Unless you’re involved in CrossFit and perform snatches and cleans on the reg, you might reserve your kettlebells primarily for leg- and booty-building exercises such as swings, squats, and deadlifts. But the tool isn’t just for lower-body moves. Exhibit A: The kettlebell halo, a strength- and mobility-boosting exercise that targets your upper body and core.
Here, a trainer breaks down all the benefits the kettlebell halo exercise has to offer and why you should mix it into your training routine. Plus, she gives tips on how to perform and modify the exercise based on your fitness level.
How to Do the Kettlebell Halo Exercise
Simply put, the kettlebell halo exercise entails holding a kettlebell in front of your face, then shifting it around your head as if you were tracing a halo, says Analisse Ríos, C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and strength coach in Connecticut. The kettlebell is the most common weight used to perform this exercise, but you can also use a dumbbell or weight plate, she adds. (
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold one side of the kettlebell's handle in each hand, bell facing up, to start. Elbows should be bent in front of ribcage and bell of the weight in front of mouth.
B. Keeping core engaged and spine neutral, raise kettlebell up to left ear so handle is facing forward. Then, keeping biceps tucked close to head, guide the kettlebell around back of head, past right ear, and finally return the kettlebell back to the starting position.
C. Pause, then repeat the movement on the opposite side.
The Key Kettlebell Halo Exercise Benefits
Despite the move's simplicity, the kettlebell halo exercise offers plenty of perks for your upper body, core, and more.
Improves Grip Strength
Since you’re holding onto a heavy weight throughout the entire movement, the kettlebell halo exercise can help improve your grip strength, or the strength of the muscles in your fingers, hands, and forearms, says Ríos. This benefit is particularly important if you’re seeking to hit a new PR in the gym, she says. “You have to be able to hold the weight you want to lift,” Ríos previously told Shape. “You will only be able to perform as many pull-ups or deadlifts as your grip allows you to because that’s usually the first thing to go.”
Even if you have the lower-body strength to complete 10 heavy deadlifts, for example, you may not hit that target if your grip muscles aren't strong enough to clench onto the bar the entire time. Not to mention, you rely on your grip strength to carry out day-to-day activities, such as placing a heavy container on your pantry's top shelf or lugging grocery bags into your kitchen. Translation: It shouldn't be overlooked.
Encourages Muscle Growth Through Prolonged Time Under Tension
The kettlebell halo is a type of isometric exercise for your biceps and triceps, meaning there isn’t lengthening or shortening of the muscles since you’re holding the weight in the same position throughout the entire movement, says Ríos. “I love it because it increases your time under tension, so you’re increasing your strength without having to perform a countless number of reps or even using too much weight,” she explains.
Reminder: Time under tension refers to the amount of time your muscles are contracting against an external resistance (in this case, added weight), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Increasing time under tension causes more muscle breakdown and metabolic fatigue and, with proper recovery, can lead to more muscle growth, according to ACE.
Reduces Risk of Injury
The kettlebell halo exercise helps build strength, mobility, and stability in your shoulders, all of which play a key role in preventing injury, says Ríos. Specifically, rotating a kettlebell (or any weight, for that matter) around your head helps improve the mobility of your shoulders, as you’re moving the joints through their full range of motion, says Ríos. The exercise also improves shoulder strength and stability — or your joint’s ability to control its movement or position — as the surrounding muscles have to support the weight and work hard to keep your body properly aligned. When one of your joints has limited mobility and stability, you might compensate your movement, which can increase the risk of injury and cause muscle imbalances, according to ACE. Plus, lacking the shoulder strength necessary to support a heavy object above your head (e.g. a suitcase you’re putting in a plane’s overhead compartment, a child you’re lifting in the air) can also lead to injury, says Ríos.
Kettlebell Halo Exercise Muscles Worked
Unsurprisingly, the kettlebell halo exercise puts your entire upper body — including your shoulders, traps, biceps, and triceps — to the test, says Ríos. And building strength in these muscle groups can help you tackle everyday movements with ease, she adds. "You're carrying groceries, you're lifting things up, and if you have a child, you're constantly holding them, carrying them, picking them up," she says. "You need upper-body strength for all of that."
What’s more, the halo exercise also targets the core, which Ríos calls a “sneaky benefit” of the move. “As you’re going around with the kettlebell and moving it toward one ear, your core has to stabilize and make sure there’s no lateral flexion,” she explains. “Then when you’re going behind your head, your core has to stabilize and make sure you’re not leaning back. It’s like a moving plank.”
Kettlebell Halo Exercise Variations
Whether you're a newbie looking to perfect your form or you've mastered the move and want to take the exercise to the next level, you can modify and advance the kettlebell halo accordingly.
Modify with a Sitting or Kneeling Position
If notice your lower back arching or you're struggling to keep your core stable, take it as a sign to modify the kettlebell halo exercise. First, "I like to have people do it sitting down so then you're taking away a little bit of that pressure of keeping that neutral spine," says Ríos. Once you have the hang of the movement while sitting, try the exercise in a tall kneeling position, in which both your knees are on the floor and your butt is lifted, to slightly amp up the core challenge, suggests Ríos. Then, progress to a standing kettlebell halo once you feel comfortable and confident in your form, she adds.
Advance By Adding a Balance Challenge
When you're ready to take things up a notch, Ríos recommends performing the kettlebell halo exercise in different stances that challenge your balance. Try the move in a half-kneeling position, in which one knee is resting on the floor and the other is in front of your body, she suggests. "When you're moving the kettlebell toward your knee side that's down on the floor, you're going to have less stability," says Ríos, so your core will have to work even harder to keep you stable and upright.
From there, you can progress to a kettlebell halo in a split stance, in which you’re in a lunge position and your back knee is hovering above the floor. “That one is a really tough one because your balance is way off — you’re hovering — and since you’re in an isometric lunge hold, you’re getting that lower-body work in as well,” says Ríos.
You can also perform a standing kettlebell halo with one knee pulled up to your hips and bent at a 90-degree angle, she suggests. "You perform the halo as you're standing on one leg," she adds. "It gets that bilateral balance and, with the knee drive, you're increasing the tension in your abs."
Common Kettlebell Halo Mistakes
While performing the kettlebell halo exercise, it’s crucial to keep your core engaged and spine neutral and avoid bending your trunk (think: flexing toward your left side while bringing the kettlebell to your left ear), as making this mistake could result in injury, says Ríos. “If you think about having a tail, you tuck it between your legs — that’s when you know you’re in a neutral spine position,” she says.
You'll also want to hold the weight close to your body, performing a small halo movement around your head, says Ríos. "If you keep the weight too far away from the body, then there is a little bit of a risk for injury because you're putting your shoulder in a compromised position," she explains. And to score the maximum benefit for your triceps, remember to keep your elbows tucked in and biceps close to your ears, says Ríos.
How to Add the Kettlebell Halo Exercise to Your Routine
Ready to mix the kettlebell halo into your upper-body workout routine? If you don’t have access to a kettlebell, try using a dumbbell (holding it by the ends) or a weight plate to perform the movement. That said, a kettlebell may be the best option: A dumbbell’s ends can be difficult to grasp onto, depending on their shape, and a weight plate can be so wide that your elbows inherently flare out, says Ríos. “You can do it with those other tools, but I think the most beneficial, most bang-for-your-buck tool will be the kettlebell,” she adds.
Regardless of the type of equipment, make sure to start out with light weight, (roughly 10 pounds or less), says Ríos. "You want to [practice] the full movement and make sure you're not overcompensating with anything," she explains. "Then once you build up that strength and mobility of your shoulders, you can slowly add weight. If you go too heavy and you don't have mobility in your shoulders, you could potentially hurt yourself." Twice a week, use your chosen weight to perform three sets of eight to 12 reps of the halo exercise per side, suggests Ríos. Once you master the movement and start utilizing a heavier weight, dial the reps back to six to eight per set, she recommends.
Some folks may want to be even more intentional with their kettlebell halo routine and also use it as a warm-up. People who participate in sports involving overhead movements (think: baseball, volleyball) in particular may benefit even more so from the exercise, says Ríos. “This would be a great warm-up for mobility [for them] to include because there’s so much pressure on their shoulders and quick movements,” she adds. That said, you’ll want to consult your doctor before trying the halo exercise if you currently have or have had a shoulder or lower back injury to avoid exacerbating any issues, says Ríos.
Aside from those populations, though, the kettlebell halo exercise is generally a worthy addition to anyone's training program. "If you are looking to increase core strength and stability, shoulder strength, mobility, and stability, and trap strength, do the halo," says Ríos. "It's one move that will give you a lot."