Kettlebells can be a great tool to use in place of more traditional bicep exercises. Here’s what you should know.
Some common bicep exercises fall short in maintaining tension throughout a curl movement, where kettlebells can help ‘fill-in’ that lost tension.
Kettlebells also help to emphasise an elongated eccentric contraction. This causes lots of micro- trauma that’s essential for muscle growth.
As a result of the high tension, kettlebells also produce an occlusion-type effect. The metabolic stress this creates is another potent hypertrophy stimulus.
This all sounds pretty good, right!?
You’ve got the handle and the horns of the kettlebell where the grip is held, and the bell (ball) where most of the weight’s sat. This design makes kettlebells special and unique.
High Mechanical Tension
Because of their unique leverage and loading mechanics, kettlebells place a huge amount of tension on the biceps. They also allow tension to remain longer in certain biceps exercises, where dumbbells or barbells would otherwise fall short.
The biceps are strongest when the elbow is at 90 degrees of flexion. This is where their length-tension relationship is most optimal. Dumbbells and barbells do a great job at loading this angle but depending on the exercise and the position of the shoulder and elbows relative to the torso, some tension can be lost. This usually happens at either the bottom or top of the movement.
To see what I mean grab a preacher bench and perform a dumbbell bicep curl with full range of motion. Most will lose the tension at the top.
Now try it with a kettlebell. Voila! More tension at the top, right!?
With a slightly loose grip the kettlebell will rotate in your palm slightly and you’ll finish at the top of the movement with the bell behind your wrist and load further in front. With a dumbbell or barbell, the load would be over the wrist more taking tension away from the bicep.
Imagine a seesaw where with a dumbbell the load is over the middle. With a kettlebell the load stays offset to one side forcing the other side up. An effort would be required to pull it down. That’s a simplistic and crude explanation of how in this case a 1st class lever works (forearm is a 3rd class lever by the way), but you get the analogy. Where load is placed relative to the fulcrum matters.
So, in this instance the kettlebell has allowed you to maintain high muscle tension for a longer time. More mechanical tension means more muscle growth.
High Tissue Breakdown
A kettlebell can also allow you to maintain tension in the stretched position of a curl. That’s where the bicep is at its longest position. By being able to emphasise this elongated eccentric contraction and stretched position, kettlebells can produce high mechanical tension coupled with micro-trauma and tissue breakdown.
The semi-awkward nature of the kettlebell and minor instability also adds to the level of muscle activation achieved by the biceps.
Just another way the unique design of a kettlebell makes them an ideal biceps building tool, and why you should give them a shot.
High Metabolic Stress
Because of the constant tension throughout the movement with very little relaxation of the biceps, you’ll also get a fair bit of blood occlusion and metabolic stress. You’ll get a lot of blood flow, muscle pump, cellular swelling and a lot of metabolic bi-products floating around (hydrogen ions, ammonia etc). By triggering a cascade of events and spike in anabolic hormones, these are also help build muscle.
Combine kettlebells with Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training and you might have a winning combo. Now there’s a thought.
Bicep Exercise Programming
Of course, this isn’t true for all bicep exercises. I’m not telling you to start solely using kettlebells in your bicep routine. But sprinkled in here and there they can be a great addition to accelerate some new growth. They also have a different feel to them, so can make an interesting way to mix up your workouts.
Sets of anywhere between 6-15+ reps will work well on these, so mix up your rep ranges to better target your biceps and emphasise different mechanisms of growth.
Of note, they’re also great for triceps training, but we’ll get on to that another time. Here are some kettlebell bicep exercises to spark some creativity.
Incline Kettlebell Biceps Curl
Here’s a basic movement you could try. Note how different it feels from performing the standard version with dumbbells. Incline bicep curl variations emphasise the long-head of your biceps brachii a little more.
Since the long-head crosses over the shoulder (its origin is at the supraglenoid tubercle on the scapula), it’s more influenced during bicep exercises where the elbow is back behind the torso and the shoulder is extended back a little more.
The long-head of the biceps brachii is more responsible for the peak of your bicep, so if it’s this you’re after then include more bicep exercises like these. It’s also the more likely to get injured so a good idea for athletic and injury-proofing purposes too.
Kettlebell 1-Arm Angled Curl
In a similar way to the above exercise this places a little more emphasis on the biceps long-head. Notice how the elbow stays back for a large part of the movement, whilst the angled position allows support of the elbow against the backrest.
You’ll notice how at the end the elbow comes up a little and my grip rotates in to a little pronation. In all honesty I can’t see any rationale for this tweak at the top, except that when doing it I personally felt a better contraction. Possibly something to do with the pronators in the forearm getting a little action. With or without this little tweak it’s a good exercise to try. A dumbbell works great too.
Kettlebell Squatting Curl
A neutral grip position will shift a little more emphasis on the brachialis muscle. This little sucker shouldn’t be neglected, and if it’s some upper arm thickness you’re after then you need to give it some attention.
The squatting position isn’t some stupid way to try and hit the quads at the same time. It’s so the knees can provide support for the elbows. Like a preacher bench this helps to isolate the elbow flexors, whilst the angle which is steeper than a preacher bench emphasises biceps tension at the top of the curl.
You’ll get a little hip mobility here too. If you struggle to get in position though, and it takes away from the quality of the biceps exercise itself, then try supporting your chest on a bench and executing it similar to a spider curl.
Kettlebell Pistol Hammer Curl
A personal favourite, which you could also call a “gun slinger curl”. Here you’re holding the kettlebell in a completely different way. As the load gets further away from the body it becomes more of a challenge for your biceps to deal with the torque. You’ll get some crazy amount of tension during this biceps exercise, and another great one to emphasise the brachialis a little more. Enjoy this one!
Take these for a spin in your next arms workout. As always, it’d be great to hear your thoughts.
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