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There are numerous ways to build muscle in the back. You can use machines, dumbbells, or a barbell with weights. There are also bodyweight exercises that build back strength.
But another option to consider is the kettlebell. Before we get into which kettlebell exercises are good for this purpose, let’s first talk about why it’s so important to create a strong back.
We use our back muscles for many everyday movements. Gardening, vacuuming, and throwing a toy for the dog to fetch all rely on muscles in the back. By building their strength, these activities become easier to perform.
Also, the number one cause of disability worldwide is lower back pain according to the International Association for the Study of Pain. Developing lower back strength can help protect against pain in this area. For those already in pain, back exercises can help relieve it.
A strong back also supports a healthy posture. It becomes easier to sit, stand, and lie in a position that allows for maximal health. Plus, the more muscle you build anywhere in your body, the more calories you burn daily—making it easier to lose weight.
Athletes often rely on two types of strength: maximal and explosive. Maximal strength enables them to exert the most force possible in training and competitions. Explosive strength makes it possible to use force quickly and with a great deal of power. One study connected kettlebell training with both.
In this study, subjects performed kettlebell exercises twice a week for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, their maximal strength improved by 9.8%. They also improved their explosive strength by 19.8%. These gains were similar to those experienced by other subjects who engaged in jump squat power training for the same length of time.
Kettlebell back exercises help build muscle in the upper, middle, and lower back. The exact muscles used varies depending on the exercise being performed.
Upper back: Upper back muscles often targeted in kettlebell exercises are the levator scapulae (raises the shoulder), trapezius (moves the shoulder blade), and rhomboids (also help move the shoulder blade).
Middle back: The latissimus dorsi (moves the arm and shoulder) is a middle back muscle often strengthened in kettlebell workouts.
Lower back: Moves that target lower back muscle might work the iliopsoas (move the thigh and flex the back), the psoas (hip joint flexion), or both.
One muscle runs the entire length of the spine. It is called the erector spinae. This is worked in kettlebell back exercises as well.
That’s not to say that a kettlebell back workout doesn’t build other muscles too because it does. These exercises work several muscles in the upper body, lower body, and core. That makes it a great full-body kettlebell workout.
Certain exercises are effective for building the back. Here are the best kettlebell exercises for boosting back strength.
Many people mistake the kettlebell swing for an arm workout. However, clients shouldn't use their arms to swing the kettlebell. If they do it right, the movement is controlled by their hips and glutes but will use portions of the back as well.
How to do it: The client will begin by gripping the kettlebell with both hands hanging between their legs. Feet should be shoulder width, shoulders rolled back, and the core muscles engaged. The client will slightly bend their knees and hinge at their hips, pressing their lumbar spine and gluteus maximus backwards. The shift in weight should bring the hanging kettlebell slightly behind the legs. They will drive through the heels, up through the legs and snap the hips forward. This should create enough momentum to bring the kettlebell forward and up without using the arms. As the momentum brings the kettlebell back towards the body, the client should flow with the kettlebell movement to reverse back into a partial squat, hip-hinged position, and immediately explode into the next repetition.
Check out ISSA's article on perfecting the hip hinge to ensure you're practicing perfect form!
Once your client masters a two arm kettlebell swing, just use one arm. Unilateral exercises help engage the abdominal muscles as the body works to stay balanced.
How to do it: To begin, the client will with feet slightly wider than their shoulders—wide enough to swing a kettlebell between. They’ll engage the core and straighten their spine. The client will then lower at the hips and knees with one arm extended to grip the kettlebell between their feet. They will engage the shoulder, positioning the kettlebell just above and behind their knees. Then, in a single explosive movement, they will push their hips outwards with their knees straightening while thrusting the kettlebell forward and up with the shoulder and torso. As the momentum brings the kettlebell back towards the body, the client should flow with the kettlebell movement to reverse back into a partial squat, hip-hinged position, and immediately explode into the next repetition.
This kettlebell exercise is another effective full body movement that is great for strengthening the back and shoulders.
How to do it: The client will begin with the kettlebell resting on the ground between their legs. Legs should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and toes slightly pointed out. They will squat down and grip the kettlebell with both hands. With a straight spine, they will lift the kettlebell off the floor. As they press their body up out of the squat position, they will begin to pull the elbows up toward the ceiling. This will bring the kettlebell up to just below chin height and create a "V" shape with the elbows and forearms. Keeping control of the weight, the kettlebell will naturally come back down. The client should move with the momentum of the kettlebell and reverse their body into the starting position ending with the weight on the ground. Once the weight lightly touches the ground, they should immediately move into the next rep.
The halo action with the kettlebell is just like the name. The client will make a halo around their head. Keep in mind, however, this exercise swings the kettlebell around the head, so, the client needs to be able to safely maintain control so they don't hit themselves in the face with the kettlebell.
How to do it: The client should begin in a standing position and make sure the pelvis is tucked under to remove any anterior pelvic tilt. There should be a very slight bend in the knees and the core muscles engaged. They will grip the kettlebell with both hands on the sides of the handle with the ball of the kettlebell above the handle (kettlebell turned upside down). They will slowly circle the kettlebell all the way around their head, just above shoulder height. They should circle in one direction and come back to the starting position. Once they have completed reps going one direction, they will reverse the motion and go the other direction.
Swap out your bent over row for this exercise and you’ll work your back muscles in a slightly different way.
How to do it: The client will start by holding one heavy kettlebell at waist height. Keep it at a weight that still allows for good form. They’ll begin pulling the kettlebell up the body by raising the elbows high. The client will pull the kettlebell until it reaches chin height then slowly lower the kettlebell back to the starting position and repeat.
The kettlebell row is very similar to a dumbbell row. The motion is the same as the dumbbell row, however, the distribution of the weight is a little different using the kettlebell.
How to do it: Starting with the left leg, clients will rest their left knee onto a bench and lean forward enough to rest the left hand on the bench in alignment with the left shoulder. The right leg will stand firmly on the floor with the right arm hanging below the right shoulder while gripping the kettlebell. The spine should be straight and the lower back and hips square. With the focus on using the back muscles to lift the kettlebell, the client will slowly drive the right elbow up to the ceiling. They should squeeze at the top and slowly lower the weight back down. The client should complete repetitions on both sides of the body.
This exercise is a great move to target the back muscles and help build core strength. The client will need two kettlebells for this move.
How to do it: The client will begin in a plank position. However, instead of their hands or forearms stabilizing them on the ground, they will grip a kettlebell in each hand, directly under each shoulder. With tight glutes, straight spine, and core muscles engaged, the client will pull one kettlebell off the ground. They should focus on pulling with the back muscles and driving the elbow up to the sky. Hips and core should remain square throughout the movement. The client will slowly lower the weight back to the ground and repeat repetitions on both sides of the body.
If you already do a single arm deadlift with a dumbbell, swap in a kettlebell and you’re ready to go.
How to do it: Have your client stand with feet shoulder width, knees bent, and toes pointing forward. Their upper body will bend forward with a straight back, grabbing the kettlebell with one hand. They will extend their legs and bring their hips forward to lift the kettlebell. Then they’ll bend their knees and bring their buttocks back to lower the kettlebell back down.
Another option is to lift one leg when doing the deadlift. The leg you lift is on the same side of the body used to hold the kettlebell.
How to do it: The client will hold a kettlebell in one hand and lift the opposite foot off the ground. Ensure they maintain a straight back and bend at the hips, raising the leg up and keeping it in line with the body. At the same time, the kettlebell will lower to the ground. They’ll stand back up driving their hips forward and maintaining stability. Repeat on each side for reps.
Like the kettlebell swing, the momentum comes from the legs and hips (not the arms).
How to do it: In a squat position, the client will use one hand to grip the kettlebell as it rests on the ground between the legs. They will press up through the heels and snap the hips forward which should create the momentum to move the kettlebell up. The kettlebell should move up (not out), staying close to the body and into to the rack position. To successfully move into the rack position, the client will need to have a soft grip and rotate the wrist so the thumb is pointed towards the back. They will come out of the rack position, in the reverse way they got in and allow the weight to drop back to the starting position in a controlled manner.
If you’re looking for a dynamic move, this one delivers. But don’t try it until you can do the kettlebell swing with good form.
How to do it: The client will begin by holding a kettlebell in one hand between their legs. They’ll squat down until their thighs are parallel to the floor. They will drive up through their hips and knees. As the kettlebell rises to shoulder height, they’ll rotate their hand and push it upwards until their arm is locked out. They will squat down and return the weight to the start position.
This exercise is a pushing movement that works your back and chest.
How to do it: Your client begins by lying on their back with arms extended holding a kettlebell over their head. They will lower the weight behind their head before returning to the starting position.
Like a regular squat, this move works many muscles in the lower body. That makes it a good one for those found in the lower back.
How to do it: The client will start the movement by pushing the hips backward. They’ll keep the weight on their heels and the outside of their feet, feet turned out slightly. They’ll work to get the thighs parallel to the floor. Then they’ll push up, keeping the back flat, chest up, and looking up. Have your client pause at the top and then descend back down.
You don’t have to do all 13 exercises to get a good back workout. In fact, you shouldn’t because this will overload the muscles.
Pick just three or four exercises to include in your kettlebell workout for the day. Try to choose ones that work different areas of the body. For instance, if you do a pullover, you might also do a squat. This ensures that you’re working different muscles in the back.
Don’t do the same exercises at every workout either. Change up your workout routine every couple of weeks. This helps keep you from getting bored. It also makes it easier to fall in love with kettlebell training.
If you’re new to kettlebells, here are a few tips to help you create a safe, yet effective kettlebell back workout:
Select the right weight. You want to start with a kettlebell that you can lift five or six times. Once you’re strong enough to lift it 12-15 times with relative ease, it’s time to move to a heavier weight.
Use proper form. This is important for all lower back exercises. If you don’t use good form, you run the risk of injury. Not sure how to do a specific kettlebell exercise? A personal trainer can help.
Don’t just strengthen your back. As important as back strength is, if you don’t work on other areas of the body, you’ll develop a muscle imbalance. A complete strength training program works the entire body. So, don’t forget to also build your upper, lower, and core strength.
If an exercise doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Some people have movement limitations. This can make certain exercises hard to do. If you feel like you’re struggling with a particular exercise, do a different one instead. For example, if the kettlebell swing causes discomfort or is difficult, pick another exercise. It doesn’t have to involve the use of a kettlebell either. A barbell hip thrust is a good kettlebell swing alternative.
You can help your clients build whole body strength as a Strength & Conditioning Coach. This ISSA certification course covers exercise and workout options for every muscle group in the body.
ISSA's Strength and Conditioning course bridges the gap between science and application by giving students the "how" of helping athletes achieve any sport-related goal. With this course, not only will you learn the exercise science behind strength and conditioning, but exactly how to create the perfect training program for any athlete. Further, it offers one of the only accredited exams in the strength and conditioning space, making you a hot commodity to any employer.
The global burden of low back pain. International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP). (2021, October 12). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.iasp-pain.org/resources/fact-sheets/the-global-burden-of-low-back-pain/
Lake, Jason P.; Lauder, Mike A.. Kettlebell Swing Training Improves Maximal and Explosive Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26(8):p 2228-2233, August 2012. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2c9b
Dr. Sniewski, L. (2013, June 4). Kettlebell - rack position. YouTube. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hl6lQ4N8e4
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