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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.
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.
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