Two Kettlebell Exercises To Help You Build Symmetrical Upper Body Strength
When I was training for my kung fu black belt, I used to do all of my weapons forms with my right arm. As a result, I was drastically asymmetrical, with a huge gap in strength, stability, and coordination between my right and left sides. At the time, my primary focus was to pass my black belt test so my time was completely consumed with this task, and therefore I did not carve out any extra time to build up strength with my left arm so that it was more balanced with my right.
This asymmetry was so bad that my strength coach at the time, Isaac July, used to say, “Artemis, if we cut you in half and all you had was your left side, you would be useless.”
After I passed my black belt test, I made it my primary goal to reduce these upper body asymmetries. We are all asymmetrical, no one is perfectly symmetrical from one side to another, but it is possible to reduce this gap. The more asymmetrical you are the more prone you are to injury. Therefore it is in one’s best interest to reduce this gap from one side to another.
The kettlebell is an excellent tool to help reduce asymmetries because,
- Even when you are working with double kettlebells, each side of your body must work on its own to manage the weight; and
- Because of how the kettlebell is shaped. Unlike a barbell or a dumbbell which are symmetrical and loaded evenly throughout, the asymmetrical shape and load of the kettlebell forces your body to work harder to manage the weight. In addition, with the exception of double kettlebell work, (which, even though each side is managing the same load, is not the equivalent to working with the even load and stability of a barbell), kettlebell training is comprised of predominantly unilateral movements that therefore help to reduce asymmetries over time.
When I started to work towards my goal of building more symmetrical upper body strength, the two kettlebell exercises that I programmed in my training once per week were,
- The kettlebell bottoms-up press; and
- The Turkish get-up, specifically for a set and repetition scheme of 3 sets of 3 consecutive repetitions without lowering the kettlebell down in between repetitions.
Why these two particular kettlebell exercises? Let’s start with the bottoms up press…
The Bottoms-up Kettlebell Press
The bottoms-up kettlebell press helps to train an efficient press pattern, train how to keep the forearm vertical when pressing, improves dynamic shoulder stability, total body tension, and grip.
The position of the kettlebell when executing a bottoms up press makes the bottoms up press a difficult press to master and it is very challenging for the neuromuscular system. The difficulty of the bottoms up press and the position of the kettlebell when executing a bottoms up press, forces you to:
- Decrease your bell size so that you are using a lower system load (per Charlie Weingroff) for maximal gains; and
- Forces you to train an efficient movement pattern. When you train an efficient movement pattern it means that everything is working together for movement and stability thereby resulting in proximal stability for distal power.
Which means that you are maintaining proper tension close to the center of your body while executing the bottoms up press with an efficient movement pattern away from the center of your body.
You can only become so strong in an inefficient movement pattern and then you stop seeing strength gains and/or risk injury.
This stability is not just about maintaining proper tension at the center of your body, but it is also about the dynamic stability of your shoulder. How efficiently does your scapula and the rest of the muscles that work with the scapula move through the movement of the bottoms up press?
“Stability is control in the presence of change.” – Charlie Weingroff
How did the Bottoms-up Press help me to reduce upper body asymmetries?
When I first I started to train the bottoms-up press regularly in May 2012, it revealed significant imbalances between my left and right sides.
My left side lacked in stability, strength, and grip.
Training the bottoms-up press helped me to improve stability, strength, and grip on my left side and as a result it improved the symmetry in both strength and movement for my military press on both my right and left sides.
How did I Program the Bottoms-up Press?
I trained, and continue to train, the bottoms-up press once per week. Due to the difficultly of the bottoms up press and the stress that it puts on your neuromuscular system, it is not necessary to train the bottoms-up press more than once per week.
The bottoms-up press can be trained as an assistance drill for your military press and will also carry over to improving stability and strength for other upper body movements.
Train the bottoms-up press once per week. Find a kettlebell weight that you can easily complete 3 sets of 3 repetitions with that weight and then work towards 3 sets of 5 repetitions with that weight.
Once the 3 sets of 5 repetitions with that weight becomes very manageable, (I would give it anywhere from 4-12 weeks, and definitely no less than 4 weeks) then raise the weight and go back down to 3 sets of 3 repetitions.
When you start to train the bottoms-up press, if you find that you are having trouble maintaining the tension you need to execute the press, then take the press to a half kneel position to help find that tension.
Some things to keep in mind when training the bottoms-up press:
- You will likely need to drop weight significantly in order to have success. For example, if you are pressing 16kg (~35lbs) you may need to use half that weight for your bottoms-up press.
- It may take you a very long time (e.g. 12 weeks) to see progress with your bottoms-up press. Be patient and stick with it.
It took a very long time for me to see significant changes with my bottoms-up press. Just as I thought I was making gains I would struggle with the bottoms-up press on my left side.
To give you an example, below is my progress over the past five years with my bottoms-up press:
- May 2012 – Trained 3 sets of 5 reps with both 10lbs and 15lbs
- August 2012 – Trained 3 sets of 5 reps with 8kg (~18lbs)
- May 2013 – Trained 3 sets of 5 reps 8kg-10kg (22lbs)
- June 2013 – Trained 3 sets of 3 Reps with 12kg (~26lbs) and 3 sets of 5 reps with 8kg finally felt really good, really easy.
- July 2013 – Trained 3 sets of 5 reps with 10kg
- October 2013 – Trained 3 sets of 3 reps with 12kg BUT stopped training consistently until March 2014.
- March 2014 – I started with 3 sets of 3 reps half kneeling on March 16 and then by March 23, 2014 I was training 3 sets of 5 reps with 12kg standing
- May 7, 2014 – I started to work in 14kg (~30lbs) for sets of 3 reps
- May 21, 2014 – I started to regularly train 3 sets of 3 reps with 14kg
- September 2014 – I started to regularly train 3 sets of 5 reps with 14kg and I stayed with this weight for a long time. In June 2014 I could bottoms up press 16kg (~35lbs) for singles and doubles on a strong day but my bottoms up clean with the 16kg was not strong enough to train regularly so I stuck with 14kg.
- March 2, 2017 – I started to regularly train 3 sets of 3 reps with 16kg.
Bottoms Up Press with 16kg (~35lbs) 3 repetitions – Right Side
Bottoms Up Press with 16kg (~35lbs) 3 repetitions – Left Side
Do not rush to get to the next weight with your bottoms up press. Stay with the same weight for a long time until that weight is really easy before going up in weight. I found that I would work with the same weight for about three months (12 weeks), or even longer, before moving to the next weight.
The Turkish Get-up
The Turkish Get-Up is a fantastic movement that, in my book of programming, is very useful and a daily essential for all ages.
For adults, the get-up is important because it brings us back to the ground. As adults we don’t spend enough time doing groundwork, and getting up and down from the ground. Subsequently, we can lose ease with this skill and even lose it completely if we do not practice enough groundwork.
In addition, the get-up is a movement that simultaneously promotes both mobility and stability and takes us through multiple planes of motion by using several functional movement patterns, (such as the hip roll i.e. rolling, hip hinge, drop step lunge, etc.), that we have as humans.
Some people will train the full get-up loaded, others may never load it, and others may only train certain portions of it unloaded and/or loaded. You can break it up according to skill level, age, and generally what is appropriate for an individual given their injury and exercise history.
The get-up takes a lot of coordination and can be very challenging for some people, therefore, it is extremely important to learn all of the pieces of the get-up first before adding weight.
When I set out to train the Turkish get-up as part of my goal towards building more symmetrical upper body strength, not only did I program Turkish get-ups daily as the very first thing I did after warm-up as part of my training session, but I also programmed one day per week of a set and repetition scheme of 3 sets of 3 consecutive repetitions without lowering the kettlebell down in between repetitions.
You will see how asymmetries start to reveal themselves once you go beyond 1 or 2 repetitions with get-ups. Therefore, the set and repetition scheme of 3 sets of 3 repetitions helps to build symmetry and strength endurance. Three consecutive get-ups takes about 90 seconds, which is a long time to be stabilizing a kettlebell overhead through a dynamic movement like the get-up.
When you start to train this set and repetition scheme with get-ups, you will find that the asymmetries between sides will immediately reveal themselves. If you continue to train this set and repetition scheme with get-ups once weekly, consistently, you will find that within 4-6 weeks your less dominate side will catch up to your dominant side and that this improvement in symmetrical strength, strength endurance, and stability, will carry over to other upper body movements.
When I started training 3 sets of 3 repetitions of get-ups in 2012, I started with 16kg (~35lbs). I remember how challenging the third repetition was for my left side. However, I stayed consistent with my training, and over a short period of time my left side caught up to my right side and I saw improvement overall in all overhead movements and in general symmetrical upper body strength.
Now I can complete 3 sets of 3 repetitions with 20kg (44lbs), but I regularly stick with 18kg (40lbs) once per week.
If you are looking for a program that incorporates both of these kettlebell exercises to help build symmetrical upper body and press strength, my “Kettlebell Power: The Press” program does just that. You can purchase the program HERE.
By following the “Kettlebell Power: The Press” program…
- Joe K. went from a 40kg (88lbs) press to a 48kg (106lbs) press.
- Mark L. went from a 32kg (70lbs) press to a 36kg (80lbs) press.
- April D. went from an 18kg (40lbs) press to a 22kg (50lbs) press.
- Lilibeth S. went from a 20kg (44lbs) press to a 24kg (53lbs) press.
And many more… Read testimonials and watch client video results HERE.
Purchase the program HERE.
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- Access to the program you purchased from the date of purchase until the end of time.
- Access to the Iron Body Training Systems private online training Facebook group.
- 2 limited email check-ins over the course of the entire program length. For example, 1 email check-in after you purchase your program with any questions about the program and 1 additional email check-in half way through the program with any additional questions about the program and your training and progress thus far. Additional questions beyond the 2 designated emails over the course of the entire program length must be posted in the private Iron Body online training Facebook group. Note: these communications do not include communications initiated by me.
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I look forward to training with you!