Every now and again we see something that gets popular in fitness that makes me raise an eyebrow. Ironically, as someone who has taught kettlebells for almost 14 years and loves them quite a bit, one of those trends HAS to do with kettlebells. Now, you may be thinking it MUST be coming from one of those silly fitness shows or the like. Oh no! It is coming from many of the kettlebell communities that are trusted resources.
I fully realize by writing this I am COMPLETELY opening up the hysteria that asking us to re-think things sometimes causes when we get married to ideas. First, please realize I am NOT calling people stupid or anything like that! Secondly, I am just asking you to have be open to a different way of thinking. After all, I am also expecting some people to say, “yea, well, that’s not me!” Um, are you 100% sure?
So, what happens when I tell people I am not a big fan of the kettlebell bottoms-up work? Some almost get the pitchforks and torches out. However, to understand where I am coming from let’s look at why people say they use this kettlebell method.
It Starts At The Beginning
I would say for the first almost ten years that I was teaching kettlebells, the bottoms-up wasn’t a main exercise other than a really cool way to show your grip strength. Even though it appeared in Pavel Tsatsouline’s book (the man that brought kettlebells back to popularity), “The Russian Kettlebell Challenge” in 2001. Most coaches I knew used it as a test or even something that would reserve for their own private challenges.
Then I’ll be honest, it happened what seemed to me overnight. EVERYONE was touting the bottoms-up position as the solution for EVERYTHING. Gotta bad shoulder? Bottoms-up it! Need better core strength? Bottom-up it! Want to be “functionally” stronger? Yup, bottoms-up it!
Whenever I see such a trend I ask myself really two questions. The first, is the idea legit? Secondly, is it reasonable to employ for most people?
Let’s address the first question, is bottoms-up legit? Anecdotally, you will probably get a resounding yes? While I definitely put legitimacy in real world experiences, there are a lot of factors that go into success in the real world. For example, is that the ONLY variable that changed in training?
Is there any research to support the value of the bottoms-up? Actually, a 2012 study by Dr. Stuart McGill DID find that the bottoms-up activated more grip and core than the rack position.
Case closed right?! “Thanks Henkin, its been fun, off to do more bottoms-up”
Well….that answered the first question (possibly) is there validity of the method. Now, the other question is how easy is it to implement? What inevitably happens when people try to implement are three things (of course I realize NONE of this happens to anyone you know, but if you look around it happens!).
1. They go REALLY light! To no one’s surprise that most people that haven’t spent quite a bit of of time practicing the bottoms-up almost kill themselves the first few times they try. So, what does any good coach do? We give them really light kettlebells! Of course that is the safer thing to do, but is it the BETTER thing to do?!
Most people scoff at the idea of unstable surfaces like wobble boards, BOSU, etc. for building strength. Ironically, they have more in common with the bottoms-up than you may think. The reason that many of these unstable surface tools failed was because they were SO much more unstable than people were use to they failed to exert much force because they were trying not to fall!
Same thing CAN happen in the bottoms-up. People spend so much time trying to balance the kettlebell that they lose the primary movement they are trying to perform, or they don’t actually exert much force because the weight is so light.
2. People lose their form!! This happens especially when people try to bottoms-up press. They once again, so focus on balancing the kettlebell that they slightly lean, contour, or basically lose their plank position!
When you start to lose your plank you lose the core control and strength you were trying to build. This comes back to something I talk a lot about in DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training, intent versus task. In this case, the task of pressing the kettlebells in the bottoms-up position often out does the intent of keeping the plank, keeping a similar pressing groove, and using the idea of pressing into the ground to create strength.
This can also happen when people perform bottoms-up carries. If I told you we were going to load the body in a way that altered your squat technique you would probably tell me that isn’t a good thing. Yet, we rarely look at how we load the body alters our walking form. Mostly because the squat is much easier for people to analyze than a walking pattern. However, the same rule holds true, if it negatively impacts one natural gait then we have to question if it is right for the individual.
3. Whack a wrist! If there is ONE thing that probably keeps people from using kettlebells it is the fear of “whack a wrist.” You ALL know what I am talking about! That fear that the kettlebell is going to smash the wrist during a host of different movements. I have even heard some very well respected strength coaches use this concept to discuss why they haven’t adopted more kettlebell movements.
Anyone that has practiced a bunch of bottoms-up work knows you are going to MISS more than your fair share of reps. Knowing how to miss is almost as important as trying to do the movement.
When we are trying to inspire people to train and exercise more, success is key. So, we have to ask ourselves if our and our clients time is best served trying to do such movements or can we facilitate similar effects with easier methods?
I know, NONE of what I just said applies to you, but maybe you have a friend it does. So, let me at least propose a few solutions.
1. Go heavier in the rack! Even though the McGill study did say bottoms-up created better results with the rack, I don’t believe they are 1:1 equivalency. Meaning, does a 16kg bottoms-up equal a 24kg or higher rack weight? If so, can we create a similar environment if we just go heavier?
Now, you might say, “but we lose the grip!” I’ll be honest, I don’t know if the grip is the same, but man, you can get a pretty good grip by actively gripping the kettlebell in the rack position. In fact, if you coach people to squeeze the handle in the rack position you will negate many of the bad wrist position issues people get into with kettlebells.
2. Ultimate Sandbag Fist or Off-Set Position. I totally anticipate people think that this is just self-serving, but honestly, I’m just trying to make people’s lives easier. Using our Ultimate Sandbag Training holding positions allows us to accomplish a lot of different goals and the Fist and Off-Set are great examples.
One of the main reasons we use the Clean and Press in our DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training standards is so that we get use to the impact of having the weight on our fists. Why is this powerful?
For one, we have to learn how to have a tight fist upon receiving the weight. If you allow the wrists to bend back you INSTANTLY feel yourself become weaker. Creating tight fists stimulates a powerful connection down the arms, shoulders, and into the core. In many ways, JUST like what would happen on a properly performed and weighted bottoms-up. Yet, it is much faster and easier to learn!
The Fist position IS more balanced that a bottoms-up, I’m not going to lie. However, I don’t think that is a bad thing. Just like the unstable surface training issue, we get definitely get instability, but we also get load. In other words, we get the best of both worlds without becoming extreme in either. I know, so UNLIKE our modern mindset about training.
3. Change body positions. Both DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training and kettlebells benefit greatly from just changing body position. Doing so makes the body unstable and makes it more important that our core to fire to maintain posture during the movement of the weight. Considering that the vast majority of people struggle to even lunge well, changing body positions can be an VERY powerful means of challenging core stability and strength that is relatively easy to implement.
Now, I know many of you are going to read this and only take away, “Josh doesn’t like bottoms-up work, forget him!” If you wish to perform it I have no problem with that. However, what I am asking you is can you accomplish the same goals in a more efficient way? Can we provide people a better experience?
I know for myself I have less and less free time. That time that I do devote to training I want to make sure it is as efficient as possible. As I get older my priorities shift from wanting to spend all day in the gym to things that are more important in my life. Yes, I did JUST say the gym is NOT the most important thing in my life and I believe that makes me actually healthier! Hopefully this made you think how we can always aim for better!