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Maximizing Tension For A Bigger Press

June 9, 2011 10:00 AM

 Geoff article
The Press used to be the standard for upper body strength. It was contested in the sport of Weightlifting until 1972 until it became too hard to judge. Eventually, it just looked like a standing Bench Press.
But if you accept the old standard of the Press - keeping the torso vertical without a backbend, and you spend some time on it, you’ll find newfound upper body strength. In fact, years ago I found that if I pushed my Press strength up, my shoulders felt better for the Bench Press.
But apart from "pressing a lot" to improve your Press, and using a heavier kettlebell (or pair of kettlebells), there’s an oft overlooked way to improve your Press - by maximizing the tension necessary to get stronger.
In the RKC, we speak of the concept of "linkage v. leakage," which is the idea the strength, or power actually leaks out of certain parts of your body if you fail to keep them tight. Keep those parts tight or tense, and you can "steer" or direct your strength into your movement of choice.
I believe this concept has been forgotten within the RKC and those orbiting it. The focus has shifted from practicing and acquiring the skill of strength to chasing numbers at all costs. I recently spoke with Brett Jones, Master RKC, who told me that there were more than a handful of candidates at the most recent CK-FMS with shoulder injuries from chasing the RKC II standards. Obviously, there is a dis-connect within our community.
So, how then do we rectify it?
By getting back to the basics of strength practice.
Remember the concept of "irradiation" from Power To The People. Simply tense one muscle hard enough, the surrounding muscles also contract. Pavel called this "cheering, not cheating." The brain directs the resulting "nerve force" to accomplish the task at hand, which is the completion of the lift.
Let’s apply this to the Press.
The Press can be broken down into two components —
1. Stabilizing parts
2. Moving parts
Stabilizing Parts.
I view everything below the sternum, with the exception of the lat(s) as "stabilizing parts" for the Press. In my mind, this entire area, from the sternum to the feet, forms a pillar from which you push the weight from point A to point B - from your shoulder to lockout. If this area moves, then there is a power leakage. Force is no longer directed solely at the kettlebell(s) but seeps out through the hole in the pillar.
There are four areas that need to remain tense during the ascent of the kettlebell. They are -
  1. The Feet. The feet should be pushed through the ground. I envision them as roots of a tree.
  2. The Legs. The kneecaps should be pulled up into the groin, making the quads contract.
  3. The Gluts. These should be pinched tight, like holding a coin between the cheeks. (Nice imagery, I know...)
  4. The Abs. Should be braced as if ready to absorb a punch.
Again, these areas form the pillar from with to push.
The Moving Parts.
These are the parts that actually move the kettlebell. They are -
  1. The Lat. This forms the "shelf" from which to push and stabilizes (read: protects) the shoulder joints (the acromioclavicular joint, the glenohumeral joint, and to a lesser degree, the sternoclavicular joint).
  2. The Deltoids. Responsible for elevating the arm.
  3. The Triceps. Responsible for lockout.
Most people focus on #2 and #3 above and forget all about the lat in their efforts for a bigger Press. And then they end up with a rotator cuff injury - specifically, the supraspinatus, which gets pinched in the acromioclavicular space during the Press because the lat is no longer engaged to stabilize the entire joint structure.
So How Do You Maximize The Tension?
Quite simply, practice.
Spend the majority of your time focusing on tensing the stabilizing parts while lifting lighter loads. Not necessarily light loads, but lighter loads. Certainly not heavy loads. (Remember, what you practice becomes permanent, and certainly under stressful situations. Lifting heavy, near maximal loads are stressful situations.)
Focus on driving your feet through the floor while pressing. Pay attention to the feedback your body gives you.
Focus on pulling your kneecaps into your groin while pressing. Again, pay attention the to signals your body gives you.
Focus on pressing with your gluts pinched. And then your abs braced. And you guessed it, pay attention to the feedback your body is giving you.
And then play with combinations - squeezing your gluts and tensing your abs; pushing your feet through the floor and pulling up your kneecaps. Use different combinations until you can do all four at once.
Keep playing, practicing with the lighter weights focusing on the "stabilizing parts." The lighter the weight, the more reps you can do before fatiguing. The more reps you can do, the more you cement the pattern into your nervous system. And the sooner it will be that you can lift the bigger weights without having to think about contracting this muscle and that - you will have already established a pattern, and it will become virtually second nature.
That way when you go to move the bigger weights, you will already be maximizing tension and will have already plugged the power leaks. What once felt heavy will start to feel light.
Then you can focus on dialing in the "moving parts" of the Press.
How long can you expect until you start seeing results?
Apply these concepts to your Press practice before moving on to anything fancy. You’ll notice progress the first time you implement these techniques. And again, the more you implement them into your training - your strength practice, the easier and more familiar they’ll become, yielding strong, pain and injury-free training for years to come.

Geoff Neupert, Master RKC, CSCS, has worked in the fitness industry since 1993 as a personal trainer, college strength and conditioning coach, and personal training business owner. He is a former weightlifting national qualifier and state champion. He has logged over 19,217 hours of one-on-one personal training and counting and has been training both his clients and himself with kettlebells since January 2002.
For more great strength information, check out his blog: or and also see him live at the Summit of Strength in July for details.