The Roll to Elbow: How to Build the Foundation for a Beautiful Get-up

If I had to choose one exercise to practice the rest of my life, it would be the get-up. Kalos sthenos or “beautiful strength” is the most apt description I’ve ever heard of for this exercise. There isn’t any other movement that combines mobility, stability, motor control, and strength in such a perfect way.

I’ve had the privilege of teaching many different types of people how perform the get-up, from tactical operators to senior citizens, and these experiences have brought me to the conclusion that the get-up is the one movement that can make all people into better people. (I’m only half kidding.)

How to Build the Foundation for a Beautiful Get-up

With the volume and variety of people I’ve taught the get-up to, I’ve found the biggest sticking point for most is the initial roll to elbow. I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with a multitude of approaches and coaching cues to teach this portion. Many of these techniques were learned from various sources—StrongFirst articles and forum posts, the SFG Level I Certification and manual, the FMS—and some through personal trial and error.

This initial portion of the get-up sets the stage for success during rest of the movement. And there is more going on with the roll to elbow than meets the eye, so I’m going to share the breakdown that has given me the most success with this initial portion. (Get ready because things are about to get real geeky around here.)

Step 1: Rolling

The get-up is best understood when broken down into smaller pieces of a bigger puzzle, and anyone who’s ever built a puzzle knows you build the edges first. The initial roll to press followed by the roll to elbow both involve, you guessed it, the rolling pattern. So, to build the edges of the get-up, I start by ensuring that my student knows how to roll.

I use the upper and lower soft rolling patterns from the FMS. I’m not going to go into too much detail with these patterns other than to say, have a look at the video below and check them out on the FMS site.

Basically, if you can’t roll from your back to your stomach and return by leading with either your leg or your arm (but not pushing off the floor for assistance), you might have trouble with the initial roll in the get-up. If there is a pattern that proves to be difficult for a student, we’ll drill that pattern until it is less “sticky.” But rolling is the key to a successful get-up.

Step 2: Arm Bar

The arm bar is an unassuming drill that is amazing for shoulder stability and motor control. I teach the arm bar in three stages. Each stage starts the same, with a roll to press just like the get-up. Then, once the student is in position—with the bell arm extended, the bell-side leg bent, the off-side leg straight and off-side arm reached over head—we move through each stage.

Stage 1:

  • Student uses the bell-side foot to push his or her body over to side-lying, with the kettlebell straight up toward the sky and shoulders stacked on top of each other.
  • The knee of the top leg then comes up to rest on the floor in front of the body, kind of like a kick stand.
  • From there, my instructions are to breathe, relax, and pack the shoulder.
  • Cues like, “Point your elbow towards your feet,” or, “Suck your arm into the shoulder socket,” help guide the student to a packed shoulder, where he or she will feel the most stable. This is the “sweet spot.”
  • As the student starts to find stability, I encourage him or her to take eyes off the bell and add some slow neck rotations.
  • The student will need some time but eventually will find the sweet spot. Most students will actually be excited about it when they do.
  • I leave the student here for 30-45 seconds. Then he or she reverses the position and we repeat on the other side.

There is an important safety cue here. You need to be almost uncomfortably close with your hands around the bell as a spotter. If a student becomes distressed or loses the position, he or she should say, “Take it,” and you take the bell. The first time a student takes his or her eyes off the bell, it will generally sway quite a bit. Again, give the student time to learn to maintain vertical and then add stage two.

Stage 2:

You can move on to this stage once the student is in the “kick stand” position and has the sweet spot.

  • Ask the student to straighten the top leg until it is lined up in front or stacked on top of the other leg.
  • Breathe, relax, pack the shoulders, and add neck rotations as able.

Stage 3:

This stage is a tricky one, but important to work on once the student is comfortable with stages one and two.

  • With the top leg extended and the shoulders packed and stacked, have the student roll his or her top hip toward the floor in front of him or her as far as is comfortable while keeping the bell and arm straight up toward the sky.
  • Breathe and relax to maintain the “sweet spot.”

Again, you must be close enough to your student to take the bell if things go sideways. It’s also important that the student has any pain or discomfort cleared first—this position should not hurt. Most people will feel a stretch through the upper back and around the shoulder blades.

This sequence accomplishes two things. First, it will help your student’s brain learn where vertical is so it doesn’t have to be thought about it during the get-up. The other sneaky trick that this drill does is help your student get comfortable using the bell-side foot to initiate the roll as he or she moves to the elbow. (More on this in a second.)

Now that the student can roll, can comfortably maintain vertical with a packed shoulder in numerous positions, and is comfortable using the bell-side foot to start the roll, he or she is ready to put it all together.

How to Build the Foundation for a Beautiful Get-up

Step 3: Make a Mountain

Rather than telling someone to engage a specific muscle, I like to give people an analogy that ties to the movement pattern they are about to move through. “Make a mountain” is the one I like for the roll to elbow of the get-up.

Mountains are made when tectonic plates collide and the land masses have nowhere to go but up. So, I tell my student that the foot on the floor on the bell side is one land mass and the elbow on the floor on the off side is another. The visualization is to crash these two land masses together to raise the bell up toward the sky. The student should push on the foot and pull with the elbow to move the bell up. This cue has worked great for most people and should get your student into a tall, proud, open chest when he or she reaches the elbow.

There is a great reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) drill that I use here for someone whose bell-side foot loses contact with the floor during the roll. I put a towel under the student’s bell-side foot and as he or she moves through rolling to the elbow, I tug on the towel enough that he or she needs to drive through that foot so the towel doesn’t move.

It’s important to give the drill time to work. Initially, it may make the roll to the elbow harder for your student. However, give the student time to get used to using the bell-side foot to start the roll and before you know it, you’re going to have to grab him or her a heavier bell.

Step 4: Back Down

The down phase of the get-up is as important, if not more so, than the up. The instructions I give for the return from elbow to laying are straight from the SFG Level I. Push away from the off-side elbow and use the bell as counterbalance to lower under control.

This cue was a huge “a-ha” moment for me at my SFG Level I Certification. We use the bell as counterbalance for a little help on the way up, whether we realize it or not, so why not use it in the same fashion on the way down?

In fact, as the bell gets heavier, you will have to do this to control your descent. Push away from the down elbow, create space between your shoulders and ears, and fade the bell toward the off side of the body a little to lower yourself—and viola, no more crashing to the floor.

Build a Strong and Beautiful Get-up

By breaking the initial portion of the get-up into its smaller pieces—learning to roll, finding stability in the shoulder, and using the bell-side foot and off-side elbow to power the roll—you will have your student well on the way to a beautifully strong get-up.

Matt Kingstone
Matt has been teaching fitness in Victoria, BC Canada since 2010, is the owner of King Cobra Fit and Co-Founder of the Victoria Hardstyle Kettlebell Club. Always striving to add to his base of knowledge, Matt started working with Kettlebells in 2011, since then has completed the SFG I Certification, attended the Strong Endurance™ seminar in Portland and is a Certified Indian Club Instructor through Flexible Steel International.

When Matt is not working with members of the Canadian Armed Forces or teaching men and women of all ages to get stronger, he is working on honing his craft. You can find him swinging bells, clubs, and maces anywhere it is appropriate and some places it isn’t.

Contact Matt at King Cobra Fit or on the StrongFirst forum.

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