Many of us want to have more upper body strength along with a strong core.
Or at least a torso that looks like we work out.
Luckily there is an exercise that gives all of the above, and also can help you maintain healthy, pain-free shoulders.
That exercise is the Kettlebell Military Press.
Learn more about it below
Nowadays when people think about upper body strength they usually think about push-ups and bench presses.
These are both great exercises but a different exercise comes to mind for me first when I think about upper body strength.
Push-ups aren’t accessible for everyone. While almost everyone can (and should) work up to being able to do them you can’t develop strength with something that you can’t do.
The bench press allows you to not use your core at all when you are lifting. It also requires a very specific set-up and a spotter, something that not all of us have access to. Even with a gym membership what do you do if you get to the gym and all the benches are “taken”?
And, both of these exercises don’t teach you how to get into an overhead position which is a very important part of upper body strength.
Last, when it comes to being functional, most functional activities involve standing on two legs.
Which is why when I think about upper body strength, I think about the Kettlebell One Arm Military Press!
Benefits of the Kettlebell Military Press
The Kettlebell Military Press will help you develop a set of powerful shoulders on top of a solid midsection.
An important note here is that it will give you powerful shoulders, not just blown up deltoids. Many shoulder exercises isolate the deltoid muscles which are part of your shoulder. The shoulder in reality consists of everything from your ribcage to your scapula (shoulder blade) to your humorous (upper arm).
I will avoid going over all the muscles involved, since it is a very long list.
The entire system will get a workout with this exercise.
It is also one of the one of the safest and simplest ways to press a weight.
How easy it is, of course, depends on how much weight you are lifting.
The kettlebell military press will also help increase the flexibility of your shoulders since you have to put the weight above your head with a straight arm.
That is if you are doing the one arm version. Once we have two arms moving overhead you need to have the flexibility before you do the exercise.
The kettlebell military press will also give your abs and legs a good workout because you need to keep a strong base from which to press the kettlebell.
And as Jon Engum says, “The secret to happiness in life is to put heavy stuff overhead.”
In fact, the only disadvantage to the kettlebell military press is that you can’t do it really well until you learn to clean a kettlebell well.
And if you think that means you should wipe the kettlebell down before you press it then you need to read my article about the most useful kettlebell exercise. (Spoiler alert: it is the Kettlebell Clean!)
How to Press a Kettlebell
For the rest of this article I will refer to the kettlebell military press as the “press.”
Despite there being many varieties of kettlebell presses (including the floor press, side press, bent press and push press), the military press is generally considered the “standard” press.
If someone says, “kettlebell press” they almost always mean the military press, and if they mean a different type then they will specify.
The first thing you need for a good press is a good clean.
Your press is only as good as your clean. But you don’t have to wait until you have mastered the clean to start practicing your press. The way to do that is something called a cheat clean.
The next step after the clean is pausing in the rack position. Often beginners will clean and immediately start to press. This is not a true press, because we don’t want to use the momentum from the clean.
Wait a second and get solid in your rack position.
During this time you should lock your body into place. During a proper press:
- Your knees will not bend, they will stay locked straight
- Glutes (butt cheeks) are squeezed
- Abs are tight
- Shoulders are pulled down away from your ears (I call this the “anti” shrug)
Then push yourself away from the kettlebell until your elbow is locked out straight and your bicep is in line with (but not touching) the ear.
What Does Push Yourself Away from the Kettlebell Mean?
This is a confusing concept. The best way to understand it is that there is a poor relationship between how things are, and how they appear to be.
How something is moving is relative to your point of view.
For example, the earth moves around the sun. First, remember this fact has (almost) nothing to do with the sun moving in the sky.
The sun moves in the sky because the earth is spinning in space. The earth spinning and the sun rotating in the sky both produce the same visual effect.
Which is why we thought the sun revolves around us for so much of human history.
And if you think it is obvious try to explain how we know the earth is spinning instead of the sun revolving around us. You probably can’t, because the science is complicated.
Another bit of complicated science is why pushing yourself away from the kettlebell is stronger and safer than pushing the kettlebell away from you.
Experiment in a doorway trying both (pushing the crossbeam away from you and pushing yourself away from the crossbeam) and you will figure out what I mean, and feel the difference.
If you still can’t figure it out, then a qualified Kettlebell Instructor can help you learn.
The Path of the Kettlebell.
If you paid close attention (you didn’t) then you noticed that in the rack position my palm is facing toward my midline and at the top my palm is facing straight forward.
So my palm has somehow rotated 90 degrees.
Well, that is false: my shoulder opened on the way up and took my palm with it for the ride.
This is called the “groove” of the press and one of the reasons why this exercise is so good for long-term shoulder health. With one kettlebell on the outside of a straight wrist we can adjust the path of the weight to your natural shoulder mechanics.
Instead of adjusting your shoulder mechanics to the weight, as we have to do with a barbell.
As soon as the press starts the shoulder begins to open up to the side in a semicircle. After the midpoint of the press when the shoulder is open it is brought back toward the midline.
You are literally pushing the kettlebell with the outside of your forearm and moving it to the side on the way up. Then after the “sticking” point the arm (with the kettlebell) moves laterally back to center. Sometimes we call this corkscrewing the arm.
The sticking point is the point where you tend to get stuck in your press. After this point the lift is easy to finish. Don’t expect to understand this until you have done some heavy presses.
And don’t do heavy presses until your form is dialed in!
The path is neither completely open or closed but somewhere in the middle.
I can’t tell you where exactly the path is, as everyone's shoulder is built a little differently.
Start light and experiment. And bringing down the weight “actively” (covered later) will help you locate the perfect path for your body.
What happens to your forearm
During the press your forearm - meaning the space between your elbow and your knuckles (remember there are no wrists in kettlebell lifting) - stays completely vertical.
Vertical means parallel to a wall.
Tilting it up or down will rob you of your strength and make the exercise less safe.
A good visual is to think about pressing through your elbow, as if all your strength and power are being directed to the elbow. The forearm (and kettlebell) moving is just a side effect.
Thinking of a “booster rocket” in your elbow should help.
Bringing the Kettlebell Back Down
So you got to the top and locked out a strong press!
Now you have to get back to the rack position.
There are two ways that you can do this: actively or passively.
Actively means you “pull” the kettlebell back down. This is your standard way of returning the kettlebell to the rack.
Think about doing a one arm chin-up. Or rather what it would feel like to do a one arm chin-up as it is something that few people can do.
Passively means you let gravity do the work slowing it down. You relax the arm, brace your abs and glutes and when the kettlebell makes contact with your body you absorb the shock with a knee dip.
This is for advanced practitioners only. And even they usually only use it for a one rep max testing.
Because the active method will get you stronger (in the long run) and is safer.
The only disadvantage is it takes more energy and when you are testing it’s about being as strong as possible today.
How to Breathe
Exhale on the way up, and inhale on the way down.
The exhale should be a strong breath that helps you maintain tension and strength.
Never relax your core, it is there to protect your back.
In a press there is “almost” no movement of the torso to the side or the back and no movement at the knees.
Leaning too far back is dangerous to the back. Leaning to the side is not dangerous, in fact, it is the correct technique for a Side Press.
The side press is a different exercise. It is also a great exercise but has its differences from the press. The technique is different, and it will allow you to lift more weight if you do it safely and correctly.
An inch or two of movement on a really heavy press is no big deal, but ideally there should be “almost” no movement.
There are many great exercises for building upper body strength. The Kettlebell Military Press is one of the best.
It is an exercise that everyone should be doing. It will also help with your aesthetic goals. And, with your general happiness in life.