If you’ve been indoctrinated into the notion that only bicep curls provide the keys to bigger arms -- think again. “There are advantages to using kettlebells over dumbbells and barbells,” says Michael Skogg, co-owner of the Skogg Gym in Portland, Oregon. Kettlebell cleans and related exercises provide a more natural way, he says, for the biceps to grow and get you ready for tight T-shirt weather. “When warm weather rolls around, one of my favorite sayings is, 'Out comes the sun, out comes the guns,’” Skogg observes. “And after all, who doesn't want muscular arms?”
Warm up with five minutes of your choice of either range of motion exercises, clock lunges, kettlebell halos or similar motions. Continue until your body is warm, your joints feel flexible and your body is limber. Next, perform your kettlebell exercises, with their whole-body involvement and simultaneous arm focus, as often as every other day, and progress them by adding sets, heavier weights or doing them for more time.
Perform an experiment to understand the limits of the biceps curl, Skogg suggests. As a drill, bend your arm 90 degrees at the elbow. Rotate your forearm as if you we're using a screwdriver. “Notice the kinetic response,” he suggests. “The biceps shortens and lengthens without any resistance. That same rotational movement is duplicated in the kettlebell clean” -- but not with the biceps curl. Now that you’ve demonstrated the natural movement behind the clean, it’s time to add weight to grow the muscles.
Select a weight for your kettlebell clean. “The kettlebell clean is a compound movement, using a great deal of hip drive, and quad and trap involvement, as well as the biceps. This allows the individual to use a larger weight than an isolated movement,” Skogg notes. Men may be able to handle 20 to 30 pounds, and women 12 to 18 pounds, with adjustments up or down depending on how active you are. If you are in doubt, go lighter so you can learn and maintain your form.
Begin your first clean by positioning the bell between your feet slightly behind your heels. Grasp the handle with one hand, knees bent, hips thrust back. With a forward hip thrust, send the bell to a clean position, under your chin, cradled under your forearm. Two sets of four or five repetitions per side, with a rest of up to 30 seconds between, may suffice for a beginner. As you become more experienced, you can trim the rest period and boost the sets.
Continue your arm program with truck drivers -- overhead triceps extensions with the kettlebell. You hold the bell with both hands with a crush grip or one hand by the handle. Lower the bell behind your head in a standing position and return it to an overhead position. Go as light as you need to maintain form -- probably several pounds lighter than for your cleans, as this is an isolation exercise.
Mix in a body-weight classic -- the close-grip pushup, performed with your thumb and index fingers touching in a diamond pattern. Finish with the drag curl: Place two hands on one bell. Drag the bell up your centerline without shrugging, with your elbows flared out. The finish point is slightly below the chest, Skogg notes. Lower the bell and repeat.