The kettlebell halo is an excellent exercise for strengthening and mobilizing your shoulders. As you might expect, that means your shoulders do most of the work — but this is also a great core exercise, and works your upper chest and back too.
Muscles Used in a Halo Workout
In the real world, your body rarely ever uses one muscle at a time. Instead your muscles work together in groups, pulling your joints through the complex movements you perform every day. Because of that, fitness professionals prize compound movements that work multiple muscles and joints together, preparing you for the physical demands of everyday life.
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The kettlebell halo is a sterling example of that. As noted by master kettlebell coach Marcus Martinez in his YouTube video "Movement of the Week — Kettlebell Halo," the kettlebell halo is excellent for developing shoulder mobility and strength. That's useful not so much because you spend all day swinging heavy things around your head, but because your shoulders need that mobility and strength for a variety of functional motions.
The halo exercise works every muscle in your shoulder girdle, from your rotator cuff to your deltoids and the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades. Your upper back and chest muscles also help guide your arms through the appropriate range of motion, and your core works harder than you might expect to stabilize your body against the movement of the weight.
Heads up: The kettlebell halo demands such a wide range of motion at the shoulder that you may find yourself using significantly less weight for it than for other kettlebell exercises. When in doubt, always start with a light weight until you've mastered proper form, and then gradually adjust the weight upward for a greater challenge.
Kettlebell Halo Exercise for Mobility
Before you start your kettlebell halo workout, get used to what's often called the horn grip. This means holding one kettlebell in front of you in both hands, close to your body, with the ball or "bell" side of the weight pointing up and the handle pointing down. Your hands rest on the angled parts of the handle — the horns — that connect directly to the ball.
- Stand square with your feet hip-width apart, holding the kettlebell near your chest in a horn grip.
- Slide the kettlebell up and to the right, as if you were passing it over your shoulder to someone behind you — but keep a firm grip on it.
- Continue moving the kettlebell around your head to the right, raising your left arm enough that your arm passes over your head. When the kettlebell is directly behind your head, it will be upside down.
- Keep rotating the kettlebell around your head in the same direction, until you can bring your right arm forward over your head. This allows you to slide the kettlebell back in front of you, completing the motion.
Keep your core tight and knees slightly bent through this exercise; think of tucking your tailbone slightly underneath you to keep from arching your back as you move the weight. Finally, make sure you're actually moving the kettlebell around your head — not bobbing and weaving your head to get it around the kettlebell.
Nationwide Children's Hospital includes the kettlebell halo in its suggestions for creative strength training. They recommend doing five sets of this exercise in each direction, with each set lasting for 30 seconds of continuous movement — but even one or two sets is a good place to start. You can also alternate directions with each repetition: First circle the kettlebell around your head to the right, then reverse the motion to the left.
Technically, you could use a dumbbell for this exercise — but it's more comfortable when done with a kettlebell. And, as observed in a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, kettlebells are excellent for not only developing strength and balance, but boosting your aerobic capacity too. Both types of exercise are important for your health, as noted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.