The kettlebell arm bar may be the best shoulder exercise you’ve never heard of. The move mobilizes the shoulder and midback, and it allows the scapulas to fully retract — a position few of us reach in our day-to-day activities. As a bonus, the exercise stretches the front of the shoulder and top of the chest and provides a gentle spinal twist.
Done regularly, the arm bar can help improve posture, wringing out some of the damage caused by sitting for long periods of time. It can also improve stability and performance for other upper-body strength moves, such as the overhead press and bench press.
The arm bar may be most familiar in kettlebell circles. But it can also be performed with a light dumbbell or another lightweight object, such as a water bottle or shoe.
The most common mistake is trying to perform the move with too much weight. The arm bar is primarily a mobility exercise, so opt for a lighter weight (a good starting range is 2 kg to 4 kg for kettlebells and 5 lb. to 8 lb. for dumbbells). Focus on moving with control and good form — using too much weight can overtax the muscles and connective tissues, as well as limit range of motion.
Although this exercise emphasizes the shoulder girdle, the movement itself is driven by the hips. Keep your working arm perpendicular to the floor and punching upward toward the ceiling while you shift your hips, and then your chest, toward the floor.
You can incorporate the arm bar into your preworkout warm-up or daily mobility routine. The following tips will guide you through the move.
- Lie on your back, with a kettlebell grasped in one hand and pressed straight over your chest; take care not to let your wrist bend back. Bend the knee of the kettlebell-side leg. Extend the opposite leg and arm straight and flat on the floor.
- Push through your bent-leg foot to rotate through your midback and shift your weight onto your opposite hip and shoulder. With control, bring your bent leg across your body as far as you comfortably can, rolling farther onto your extended side.
- Allow your bent knee to come to the floor, stacking your hips. If possible and comfortable, continue to roll your hips and chest toward the floor. Explore how deeply you can lower the front of your body while maintaining your form.
- Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, breathing normally, and then reset to return to your starting position. Repeat up to three times per side.
This article originally appeared as “The Arm Bar” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.