“All failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation.”—Max McKeown
We all know, hopefully, that learning is an ongoing process that is never complete. After 20 years of kettlebell training, we continue to learn, and our most recent lesson might just help a lot of you with your military press goals.
What led to an epiphany on the grip for the kettlebell military press after 20 years?
A little pain was all it took, a little unsuccessful adaptation that made us reevaluate the recommended grip.
I (Brett) had the chance to review and edit Fabio’s excellent military press video, VICTORIOUS, and I immediately embraced the grip recommendation he made in that video. And fast forward several weeks and I had developed some “grumpy” acromioclavicular joints (AC joints) on both shoulders. By grumpy I do mean painful. I started trying to figure it out but looked everywhere but my grip. It was only after exhausting the search that I came back to the head slapping moment of realizing the only thing I had really changed was my grip.
That led me to actually look at my hand. Cue joke: “I know that like the back of my hand…oh…I never noticed that before!”
But that is exactly what happened. I looked at the structure of my hand and wrist for the “first time.”
What did I see? A very different hand and wrist structure from Fabio’s. Then I started looking at anatomical information and drawings and noticing variations in those as well.
The anatomy and function of the hand and wrist are truly a marvel. The integration of 27 bones, 27 joints, 34 muscles, over 100 ligaments and tendons and many nerves, blood vessels etc…. If you include the radius and ulna, you have 29 bones and even more joints. The area can bear weight, deliver blows, perform brachiation, and manipulate objects with a fine motor skill necessary to create magnificent works of art. A marvel indeed.
But that structure has variation in it and that structure influences our function. The converse is also true that our function influences our structure. A two-way street and Zen puzzle.
So, how does hand/wrist architecture influence your grip for the kettlebell military press and how to find your optimal grip?
So glad you asked. ;-]
Why Does It Matter?
Let’s begin by looking at structure and function in the kettlebell military press.
Alignment matters in the application of strength and power. How force moves through the body to produce the desired outcome can determine success and efficiency or can result in injury at worst or inefficiency at best. The structure (bones), soft tissue (muscle, tendon, etc…), and neurological system (nerves and patterning) all work together to produce all movement.
Specific to the kettlebell military press we will first assume that the lower body position is correct and midsection stability is solid. If either of these is not dialed in, you would need to address that first.
Next, the uniqueness of the offset center of mass (COM) of the kettlebell and keeping it aligned over the elbow should be understood. Up to a certain point that offset COM guides the shoulder into a better lockout but past a certain load it challenges the alignment of the structure as the COM of the kettlebell is maintained over the elbow and down through the shoulder at lockout. What is the “kick over” point in load where we go from assisting to challenging? That depends on the individual and their structure and strength. For myself the 40kg is where the COM becomes a challenge, but you will find your own “kick over” point in load.
Humeral length and forearm length come into play as well. In order to determine whether you have a short or long humeral length, place your arm in the overhead pressing position. If the bend of the elbow is below or even with the top of the head you have a short humerus and if the bend of the elbow is above the top of the head you have a long humerus. The difference in humeral length will result in different pressing paths just like short and long femurs will influence squatting. A short humerus will likely have a straighter pressing groove with less “lean away” from the kettlebell; where a long humerus will have more angle and, because the weight is further from midline, will result in more “lean away.” Forearm length will change how the COM of the kettlebell is maintained with a short forearm stacking the COM in an easier fashion and the long forearm creating a longer lever arm.
The mechanics of the scapula must also be appropriate with proper lateral rotation and scapulothoracic rhythm without elevation so the force coupling mechanism of the glenoid and humeral head can be maintained.
The structure of your hand and wrist influences all these areas since it is how we are interacting with the kettlebell and controlling the center of mass. We want the weight of the kettlebell and handle to center the force into center line of the hand and wrist ensuring equal “contribution” between the radial and ulnar neural components.
Three Different Structures
Let’s establish the three dominant types of hand/wrist structure.
- Ulnar deviation—the dominant position is “tilted” in the direction of the ulna
- Radial deviation—the dominant position is “tilted” in the direction of the radius
- Neutral—no tilt and “centered” position
One thing to add to the conversation is the alignment and position of the thumb but more on that in a bit.
I am an example of ulnar deviation:
Fabio is an example of radial deviation:
Dr. Kathy Dooley is an example of neutral:
Each of us will have a different grip for the military press based on our hand/wrist structure.
- Ulnar = angled, depth dictated by thumb, “thumb side” grip
- Radial = deep, parallel, “pinkie side” grip
- Neutral = parallel to callouses, center grip
When we do not match the grip to the hand/wrist structure the force will not align with the structure and the COM of the kettlebell will produce torque at various areas involved in the military press. However, if we use the grip that best works with our structure, the force we apply in the press moves through the system efficiently while the COM of the kettlebell is well controlled and aligned.
Finding Your Structure
How do you find which structure you have?
- Stand in front of a mirror or film yourself bringing your hands up into a “surrender” position so the shoulders and arms are in a natural position.
- Once there, open and close the hands three to five times.
- Look at the position of the hand/wrist with the fingers open and with the fingers in a light fist.
- You should recognize one of the three structures.
For further confirmation perform the thumb to pinky pinch.
Bring the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinkie finger. (Ideally, this happens in the middle of the palm/hand.)
If you have a training partner or friend available have them grab the sides of the nail bed of each (thumb and pinky) and try to pull your thumb and pinkie apart in these positions:
- Ulnar deviation
- Radial deviation
Any combination of the three above with some wrist flexion.
Any combination of the three above with some wrist extension.
If you found that your structure is radial deviation, then you are likely stronger in radial deviation and weaker in ulnar deviation or neutral. Ulnar is stronger in ulnar deviation and neutral in neutral.
If you do not have a training partner or friend, try to pull the index finger of the opposite hand through the thumb to pinky pinch. You should still find one position stronger and the others weaker.
One additional aspect of the architecture to look at is the thumb position.
Note on this picture of my hand how high my thumb joint sits in the palm vs. where Fabio’s thumb joint sits.
The position of my thumb high in the hand will also influence where the handle sits in my hand (higher with an angle) just as it will for Fabio (lower and parallel).
Practicing with the best grip for your structure can be put into practice with the get-up.
Then working on bringing the optimized grip into your press can be performed first in a cheat clean where the additional control of the cheat clean assists you in finding the optimized grip for each rep.
After some time on the cheat clean begin to “peel” away the assistance and return to the clean without assistance as you are still able to land in the optimized grip.
In conclusion: “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.”—Chinese Proverb
Structure and function are a two-way street. Function can influence structure—like my AC joints getting irritated by the wrong grip for my military press. And structure can “dictate” function—like finding your hand/wrist structure and using the optimal grip “dictated” by it.
Give this a try and let us know your results on the StrongFirst Forum.
A huge thank you to Dr. Kathy Dooley for her knowledge and input on this article.