Tackle the Kettlebell Bent Press: Part 1
If you know much about old-school strongmen like Arthur Saxon, Eugen Sandow, and Sig Klein, chances are high that you’ve heard of the bent press. Typically performed with a barbell, strongmen would use the bent press as the preferred method to hoist a heavy load overhead with one arm. Arthur Saxon once did a bent press with 371lb!
Somewhere between then and now, the bent press has become more foreign, and I could understand why. At first glance, the bent press is intimidating. Its complexity is liable to leave you scratching your head wondering where to begin. Once you decide to give it a go, you might find limitations in your shoulders, hips, or back that prevent you from safely attempting the lift, turning you away from it altogether.
Today, I hope to point out to you why you should not only get to know the bent press, but use it as a means to get seriously strong and increase the control you have of your attachment sites. I’ll break this into two separate parts; building a foundation and practicing the full bent press.
The bent press is a skill, and like any skill requires constant practice. There are subsystems to the bent press that can, and should, be practiced daily. Two in particular are the arm bar and bent arm bar. When used frequently, not only will they allow you become a successful presser, but they may prove to be the missing link between your mobility/stability needs in the hips, shoulders, and upper back.
The Rationale Behind the Bent Press
Dave Whitley’s Taming the Bent Press was my first exposure to the lift, and a book I revisit frequently. Whitley is a performing strongman himself, and touches on the history of the bent press in his book. If you’re truly interested in learning to master the lift, I’d highly recommend getting his book.
But why would you want to use the bent press in the first place? Well, if you’re interested in significantly increasing your overhead strength, adding a supplemental total-body lift to your kettlebell, barbell, or bodyweight training, or if you just want to wow your peers with a truly awesome lift, the bent press is your answer.
Before we break it down, below is a quick look at what the overall movement looks like:
There’s a lot going on here. To fully comprehend what’s happening, we need to deconstruct the lift from the very beginning, starting with the rack position. We will start with perhaps the one of the best catchall exercises there is: the arm bar.
Breaking Down the Arm Bar
The bent press, like most kettlebell lifts, requires a balance of tension and relaxation. I can’t think of too many other drills that demonstrate this better than the arm bar. Aside from the direct result of teaching you how to properly pack the shoulder, you’ll also see an increase in mobility and stability of the upper back and shoulders, as well as the hips.
Gray Cook refers to the Turkish get up as “loaded yoga.” I might consider the arm bar “loaded meditation.” My clients often note a feeling of complete relaxation following an arm bar while being able to move more freely throughout their entire body. When people ask me if I stretch, I often use the example of the arm bar as to why I don’t do a whole lot of “stretching.”
Flexibility is considered the passive range of motion you have at a specific area, while mobility refers to the useable range of motion you have at a specific joint. For example, let’s say you can lay on your back and hug your knees all the way to your chest, but can’t properly perform a deep squat when standing. You posses the proper flexibility needed to perform a deep squat while unloaded, lying on your back. But when standing and under load you lack the mobility—or control—needed to properly execute the movement.
This sums up why you get so many benefits from a lift like the arm bar. Your tonic muscles (pecs, biceps, and hip flexors) all begin to “shut off” or stretch as your phasic muscles (delts, glutes, triceps, and deep core muscles) “turn on.”
Some people view the arm bar as something they need to prepare for first, fearing they could injure themselves. I’d say this is your solution to your current mobility/stability problem. Learn to properly perform an arm bar and you likely won’t have very many shoulder issues appear in your future.
The Arm Bar
The arm bar will help teach you to properly stabilize and control a load overhead, while at the same time increasing the mobility and control needed to perform a number of lifts aside from the bent press.
If you’re someone who already has a lot of mobility, 1-2 reps on each side is likely all you’ll need. For my clients with more mobility needs, it’s not uncommon to perform 8-10 arm bars on each side throughout our training session.
Step 1: The Set Up
You want to make sure you grab the bell properly before rolling and starting the lift. Lie on your right side and put your right hand under the handle so that the back of your wrist is flat against the bell. Once you get your grip right, and your wrist is firmly on the bell, place your left hand over your right hand, roll over to your back and press the bell up with both hands. At no point should the back of the wrist come off the bell during the roll or any other time of the lift moving forward.
Pack your shoulder and when comfortably secure, remove your left hand and straighten it over your head. Bend your right knee and straighten your left leg. You’re now set to roll into the arm bar.
Step 2: The Roll
Once set, drive your right heel into the floor to roll onto your left side. As this happens you’re going to think of punching to the ceiling with your loaded hand. Allow your right knee to land in front of you at a 90-degree angle. Stabilize the bell, relax your head on your left arm, and start to breathe. I typically count breaths here, rather than seconds, as it allows you to relax more into the exercise. Try and leave your hand imprint in the bell (squeeze hard), check your wrist to make sure it hasn’t come off the back of the bell (it usually does) and create as much tension in your loaded arm as possible. This should fire the triceps and create an even tighter pack in the shoulder.
As you relax more, you can slowly start to slide your right knee out in front of you more and possibly even get your right hip all the way to the floor. If you reach a point where the load overhead becomes unstable, you’ve gone too far. Take a few more breaths and relax into your deeper position.
Step 3: The Return
After 5-10 breaths, you’ll want to bring your knee back up to 90-degrees, then hook your right foot behind your left leg to provide support for the roll back into your starting position. As you do so, make sure you maintain a tight pack in the shoulder. Once on your back again, you can bring your left hand over your right hand to safely return the bell to the floor. Drag the bell around your head, not over your face, to your left side and repeat on your left arm.
The Bent Arm Bar
Once you’ve properly demonstrated the ability to perform the arm bar, the bent arm bar is next in your progression to the bent press. The bent arm bar looks sexy, which is why most people try it too soon. If you don’t have the proper mobility to do a good arm bar, be patient and stick with the traditional arm bar before moving to the bent arm bar. This is your foundation you’re creating, if your foundation is unstable, then your bent press will be ugly and dangerous.
The bent arm bar will teach you how to properly side rack the kettlebell in the standing bent press. It’s not uncommon to experience some cramping in the lat the first time you perform this exercise. My recommendation is to start with a light load—lighter than you think you should use.
Here’s what the bent arm bar looks like in action:
Step 1: The Set Up
To set up for the bent arm bar, repeat all the set-ups steps you completed in the arm bar up to where you’ve rolled on your side with your right knee at 90-degrees in front of your body. Your head is relaxed and resting on your left arm.
Step 2: Pull Back and Down
Turn your loaded arm so that the point of your elbow is facing your feet. Slowly start to pull back behind your body and down toward your left glute. The forearm must remain vertical at all times. Never at any point should you lose the tension you’re creating and simply let gravity “drop” the bell down behind you. This is a voluntarily, tight “pull” back and down. It helps to visualize puffing your chest out as you pull back and down with the loaded arm.
Step 3: Press and Return
When you feel like you’ve reached your comfortable end range, take in a breath, imagining filling your lat with the air, and press the bell back up over your head. Hook your right foot behind your left leg and return to your back.
Perhaps the biggest, most important piece of information here is the constant tension throughout the lift. Never at any point should gravity be doing the work for you. In addition, the need for a vertical forearm is paramount. Failure to do so will result in the bell rolling on your wrist and onto your body, resulting in possible injury.
Give It a Try
While the bent arm bar may look intimidating to those with lack of mobility or stability in the shoulder, don’t let it turn you away. I feel the arm bar and bent arm bar can develop healthy shoulders. A great bent press starts with an excellent bent arm bar. A great bent arm bar starts with an excellent arm bar.
Don’t over-complicate these pieces to the bent press. Take the time to establish a solid foundation with these two lifts. If you can’t perform a great bent arm bar, then don’t even attempt the bent press. If you can’t perform a great arm bar, then don’t perform the bent arm bar. In part two we’ll move on to the half kneeling bent press and finally the bent press. As I like to say, “an arm bar a day keeps the doctor away.”
More on kettlebell training: