The Best Kettlebell Exercises For Shoulders
The best kettlebell exercises for shoulders coordinate shoulder movement with the rest of the body, which makes them inherently valuable. I use kettlebells for shoulder exercises with most of my clients and patients. Kettlebell exercises in general also don’t require a lot of space or other resources so you can do them nearly anywhere. I know I do.
Kettlebells Are Compact
I live in a small one bedroom apartment. It is a little run down but my life fits into it pretty much perfectly. It keeps me living lean, if a little cramped.
But what it lacks in space my apartment makes up for in view:
Such a small space means that I need to be very particular about what I keep and what I don’t. Not in the Marie Kondo “does this bring me joy” sense but more in the what will get me the most bang for the buck sense.
So when I consider what exercise gear I keep around space is as much a consideration as function.
Enter the kettlebell.
Even having just a couple tucked away enables me to get a full body workout but more importantly, I can also use KBs to focus on my shoulder resiliency and rehab.
While many may think of shoulder rehab and prehab exercises using bands and small weights sometimes it takes some serious weight to help the shoulder thrive. As with any exercise adding resistance, volume, and intensity is the key to adaptation.
Here are my top 5 favorite shoulder resiliency exercises using kettlebells.
Best Kettlebell Exercise #1- Single Arm Kettlebell Swing
The single arm swing is definitely one of the best kettlebell exercises you can do for your shoulders.This slightly more advanced version of the basic kettlebell swing has an amazing effect for the shoulder. As you swing the KB the forces want to send it flying away from the body, this forces the rotator cuff muscles, the ones that keep the shoulder in its socket, to engage on overdrive.
For someone suffering from impingement, this exercise is safe and may even help prevent it in the future. As I said before the rotator cuff muscles need to fire hard to stabilize the shoulder joint and because of the same forces the muscles that stabilize the scapula (shoulder blade) also forcefully contract.
This movement is still a full body movement, like its heavier cousin the Russian style swing. It coordinates the lower body, core, and shoulder complex and can be very potent for all of them.
- Your shoulder and torso will want to rotate forward as the kettlebell swings between the legs. This is OK and actually somewhat desirable as long as you can control it. Keep the scapular muscles tight by trying to pull the shoulder back during the whole movement.
- Make sure your hips are doing the work! This is, after all, a full body exercise but as with all KB swings, it should be a hip driven movement.
- I prefer to keep the single arm swing at shoulder height, aka Russian style. Doing an overhead American style swing is fine but if you are doing single arm work and able to go overhead pain-free I typically program KB snatches instead.
- Start light until you feel confident with the pattern then add weight as your strength and skill allow.
Best Kettlebell Exercise #2- Deadlift Or Hip Hinge Variations
Hip hinges are some of the best kettlebell exercises for shoulders. I use these movements pretty early on in shoulder rehab (as soon as they are OK to carry a light load). I also use them with healthy athletes who demonstrate poor scapular stability. These are a great starting point for someone with impingement or other issues where overhead motion may need to be restricted.
You can start with a hip hinge and then work deeper into a full deadlift resting the KB on a box for “briefcase” deadlifts. Since each hand holds a kettlebell each shoulder needs to work on its own to pull back or retract. This independence of movement means that each side is responsible for itself which can help to correct imbalances in strength. Just like the swing this exercise ties the hips, core, and shoulders together into a functional movement.
- Keep the shoulders back through the whole movement. The goal is to keep the kettlebells next to your ankles.
- Starting with the kettlebells elevated, in this case on bumper plates, helps keep the range of motion manageable. Lower the height as you become more comfortable with the movement
- If one side is noticeably harder than the other then try using one kettlebell in a suitcase deadlift
Best Kettlebell Exercise #3- Armbar
This is one of the best kettlebell exercises to develop scapular stability while rotating at the T-spine, a motion that is lacking in so many athletes. I use this exercise as a warm-up for overhead work, as a rehab and prehab exercise, and as a corrective for people who can’t stabilize the shoulder girdle well or actively rotate their T-spine, or both.
Like many of the other exercises, I’ve listed this exercise forces your shoulder blade to pull back or retract. Another advantage of this exercise is its reliance on reactive stability.
Think about it like this- the kettlebell places an offset load on the arm (weight outside the wrist). As such it will tend to pull the arm towards the direction of the load and your shoulder will need to react by pulling it back into a more balanced position.
- Keep your eyes on hte kettlebell at all times
- For an extra challenge try a lower weight with the bottom up position
- Remember to breathe into your belly
- If you struggle with this and suspect your T-spine is an issue you should try our FREE T-spine mobility email course.
Best Kettlebell Exercise #4- Bottom-up Carry
Two prominent movement and strength professionals Gray Cook and Dan John once said in a lecture that “if we were doing more loaded carries than lifts then we wouldn’t be doing as many movement correctives.” A strong statement to be sure but from personal experience, this is very true. Therefore I like to program carries for almost all my clients and patients.
There are a few really interesting things that make this exercise so effective.
The first is a concept is referred to as irradiation. Simply put if you contract a muscle hard then nearby muscles will also contract. The harder the contraction the more muscles engage. The bottom-up carry requires you to grip the handle of the kettlebell very hard, thereby forcing other muscles to contract. Most importantly the rotator cuff and muscles that stabilize your shoulder blade.
The second concept is reactive stability. Just like with the armbar this exercise forces the shoulder to react and maintain the kettlebell’s balance.
- Pick a weight that is challenging for your grip, even if your shoulders don’t feel challenged right away.
- Practice it on one side at a time for an added challenge
- Remember to breathe into your belly
Best Kettlebell Exercise #5- Suitcase Carry
Like the single arm swing, this exercise pulls the shoulder joint apart, forcing the rotator cuff muscles to work extra hard to stabilize the joint. Because the arm never leaves the side it is very safe to do for most people. The real value of this exercise doesn’t come from the activation of the shoulder muscles though, that’s just a bonus.
The real work comes from the core.
If you’ve ever picked up anything heavy with one hand and had to walk the load any distance you’ve probably felt yourself lean in the opposite direction to counterbalance the weight. That side bending of the torso engages the abdominal muscles like crazy on the side opposite the load.
Activating and strengthening the core before doing heavy lifts can really help your performance. This is especially true with standing presses as the shoulders need a stable base to push from. This exercise activates the core while activating the shoulder stabilizers but keeping the shoulder in a safe position.
The Best Kettlebell Exercises For Shoulders Also Work The Core
If you look closely at all of the above exercises you’ll notice that they not only tax the muscles immediately surrounding the shoulder, they also tax the core quite a bit.
I chose these exercises because they challenge the stability of both the shoulder and midline AND connect the movement of both together. Included in the 5 exercises above are rotation and anti-rotation movements, hip hinges, overhead movements and static core bracing.
So what do you think? Are there any other exercises that could qualify as “best kettlebell exercises for your shoulders?” Let me know in the comments!
Ian Elwood, MA, LAT, ATC, CSCS
Ian has been practicing as an Athletic Trainer for over 14 years. More than half of which have been spent with military forces including US Marines and Air Force Pararescue. He loves sharing and is enthusiastic about helping anybody who wants to move better and train pain-free.