The 2 Most Common Military Press Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

“It’s all easy till it’s heavy!”—Mark Reifkind

Having performed, judged, and observed many heavy or max attempts in various lifts, I can certainly attest to the veracity of this statement. And the kettlebell military press seems to be a lift where this is especially true.

What People Think Is a Mistake That’s Actually Not

As discussed in a previous article, center of mass becomes a unique factor in the kettlebell military press. Due to the design of the kettlebell, its center of mass moves farther from the vertical line of the forearm as the kettlebell gets larger.

The 2 Most Common Military Press Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)Up to a certain point, the displaced center of mass assists in the execution of the military press. The off-set center of mass basically “guides” you into an efficient path to lock out. But once the kettlebell gets large enough, 40kg and above for me, that off-set center of mass changes the military press enough that you cannot maintain a vertical forearm but instead must press from a slightly angled forearm.

Allowing for the slight incline of the forearm prevents the heavier kettlebell from pulling your arm out into too much external rotation and keeps the center of mass of the kettlebell over the elbow. This can place additional stress on the shoulder and may mean you need to reduce your training volume on the heavier kettlebell.

But this center of mass is not one of the two most common mistakes in the military press. It is simply a reality to be accounted for and trained with, not against.

The 2 Most Common Military Press Mistakes

The two most common mistakes in the heavy or maximum military press attempt are:

  1. Leg drive
  2. Body lean

Leg drive basically means you are performing a push press by using a drive from the legs to begin and assist the military press. While the push press is a great lift in its own right, it is not a strict military press.

Body lean becomes an issue when it increases during the military press. Depending on the percentage of body weight you are attempting to press, a degree of body lean may be necessary—but it should not continue to increase as the lift continues. If body lean becomes greater during the lift, then what you are executing has become a side press (again a great lift on its own) and is not a strict military press.

What are the best strategies to account for these two common errors? There are three things you can do:

  1. Own the weight.
  2. Shoot a video.
  3. Practice the tall kneeling military press.

Strategy 1: Own the Weight

Owning the weight comes with time, practice, and patience. It means knowing that you confidently brought your strength and technique to the heavy or max attempt. It means you exert every effort to hold yourself to that technique throughout your lift attempt.

Yes, a max attempt may display some unique characteristics, but it should not wind up being a different exercise. If you need leg drive to get the weight overhead or the lift turns into a side press, then your strict military press technique was lost and another lift was performed. If you are not in charge of your technique, then you are not owning the weight.

Have the patience to earn and own your technique over time and practice.

The 2 Most Common Military Press Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

Strategy 2: Shoot a Video

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” —Richard Phillips Feynman

Our ability to take selfies and “go live” on various apps and social media platforms means that most of us can easily take a video of ourselves training. This is what I recommend you do for a set of military presses so you can evaluate your form.

By recording and watching ourselves, we should be able to avoid violating Mr. Feynman’s first principle. If you can’t see any faults in your technique, then have a friend, trainer, or trusted peer review the video.

Strategy 3: Practice the Tall Kneeling Military Press

A very simple military press variation that can give you, as the person performing the press, automatic feedback is the tall kneeling military press. “Tall kneeling” means being down on both knees with a tall “perfect” posture. Essentially it takes your legs out from underneath you so you cannot incorporate any leg drive, and any lean in the press is felt differently and immediately.

The pictures below are from Kettlebells from the Center—Dynami a DVD and manual I produced with Gray Cook a few years back:

Tall Kneeling Military Press

You have two different options to get into position for a tall kneeling military press:

  1. Get into tall kneeling and then cheat clean the kettlebell into the rack position.
  2. Clean the kettlebell while standing. Then step back into a lunge and continue down into the tall kneeling position.

Some tips on tall kneeling:

  • Tall Kneeling Military Press PostureUse a pad or padding to make the knees comfortable. Do not irritate or cause pain in your knees while trying to perform this variation.
  • Some people will be more comfortable with the toes pointed away (plantarflexed) and some will be more comfortable with the toes tucked under (dorsiflexed). This is due to the individual anatomy of the knee and how the patella rides in the groove, so experiment with which toe position is best for you. (I prefer the toes pointed away.)
  • Remember you are “standing” on your knees with perfect posture and not leaned back toward the feet.
  • Have the shins turned in so the big toes are touching or nearly touching and the heels are straight or turned out a bit. Do not have the heels turned in—this is the wrong direction for good tibial rotation.
  • Limit your time. Get up and walk around between sets and don’t spend too long in tall kneeling

Performing a military press from tall kneeling provides immediate feedback and helps you feel if you have been relying on leg drive and body lean during your heavy or maximum military press attempts.

Programming the Tall Kneeling Military Press

You have a few different options for using this press variation in your military press program:

  1. Warm-up: Incorporate a couple of progressively heavier sets of 2-3 reps per arm into your warm-up or build-up to your military press training for that day.
  2. Easy day: Use the tall kneeling military press for your easy day, performing a reduced volume of your sets and reps at a lighter weight in this variation.
  3. Alternating sets: Perform one set of tall kneeling press and then perform a set of heavier standard military press. Try to make them feel the same.

Keep in mind that while your tall kneeling military press weight may be close to your standing military press weight, it is more likely the weight will be lower.

And remember this is a spice, not a main dish!

So there you have it. Two common military press mistakes and the strategy to correct and improve them. Take your time and experiment with the tall kneeling military press and let us know how it works for you on the StrongFirst Forum.

Brett Jones
Chief SFG
Brett Jones is StrongFirst’s Chief SFG Instructor. He is also a Certified Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist based in Pittsburgh, PA. Mr. Jones holds a Bachelor of Science in Sports Medicine from High Point University, a Master of Science in Rehabilitative Sciences from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

With over twenty years of experience, Brett has been sought out to consult with professional teams and athletes, as well as present throughout the United States and internationally.

As an athletic trainer who has transitioned into the fitness industry, Brett has taught kettlebell techniques and principles since 2003. He has taught for Functional Movement Systems (FMS) since 2006, and has created multiple DVDs and manuals with world-renowned physical therapist Gray Cook, including the widely-praised “Secrets of…” series.

Brett continues to evolve his approach to training and teaching, and is passionate about improving the quality of education for the fitness industry. He is available for consultations and distance coaching by e-mailing him at appliedstrength@gmail.com.

Follow him on Twitter at @BrettEJones.
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