The Definitive Guide to the Kettlebell Row: Variations, Benefits, and Common Mistakes

By Matt Walter
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Learn how to perform the kettlebell row, along with multiple variations

The kettlebell row is an essential kettlebell exercise that targets the muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms. It’s a great exercise for beginners because it is simple to learn and easy to perform.

By the end of this article, you’ll know how to correctly perform the kettlebell row, how to avoid the most common kettlebell row errors, and how to perform a handful of intense kettlebell row variations.

I’ll cover:

  • How to perform the kettlebell row
  • Common kettlebell row errors
  • Muscles worked by the kettlebell row
  • Benefits of the kettlebell row
  • How to program the kettlebell row for your goals
  • Kettlebell row variations

Let’s get to it!

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Video: Kettlebell Row Tutorial

How to Perform the Kettlebell Row

Here we will focus on the single-arm kettlebell row. We will cover other variations later in the article.

For this exercise, you will need a single kettlebell.

Setup (Staggered Stance Version)

Step 1: Place a kettlebell on the floor with the handle parallel to your body. Take a hip-width stance with the kettlebell directly between your feet.

Step 2: Hinge forward at the hips and place your left forearm on top of your left thigh. Your torso should be nearly parallel. Step back with your right leg to assume a staggered stance.

Coach’s Tip: You don’t have to rest your forward arm on your thigh. You can place that arm behind your back, in front of you, or out to your side. Any of these variations will require more stability from your core.

Single-Arm Kettlebell Row Arm Behind Back

Step 3: Grab the kettlebell with your right hand, using a neutral grip.

Execution

Step 4: Pull the kettlebell toward your stomach. Keep your elbow close to your body and finish when the kettlebell reaches your ribcage. Keep your back straight or slightly arched, and your core engaged throughout the entire movement.

Coach’s Tip: Don’t think about pulling with your hand. Think of driving your elbow toward the ceiling and squeezing your lats.

Single-Arm Kettlebell Row Arm Lat Squeeze

Step 5: Pause at the top and squeeze your lats forcefully. Then slowly lower the kettlebell until your arm is fully extended and the kettlebell us just off the floor.

Form Tip: When your arm is fully contracted and the kettlebell is near your ribcage your elbow should be at a roughly 90-degree angle. Bending your elbow beyond 90-degrees happens when you pull the kettlebell too high, toward your chest, and targets the forearm more than the lats.

Step 6: Complete your desired number of reps, rest, then switch sides and repeat.

Coach’s Tip: Inhale as you lower the kettlebell (eccentric) and exhale as you lift (concentric).

Common Errors With the Kettlebell Row

Pulling Your Elbow Too High

The range of motion for the KB row may seem short, especially when compared with the dumbbell row. This often causes people to try and pull the kettlebell higher than necessary, which results in twisting of the torse but not more engagement of the lats.

Your elbows rise just above your ribs. Focus on feeling your lats your contact, pause for a second, and lower the weight. There’s no need to overextend.

Pulling to Your Chest

I mentioned this earlier. You want your elbow to form a 90-degree angle when in the fully contracted position. If you pull to your lower rib cage, this will naturally happen. But there can be a tendency to want to shrug the shoulders and pull the KB toward the chest.

This flexing of the elbow puts more emphasis on the biceps and takes away from the lat engagement. So focus on keeping that elbow close to your side and pulling the kettlebell to your ribs instead of your chest.

Rounded Back

A common error when doing any type of row is rounding your back. This happens when people try to pull too much weight or fail to keep their core engaged throughout the movement.

Remember, you want a slight arch in your lower back, not a rounded spine. So keep those abs tight and think about pulling from your lats rather than just using your arms.

Kettlebell Row Tips and Notes

Kettlebell rows are a horizontal pulling exercise and are intended to work the lats. But the KB row also targets your core and legs because you must support yourself without something to lean on.

The kettlebell and dumbbell row are both effective for building the back. The primary muscles targeted in the movement are the lats, traps, and smaller stabilizing back muscles. Focusing on one arm at a time might help you concentrate on hitting those areas during the workout.

Furthermore, because you’re using one arm at a time rather than both like with the barbell bent-over row, you can’t count on your stronger side doing all of the work. It’s an excellent way to detect any strength imbalances and then correct them.

The kettlebell row is a great complement to other rowing exercises like the barbell row and dumbbell rows. It’s also a good alternative for those who have lower back issues that prevent them from doing traditional rows with a barbell.

Muscles Worked by the Kettlebell Row

The increased stability and balance of kettlebells require greater demands on the core and stabilizing muscles of your body. Below is a complete listing of the muscles used during the kettlebell row.

Latissimus Dorsi

The back’s distinctive winged or V shape is created by the most important muscle in your upper body, affectionately known as the “lats.” This muscle extends from the spine out to our sides and runs most of the length of the back. Kettlebell rows are intended to primarily target this muscle.

Posterior Deltoid

The posterior deltoid (rear delts) assists the lats in lifting the kettlebell.

Trapezius

The traps are located at the base of the skull and travel down to the lower thoracic vertebrae before crossing over to the scapula. The traps are involved in KB rowing during the concentric phase.

Rhomboids

The rhomboids are located beneath the traps. They travel from the spine to the medial area of the scapula. The rhomboids help with scapular retraction, which is necessary when lifting the kettlebell.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae is a group of muscles that includes the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles. They run along the spine’s sides and aid spinal stability. In the case of the KB row, the erector spinae muscles work to stabilize your back and maintain posture while you row.

Biceps Brachii and Brachialis

The biceps sit on the front of the upper arm and cause flexion of the elbow joint. Its role in the kettlebell row is to flex the biceps as the weight is raised.

Brachioradialis

The brachioradialis helps grip the kettlebell and flex the forearm at the below joint.

Teres Major

The teres major is involved in medial rotation and extension of the humerus. These actions helps lift the kettlebell.

Rotator Cuffs (Teres Minor, Infraspinatus)

The teres minor helps stabilize the scapula, while the infraspinatus provides stability and external rotation of the shoulder.

Hips, Core, Obliques, Glutes, and Hamstrings

These muscles will contract isometrically to maintain your body position and hinge throughout the movement.

Benefits of the Kettlebell Row

Kettlebell Row Benefits

Below are some of the benefits of the kettlebell row.

Increased Wrist and Shoulder Stability (Renegade Row)

The kettlebell’s imbalanced weight distribution, combined with the higher handle and body from the floor, can lead to instability when performing the kettlebell renegade row. This forces you to slow down and take your time with each rep.

While this may be too advanced for a beginning lifter, it is a great exercise for an intermediate lifter. It not only provides a new stimulus and challenge but can help create a better mind-muscle connection with the lats because you have to perform the lift slowly.

Improved Balance and Control, and Core Strength (Renegade Row)

The need to maintain total control of your upper body, wrist, core, and lower body throughout the entire range of motion of the kettlebell renegade row can lead to substantial changes in technique and coordination.

Reduce Risk Of Injury

Kettlebells offer a unique way to load your body during training. Unlike barbells and dumbbells, kettlebells can be lifted with the weight distributed in either hand. This creates a unilateral load.

Unilateral loading is when you have one arm or leg doing the majority of the work while the other arm or leg assists. When done correctly, kettlebell rows can help improve your posture and alleviate muscular imbalances.

Enhance Core Strength

The kettlebell row is a full-body exercise that targets the back muscles while also engaging the core. The kettlebell’s imbalanced weight distribution creates a challenge for your stabilizer muscles, which forces your abs and obliques to work harder.

As a result, kettlebell rows can help improve your overall strength, power, and stability.

Kettlebell rows are a great way to build a strong and powerful back. But they’re also an effective exercise for improving your posture, balance, coordination, and core strength.

Strengthens Your Back

Horizontal pulling exercises are great for targeting the muscles in your back. The kettlebell row is a horizontal pulling movement that primarily works the lats but also targets the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboid also, and erector spinae.

The kettlebell row is an essential exercise for building a strong and muscular back. But it’s a great exercise for improving your posture, balance, coordination, and core strength.

Programming the Kettlebell Row

The kettlebell row is similar to the dumbbell row, but the odd shape and off-balance nature of the bell provide a slightly different stimulus.

Your back hypertrophy routine should include at least one version of a horizontal pull and one version of a vertical pull every week, if not every workout.

Use the kettlebell row in place of any row in your workout or throughout your week.

If you are looking to put on mass, choose a kettlebell row version that allows you to train with as much weight as possible for 6-8 reps (functional hypertrophy zone) or 9-12 reps (total hypertrophy zone). The standard single-arm or double KB row, suitcase row, single-arm KB row on a bench, and underhand row are great variations for this purpose.

If you’re training for functional fitness, enhanced mobility, core stability, or lifestyle improvement, choose one of the variations that will challenge you to work in different places of motion or hold your body in static positions for 8-15 reps. The renegade row, plank row, plank row on a bench, seesaw, alternating, hand on bell, gorilla row, lateral row, and static switch row are great variations for this purpose.

Kettlebell Row Variations

Kettlebell Row Variations

There are so many ways to vary the kettlebell row. Let’s cover as many of them as we can!

Kettlebell Suitcase Row

The KB suitcase row is similar to the one-arm kettlebell row described above, except you won’t be in a staggered stance.

Start with your feet hip-width apart, the kettlebell sitting outside of one of your feet, and place your non-working hand across your belly or behind your back.

Sit back on your heels and hinge forward, keeping your back flat.

Pull the kettlebell towards your hip.

Pause at the top and squeeze your lats before lowering the kettlebell back to the starting position.

Perform all of your reps on one arm, rest, and then on the other.

You can also make this a Double Kettlebell Suitcase Row.

Double Kettlebell Row

Double Kettlebell Row Finish Position

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and two kettlebells between your feet.

Hinge at the waist, squat down, and grab each kettlebell with a neutral grip (palms facing each other).

Keeping your back flat and knees slightly bent, drive through your heels and stand just enough so that the kettlebells are off the ground.

Pull the kettlebells to your hips, pause for a second, and then lower them back down to the starting position.

Single-Arm Kettlebell Row (on a Bench)

Instead of supporting your body in space, you can place your non-working hand and same-side knee up a flat bench. This version will work less of your core, but you’ll likely be able to handle more weight.

Place one knee and one hand on a bench.

Reach down and grab a kettlebell with a neutral grip.

Using the bench to brace your body, row the kettlebell up to your hip while keeping your elbow close to your side.

Pause at the top and squeeze your lats, then lower the kettlebell back toward the floor.

Kettlebell Gorilla Row

This kettlebell row will challenge your core. You first pull with one side, and then with the other. This back and forth, rep by rep, keeps your core constantly guessing and having to adapt with each rep to maintain a neutral position. Keep your back flat and avoid the urge to twist your torso.

Place 2 kettlebells on the ground with their handles parallel to each other.

Take a shoulder-width or slightly wider stance, just outside your 2 kettlebells.

Hinge at the wast, squat down, and grab your kettlebells. Your torso should be roughly parallel with the ground and you want to drive your knees out to the sides.

Pull the kettlebell in your right hand up to your hip, squeezing your lat at the top. Leave the left-hand kettlebell on the ground.

Slowly lower the kettlebell back to the ground. As soon as the kettlebell hits the ground, row the left arm up to your hip.

Repeat back and forth until you reach your desired number of reps.

Kettlebell Plank Row on Bench

This version will light up your lower back and core muscles.

Place your non-working hand on a bench or box and extend your feet behind you. You should look like you’re doing a plank, except your arm is up on a box instead of on the ground.

Reach down and grab a kettlebell with your other hand.

Brace your core and row the kettlebell toward your hips.

Be sure to pull drive your elbow up and avoid shrugging your shoulders.

The key to this variation is keeping your back flat and body straight without letting your hips drop. Resist rotating and maintain good alignment.

Kettlebell Renegade Row

The kettlebell renegade row is very similar to the plank row above, except you will use 2 kettlebells.

Place 2 kettlebells about hip-width apart on the ground with their handles parallel.

Grab the kettlebells, extend your arms to support your upper body, and extend your legs behind you.

While supporting your upper body on one arm, brace your core and row one kettlebell toward your hip.

Lower the kettlebell back to the ground.

You can complete all of your reps with one arm, rest, and then switch arms, or alternate back and forth (rep 1 on the right, rep 2 on the left, 3 on the right, 4 on the left, etc.)

Maintain a flat back, neutral hips, and a strong, stable core throughout the movement. Take your time and be deliberate!

Kettlebell Seesaw Row

The seesaw row is a great way to challenge your core and stabilizing muscles. In this kettlebell row version, you’ll be moving your arms dynamically rather than supporting your weight with them.

Stand in a shoulder-width stance and place 2 kettlebells on the ground between your legs with the handles parallel.

Hinge forward at the hips, bend your knees, extend your arms, and grab your kettlebells with a neutral grip. Your torso should be close to parallel with the floor

Lift one kettlebell to just below your ribcage while the other arm remains extended with the kettlebell held just off the ground. keeping your elbow close to your side as you lift the weight.

Begin to lower the kettlebell back to the ground. At the same time, begin to raise the other kettlebell toward your ribcage. Your arms should move like a counterbalance. They are both moving at the same time, in exactly opposite directions.

Do this movement slowly at first. Once you get the hang of the exercise and your core is strong enough to resist rotation throughout, begin to speed up. Doing this with relative speed will torch your lats and core!

Alternating Kettlebell Row

This is a high-intensity version that will challenge your strength, balance, and reaction time, while also testing your coordination and speed. Instead of performing one arm at a time, you’ll be passing the kettlebell from one hand to the other during this dynamic row variation. This is a fantastic mind-body connection workout that will put your mind to the test in more ways than one.

Take a shoulder-width stance with a kettlebell between your feet. The handle should be parallel to your body.

Bend your knees and hinge your hips until your torso is roughly parallel with the ground.

Start with your left arm bent and your hand just in front of your chest.

Extend your right arm and grab the kettlebell with a neutral grip.

Lift the kettlebell toward the center of your chest, not to the outside of your body.

When you reach the fully contracted position, kettlebell close to your chest, release your right hand from the handle.

Bring your left hand up and catch the kettlebell before it drops.

Slowly lower the kettlebell until your left arm is fully extended. Your right arm should still be up by your chest.

Lift the kettlebell with your left arm toward the center of your chest. Release it at the top and catch the bell with your right arm.

Alternate back and forth until you reach your desired number of reps.

Hand On Bell Row

This version of the kettlebell row requires a high level of grip strength. You’re going to hold the kettlebell by the bell instead of the handle. This grip change will require you to use wrist flexion to keep the kettlebell stable throughout the lift. This is a great exercise for improving grip, forearm, and back strength.

Take a shoulder-width stance with a kettlebell between your feet. The handle shoulder is parallel to your body.

Bend your left leg and take a step backward with your right leg to get into a staggered stance.

Hinge forward so that your torso is roughly parallel with the floor.

Reach down with your right arm to the inside of the kettlebell (side closest to your left leg). Slide your hand through the handle window and tilt the bell so that the ball is resting in the palm of your hand.

Your left arm should be bent at the elbow with your hand in front of you, or resting on your left leg.

Lift the kettlebell with your wrist flexed by pulling on the bell. Keep your arm close to your side and pull the kettlebell to your hip.

Repeat for desired reps, then switch sides

Lateral Row

During the kettlebell lateral row, you will lift the weight across your body from left to right (or right to left). This adds an exaggerated but controlled, range of motion for your lats. And the lateral lunge position will work your adductors and hip flexors as an added bonus.

Take a wider than shoulder-width stance and place your kettlebell just inside your left foot.

Bend your left knee and drop your hips down and back to your left side while straightening your right leg. Rest your left elbow on your thigh.

Reach across your body with your right hand and grab the kettlebell with a neutral grip.

Lift the kettlebell across your body toward your right hip. Squeeze your lats at the top.

Lower the kettlebell back to the starting position.

Complete your desired reps on one side, rest, and then perform reps with the opposite arm.

Underhand Kettlebell Row

The underhand kettlebell row uses a supinated grip, places additional tension on your biceps,u and targets the lower portion of the lats.

Set a kettlebell on the floor, then stand over it with a shoulder-width stance.

Bend your knees, hinge forward, and grab the handle with both hands using an underhand, supinated grip.

Lift the kettlebell toward your stomach. Keep your elbows close to your sides and squeeze your lats at the top of the movement.

Lower the kettlebell to the starting position and repeat.

This is a great movement for mass because you can handle lifting a heavier weight than you can with one arm working at a time.

Static Hand Kettlebell Switch

The static hand kettlebell switch will improve your reaction and coordination. The trick with this row is to squeeze and maintain tension on your lats while switching the kettlebell from hand to hand. It’s easy to focus on your hands too much and lose tension in your target muscles.

Place a single kettlebell on the floor. Stand over it with your feet shoulder-width apart.

Squat down to grab your kettlebell while maintaining an arch in your back. Your torso should be roughly parallel with the floor.

Grab the kettlebell using a neutral grip with one hand. The other arm is bent with your hand at roughly the same height as your kettlebell hand.

Lift the kettlebell a few inches off the ground.

Lift the kettlebell only slightly and release it mid-air. Catch the horn with your other hand before it hits the ground and immediately pull up on the bell and then release it.

Pass the kettlebell back and forth for the desired number of reps.

Titan Fitness Cast Iron Kettlebells – These are my favorite style of kettlebells. If you are just getting into kettlebells, start with a 16 kg (35 lb) or 24 kg (53 lb) bell. I bought my 35-kg kettlebell from Titan Fitness and I love it.

Rogue Fitness Iron Kettlebells – These are great, high-quality kettlebells. I have two 16-kg and one 24-kg from Rogue.

Rogue Fitness E-Coat Kettlebells – These are slightly cheaper than the cast iron kettlebells but are of the same quality and are shaped from the same mold as the cast iron. I have one of these and I use it often with my cast iron version. They are the same height, weight, and feel, which is important if you are doing dual kettlebell work.

Conclusion: The Kettlebell Row

The kettlebell row is a great exercise for back strength and can be performed with a variety of different grips and variations. We’ve listed some of our favorites above, but feel free to experiment to see what works best for you.

Let us know what variations we missed in the comments, and be sure to check out our kettlebell exercises page for more great kettlebell movements.

As always, thanks for reading!

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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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