26 Apr How To Maximize The Kettlebell Press (5 Common Mistakes And Fixes)

Scott Press

The press is one of the most valuable, useful lifts you will ever do.

If you want to be really strong, learn how to press heavy weight over your head.

That’s a big part of optimal total body strength.

You also need to deadlift and squat, as well, but those are different discussions.

When I got into kettlebells, I found out there is something extremely powerful about pressing a heavy kettlebell (or two) overhead.

Also, let’s not forget the mighty barbell press for max loads, but in this article I want to focus only on kettlebell pressing mistakes and fixes.

The kettlebell military press is a simple exercise.

Clean the kettlebell to the rack position, press it overhead, lower it back down, and repeat.

Yeah, right.

Actually, there’s a lot more to it than that.

A lot more.

So, knowing there’s more to it than that, I compiled a list of some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen with the kettlebell press.

Here’s the deal, the kettlebell press is an extremely powerful and effective total body exercise when performed correctly.

That’s right, it’s a total body exercise.

Let’s start with the concept of the press being a total body exercise when we look at the 5 big mistakes in the shoulder press.

Mistake #1:  Thinking this is just an exercise for the shoulders.

The kettlebell press is not just a shoulder press, but instead it’s a total body exercise.

You must understand this to get the most out of it.

I’ll talk specifically about the use of muscular tension in just a minute, but incorporating your entire body into the press is key.

Everything should be tight and stable when you press.

The more you bring in tension and stability with you trunk stabilizers (abs, paraspinals), hips, legs, and even your non-involved upper extremity, the more power you willl have when you press.

This is safer and more efficient.

Get tight, stable, and “grounded” before you press overhead.

Use your entire body.  This will make a huge difference.

The kettlebell press is far from just a shoulder exercise and the sooner you realize how your entire body is involved in this lift, the faster and better results you will have.

Mistake #2:  Not breathing effectively.

Proper breathing can make or break your press.

Proper breathing is essential for your press (and any other exercise, for that matter).

When you’re loading up on the press, the correct breathing pattern will be key in your press perfromance and it’s very important you get this right.

For heavy strict military presses, exhale slowly as you press the bell overhead.  (Look for videos coming soon on my breathing techniques).

Specifically, you will take a deep breath just before you press, then breath as though you are releasing air slowly when the kettlebell is elevating overhead (imagine letting air out of a tire slowly and the hiss it makes).

You’ll do the same.  Hiss as you press the kettlebell upward, releasing air slowly.

Trust the technique here and it will give you power, I guarantee.

Slow release breathing will provide the increased ‘bracing’ effect of the abdominals as you are releasing air and hissing to drive the kettlebell up.

Once overhead in full lock out, pause, inhale and stabilize, then lower the kettlebell down safely.  This will increase the intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize your spine.

You can also pause at the top and inhale on the slow, controlled lowering back to the rack position.  Either way is acceptable and safe.

Using the slow release exhalation on the press up is key for power, strength, and safety.

Remember, proper breathing is critical for a proper press.

Mistake #3:  Not using tension principles properly.

Another common mistake is not using muscular tension effectively.

Tension will give you power, but it’s easy to forget tension principles as you may be so focused on the kettlebell press itself.

I will tell you that keeping everything tight is a real key to this exercise and without it, you won’t get the strong results you should.

Tips for tension are:

  • drive your feet into the ground (spread the floor with your feet stable)
  • pull your knee caps up (tighten your quads)
  • squeeze your glutes
  • tighten your abs
  • stay tall (meaning don’t slouch and keep a straight spine)
  • squeeze the kettlebell (tight grip)
  • and, I also like to make a fist with the opposite hand to increase and balance tension in the opposite upper extremity.

Seems like a lot?

Look at how you currently press and find out what you may be missing.

Then focus on what you’re missing and with practice, this will become “automatic.

The idea is to make it automatic.

This will become your “motor program” so that when you press, all of this will occur naturally and without conscious effort.

This is neuromuscular learning, meaning that your body is learning how to perform and condition this lift.

Again, you will master this with practice.

Practice leads to mastery.

I read something recently on the topic of mastery.

The concept was that mastery is a journey, not a destination.

This is why I always say that I’m always “working” to improve my own skills, even the fundamentals.

Yes, I’m still working on my swing.

The minute you stop learning and improving on your skills, your journey to mastery is over.

I’m always the student and you should be, as well.

Ok, let me step off my soap box now.

Mistake #4:  Not incorporating the lat effectively.

This one can be a little tricky, but it pays off in optimizing shoulder strength when you learn how to use your lat in the shoulder press.

Here’s what you do.

When the kettlebell is in the rack position, flare your lat before you press it up.

The key reason to do this is stability.

When you fire the lat, this makes the shoulder girdle much more stable to press from.

In other words, stabilize the base and power the press.

If the lat is not contracted, there’s a part that’s “soft” in the foundation and you simply won’t have the pressing power you should.

The goal is to activate all muscles in the shoulder joint complex, both agonists and antagonists, for a safer and more efficient press.

Do this and observe how your pressing strength and technique will improve.

Again, this takes practice, but I’ve found the simple “lat flare” is the key signal for proper lat activation.

Mistake #5:  Not pressing enough (weight and frequency).  

There is a saying, “to press a lot, you must press a lot.”

Pressing is a fundamental lift, like pulling or squating.

What I’m saying is the this should be done quite often.

You should be pressing frequently in whatever training program you’re doing.

The weight (or load) will vary according to your goals and overall training frequency, but as Dan John says “if it’s important, do it everyday.”

That doesn’t mean you’re going all out every session in your presses.

But, it could mean practicing the press technique each training session.

You’ll see the examples below.

Now, if you want to get strong, you have to train strong.

This means using heavy weight.  You cannot get strong pressing light weight, so start pushing some weight.

Maintain technique, improve your pressing skills, and pick a program and follow it.

There are many great strength programs available, but the key is picking one and following through to completion.

Here’s a few program ideas:

Program One (Assuming training 5 days per week):

  • Vary your load each session (light, moderate, heavy)
  • Do only 2 (maybe 3 sets) per session
  • Keep reps at 5, regardless of the weight
  • Always “press” each session, but going “heavy” only 1 day per week (Your heavy day is your 3-5 RM)
  • The “light” days may be just 1-2 sets of 5 to improve technique: lighter sessions are to improve the motor program

Program Two (Assuming 3 days per week of shoulder pressing):

  • 5 x 5 approach, using the same light, medium, and heavy approach.
  • Heavy days are your 5 rep RM.

So, press heavy and press frequently (varying your intensity).

Another training approach is double kettlebell work.

Double kettlebell training seems to translate to improved strength with single kettlebell strict presses.

This is exactly what I just experienced as I completed the “Shock and Awe” Protocol, which is a 4 week double kettlebell strength and muscle building program.

So, in summary, here are 5 ways to maximize your kettlebell press:

  1. Understand the importance of using your entire body.
  2. Breath properly.
  3. Use tension principles.
  4. Incorporate the lat.
  5. Press heavy and press often.

Pressing is one of the most powerful things you can do to be strong.

I’m working on an extensive report on the SOTS press (which is the ultimate test in mobility, stability, and strength).

To be notified when that report is available, enter your email in above.

I’ll leave you with one final point.

Master the heavy press and become superhuman!

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