Arthritis-Friendly Kettlebell Upper Body Workout You NEED in 2023

It is vital to keep your upper body strong, especially if you have arthritis so you can support your joints. This arthritis friendly kettlebell upper body workout is just what you need to find some safe exercises for your shoulder joints and spine. As a physical therapist, I use kettlebells often with clients that have osteoarthritis to build upper body muscle and power. Here are some of my favorites below. 

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If you have shoulder arthritis, upper back arthritis, or even neck arthritis- it is so important that you find exercises that build strength without flaring up your pain. 

One of the biggest mistakes I see with upper body exercises is improper form. This can allow for other muscles to compensate. This commonly  occurs in the upper traps. 

If you’re feeling neck tightness, shoulder pinching, or pain particularly when reaching overhead, your body may be making compensations without you even knowing it. 

Then, adding weight to these movements can actually exacerbate pain and injury- which is the opposite direction that you want to move towards! 

Let’s take a look at the common mistakes with upper body workouts.

Common mistakes with upper body workouts

In order to ensure that you are doing something that is good for your joints, here are some things to think about: 

  1. Does the exercise cause more pain while you’re doing it or after? (this doesn’t include muscle fatigue)
  2. Does the weight change the way you are doing the exercise? (i.e too heavy)
  3. Have you been advised to do said exercise(s) from a physical therapist or other movement specialist you trust?

Abnormal pain that is different from typical muscle fatigue with exercise is not helpful, especially with arthritis pain. Sharp or irritating pains are usually a way that your joint communicates with you saying “I don’t like what you are doing, please modify or change it”. 

Weights that are too heavy and/or exercises that haven’t been advised by a movement specialist may lead to injury if the correct form is not maintained.

Why kettlebells?

kettlebell upper body workout

Kettlebells are variation of dumbbells but have a different distribution of weight. They are in the shape of a ball with a handle on it. Kettlebells allow for different exercises than traditional dumbbells. 

Kettlebells are a way to change up your current exercise routine, especially if you find yourself repeating the same exercises. They are also another way to help you build strength. This kettlebell upper body workout ideas below also works well if you are in a small space. 

I personally love kettlebells because you can do so much with just one kettlebell versus having to buy and store multiple sets of dumbbells.

Typically starting out with a kettlebell that is 5-15lbs is a good place to start. You can get one here. Learn the other arthritis friendly workout equipment I love here.

Kettlebell upper body workout ideas

There are lots of upper body exercises you can do to build healthy shoulders and core muscles. These are a few of my favorites below, especially if you are just getting started or have shoulder arthritis.

Choose 1-2 of these to add to your routine to keep your shoulders and back (yes your back can benefit from these too!) healthy and pain free.

Kettlebell Single Arm Row

This single arm row is a staple exercise to any kettlebell upper body workout routine. You can lean on a bench like this one or you can use something higher like the back of a couch or a dresser to be nicer to your back. 

The idea is to complete 8-10 reps with a weight that is challenging but not too challenging. The last two reps should be difficult but not difficult enough that you change your form. 

This exercise works the muscles around your scapula (aka your shoulder blade), your lower back muscles to keep your spine in a good position, your forearm due to gripping the dumbbell and the biceps because you are bending your arm. 

Kettlebell Deadlift to Pull

This exercise combines two movements which means more energy used and more calories burned. The deadlift is one of the most vital lower body exercises so let’s combine it with an upper body exercise!

Start with a lighter weight for this one and make sure you master the deadlift first. Here is a video to help you do that.

If you begin to feel back pain on this exercise, focus on your form and reduce the weight if you need to. 

Try to complete 8-12 reps of this exercise at first. Make sure it feels okay and doesn’t flare up your shoulder pain. 

This exercise works your core, the backs of your legs, your biceps, forearms, and scapular muscles along with upper traps. 

Single Arm Kettlebell Pull

This is a single arm upright row that works the deltoids (the muscles around the top of your arm), your upper back, your lats (the muscles that connect your shoulder to your lower back), and your biceps.

Again, this does include the movement of a deadlift so make sure you master that first. 

I like to do some exercises one arm at a time so you can focus on which arm may be weaker. If one arm is weaker than the other, it makes you more susceptible to injuries so it’s important to close the strength gap. Including single arm exercises into a kettlebell upper body workout routine is very important. 

Try to complete 8-10 reps on each side, starting with a light weight then increasing as able. Make sure you are leading with your elbow as you pull the weight up in order to complete this exercise correctly. 

Follow along workout

If you are looking for a follow along kettlebell workout, I have a 20 minute workout that is calling your name. If you have osteoarthritis, it is possible for you to feel strong without paying for it afterwards.

In order to do that, you have to know which movements are safe for your joints. Give this follow along video a try the next time you are looking for an arthritis friendly workout. 

If you are looking for more workouts just like this one, you can join in the weekly Osteoarthritis Online Exercise Class! I lead an arthritis friendly exercise class every Tuesday and you can join from anywhere. If you’re ready to get strong, click the button below.

Yes, I’d love to start getting strong!


Strength is one of the most powerful weapons you have against osteoarthritis. Kettlebells offer a great way to build strength and make it fun at the same time. The more strength you can build in the right places, the happier your joints will feel. 

It is possible to reverse the severity of your osteoarthritis symptoms if you put in the work. If you’d like the FREE guide on how to start reversing osteoarthritis, you can download that here.

Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.

arthritis adventure blueprint

The Arthritis Adventure Blueprint

Dr. Alyssa Kuhn’s signature program to help you go from hopeless to hopeful with osteoarthritis. You will learn the secrets to arthritis pain relief that actually work- including exercise, diet, and other ways to control inflammation! Say goodbye to short term pain relief, it’s time to make it last.

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