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Increase Your Kettlebell Military Press One Size in 8 Weeks

September 29, 2003 02:05 PM

How To Military Press The 2 Pood (or any next-larger size) in 8 Weeks

At 152 lbs., five feet, seven and one half inches, 13% body fat, I'm not exactly a big guy. As a middle aged desk jockey with a bad back who likes to run, swim, and bicycle, I'm not your ideal candidate for military pressing a 70 lb. kettlebell over my head with one arm - but I did it, and not by acquiring big muscles, either. I gained no weight nor did I lose any body fat. I just, plain and simple, got stronger, and you can, too. While the examples below discuss moving from a 53 to the 70 lb. kettlebell, the principles involved ought to apply equally well to those lifting other objects, e.g., dumbbells and barbells, and also to those lifting different weights, e.g., someone trying to work up to their first military press of a 36 or 53, or even an 88 lb. kettlebell.

Principle Number 1 - There is a relationship between strength and volume - if you build up some volume with a lighter but still reasonably heavy weight, you'll be able to translate that into increased strength for a single repetition at or near your limits. You need to practice moving heavy things - there's no doubt about that - but you can make progress by moving somewhat lighter things if you have no choice and, at least with kettlebells, you don't have a lot of choice.

Pavel Tsatsouline, in "Power To The People!" and elsewhere, recommends keeping the number of repetitions in one set to five or fewer if you don't wish to gain muscle size - I agree completely. Here's how we turn Principle Number 1 into action - start by working your way toward doing 10 sets of five repetitions with your current weight (which, in my case, was the 53 lb. kettlebell). Since we must also keep the rest periods long between sets if you don't wish to get bigger - Pavel mentions three to five minutes; I prefer even longer - let's say six minutes rest between sets as a minimum; longer, even lots longer, is AOK, too.

If you can't do 10 sets of 5 on long rests just yet, don't worry, just keep at it. I suggest working up to 5 or 6 sets at whatever rep count you can, then working on increasing the rep count on those sets, then returning to adding sets again. You can follow the PTP principle here of making the sets towards the end a bit easier by trying to do more reps in the earlier sets and fewer in the later as you increase your volume. But never forget that the first muscle that moves the weight is your brain - know that you can conquer 10 x 5 before you move on because it's not only important that you be able to do it, it's important that you know you're able to do it.

You don't have to be a math genius to realize that 10 sets of five reps, each set taking about a minute to perform (you do one side, you put the bell down, rest a few seconds, then do the other side), done on six minute rests, will take over an hour to perform. If you want to get stronger this way, be prepared to take some time. If my program has a downside, that's it.

A few details worth paying attention to: First, lift with your weaker arm first most, but not all, of the time.

Second, practice good pressing technique as discussed in "Russian Kettlebell Challenge" - feel the weight go right through your hip and into the floor, try pressing with the other leg off the ground once in a while (one-legged military press), lean forward as the weight passes your head, keep the handle on the sweet spot at the base of your palm. The single most important thing you can do is maintain an extremely tight midsection while you press - properly done, the one-armed kettlebell military press provides fantastic abdominal training. (If, like me, you have back problems, a tight midsection while pressing is not an option but a must.) My thanks to Rob Lawrence, Senior Kettlebell Instructor, for pointing out some flaws in my form and also for encouraging me to experiment with different styles, e.g., pressing more straight up rather than pressing slightly out to the side. You should try different things at this stage of the game as well - even if you don't change your form, you will learn something from trying the move a different way.

Third, while I agree with Pavel's recommendation to clean before every press to maximize tension, you need now to learn how to manufacture high tension without the aid of a clean if for no other reason than it will make your light weight feel a little heavier, therefore: clean once, press all five reps before putting the bell down. Take a fresh breath before each press, or at least "refresh" the air you've got in you with a little extra, tighten your midsection again, make sure your lat is flared to properly support your press, and push hard each time.

Fourth and last but not least, since this weight is supposed to be a little easy for you, practice the following two things for both their psychological and physical benefits: open your hand so that you are not gripping the heck out of the kettlebell handle when you press (do this at least some, even most of the time), and when you get to lockout at the top, relax just a bit before you head down again - if you can't keep your hand open during the press at the start, work on opening it at the top while you semi-relax for a second.

Do your 10 x 5 about twice per week, but do some pressing every day. This is important so I will repeat - press every day, or at least almost every day. On the other days, I recommend one short set with your current weight followed by one longer set of more than five reps, closer to 10 if you can, and no more. If you're feeling tired, don't push things - take a day in which you press very little but use your current weight, perhaps just a single short set. My favorite combination is to use all three in a loose rotation - one day of 10 x 5 on long rests, one day of a single long set, and one day of almost nothing.

Principle Number 2 - Instead of now moving directly to attempting a press with the next larger size bell (32kg or 70 lbs. for me), "cheat" by adding these two things to your program: pressing an in-between weight and adding a Speed/Bands Day.

Creating an in-between weight is easy: get yourself a 36 lb. and a 26 lb. kettlebell, grab them with one hand, bring them to your chest any way you can, and press them. You can't really clean two kettlebells with one hand at once - all sorts of clanging, banging, and sparks flying results - so just sort of cheat curl them into the proper position, take a breath, tighten everything, and push those suckers skyward! If your preparation has been good until this point, you should find it fairly easy, albeit noticeably harder than just pressing one 53 lb. bell

Once you get the hang of this, work up to several singles on long rests, then several doubles on long rests, then several triples on long rests. (Your doubles and triples will all be "from the shoulder" with no extra clean before each rep.) And once you are pressing a triple with these two bells, which together weigh about 62 lbs., you ought to be good for a single rep at about 67 lbs. Unfortunately for us, the next size of kettlebell weighs 32 kilograms or 70.4 lbs., so we have a bit more work to do.

Now it's time to get yourself a rubber band and add a speed day (or even two or three) each week to your training. A JumpStretch mini ( will do perfectly for most people. (Thanks to Andy70 and Eddie "Green Ghost" on the Dragon Door forum for their help integrating bands into my pressing program.) Take a weight that's about half your goal weight, stand on one end of the mini band, put your hand through the other, lay the kettlebell handle on top of or next to the rubber band, and press as quickly as you can. I worked with a 36 lb. kettlebell plus my mini band and felt like it really turbo-charged my pressing. The idea of military pressing for speed with a kettlebell is almost like a martial arts punch, with you twisting outwards as you press upwards. (Thanks to Eddie, the "Green Ghost," for that image.)

You'll need to find your own rhythm for mixing the 2-bell press with speed days and lighter days, but by now you should have a good sense of your own limits and how you ought to schedule things. You could have a speed day with the 36 lb. bell and the mini band, another day in which you press the 53 lb. bell for 7-10 reps for a single set, and yet another day when you press your 2-bell combination for a few singles, doubles, triples, or some combination thereof. Beware of overtraining - you've put in the high volume work already, and now is the time to "peak" for your new, heavier weights by using a lower total training volume. A day off here and there from this point forward is a good idea.

Principle and Practice Number 3 - Yielding Presses and Duct Tape! There is a limit to the strength and volume relationship, particularly as you near your limits, so pick and chose from any and all of these options to be done for generally low volumes: jerk or pushpress the 70 lb. kettlebell overhead, then perform partial presses (lower part of the way, raise to lockout, repeat). Perform a yielding press - jerk/pushpress the weight overhead then lower it slowly and under complete control. If you can perform a fully controlled yielding press, you are probably ready to press the beast upwards in the very near future. Remember to add back in all those niceties - like crushing the handle in your grip and taking a fresh clean before each press - that we took out earlier. You want them now, you'll need them now, and you deserve to use every tool at your disposal as you set a new Personal Best. Keep the speed/band work in your program as well.

It can also be good to duct tape a 2.5 plate underneath your 36 lb bell, your 26 lb. bell, or both. If you add it to one, work back up to triples, then add it to the other, work back up to triples or even just doubles, you will be fully prepared to press the heavier single bell.

I will leave how to structure your first 70.4 lb. pressing attempt to the powerlifting competition experts, but if you've gotten to this point, you're ready and the weight will go up - just rest or take it very easy for a day or two before then hoisting that Big Mutha to the heavens!

Note: You need a strong middle to make this happen. Have someone test you by punching and kicking you all over your midsection. Your lower torso is like a balloon here ? if there is a loose/weak area, the pressure in the remainder will be lessened and you'll risk hurting yourself. Do your ab work ? the Evil Wheel is my personal favorite, done standing on the floor for very low reps at maximum effort. Since all areas of the midsection must be tight, also include the Full Contact Twist, Saxon Side Bends, One-Handed Farmers Walks and anything else you can think of to make sure you're tight all the way around your middle. One of my favorites is a static hold with a heavy kettlebell, a Farmers Walk without the Walk, if you will. I feel the tension in the midsection it requires, and especially the way it focuses attention to one side, mimics the midsection requirements of the military press. On my way to military pressing the 2 pood I did these static holds with a 2.5 pood bell, holding for 45-60 seconds, resting for 20-30 seconds, and repeating for a few reps.

Steve Freides, RKC, NSCA Certified Personal Trainer, holds a doctoral degree in Music, was Theory teacher at the Mannes College of Music in New York City, is the president of Friday's Computer, Inc. (a computer consulting company in Ridgewood, NJ), teaches/coaches at the Ridgewood, NJ, YMCA, and offers both in-person and long-distance personal training in the art of kettlebell lifting.