janky, for example.
Limited Loading Options
Kettlebells lack the fine-tuned loading potential of the barbell. Moreover, many modern dumbbell sets come in increments of five or even two and a half pounds, allowing you to select just the right amount of load for your muscles.
If you’ve only got access to kettlebells in 10-pound increments, you might be stuck choosing between a weight that’s a little too heavy or a little too light for your needs.
High Stability Demand
The unstable nature of kettlebell training makes it highly alluring to functional fitness enthusiasts, strength athletes, and even the elderly. Conversely, training in a low-stability environment can be a poison pill for the dedicated bodybuilder.
Any factor that affects how much tensile force you can apply to a muscle is a deterrent for hypertrophy. This can range from working on one leg and having to balance yourself to a weight dangling or swinging in your hands while you’re trying to focus.
Not all kettlebell exercises are inherently unstable, but many will demand your attention and focus just to perform the movement in the first place.
Not Suitable for Every Exercise
You can usually substitute kettlebells for your dumbbell or barbell exercise of choice in a pinch. After all, a row is a row and a press is a press. However, certain mainline bodybuilding exercises are simply incompatible with kettlebells.
A kettlebell simply will not sit neatly into the crease of your hip the way a barbell does during hip thrusts. There’s also no sensible way to perform a glute kickback with a kettlebell looped around your foot. In these scenarios, you’ll have to cut your losses.
Best Kettlebell Exercises for Bodybuilding
Kettlebells may not necessarily be the ideal implement of choice for any bodybuilding movement, but there are certain exercises that pair nicely with kettlebells and may provide some unique benefits.
Kettlebell Lateral Raise
The lateral raise is one of the very few essential exercises for bodybuilding. No other motor pattern properly stimulates the sides of your shoulders, and you can hit your delts a bit differently if you swap in a kettlebell for your usual dumbbell or cable attachment.
Further, your grip and forearms will have to work even harder to hold the weight, since the bulk of the resistance is directly under your hand as you raise your arm.
The swing is, debatably, one of the best overall movements you can perform for your lower body. Not only does it effectively stimulate your lats, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, but the nature of the movement itself is a great teacher for learning the hip hinge.
Swings have a place in your bodybuilding workouts as a warm-up or finisher on leg day, or can be a great way to get some active recovery in the day after a lower body workout.
Push-ups, particularly when you slap on some extra weight, are a phenomenal pec-builder. However, they do place an inordinate amount of stress on your wrists. If you’re looking to avoid that pressure and still blast your chest, you can place a pair of kettlebells on the floor and grip them instead.
The neutral wrist position should alleviate nearly all potential discomfort, allowing you to focus on contracting your pecs properly.
Kettlebell Farmer’s Carry
Even bodybuilders need a healthy dose of conditioning work. Whether you’re dieting down for a show or just want to look right come beach season, exercises like the farmer’s carry are a great way to break a sweat and stimulate your upper body as well.
Kettlebells come in particularly clutch here. They’re generally easier to carry than dumbbells, you can usually find them in the cross-training space in your gym (which has more open space to walk), and they absolutely torch your forearms and traps.
Kettlebell Hammer Curl
The hammer curl is second-to-none when you want to thicken your biceps and build beefy forearms to boot. You can double down on those goals by holding a kettlebell aloft instead, with the bell itself pointing outward.
You’ll find that even a very light kettlebell becomes extremely difficult to grip and curl with, letting you blast your arms without having to seek heavy dumbbells to do so.
Kettlebell Skull Crusher
Many of the best triceps exercises out there can be gnarly on your wrists and elbows. If you’re nursing an injury in those areas but still want to train your tris, you can swap in a kettlebell or two on your skull crushers.
Holding the weight by the handle (or grasping the meat of the bell itself) can take some unwanted stress off your joints and enable you to focus on building that triceps horseshoe you want.
Sample Kettlebell-Only Bodybuilding Workout
You may never find yourself in such a position, but in the event a gym goblin has hoarded all the dumbbells (or there’s a famine of barbells across the globe), you can devise a suitable hypertrophy-focused workout using only kettlebells.
This sample workout is meant to display how you can make clever substitutions and deftly organize your exercises to ensure that kettlebells help you build muscle.
- (1A) Single-Arm Kettlebell Floor Press: 3 x 8 per side
- (1B) Kettlebell Skull Crusher: 3 x 15
- (2A) Kettlebell Lateral Raise: 3 x 15
- (2B) Kettlebell Hammer Curl: 3 x 8
- Offset Kettlebell Overhead Carry: 4 x 40 seconds per side
Note: Perform the “A” and “B” exercises together as a superset with limited rest between each exercise.
Kettle-Build Your Best Physique
Don’t get it twisted — kettlebells probably aren’t your best option for gaining muscle mass long-term. However, if you’re in a pinch, in a hurry, or simply in need of a good pump, there’s no reason to ignore their utility.
Kettlebells add novelty to your workouts, challenge your grip and forearms in a way you’re probably not accustomed to, and will jack your heart rate up like no other. Use them to get a handle on your conditioning, flip the script on a dull series of training sessions, or simply shock your muscles into new growth.
Featured Image: Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock