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A Guide to Mastering the Kettlebell Halo Workout for Strengthening Your Upper Body and Core Muscles

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Unless you’re engaged in CrossFit and perform snatches and cleans regularly, you might reserve your kettlebells primarily for exercises that focus on your legs and buttocks, such as swings, squats, and deadlifts. However, the tool is not exclusively for lower-body movements. Exhibit A: The kettlebell halo, an exercise that enhances strength and mobility while targeting your upper body and core.

In this article, a trainer explains all the advantages of incorporating the kettlebell halo exercise into your training routine. Additionally, she provides tips on how to execute and modify the exercise based on your fitness level.

How to Perform the Kettlebell Halo Exercise

In simple terms, the kettlebell halo exercise involves holding a kettlebell in front of your face and moving it around your head in a circular motion, resembling the shape of a halo. According to Analisse Ríos, C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and strength coach in Connecticut, the kettlebell is the most commonly used weight for this exercise. However, a dumbbell or weight plate can also be utilized.

A. Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and holding one side of the kettlebell’s handle in each hand, with the bell facing upwards. Your elbows should be bent in front of your ribcage, and the weight’s bell should be positioned in front of your mouth.

B. While maintaining engaged core muscles and a neutral spine, lift the kettlebell up towards your left ear, ensuring that the handle is facing forward. Then, with your biceps close to your head, guide the kettlebell behind your head, past your right ear, and finally return it to the starting position.

C. Pause briefly, then repeat the movement on the opposite side.

Benefits of the Kettlebell Halo Exercise

Despite its simplicity, the kettlebell halo exercise offers numerous advantages for your upper body, core, and more.

Enhances Grip Strength

Since you hold a heavy weight throughout the entire exercise, the kettlebell halo can contribute to improving your grip strength. This refers to the strength of the muscles in your fingers, hands, and forearms, as explained by Ríos. This benefit is particularly crucial if you aim to set a new personal record (PR) in the gym. “You need to be able to grip the weight you want to lift,” Ríos previously stated. “Your ability to perform pull-ups or deadlifts is typically limited by your grip strength.

Even if you possess the strength in your lower body to accomplish 10 intense deadlifts, for instance, you might not achieve that goal if your grip muscles aren’t sufficiently robust to firmly grasp onto the bar throughout the entire duration. Not to mention, you depend on your grip strength to carry out everyday tasks, such as positioning a weighty container on the highest shelf of your pantry or transporting grocery bags into your kitchen. Translation: It should not be disregarded.

Promotes Muscle Growth Through Prolonged Duration Under Tension

The kettlebell halo is a form of isometric exercise for your biceps and triceps, signifying that there is no elongation or contraction of the muscles since you are retaining the weight in the same position throughout the entire motion, explains Ríos. “I adore it because it elevates your duration under tension, allowing you to increase your strength without needing to perform an endless number of repetitions or even utilize excessive weight,” she elucidates.

Reminder: Duration under tension pertains to the length of time during which your muscles are contracting against an external resistance (in this case, added weight), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Augmenting duration under tension induces more muscle breakdown and metabolic fatigue and, with appropriate recovery, can result in increased muscle growth, states ACE.

Minimizes Risk of Harm

The kettlebell halo exercise aids in enhancing strength, mobility, and stability in your shoulders, all of which assume a crucial role in averting injuries, asserts Ríos. Specifically, rotating a kettlebell (or any weight, for that matter) around your head helps enhance the mobility of your shoulders, as you are moving the joints through their complete range of motion, explains Ríos. The exercise also heightens shoulder strength and stability — or your joint’s capacity to regulate its movement or position — as the surrounding muscles must support the weight and exert considerable effort to maintain proper alignment of your body. When one of your joints possesses limited mobility and stability, you may compensate in your movements, which can escalate the danger of injury and lead to muscle imbalances, according to ACE. Additionally, lacking the necessary shoulder strength to support a heavy object above your head (e.g., a suitcase being placed in the overhead compartment of an airplane, a child being lifted into the air) can also result in injury, emphasizes Ríos.

Kettlebell Halo Exercise Muscles Engaged

Predictably, the kettlebell halo exercise challenges the entirety of your upper body — encompassing your shoulders, trapezius muscles, biceps, and triceps — affirms Ríos. Moreover, developing strength in these muscle groups can facilitate effortless execution of day-to-day movements, as she adds. “When you’re carrying grocery bags, lifting objects, or constantly holding and picking up a child, all of these actions necessitate upper-body strength.”

Additionally, the halo exercise specifically targets the core, which Ríos deems a “covert benefit” of the maneuver. “While moving the kettlebell around and bringing it close to one ear, your core must stabilize to prevent lateral flexion,” she elucidates. “Then, as you move the kettlebell behind your head, your core needs to stabilize to ensure you maintain an upright position. It’s akin to a moving plank.”

Kettlebell Halo Exercise Variations

Whether you are a novice intent on perfecting your technique or a proficient practitioner seeking to elevate the intensity of the exercise, you possess the capacity to modify and advance the kettlebell halo routine accordingly.

Modify with a Seated or Kneeling Position

If you notice your lower back exhibiting an excessive curve or experience challenges in maintaining core stability, consider it an indication to modify the kettlebell halo exercise. Initially, “I prefer individuals to perform it in a seated position as this alleviates some of the pressure associated with maintaining a neutral spine,” asserts Ríos. Once you have grasped the movement while sitting, endeavor to execute the exercise in a tall kneeling position, where both knees rest on the floor and your buttocks are elevated. This slight alteration intensifies the core component of the challenge, Ríos recommends. Subsequently, as your confidence and proficiency in form grow, progress to performing the standing kettlebell halo.

Advance By Incorporating a Balance Challenge

When you feel prepared to elevate the difficulty level, Ríos advocates conducting the kettlebell halo exercise in various stances that inherently target your balance. Experiment with executing the routine in a half-kneeling position, wherein one knee rests on the floor while the other is positioned in front of your body, she advises. “As you move the kettlebell toward the side of the knee that is on the floor, the stability decreases,” notes Ríos, thereby necessitating greater core engagement to sustain an upright and steady posture.

Subsequently, progress to a kettlebell halo performed in a split stance, encompassing a lunge position whereby your rear knee hovers just above the ground. “This variation poses as an arduous challenge since your balance is significantly compromised — you are in a hovering stance — and concurrently, the isometric lunge position engages the lower body,” elucidates Ríos.

Common Kettlebell Halo Errors

While executing the kettlebell halo maneuver, it is essential to maintain activation of your core and keep your spine in a neutral position, avoiding any inclination to bend your torso (imagine flexing towards your left side while bringing the kettlebell towards your left ear). Ríos warns that making this mistake could result in injury. According to her, “Once you imagine having a tail, tuck it between your legs to ensure your spine is neutral.”

It is also important to hold the weight close to your body, performing a small circular movement around your head. Ríos explains, “If you hold the weight too far from your body, there is a slight risk of injury because you are putting your shoulder in a compromised position.” To maximize the triceps’ benefits, remember to keep your elbows tucked in and your biceps close to your ears, advises Ríos.

Incorporating the Kettlebell Halo Exercise Into Your Routine

Ready to incorporate the kettlebell halo into your upper-body workout regimen? If you don’t have access to a kettlebell, you can try using a dumbbell (holding it by the ends) or a weight plate to perform the movement. However, Ríos suggests that a kettlebell may be the most suitable option. She explains, “While you can perform the exercise using other tools, I believe the kettlebell provides the most benefits and bang for your buck.”

Regardless of the equipment you choose, it is crucial to start with a light weight (around 10 pounds or less), according to Ríos. She advises, “Begin by practicing the complete movement and ensure you are not compensating for anything. Once you have developed enough strength and shoulder mobility, gradually increase the weight. If you go too heavy without proper shoulder mobility, you risk potential injury.” Ríos recommends performing three sets of eight to 12 reps of the halo exercise on each side, twice a week, using your selected weight. As you become more proficient and begin using heavier weights, she suggests reducing the reps to six to eight per set.

Some individuals may choose to be more deliberate with their kettlebell halo routine and utilize it as a warm-up. Ríos particularly suggests this for individuals who participate in sports involving overhead movements, such as baseball or volleyball, as they may derive even greater benefits from the exercise.

This exercise would serve as an excellent warm-up for flexibility for individuals to include because there is a significant amount of stress on their shoulders and rapid movements,” she suggests. Nevertheless, it is advisable to consult your physician before attempting the halo exercise if you currently have or have had a shoulder or lower back injury to prevent aggravating any problems, says Ríos.

Apart from those groups, however, the kettlebell halo exercise is generally a worthwhile addition to anyone’s training regimen. “If you aim to enhance core strength and stability, shoulder strength, flexibility, and stability, as well as trapezius strength, perform the halo,” says Ríos. “It’s one action that will provide you with numerous benefits.