Not long ago, anyone using a kettlebell was likely to get some odd glances in the weight room. Those days are long gone, though! Even people who don't work out have probably seen a kettlebell by now. Heck, a lot of them have gotten curious enough to have one collecting dust in their apartment.
I, on the other hand, have been putting my bells to good use. Few things make me feel stronger or more powerful than pressing a heavy weight overhead. Just as I was starting to get confident with my kettlebell press, however, I came across a variation known as the "bottoms-up press" that made me feel like a beginner all over again.
This unusual pressing exercise is performed holding an upside-down kettlebell. At first glance, it may look like a circus trick rather than a legitimate exercise, but I assure you there is a lot of practical value to be gained from this seemingly esoteric movement. Be prepared to get some funny looks, though.
On my initial attempt at the bottoms-up press, I figured I'd use a 35-pound (16-kilogram) bell, as I usually felt very comfortable pressing that weight. I was shocked, however, when I could not even come close to pressing it upside-down. In fact, I couldn't even balance it at all! I finally put my ego aside and managed to get a few shaky reps with an a 19-pound (8-kilogram) bell.
How could this small change make the weight feel so much heavier? I was instantly humbled, yet intrigued by this phenomenon. I was also immediately hooked on practicing this new press.
Since that time, I've learned several things from practicing the bottoms-up press, as well as from teaching this movement to my clients.
Here are three benefits of using the bottoms-up press in your training:
1. Improve Your Pressing Technique
You can get away with questionable form on the conventional kettlebell press, just like you could with a dumbbell, but the unique stability demands of the bottoms-up press force you to dial in every aspect of your technique.
What's awesome about the bottoms-up press is that in order to keep the weight balanced and stable for even one rep, your body automatically needs to engage muscles across the body. Many folks are under the impression that the press is purely a shoulder exercise, but practicing the bottoms-up version teaches you to use all your body's various parts in harmony. Beginning from the feet up, you will need to keep tension in your legs, glutes, abs, and lats before you even begin to initiate your press.
This exercise demands that you be in complete control of the bell during both the raising and lowering phases, which means that you simply can't rush the movement. You need to press it and lower it slowly.
Practicing the bottoms-up press also forces you to keep your hand and elbow directly in line with the weight in order to prevent the bell from tipping over. Learning to maintain this alignment will improve your efficiency on all types of presses, such as variations and progressions of the handstand push-up.
2. Strengthen Your Grip
The majority of grip-intensive strength work involves either holding a weight that is hanging below you, such as in a deadlift or farmer's walk, or supporting your own body weight while hanging below a bar. The grip work that you do with the bottoms-up press is unique, however, in that it involves holding an unstable object above your grip rather than beneath it.
Working on this aspect of your grip will help strengthen your neurological connection to your hands, while also improving strength in the muscles of your hands, wrists, and forearms. Don't be surprised if this gives you an unexpected edge on all of your other lifts.
Additionally, having to support the bell upside-down will teach you to always be mindful of maintaining proper wrist positioning. If your wrist bends too far forward or backward, you will lose control and the bell will flop over. Preventing this from happening forces you to accommodate the subtle shifts in balance that occur as you press the weight overhead and lower it back to the start position.
3. Work Around an Achy Shoulder
Due to the instability of the upside-down kettlebell, the bottoms-up press is great for people who may otherwise experience discomfort during overhead pressing movements.
How does this work? Once again, it's because you're forced to squeeze harder than for other overhead presses, which automatically activates musculature of your rotator cuff, arm, and shoulder. All of a sudden, you can press without pain!
Furthermore, since you have to use a relatively light weight for this exercise, you won't put as much wear and tear on your joints. This is a press you simply can't go too heavy on, because if you try, the bell won't stay up! However, if you put your ego aside and do quality work, you'll still strengthen your rotator cuff muscles and build a healthier shoulder. How many presses can say that?
Here's how to start: Choose an appropriately sized bell, which will generally be around 50-60 percent of the weight you would normally feel comfortable using for a standard press. If you are familiar with performing the kettlebell clean, you can clean the bell into the bottoms-up position—a challenging task in its own right! Otherwise, simply curl the bell up while assisting with your opposite hand. I find it's best to practice these one arm at a time, though experienced practitioners can eventually work toward a double bottoms-up press.
When gripping the handle, I recommend keeping your grip slightly off-center with the thumb side of your hand a little closer to the edge of the handle than your pinky. Once the bell is in position, you should feel your body reflexively tense up to assist in balancing the weight. Keep your eyes on the bell and continue tensing your body as you slowly press it above your head.
Remember, go slowly and deliberately on the way down as well, or else you'll quickly find the bell flopped against your forearm. Remember to squeeze the bell tightly the entire time.
As you get more familiar with the kettlebell exercise, you can begin transitioning to heavier weights. Be patient, however, and don't move ahead until you can comfortably perform at least 5 solid reps on each arm. Many people will find a disparity between their two arms when training the bottoms-up press. This is yet another benefit of the exercise, as it allows you to give your non-dominant arm additional attention.
Take your time with the bottoms-up press and milk each rep for all you can. It may look funny, but the benefits are real. If people at the gym give you strange glances for doing this move, well, just watch their expression the next time you do a conventional overhead press. Because when you put in some time with the bottoms-up press, I guarantee your right-side-up press will be better than ever as well!