To press a lot, you must press a lot. RKC proverb.
In the modern fitness world you’d be forgiven for thinking the only type of press that mattered is the bench press. But until about 1920 benches didn’t even exist. So how did the early fathers of strength – men like Sandow, Hackenschmidt, and Saxon – build such impressive upper bodies?
The answer is from various other forms of pressing. Pavel Tsatsouline wrote in Enter the Kettlebell that, “…if you work your overhead presses hard, you will hardly need to do anything else for your upper body.” Looking at the herculean torsos and shoulders of the strongmen of yesteryear it would seem to be correct.
The kettlebell press is unlike a normal barbell or dumbbell press. This is because of the offset nature of the kettlebell. With the weight of the bell resting against the back of your arm, a kettlebell is always trying to pull you out of your groove and into a potentially dangerous position.
I’ve always thought of this as a two-for-one bonus deal kind of thing because it means when I press a kettlebell I am getting a great shoulder stability workout as my rotator cuff has to work overtime to counteract these forces. The alternative to a healthy shoulder joint would be to add in extra work in the form of some rotator cuff work. I am always looking to minimize my time in the gym, so an exercise that gives me the same benefit in less time and with less volume is a blessing.
One of the keys of the RKC system is the use of tension to help with force production. The press begins with the clean. No matter how strong you are at pressing, if your clean delivers the weight to a poor rack position you are going to struggle to press it. So step one in a successful heavy press is a solid and consistent clean.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make as they bell arrives in the rack is to let it knock some of the air out of them. This is a big mistake. Breath is an important part of both creating tension and relaxation. The key during the clean is to prepare the body for the impact of the bell, which should be minimal if your clean is well performed. Imagine someone trying to knock you over as they walk past – tense your body the exact same way. In this position – a standing plank – you will be tight with legs locked, abs and glutes switched on, and body rigid.
One of the best ways to practice this is with my favorite press drill – the bottoms up press. This drill teaches many things all at the same time – from whole body tension to keeping a straight wrist to keeping a vertical forearm. Letting your forearm go out of vertical increases the torque at the shoulder if it goes backwards or causes your arm to be caved in by the bell lying on top of it. Super freak Max Shank demonstrates this in this video:
The groove of the kettlebell press is a little different to that of a dumbbell or barbell press. Because of the need to keep the forearm vertical the upper arm needs to open out a bit to allow this to happen. From the rack position with the arm against the ribs to somewhere with the hand about level with the top of your head your arm needs to be opened out. How far this is will be dependent on how long your arms are. People will little short T-Rex arms will be able to press almost directly straight up, while those with condor-like wingspans will need to have their arms almost at ninety degrees to the body. To find your groove will take time. As the saying goes, “to press a lot you must press a lot.”
A great example of the press is in this video below from Phil Scarito:
A final tip is to keep the body as one unit. It’s always funny to me that people understand that swings are a whole body exercise. Get ups, too. But all of a sudden we get to the press and they revert back to their inner bodybuilder and think it’s a shoulder exercise. There is no RKC exercise that is not a whole body drill. The shoulder needs to stay packed down during the entire lift. Imagine trying to suck your shoulder blade on the working side down into the opposite hip pocket and keeping it there during the duration of the press. When the shoulder comes up it’s possible to impinge the shoulder joint and I’ve seen many people who tell me that their shoulders hurt when they press be instantly “cured” just by remembering this simple tip.
When trying to get my groove, particularly with a new bell, bigger than one I’ve been used to training with, I like to perform a bottoms up press with an appropriate sized bell that makes a single rep difficult. I find this reminds me of good mechanics and how to develop tension. After a short break I go straight to my new bell and try to get that same feeling of tension and alignment. This is a simple application of a workout that Ian King used to use for both CNS and metabolic overload during training – the 5/1 workout. The single rep gives you a high level of neural activation and actually makes completing a set of five immediately after easier, allowing you to use a heavier weight which in turn leads to more strength and muscle gain.
Make haste slowly with your press weights. Kettlebells come in reasonably big jumps in load. Going from a 16kg bell to a 20kg bell may only seem like 4kg but it’s a jump of 20%. Be patient and take your time at each new weight and own your form before looking to go up. If you follow the drills above and take your time you’ll build a strong press and an upper body to make Sandow jealous.
Learn the six basics RKC exercises:
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