Pressing weight overhead is a great way to develop shoulder strength and stability, as well as upper back and triceps strength. Emily Friedel reveals how making some simple variations to this classic move can increase challenge and boost strength.
Jim Wendler, famed creator of the 5/3/1 powerlifting training system, once said ‘pressing the bar overhead kicks ass’. Not exactly poetry, but he makes a good point. In fact, I’d argue that this sentiment could be extended to overhead pressing in general, and certainly to kettlebell overhead presses.
Pressing objects overhead is a great way to develop shoulder strength and stability, as well as upper back and triceps strength. The overhead press was certainly a favourite among old school strongmen like Arthur Saxon and Eugen Sandow, who understood the value of getting dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells – and even people! – locked out overhead, and its importance as a fundamental component of ‘being strong’.
The kettlebell, with its unusual shape, lends itself to various versions of the overhead press that cover the spectrum of resistance training effects, from endurance through to strength.
Standard overhead press
The standard overhead press with a kettlebell (photo 1) has a vertical path between rack position and overhead lockout. It is well-suited to high repetition work geared towards endurance or strength endurance training. It can be used for heavier work, but it is not advisable to go too heavy (or anywhere near failure) with this press as the kettlebell is locked on your hand and can’t be escaped from if the lift goes wrong.
The vertical path of the kettlebell press means it requires greater triceps activation than a dumbbell press, in which the shoulder is abducted and externally rotated.
To begin, you will need to find your starting ‘rack’ position. Here are the key points for a safe kettlebell rack:
- The handle should sit diagonally across the palm with one corner between the webbing of thumb and forefinger and the other side of the handle locked in on the forearm.
- The pressure of the handle should sit on the heel of the hand.
- The body of the kettlebell should sit in a ‘V’ made by the forearm and biceps. The hand should always be positioned medially to the elbow when creating this ‘V’.
- The elbow should be in contact with the body (ideally the iliac crest). If this isn’t possible, maintain as much upper arm contact with the body as possible.
- The legs should be locked (or at anatomical lockout for those who are hypermobile).
- The weight of the kettlebell should be largely supported by the lower body and should sit directly over the hip and heel.
- Next, you need to understand safe kettlebell overhead lockout position:
- The handle should sit in the same position on the hand as during rack position.
- The arm should be vertical and locked (or at anatomical lockout for those who are hypermobile).
- The biceps should be roughly in line with, or slightly forward of, the ear.
- The shoulder should be slightly externally rotated overhead so that the little finger is turned in towards the body and the palm is turned in about 30 degrees.
- Pack the shoulder down using the upper back muscles.
- There should be a very slight anterior tilt of the pelvis so that the weight of the kettlebell sits directly over the hip and heel.
Once you have established rack and overhead lockout position, you simply need to move the kettlebell between the two to perform the standard overhead press.
Waiters’ press and palm press
The waiters’ press and palm press (photo 2) are variations of the standard overhead press in which the ‘body’ of the kettlebell is held in the palm of the hand, making it difficult to grip and therefore requiring greater recruitment of shoulder and core stabiliser muscles. These variations are best done with a challenging weight for low repetitions.
To perform the waiters’ press:
- Swing the kettlebell up with one hand, thumb pointing forwards, and catch the body of the kettlebell in the palm of the other hand in rack position.
- Adjust the kettlebell so that the handle sits against the wrist.
- Use the non-lifting hand to spot and be ready to catch the kettlebell if it becomes too unstable.
- Press the kettlebell overhead, watching it to help with balance and stability.
To perform the palm press, begin as you would with the waiters’ press, but adjust the handle so that it sits away from the wrist. This slight adjustment makes the palm press considerably more difficult than the waiters’ press.
Bottoms up press
The bottoms up press (photo 3) is a pressing variation in which the kettlebell is held upside down – literally with its bottom up. Holding the kettlebell in this position is great for training grip strength, and the requisite crushing of the handle leads to increased activation of muscles downstream, including the rotator cuff muscles. For these reasons, the bottoms up press can be used as a supplement for any lifts that benefit from increased grip strength (such as deadlifts) and can be a powerful exercise for increasing shoulder stability. The bottoms up press, like the waiters’ and palm presses, is best done with a challenging weight for low repetitions.
To perform a bottoms up press you will first need to ‘clean’ the kettlebell into a bottoms up rack position:
- Pick the kettlebell up with your thumb pointing forward, handle 90 degrees from your body.
- Crush the handle as hard as you can and swing the kettlebell forward, keeping the handle facing the same way.
- Keep your elbow touching your body as you finish with the kettlebell upside down at rack position.
To complete the bottoms up press:
- Crush the handle as hard as you can
- Press the kettlebell overhead, spotting with the non-lifting hand and watching it throughout the lift.
- Lower slowly back to your chest.
The overhead press is a fantastic exercise, and these variations will challenge clients to achieve even greater strength and endurance gains. I’d like to think that Jim Wendler would approve.
Emily Friedel, BSc
Emily is a world champion kettlebell lifter and Australia’s first ‘Master of Sport’ in the discipline. She has been using kettlebells with her personal training clients for more than half a decade and is passionate about helping other trainers use kettlebells safely and effectively.