The kettlebell alternating row is a back exercise that offers training variety, aka the spice of life. Rather than using dumbbells or cables all the time, using the uniquely shaped kettlebell may provide some stimulus that many aren’t used to.
In this guide, we’ve discussed the muscles worked, benefits, and you’ll find tips, variations, and a sample workout using this movement.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Back
- Type: Hypertrophy and strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Kettlebells
- Difficulty: Beginner
While the back muscles are the focus when performing the kettlebell alternating row, many would be surprised to know that several muscle groups are involved.
This can be a great thing because you’re able to stimulate multiple muscles groups and therefore, improve muscular and strength development in less time.
We’ve included short descriptions of each muscle group involved in this movement.
The infraspinatus is one of the rotator cuff muscles along with the supraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles help to aid in the mobility and stability of the shoulder joint. The infraspinatus assists in external rotation of the shoulder joint, scaption, and lateral rotation of the humerus.
The latissimus dorsi or lats for short is a broad, flat muscle that spans the lower posterior thorax. It works with the teres major and pectoralis major to adduct and medially rotate the humerus, and it helps to extend the humerus with help from the teres major and the sternal head of pectoralis major. The lats are also involved in moving the trunk forward and upward when the arms are positioned overhead.
You may have seen bodybuilders or very muscular individuals that look like they have wings under their armpits; well, the lats are the muscles responsible.
The teres major is a thick muscle of the shoulder joint that medially rotates and adducts the arm and stabilizes the shoulder joint. Unlike the teres minor, it’s not a rotator cuff muscle.
The teres minor is a rotator cuff muscle that, along with the other rotator cuff muscles functions to stabilize the glenohumeral joint. Its specific function is lateral, or external, rotation of the arm at the shoulder.
The transverse abdominis is a deep core muscle that acts as a weightlifting belt to stabilize the spine. It draws and compresses the belly button into the spine.
Leaning forward and having to support the weight of kettlebells should force you to activate this muscle group.
Trapezius Lower Fibers
The trapezius lower fibers are part of the trapezius muscle located on the upper back shaped liked a trapezoid. It depresses the scapula and aids the upper fibers in upward rotation of the scapula.
Most back exercises work the trap muscles that, when well developed, stick up on either side of the neck.
Trapezius Middle Fibers
The middle fibers of the trapezius muscle, between the upper and lower trap fibers, adduct (retract) the scapula.
The brachialis is located deep to the biceps muscle on the outer portion. It’s a pure elbow flexor that gives width to the upper arm when developed.
While this muscle isn’t visible on most people, when well-developed on a leaner individual, you can see it poking through the outer upper arms between the biceps and triceps.
The brachioradialis is a muscle located in the lateral forearm. It’s an elbow flexor and forearm supinator and pronator.
Pulls and rows work this muscle.
The deltoid posterior or rear delts are one of the three heads that make up the shoulder muscles. With the other two heads, the deltoid posterior assists in abducting the arm past 15 degrees. It also helps the anterior head to stabilize the arm while the lateral head abducts the arms from 15-100 degrees, and works with the latissimus dorsi to extend the arm while walking.
Having well-built rear delts is so important for posture, lifting posture, and having a balanced physique. Many neglect to train the rear delts because they can’t see them, but they add so much to the overall appearance of the shoulders.
Pectoralis Major Sternal Head
The sternal head of the pectoralis major or main chest muscle has various functions including transverse flexion and adduction, internal rotation, adduction, and extension of the shoulders. It also assists in downward rotation, depression, and abduction (movement away from the center) of the scapula.
How To Do The Kettlebell Alternating Row
While there’s nothing particularly complex about this exercise, there are proper and not so proper ways to do it. While anyone can pick up a pair of kettlebells and do rows, using bad form can cause injury, pain, and lessen the benefits of this exercise.
Therefore, we created step-by-step instructions to ensure you’re at least doing it in a safe and effective manner. But we do understand that more experienced exercisers may have their own technique and that’s totally fine.
Choosing a weight
If you don’t have much training experience, then you’ll want to choose lighter weights to start to ensure you get the form down before ramping up the poundages.
While simply a suggestion, most beginner women may want to start with 12 lb kettlebells or lighter while men may want to start with no more than 25 lb kettlebells and sometimes less is ideal.
Due to its unique design, it could take a little getting used to and especially if you’re only used to dumbbells and more common training tools.
- Place the kettlebells on the floor in front of you about a foot apart from each other.
- Position your feet wider and roughly shoulder-width apart evenly in front of and close to the kettlebells.
- Feel free to slide the kettlebells into place until you find a comfortable rowing position, so long as you’re maintaining good form and you’re not leaning far forward.
- Keeping your back straight, chest up, and core tight, bend your knees, push your hips back and hinge forward at your hips until your back is parallel to the floor or slightly higher.
- Pick up the kettlebells and re-set your form. You want to make sure your back is straight, and your shoulder blades back.
- Pull/row one kettlebell in line with but slightly past your lower chest. As you lower that kettlebell, row the other one and continue alternating rowing the kettlebells.
Here’s a video example…
Kettlebell alternating row tips
- Avoid rotating and twisting as you’re rowing the kettlebells.
- Do not allow your knees to cave in during this movement.
- The kettlebell alternating row is ideally performed with the feet positioned wider than the arms during the exercise. Therefore, you’re rowing with the arms closer together. This is also called the gorilla row. Although, you can do it with the arms on the outside of the legs if preferred.
- While you can keep the movement going by not touching the kettlebells to the ground, you can also alternate placing each kettlebell down during the set. Putting the kettlebell down is ideal for those with less than optimal lower back strength as it provides support during the rows. The supported version may also be better for handling heavier poundages.
Variations and Alternatives
The kettlebell alternating row is a phenomenal exercise and back variation. However, we also like these variations and some people may prefer alternatives of which we’ve also included.
Dumbbell alternating row
Kettlebells are certainly becoming increasingly more popular and most gyms and many home gyms are equipped with this versatile and functional training tool. However, dumbbells are more common and some people are more used to using them.
You can do the alternating dumbbell row and reap similar benefits. The only difference is there may be a little less core activation and carryover from the functional aspect of training using kettlebells. But if your goal is to just build solid back mass, you can never go wrong with dumbbells.
Kettlebell bent-over row
Instead of alternating arms, you could row both arms at the same time. And this way, you can more easily identify if there’s a weaker side that needs to be brought up to par.
While it’ll still develop strength and muscle, row slowly and pay attention to how each side is performing. Symmetrically strength is important for proper development.
Kettlebell single-arm row
One-arm kettlebell rows are a good option for lightening up the weight even more and using a full range of motion to really get a pronounced contraction of your back muscles.
But it’s also good for functional training and identifying and fixing left to right strength imbalances. If you’re weaker on one side, you can perform an extra rep or two to even up the strength on both sides.
Additionally, it’ll utilize more of your core which is good for development and you can more easily transition into a swing or clean if you wanted to mix things up a little.
Kettlebell renegade row
The renegade row is a very functional exercise that many don’t do, probably because it’s a little unconventional and a bit harder to do than other, simpler row variations. Although, many avoid it because they don’t feel it has any use in their training regime.
But it does offer benefits including working your back, biceps, rear delts, core, wrist strength, and total-body stability.
Not to mention, using a pair of kettlebells as opposed to dumbbells will require more attention to detail and balance.
Chest-supported kettlebell rows
Another good option is to sit chest down on an inclined bench and do rows this way. It’ll take your back out of the movement and prevent any cheating.
Kettlebell Alternating Row in Your Training Routine
The kettlebell alternating row really is an exciting exercise to introduce in your training if you’ve only been using dumbbells. It also makes for an excellent addition to a functional strength training workout.
Doing the alternating version may mean using a little lighter weights but you can do the supported variation and up the weights to make it an even better strength builder.
How you include it depends on your preference but we can certainly recommend some effective training methods.
For strength, it’s best to perform reps in the 3-5 rep range.
For hypertrophy or a focus on maximizing muscle gains, the 6-8 rep range is ideal.
Muscular endurance and hypertrophy
If you want to burn more calories, improve your conditioning or physical fitness, but still build muscle without having to use heavy weights, aim for the 15-25 rep range.
Some other methods that you can use to include this exercise are supersets, where you perform two exercises back to back, a circuit where you do rounds of multiple exercises with little to no rest in between, and even HIIT or high-intensity interval training routines.
Really though, there are many different ways you can benefit from this movement.
Up Your Back Development With The Kettlebell Alternating Row
If you’re not convinced that the kettlebell alternating row deserves a spot in your back workout routine, then you’ll just need to try it out for yourself.
It makes for a great alternative to dumbbells and other training tools and the kettlebell is a very functional training tool when used properly.