The Kettlebell Shoulder Workout for Climbers

My post-ACL surgery rehab included a healthy dose of kettlebells. As my PT worked with me and learned more about rock climbing, he started showing me other excellent exercises for shoulder mobility and stability. I've since sworn by kettlebells for shoulder injury prevention, and like them almost more for shoulders than for lower body.

I've ditched all rubber exercise bands and cable machines for shoulders, and instead do a healthy dose of these exercises at least once a week. You can't argue with a great warmup + shoulder injury prevention + awesome looking shoulders in one swoop.

Note: As you increase kettlebell weight, the bell may start pressing on your forearm and cause bruising. I highly recommend kettlebell wrist guards:

[To give you perspective on weight and progressions in the exercises below, I'm 5'4", 118lb, and female]

Windmill

Good for: I think it's the best climbing-specific shoulder exercise, where your body is rotating under weighted arms. It also works core and obliques, glutes and hamstrings, and posterior chain loaded stretching.

The windmill is a deceiving exercise that hits many functional areas at once. Like the deadlift, you hinge at the hips, working on posterior chain mobility. You work slowly down, forcing an eccentric motion, which builds strength via hypertrophy and promotes tendons/ligaments to lay down collagen, becoming stronger. Your obliques will get a wake-up call.

You can't argue with a posterior chain + oblique + shoulder workout in one go.

How

  • Stand feet about shoulder width
  • Point both toes 45 degrees parallel with each other. In my video, my front toe faces forward and the back toe at 90 degrees, the way I was taught--but feel out your own preference.
  • Raise kettlebell above your head in same hand as your back foot
  • Shove your butt back, hinge at the hip, keep your back leg straight, and touch the inside of your front foot with your low hand
  • You want to stay in a single plane, ending up in an right triangle, not an equilateral triangle--your back leg stays straight
  • At the bottom, your shoulders should be packed and stacked in a vertical line
  • More instructions here

Weight: I use 12-14kg/26-31lb. Likely your shoulders will be a limiting weight factor, not your posterior; in that case, lower the weight.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 up and down movement per side
  • 1 set = 6-8 reps per set per side (12-16 reps total)
  • 3 sets

Arm Bar

Good for shoulder stability, rotator cuff strength, opens tight pectoral muscles. You'll recognize this one from The Kettlebell Warmup for Climbers. As you increase weight, it quickly identifies imbalances between your left and right sides. The added weight really forces you to engage shoulder muscles to keep a vertical arm and teaches you to keep a packed, engaged shoulder.

How

  • More detailed instructions here
  • Lay on your back, pack your shoulder, raise kettlebell straight up
  • Bring your opposite arm directly overhead
  • Roll over on your side
  • Easiest: keep your peripheral vision on the bell
  • Harder: look to the ground; let your body compensate when the bell goes off balance
  • Hardest: make small, controlled O's or 8's with your arm
  • For more stretching: rotate your body as far as it can go, keeping your arm at 90 degrees to the ground. Weight of the kettlebell should always be straight through your joints.

Weight: I use 10-12kg/22-26lb for warm-up, 12kg-14kg/26lb-31lb for a harder workout. Find combinations of weight and progression (looking at bell, looking away, doing O's) to make it harder.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 20-30sec on a single side
  • 1 set = 3 reps per side (6 total reps)
  • 3 sets

Get Up

Good for functional movement, shoulder stability, core strength, leg strength, proprioception/balance, coordination, determining power "glitches." You'll also recognize this one from The Kettlebell Warmup for Climbers. It's excellent with heavier weights.

The getup targets all your muscle groups, transitioning strength, power, and stability fluidly. You start on the ground, use core to sit up, reposition yourself, and stand up, all while under weight. If your muscles falter, especially your core and trunk, even for a fraction of a second, you'll feel the bell sway immediately. Under kettlebell weight, those glitches are magnified. Finding those moments of lost tension in bracing, and then correcting them, will help your climbing. Momentary muscle lapses and then shock loading your muscles again cause climbing injuries, especially in shoulders.

How

  • There's a lot going on with the getup in all 3 planes--for detailed how-to, see here
  • Start on ground with kettlebell raised directly overhead
  • Bend your same leg close to your butt
  • Put your opposite leg and arm at a 45 degree out from your body
  • Roll up onto your elbow
  • Reposition your arm underneath you
  • Bridge your hips up and swing your leg behind you. Your shoulders should be directly vertical with your arms, and your back leg and front leg at 90 degrees to each other.
  • Rotate forward and lunge up
  • Reverse exactly in a controlled manner back down

Weight: I use 14-16kg/31-36lb for warm-up, 16kg-18kg/36lb-40lb for workout. When learning, start light. To really feel muscle imbalance and instability, increase weight. You will quickly find your own "glitches," often when you're transitioning from core to legs and vice-versa, where you lose stability; under the kettlebell weight, it's magnified. You can translate that to climbing: if you have a brief moment of lost tension, and then shock load your shoulder again, it can lead to injury. Work on smooth movement. Getting to 1/3 and 1/2 bodyweight with proper form is great.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 up and down sequence per side
  • 1 set = 3 reps per side (6 reps total)
  • 3 sets

Bell-Up Strict Press

Good for shoulder stability, learning to keep core engaged with shoulders. This is a variation of a strict press. You normally grab the kettlebell handle in your hand, bell resting down on your forearm, and press above your head for a strict press; doing it bell-up forces your stabilizing shoulder muscles to fire.

How

  • Get two identical kettlebells and rack them simultaneously in your palms with the bell up, so they're balancing in your palm
  • Make sure your wrist is in alignment with your elbow; you don't want your wrist cocked backward from forearm. The weight of the bells should be directly over your wrist and forearms
  • Alternate pressing them above your head; as one comes down, the other goes up

Weight: I use 8-10kg/16-22lb. Your weight will be decreased from your max strict press weight. Your max weight will also depend on the diameter of the kettlebell handles; the smaller, the harder it is to balance.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 up and down (you do both sides simultaneously)
  • 1 set = 8-10 reps
  • 3 sets

Overhead Press to Squat

Good for thoracic mobility, shoulder mobility, plus benefits of the squat. Teaches your body to keep your core and posterior engaged at the same time as your shoulders, preventing lapses in stabilization. Great conditioning for rock climbing.

How

  • Rack a kettlebell and press it overhead
  • Assume a squat position, feet about shoulder width or slightly wider
  • Squat down, keeping your spine as straight as possible, your arm straight, and your hips parallel to the floor. The kettlebell should load your wrist, shoulders, and hips in as straight a line as possible.
  • In the video, I lack some thoracic mobility, so my hips don't stay straight. My upper body leans forward at the bottom of the squat, causing my arm holding the kettlebell to fall forward as well. I compensate by bending my elbow. It's not ideal.
  • Make it harder: balance the kettlebell bell-up

Weight: I use 12-14kg/26-31lb. Weight greatly depends on your thoracic and shoulder mobility--the moment your arm deviates from vertical, it will become much harder.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 up and down
  • 1 set = 6-8 reps
  • 3 sets

Sample Circuits

I prefer to do my shoulder workouts at the end of a climbing session, taking care to stop climbing before I'm maxed out so I can do shoulder exercises safely. Or, I'll do them after a sufficient warm-up, like a 20min jog followed by light kettlebell weights to "wake up" my muscles before loading them.

I typically choose any 2 of the above exercises to do in a session after climbing and superset them for 3 sets. For example,

  • 6-8 windmills, each side (12-16 total)
  • 6-8 overhead presses to squat, each side (12-16 total)
  • Repeat 3 times

It doesn't take more than 15 minutes to superset just 2 shoulder exercises, making it very easy to add in post-climbing.


The Caveats

Kettlebells are great and safe, but if you're unsure about your particular ability, especially if you're injured, consult The Internet, a Physical Therapist, Doctor, or someone who has more degrees in medicinal fields than I do (which is none).


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