The Pressing Question
Whether you are stuck at home with minimal equipment, do not like crowded gyms, or want to add some real-life strongman spice to your workout routine, kettlebell shoulder press is your go-to exercise.
The shoulder press is a must for a proper full-body workout. It is a functional movement, which strengthens not just your upper body, but your entire core – all the way down to the ground.
Kettlebell press in particular offers many additional perks over traditional barbell work.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Press
The offset nature of the single-arm kettlebell press and the shape of the kettlebell itself makes it unique in the world of strength training and equipment. The double-arm kettlebell press, apart from the obvious advantage of pressing a heavier weight, offers the additional benefit of needing to stabilize the kettlebell in each hand all the way through the movement. Your shoulders and rotator cuff (muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint and keeping it safely in its socket) will work hard to balance and stabilize the weight of the bell throughout the movement.
With kettlebells, you need to support the weight in a position very different from the dumbbell or kettlebell movements: on the back of your arm, which gives an extra incentive for the development of wrist strength.
Moreover, kettlebell press offers an advantage of a more natural trajectory for the arms: when you press the bell from the rack to the overhead position, your arm is moving like a screwdriver (rather than in a "high five" path), which puts less stress on your entire shoulder complex, elbows and wrists.
Kettlebell press comes in multiple variations: single- and double-arm, standing and sitting, bench and floor, kneeling and half-kneeling, strict and push, seesaw and bottom-up, and the list goes on. Standing kettlebell press will allow you to lift more weight, while a seated variation will require more core strength and lower body (hip flexor and hamstring) mobility.
It improves your body alignment, because if you do not press the bell through a perfect path, it will throw you off balance, pull you back, forth or to the side. It also boosts the eccentric strength, which will translate to many other kettlebell and non-kettlebell movements, as well as to everyday life.
Muscles Worked in a Kettlebell Press
Counterintuitively (or not), kettlebell press is not a shoulder exercise. It is a full-body movement, which, when performed correctly, will use your entire body from the ground up: from your feet – through your quads, glutes and core – to, obviously, your upper body and arms.
Whether you do a standing, sitting or kneeling, one- or two-arm kettlebell press, you will engage the bulk of your muscles: deltoids, rotator cuff, upper chest, upper back (lats and traps), triceps, forearm (wrist flexors and extensors), serratus anterior (aka the "boxer's muscle" – a fan-shaped muscle at the side of the rib cage and underneath the scapula, responsible for the punching movement), core, glutes and hams.
Kettlebell Press Form
Kettlebell press is pretty straightforward: you take it, you press it. And that's the beauty of it.
Yet, to make this beauty perfect and injury-free, good form is a must.
The "classic" kettlebell press is the kettlebell military press, or kettlebell overhead press (you might have also heard it called kettlebell shoulder press).
1. Clean the kettlebell into the rack position (if you want to refresh your memory and see how to do it right, see the Kettlebell Clean video). Make sure that your upper arm is tucked snuggly to your chest – not flailing in the air. Your wrist should be located right above your forearm and face the midline of your body. Brace your core and squeeze your tush. Extend your opposite arm to the side – if you feel like it will help you balance the weight. This is your starting position for every rep.
2. From here, press the kettlebell in a vertical path – up to the overhead lockout position. Draw your shoulder blades back and down – do not lift the shoulder and never let it leave its safe place in the socket. As the weight goes up, rotate your wrist slightly outward: at the lockout position, your palm should be facing forward (not inward).
3. When the kettlebell is in this – overhead – position, lock your legs as hard as you can, squeeze your buttocks and engage your core: your legs and trunk must remain strong and solid throughout the movement (you may think of it as of a "standing plank").
4. Return the bell to the rack position. Do not just drop it; rather, actively pull it down by squeezing your lats. Make sure to not end up with a "barbell grip": your knuckles should be facing the ceiling. Do not rest the bell on the shoulder – keep it in front of the body.
Frequent Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
1. Moving the bell off-center. When pushing the bell from the rack position into the overhead position, it is important to avoid moving it outside the plane of the body – to protect the shoulder from unnecessary stress and injuries. The closer the bell is to your center of mass, the better.
2. Not engaging your core. Kettlebell press is not just an upper-body movement. It is a full-body movement. While pressing, squeeze the bell with a strong grip, keep your feet firmly on the ground, tighten your abs, squeeze your tush. Do not slouch, bend backwards or flail to the sides; do not fall forward onto your toes.
3. Inefficient breathing. For a strict (military) kettlebell press, take a deep breath before you start pressing the bell overhead, then slowly exhale on its way up (make a hissing sound rather than exhaling all the air at once). When the bell is locked out in the overhead position, inhale (to increase the intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize your spine) and lower it back to the rack position.
4. Not pressing often enough. For a fundamental and technical movement like the kettlebell press, you need to perform it often enough – not just to learn the proper form but to achieve tangible results, which will translate into palpable muscles.
Kettlebell Press Variations
Kettlebell Push Press
In the strict press, you only move your upper body to get the kettlebell overhead.
In the push press, you also employ the explosive power of your legs to drive the weight up, which generally allows you to use heavier weight (on average, by 30% heavier).
To perform the kettlebell push press, get the kettlebell into the rack position (see Kettlebell Clean), slightly bend your knees, push your feet through the ground and explosively extend your hips. Use the force of the movement to press the bell overhead.
This one is really fun. However, before you try it, master the single-kettlebell press first. Also, make sure that you are strong enough and confident with other double-kettlebell movements: cleans, swings, squats – to build a strong foundation for this alternating overhead movement.
Seesaw press is basically an alternating kettlebell press. To perform it, get the kettlebells into the rack position (see Kettlebell Clean). From there, you're gonna press the kettlebells overhead, one at a time. While you are pressing one kettlebell up, the other side stays locked down.
Tip: when the bell comes down to the rack position, make sure to not slam your fingers or kettlebell handles together.
Kettlebell Kneeling and Half-kneeling Press
Those can also be done in both single- and double-kettlebell variations.
Since you cannot drive your feet into the floor, hence cannot use the power of your legs, this movement will fire up your core.
To perform it, assume a tall kneeling or half-kneeling stance: keep your spine long (as if you were standing), glutes tight, abs engaged. Get the bell(s) into the rack position. If you are performing a single-kettlebell variation, extend the unweighted arm to the side for counterbalance. Press the bell(s) overhead.
Kettlebell Floor Press
To perform the single-kettlebell floor press, start with a side lying position. The kettlebell is resting on the floor beside you, around your chest level, with its handle parallel to your trunk. Move your left hand all the way into the closer corner of the kettlebell handle. Then, overlay your hand with your free hand and use it to lever the bell up, rather than pulling it up with one hand. Roll onto your back (for this part, you may find it useful to watch the beginning of the Turkish Get-up video).
Bend your knees at about 45 degrees. Lower the bell until your elbow touches the floor, then press it back up.
As you press the bell up, don’t bounce the elbow off the floor and make sure that your core is engaged throughout the movement.
Tips: If you are doing a single-arm press, to put the weight down, grab the bell with the free hand and roll it off to the side.
With the double-kettlebell press, getting the bells off and back to the floor is trickier. When you are picking up (or putting down) the second kettlebell, make sure that you perform the roll – do not just extend your arm to the side and pull on a heavy bell with your forearm, because you risk injuring your elbow.
Bottom-Up Kettlebell Press
Bottom-up kettlebell press will teach you a more efficient pressing path and tighter grip on the bell, which will translate into other pressing movements (and not just that).
To perform it, hold the bell by the handle, bottom up, around chin-height. As with other pressing movements, your wrist has to remain straight (knuckles facing the ceiling), with your elbow directly below it. Press the weight up and lower it slowly, under control.
If your wrist is bending, your elbow and shoulder are flailing, the weight is too high or you are not moving the bell along the most efficient path. In such a case, lower the weight – to perfect the technique and figure out the correct trajectory.
That's about it. We have figured out the pressing questions.
Time to start pressing!