Regardless of your training goals and fitness tools of choice, the arm bar and crooked arm bar demand a place in your regular routine. These two movements combine to offer the best method I know to improve shoulder mobility and the overhead position.
Many of my athletes do not perform any overhead or hanging work without first opening up their overhead positions with the arm bar and crooked arm bar. These tools are especially effective for people with kyphotic thoracic spines, or who simply have trouble reaching full thoracic extension, i.e. nearly everyone. They are also perfect for those with heavily muscled chests and anterior shoulders (bench pressers, I’m looking at you).
The Arm Bar
- Thoracic twist: The arm bar offers a loaded stretch for spinal twisting, adding vital movement to your ever-important thoracic spine.
- Shoulder mobility for the immobile: In addition to a thoracic twist, the arm bar also stretches your pecs, anterior shoulder, and upper arm, the biggest culprits that limit shoulder mobility.
- Shoulder stability for the hyper-mobile: The arm bar’s stability and balance requirements will teach those with hyper-mobile shoulders to engage their lats, a key component for shoulder stability.
- Strong grip and wrist position: As with all overhead kettlebell movements, maintain a straight wrist angle and a strong grip with all five fingers. Both pieces are vital for maximal stability.
- Keep your shoulders stacked: Begin with your legs set up like a Turkish get up, and your non-working arm over your head. Roll onto your overhead arm, and move your top leg across so that your knee finds the floor. Keep your shoulders and hips stacked, one directly above the other.
- Packed lats and engaged triceps: Pull your working shoulder away from your ear by engaging (or “packing”) your lats. Engaging your triceps will also aid in packing your lats. Turn on your triceps by firmly straightening your arm and pressing your forearm into the kettlebell.
- Vertical arm: Maintain a vertical arm throughout the movement. Avoid the common faults of allowing your arm to drift back behind your body or down toward your hips.
- Twist hips while maintaining overhead position: With little-to-no movement from your shoulders, arm, or the kettlebell, drop your upper hip toward the floor by straightening your top leg. You can hold a deep twist, or pulse up and down as long as you do not break stability or lat engagement.
The most common fault during the arm bar is to lose packed lats. Pull your shoulder away from your ear. For a little proprioceptive nudge in the right direction, poke yourself (or let a coach/friend poke you) in the lats behind your arm pits.
Try these two lat engagement drills to feel the sensation of packed lats:
- Touch your shoes: Stand upright with your hands at your sides. Stretch your arms down your side as though attempting to touch the outside of your feet.
- Straight arm push downs: Raise your arms straight out in front of you. Place your hands palms down on a box or counter. Press your hands firmly into the box with straight arms.
During these two drills, pay attention to the engagement sensation in your lats behind your armpits, and recreate this sensation during the arm bar.
Crooked Arm Bar
The crooked arm bar might look like a press variation, but do not consider it a strength movement. Begin without any weight, and progress to light weight only when the movement pattern feels ingrained. You only need enough weight to demand stability and full engagement. The greatest benefit comes through prioritizing the proper movement pattern, not from the heavy weight. There is no such thing as a crooked arm bar PR!
- Lat activation: Learning to fully engage your lats pays dividends in all areas of your training. Not only do your lats stabilize your shoulder joint, they also pay a key role in retracting your scapulae and setting your thoracic spine. This stability transfers to kettlebell swings, pull ups, deadlifts, both Olympic lifts, and postural support for everyday life. For many people, the issue is not weak lats, but “dumb” lats. Most of our typical daily routines leave us hopelessly disconnected with our posterior shoulder girdle and we are unable to pack our lats because we have limited neural pathways to these muscles. The crooked arm bar demands that you re-establish this connection.
- Strengthen your external rotators: Actively rotating the kettlebell and pushing it behind you engages all the external rotator cuff muscles. Analogous to “dumb” lats, many people have a weak connection to their external rotators.
- Reciprocal inhibition for improved overhead position: Strong engagement from both your lats and external rotators mandates release from the reciprocal movers, primarily your chest, anterior shoulder, and trapezius. These muscles pull our shoulders into protraction (shoulder blades up and forward) and internal rotation (shoulders and arms in front of your chest). This typing and driving posture becomes ingrained and the tissue subsequently adapts. The crooked arm bar engages the opposing muscles and facilitates a return to normal function.
Test your overhead position before and after performing the crooked arm bar to discover the huge leap in shoulder mobility!
- Shoulders and hips stacked: Keep your shoulders and hips stacked, one directly above the other. Avoid twisting or leaning forward or back.
- Neutral spine: As you pull the kettlebell down into the bottom position, avoid the temptation to arch your back. Keep your core engaged and hips tucked under as in hollow position.
- Strong wrist and external rotation: As with all kettlebell pressing movements, maintain a straight wrist. Rotate your hand so that your palm points toward your face. Prevent the weight from falling forward toward your stomach by pushing the thumb side of your first behind you.
- Vertical forearm: Keep your forearm vertical, with your knuckles pointing straight up throughout the entire movement.
- Pull down into the bottom position: Maintain active engagement, especially through the lowering phase of the movement. Pull your elbow down into the bottom while pulling your shoulder away from your ear. You should feel strong engagement in your lat behind your armpit, almost on the verge of cramping.
As you descend into the bottom position, avoid the tempting ways of making the movement easier. Remember, it’s all about engagement. The most common faults are:
- Leaning back: Use a pole, wall, or partner to brace your upper shoulder against leaning back.
- Arching Your Back: Avoid the desire the arch your back to make room for your descending elbow. Stay hollow to prevent an arched position.
- Curling your forearm toward your face: Carefully watch your forearm to ensure it remains vertical. You can also have a partner spot this movement to ensure the kettlebell moves through the proper range with a vertical forearm.
- Arm falling forward toward your stomach: Actively push your fist toward your back. Stop your descent when you are unable to keep it pressed back. Let your fist falling forward signal the end of your range.
The Un-Sexy Work Pays Off
The arm bar and crooked arm bar likely will not win any awards for excitement or glamour, but they are tools that every athlete (and human) can use to re-train proper alignment and open up the notoriously limited overhead position.
Try out these exercises in your next warm up, and pay keen attention to the key points above. Once you feel the benefits, the arm bar and crooked arm bar will earn a permanent place in your warm up and mobility routines.
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