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Exercise of the Week: 1-arm Bottoms-up Kettlebell Military Press

Written on May 8, 2013 at 8:49 am, by Eric Cressey

I'll admit it: I was far from an early adopter of kettlebells.  These great training implements were apparently first introduced in Russia in the 1700s, yet I didn't really use them much until the past 3-4 years.  So, I guess you could call me a late adopter. For the record, this wasn't just a belated protest of the Soviet Union; I was also the guy who held out on getting a cell phone until after I graduated college.

In the context of this article, though, my stubbornness is actually a good thing, as it means that I heavily scrutinize things before I adopt them.  And, of course, that means that our clients at Cressey Performance don't use new equipment or exercises – and I certainly don't write about them – until I'm sold on their efficacy.  While I was sold on their efficacy several years ago, one set of exercises that I had to put to the test myself were overhead bottoms-up kettlebell variations, and in particular, those that were actual presses and not just holds.

I am, in fact, the perfect guinea pig, too.  You see, I've got a bum shoulder that's probably going to need surgery someday.  I was supposed to have it on 2003, but learned to work around it and have a successful training career in spite of some structural limitaions that came about during my youth tennis career.  That said, one of the exercises that has always hurt – regardless of how hard I rehabilitated it – was overhead pressing.

To make a long story short, I've been able to do the 1-arm bottoms-up kettlebell military (overhead) press pain free for a year or so now.

This is likely due to one or more of three different factors…

1. The instability afforded by the kettlebell.

If you look at the research on unstable surface training, muscle EMG is generally unchanged under unstable surfaces, even though force out put is dramatically lower.  What does this mean?  More of the work you're doing is for joint stability than actually moving serious weights.  That can be a great approach for folks with old injuries like mine.  In other words, adding instability means you may be able to maintain a great training effect in spite of less external loading.  Keep in mind that this applies much more to the upper body – which functions in both open- and closed-chain movement – than the lower body, which is almost exclusively closed-chain movement. I discuss this in great detail in my e-book, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training.

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2. The Plane of the Scapula

You'll notice that in the video above, the path the kettlebell takes on the way to being overhead is slightly out in front of the body.  Effectively, it's right between directly out to the side (frontal plane) and directly out in front (sagittal plane), as both of these positions are rough on the wrist with kettlebell training and don't lend themselves well to an individual being overhead comfortably.  As an added bonus, the plane of the scapula is generally much more shoulder friendly position as well.

3. More of a grip emphasis.

Anecdotally, you'll see a lot of the brighter minds in the business talk about how increasing grip challenges also helps to better turn on the rotator cuff, which fires reflexively.  We know that your cuff fires automatically when you pick up a suitcase or deadlift, so it makes sense that it would fire more "potently" when the grip challenge is more significant.  While this process, known as irradiation, hasn't been clearly defined or researched, it definitely seems to hold some water.  And, it goes without saying that you'll get more of a grip challenge with a kettlebell than you ever will with a dumbbell.

With these three factors in mind, I've made this my first overhead progression back with clients who are trying to get back to overhead pressing following a shoulder injury.  We have to do a lot of other stuff to get to this point in the progression, but I definitely see this as one of the initial "tests" of how good that shoulder is doing.

Keep in mind, too, that we're just talking about what goes on at the shoulder.  There are also a lot of core stability benefits, too.  By pressing with only one arm at a time, there's a greater rotary stability challenge.  Plus, all overhead pressing are great anterior core exercises, as you must effectively position the core and rib cage to ensure that the scapula and humerus do what they are supposed to do; you're resisting excessive extension the entire time.

With that in mind, you might be interested in checking out my new resource, Understanding and Coaching the Anterior Core.  This 47-minute presentation covers everything from functional anatomy, to the impact of breathing, to exercise progressions/regressions, and programming recommendations.  You can check it out HERE, where it's on sale at an introductory discount this week only.

AnteriorCore

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26 Responses to “Exercise of the Week: 1-arm Bottoms-up Kettlebell Military Press”

  1. John Says:

    Good read, Eric. I’ve seen you reference the shoulder injury in the past–what was the injury?

  2. Constantine Says:

    Once again, you manage to come up with a topic so relevant to my own routine that it’s like you were there with me in the gym.

    I have my own shoulder idiosyncrasies, much of which has been ameliorated from getting my upper back/scaps stronger.

    I have, for a long time, eschewed from any form of behind-the-neck pressing because I’d heard “it was bad for my shoulders.” One day, I saw someone doing snatch grip behind the neck presses as part of some olympic lifting training.

    Out of curiosity I tried it and I was really surprised. Not only did it not bother my shoulder, but it actually felt extremely good. I’ve even started doing it when my shoulders are feeling a little beat up as a recovery exercise because my shoulders seem to feel better after doing it.

    I think the main reason it helps is that to establish a firm platform to press off of in the bottom of the press, you really have to achieve solid thoracic spine extension and scapular retraction (in contrast to in front of the neck pressing).

    I also think the grip width is significant–I still haven’t bothered with close grip behind the neck presses and see no need to, but I feel like that would be a less structurally sound position to press from. I feel like there are some flexibility/shoulder structure limitations in getting the shoulders in a stable position to press if your hands are really close in behind the neck.

    Finally I want to note, this isn’t something I do much weight with. I can do normal overhead presses and push presses pain free and I probably only do 50% of what I can push press for moderate reps. I’m not trying to “max out” in this lift.

    What I am curious about is: a) your thoughts on behind the neck pressing and why it can hurt shoulders and b) what variables come into play with being able to execute different overhead press variations pain free. Things I can think of for b) include shoulder structure variation within the population, grip width, how you train it, etc. With respect to b) I feel like your second point above is along the lines I’m looking for while 1) and 3) seem to be more general observations about how to execute upper body exercises to encourage shoulder health.

    Thanks!

  3. Jess Howland Says:

    Great work Eric! I totally agree with the irradiation process for producing less tension on the joints.

    I used this all the time when I injured my shoulder for dips and overhead movements with a large foam pad. It completely eliminated the pain throughout the movement.

    Now my go to for myself and some of my clients with shoulder pain is a set of fat grips for nearly every exercise that involves heavy pressing activities. I can’t find the research the proves it works–but I know it works.

    Also great presentation at the fitness summit. I really enjoyed it.

    v/r

    Jess (CPT SMASH) Howland

  4. Eric Cressey Says:

    John,

    I was a classic internal impingement diagnosis: undersurface partial thickness cuff tear, and likely some labral stuff (not confirmed with arthrogram).  Bigger issue for me is that I also have some reactive changes in the acromion process, so you could say that I have both internal and external impingement!

  5. Brent Says:

    The shoulder guy with a bum shoulder?! I’m done taking your advice! hehe. Reminds me of one of my globo gym clients I have now who think I shouldn’t have a low back issue because I’m a trainer. Trainers are obviously supposed to have perfect operating bodies at all times :) guess I need to get out of the profession!

  6. bruce lee Says:

    Are ATC CEU given with the anterior core lecture?

  7. Mario Says:

    Eric,
    So being that the exercise has a big stability factor, does this mean that you are not looking for a heavy load and would strictly use it as a prehab/ movement prep exercise. How do you incorporate the exercise in your programs.

  8. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brent,

    It is funny, isn’t it?  It’s actually what led me to this industry.

  9. Brian Meisenburg Says:

    Eric,

    Great information. The unstable aspect of the exercise using the KB is interesting. Certainly a great pre-hab exercise as well.

    Brian Meisenburg

  10. Mark Shires Says:

    I think at times people get too enamored with punch exercises for the serratus and forget it’s importance in upward rotation/posterior tipping of the scap.
    Great exercise!
    It is a chicken or the egg did we create more problems taking away the military press because it would cause problems with the inferior capsule or did we loose upward rotation?
    From The Manual Therapist blog http://www.themanualtherapist.com/2012/12/kettlebell-carries-for-scapular.html or in other words – getting ready for your next job if you don’t correct the problem.

  11. Brian Bochette, PT, CSCS Says:

    Great post Eric. If you come across any research relating to irradiation please share. While the concept is intriguing, I’ve only seen it discussed anecdotally. Stu McGill has given some evidenced based support for bottoms up farmers walks as a core stabilization progression, but I really haven’t seen irradiation discussed in the research.

    p.s. if any researchers are reading this, get on it!

  12. Kevin Says:

    Eric,

    Where do these kb presses fit in as compared to half-kneeling landmine presses?

    See points #6-7 of the 8 Things I learned in 2012.

    http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/8_things_i_learned_in_2012&cr=

  13. jeff Says:

    I’ve recently tried an at home make shift version of this using an empty cat litter container with water in it, which has a slosh pipe affect. Do you think the slosh can contribute to greater shoulder stability?

    Here’s a pic of the container (http://www.bradbury.org/jims-blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/catLitterContainer.jpg)

  14. Mike M Says:

    Your comment about “some reactive changes in the acromion process” caught my eye. As a physician and former wide grip bencher with reactive changes in my AC joint, it’s been my experience that wide grip (powerlifting grip) bench presses are a virtual guarantee of future AC problems. I think this is particularly true when young lifters use a wide grip – probably because this “10 feet tall and bulletproof” crown never envisions the future problems of not including and appropriate amount of pulling movement in their program. For the majority of athletes (who are not competitive powerlifters), I prefer a narrow (true shoulder width) grip for benches or using dumbbells (which “encourages” a shoulder width grip). Your thoughts are appreciated.

  15. Eric Cressey Says:

    Very well said, Mark.

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jeff,

    Innovative! I’m sure you’ll get some benefit from it.

  17. Eric Cressey Says:

    Kevin,

    Definitely some comparable benefits in terms of training upward rotation with a freely moving scapula.  I think the bottoms-up position gives more instability than the landmine press, though, so there isn’t as much external loading necessary.

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks for the input, Brian. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open!

  19. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mario,

    I’d use it as a second or third exercise on an upper body day. Or, I might use it as the first exercise if someone is just working back to overhead pressing for the first time after a rehab stint.

  20. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    No, there aren’t CEUs.  At this lower price point, it just didn’t make sense.  Sorry!

  21. Greg Says:

    Here’s an SFG tip. Squeeze a baseball, in the opposite hand while doing any over head lift. Tada. Watch how effortless the lift becomes.

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    Good stuff, Greg!

  23. Derrick Blanton Says:

    @Constantine: You are going to run into a WIDE range of opinions on this issue, and I’ll toss out a few thoughts.

    I also have had great success with BNP, and actually the only issues that I’ve ever had with OHPR came when pressing from the front. I sorted this out, and here’s what I believe was happening:

    You didn’t mention your horizontal pressing frequency, but at that time I was benching three times a week! My pecs were very tight, including the pec minor which pulls the scap into anterior tilt, and downwards, right on top of the humeral head as it rises upwards in the socket.

    So the pec minor needs to switch off, or at the very least defer to the lower trap to allow the scapula to posteriorly tip, to open up some subacromial breathing room, and angle off the humerus.

    For some, going into an end range XR, (BN), closes the distance that the LT must cover, while stretching the pec minor, and taking it out of the movement to a necessary degree. Essentially you are using the load placement to help drive the LT into a very strong position, its “sweet spot”.

    Additionally, the load shifting behind the head lessens the torque on the T-spine. There is no load pulling the T-spine into a kyphotic curve from the front. If you think about when you press with dumbbells, generally you hold them further to the side of the neck, not out in front. Pressing from the front is simply a necessary adjustment to accomodate the straight barbell.

    When barbell pressing from the front, most will advise as soon as you clear the head, to get the bar over the spine, which translates to the back of the head. So the bar path angles slightly back, and then straight up; although this can also be achieved with a slight thoracic spinal oscillation, or “kip”.

    So BNPing can be a workaround for a less than strong T-spine, and less than stable core, but the risk then shifts to the rotator cuff. It requires a very strong subscapularis, to balance and stabilize the bar while working from a lengthened position.

    Now I fully understand why many counsel against a behind the neck press, b/c it does place a great deal of stress on the RC, and also can be disastrous if the load wobbles or becomes unstable. Any time you stabilize at end range, it can get dicey. (The internal counterpart to this is bench dips which places the shoulder in end range IR, and presses from there. Now this is a troublesome exercise in my view!)

    Anyway, the shoulder is a very complicated joint, and there are tons of variables that come into play, as you are dealing with the spine, the ribcage, the scapula, and the humerus, and the physical and neurological patterning junction between the four.

    You mentioned that you got your upper back stronger, and this seemed to solve your problems. I believe the T-spine is the key, and if you want to track it down from there, the abs, and glutes set up the T-spine. Once the body senses stability, and joint clearance, then it releases the brakes on the delts, and you will press stronger than ever. This is why people are usually stronger on pre-stabilized machine type presses.

    Hope this is helpful, and/or interesting, I enjoy exploring these issues with some depth. FWIW. DB

  24. Thomas Adams Says:

    I would be pretty surprised if someone did an EMG study that included some of the bottoms up lifts and it didn’t produce increased activity of the serratus.

  25. Brian Says:

    It’s amazing what this exercise can do for dysfunctional shoulders. What are your thoughts on handstands (feet against a wall) for shoulder health? Pressing overhead often hurts, and I can’t get straight overhead without compensation, but a handstand is pain-free. When I get into it, I tuck the hips and ensure the ribs stay down, and I can achieve greater shoulder flexion than I can standing. I’m sure my bodyweight helps me into the position more than a dumbbell or kettlebell, but I’m surprised by the lack of pain.

  26. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brian,

    I think they’re fine, if that’s your cup of tea.

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