Kettlebell Halos: Build Iron Shoulders Like the Legendary Gama

By on June 18, 2024

I’ve featured the kettlebell halo on this channel a couple of times, recently. Once was in a breakdown of some of my favourite kettlebell moves. Another was in my video discussing the best way to build strong, functional shoulders. I also made this into a short.

Weird thing is, that short blew up across not Instagram AND TikTok – massively increasing my subs on both those platforms. And it performed well here, too. The short was nothing special, which leads me to one conclusion: people are interested in the kettlebell halo!

And the comments were interesting, too. Some people were raving about the movement while others questioned whether it was useful or even suggested it might be bad for the elbows. So, there’s definitely more to say, here. And that’s why I wanted to clear this up and take a closer look at what has become one of my favourite kettlebell moves.

The Kettlebell Halo, Briefly

So, to perform the kettlebell halo, you grab the kettlebell by the horns in both hands (that’s either side of the handle) and then you proceed to loop it around your head. To do this, you’re going to move it over one shoulder as though you’re tipping a bucket of water behind your back. As you do this, the lead arm (the side you’re starting on) should move directly upwards – keeping the weight stacked over the elbow joint. You then follow it around with your arms and pass behind the back of your head. This nice circular range of motion is perfect for hitting the shoulders from a variety of angles – something few other movements do as well.

What’s key, here, is that you’re letting the kettlebell hang as low as it can do behind you, naturally. This should result in your elbows pointing almost up at the ceiling. At no point is the weight over your head – rather, it is behind your head. This is important because it’s what puts a stretch on the triceps and even the lats. That, in turn, is what makes the kettlebell halo such an effective exercise – tight lats being a limiting factor for shoulder mobility.

During this, you should make sure not to flare the ribs. Flaring the ribs will mean your upper back is arched, which in turn is cheating the shoulder mobility. Think of a perfect straight handstand versus a banana handstand. Or pressing weights straight over your head in a strict press or military press, versus leaning back and pushing them up with your chest as an overhead press. Strength at THIS range of motion is what’s missing for many of us – myself included – and that’s one reason the kettlebell halo is so useful. That, and it teaches you to stabilise your core with this momentum trying to pull you every which-way.

We USE our strength standing up. This is what we need to practice.

Bring your arms down to 90 degrees in-between each rep and make sure you’re not ducking and dodging around the weight. The weight is moving here, not you!

Why We Need Halos

One argument against this movement, is that you aren’t able to load that much weight on. Why not just do overhead pressing and be done with it?

Well, firstly, you won’t be able to develop your mobility to the same extent, this way. Some people say you can get mobility from overhead pressing but I mean… it’s pretty minimal. In this sense, the kettlebell halo is actually quite similar to the pullover. The weight applies a gentle stretch to the lats (which you do NOT get from an overhead press) and it teaches you to brace the core to prevent the weight from pulling you over backwards – which improves general healthy movement.

Mark Wildman explains that this can prevent you from developing the hunched, old-man posture as you get older. Stand tall, forever! This better posture can even help improve your breathing.

You’ll also be bracing to support the movement coming at you from the left and right. This is a rotational movement and a fantastic introduction to training in the transverse plane. Although you’re standing in one spot, the forces are very much rotational.

The other great benefit of the kettlebell halo is that it uses a circular motion and lighter weight that is ideal for higher rep ranges. You can stand up and bash out one minute of kettlebell halos and that’s going to offer a great stimulus. I love this kind of training – short on time you can feel like you’ve really done something.

What kind of stimulus? A pump! And far from being bodybuilding bro-science, getting a pump is actually brilliant for not only hypertrophy (it pools blood and metabolites in the muscle leading to growth) but also strength endurance. You learn to use the shoulders for longer durations without tiring out which translates to greater performance in martial arts (grappling AND punching), carrying heavy objects, and many athletic pursuits.

The kettlebell halo is a hugely underrated tool for developing iron shoulders and healthier movement patterns.

This will also increase blood flow to the area. Both in the short-term AND in the long term. In the long term you actually increase blood supply via angiogenesis – the creation of more blood vessels. This is very important as it nourishes the muscles and tendons, which allows for faster recovery. Tendons, in particular, have a lower blood supply as compared with muscles – meaning they can really benefit from this increased recovery. In fact, low-weight, high-rep movements like this are perfect for building stronger tendons and significantly reducing injury risk. And that slight stretch is just the icing on the cake.

This is also what makes the kettlebell halo such an excellent warm up for the shoulders before you begin a shoulder workout.

And it’s why I completely believe the legends about The Great Gama using the Gama cast (a similar exercise) to build legendary shoulder strength and wrestling prowess. Gama being pretty much the closest thing to a real-life Baki character.

When I was a kid I did hundreds and hundreds of prisoner-style push ups nearly every day – and the results are largely what gave me a competitive advantage in a wide range of sports. High rep, continuous time under tension-style training is SORELY underrated.

It’s not always about lifting the most weight!

As for this being somehow bad for the elbows, that’s completely unfounded. The amount of weight at this position is no significant challenge for the elbows – certainly no different than an overhead tricep extension – and it also happens to be a position you might actually use outside the gym: whether chopping wood, throwing overhead, or swinging a weapon.

As with everything, you start with a light weight and then you move on.

How to Use the Halo and Variations

There’s a few ways to start implementing the kettlebell halo and variations. You can train the movement with alternating directions, or you can train one direction and then the other. The latter is better for maintaining time under tension on just one side.

Either way, you can do this for high reps (20 or more) or even for time. This is where the movement is quite different – performing halos for a minute is a really quick way to get an amazing pump. Not to mention burn some calories as part of a circuit. You can also increase the weight, of course, creating a number of ways to increase the challenge.

Another way to increase the difficulty is to use a half-kneeling kettlebell halo (on one knee) or the tall kneeling kettlebell halo (on both knees). These variations are great because they increase the stability challenge – now you really must try and stop the weight from pulling you backwards.

Club and Mace Training

But, of course, the kettlebell halo belongs to the shield cast family of movements and that brings us to moves like the shield cast and Gama cast – performed with Indian clubs, steel clubs, and macebells.

When performing these movements, you are using a longer tool with the weight offset further from the hand. That creates a longer lever, meaning you get all the same benefits… but more!

Again: Mark Wildman is your man for these exercises. He’s the expert and the best thing I can do is point you in his direction.


But just to sell you on it a bit more, the other reason you need to use these tools, is that they teach you to rotate the trunk as you swing. You’ll be bringing the shoulder towards the club as you rotate. This movement is very similar to, not only the way you swing a sword or an axe, but also the way you throw a ball.

Most of us lack thoracic rotation in our training and this is to our great detriment: leading to stiffness and uncoordinated movement. Those that DO include rotation in their training will be the likes of baseball players and martial artists. And THEY will very often preference one side: throwing and swinging and hitting with their dominant arm. This can lead to some serious imbalances, especially in professional athletes. It’s just one example of how being a specialist – even (and especially) at the very top of your game – can be detrimental to overall health and natural movement.

Learning to move like this will also heighten your movement IQ and help you move more gracefully – whether for acrobatics, dancing, rope flow, or countless other activities.

This is the Training You Need

This is what I love to do: research different training techniques from martial arts, from yoga, from physical culture, from different parts of the world… and see what they have to offer. See how swinging a club can mimic swinging sword and develop more symmetry and flow in countless movements.

I’ve been repeatedly blown away realising just what an understanding of biomechanics is baked into traditions like Tai Chi and yoga. How they teach you to align your joints, remove imbalances, breathe into the movement, develop power from the ground… all things we rarely consider.

Training with clubs and maces is an ancient practice that challenges the body in unique ways and heals countless modern issues. It lets you explore and discover new ways to move your body.

And so, when someone comments on my video and says “what a stupid exercise – there’s no weight!” Or “you’re going to ruin your elbows!” It’s just pure ignorance. Don’t be that person.

There’s so much more to physical practice than just lifting the most weight. But you need to have an open mind to truly feel the benefits.

Time to get outside your comfort zone and into the transverse plane!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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