Press the Kettlebell—for Healthy Shoulders and a Big Bench Press

Up until 45 years ago, the overhead military press was actually the third event in Olympic weightlifting, along with the snatch and the clean and jerk. The military press was considered the main yardstick for measuring strength. When athletes wanted to challenge each other, they did it with a military press attempt. There was no asking, “How much do you bench?”

Back then, shoulder injuries were also very uncommon. They didn’t even know what the rotator cuff was, and, in fact, there is no mention of it in the kinesiology textbooks of that time.

Starting from 1972, when the military press was removed from the weightlifting events, the bench press and other exercises witnessed a gradual increase in use, up to the level of abuse and to the detriment of the military press. I don’t exactly know why this happened, but I know for sure that this approach leads to strength imbalances, which can then lead to acute pain and serious injuries.

My Research Into the Kettlebell Military Press

I often hear people say things like, “My leverages don’t allow me to be successful in the bench press,” or, “My bench press doesn’t improve.” My solution for them always the same: to press overhead, ad nauseam!

So our problem is two-foldavoiding shoulder injury and building our bench press—but our solution is singular, the kettlebell military press. And we have the evidence to back it up.

The Anatomical Reasons We Need to Press Overhead

The bench press, when performed correctly, is an excellent exercise for the upper body, but alone it doesn’t suffice to ensure a correct balance of forces.

In the bench press, the shoulder blades are locked in an adducted and depressed position, which inhibits the action of the serratus anterior muscle. This is because the serratus anterior muscle is responsible for the protraction, as well as the rotation and elevation, of the scapula, which is exactly the opposite of what happens during the execution of the bench press. Not surprisingly, the serratus anterior muscle is activated when the shoulder blades can move freely during the overhead press movements.

The Anatomical Reasons We Need to Press Overhead

It’s interesting, in this regard, to note how a weakness of the serratus anterior and middle trapezius muscles, as well as a lack of coordination between these two muscles, is associated with sub-acromial conflict syndrome, also known as sub-acromial impingement syndrome. This syndrome can result in pain, weakness, and decreased range of motion. It should also be added that scapular adduction causes a predominant action of the rhomboid muscles, which further inhibit the cooperation between the serratus anterior and the middle trapezius muscles.

Hence the need—in my opinion it should be mandatory, and the data extrapolated from various studies shows it—to press overhead, and therefore to utilize the military press. The military press involves the coordinated action of the serratus anterior and the middle trapezius muscles, which together lead to the proper rotational action of the shoulder blades.

Strength Is a Skill

Our goal is to become strong in an absolute sense, and remain so for a long time. In my opinion, being strong is not only about having the strength to do certain things. Rather, you are really strong when your strength can be useful in a variety of endeavors, it protects you from injuries, and it allows you to do what you like, for a long time.

We can learn how to be long-lived.

“Learn as if you’ll live forever.”—Gandhi

The Kettlebell Military Press vs. the Barbell Version

The kettlebell pressed overhead from the rack position helps the shoulders to stay packed and move according to optimal biomechanics. This enables an optimal lockout overhead, and thereby helps to develop strong and healthy shoulders.

My Research Into the Kettlebell Military Press

In deeply studying the kettlebell military press, I have concluded that it represents an excellent choice when it comes to transfer to the bench press, as it allows the practitioner to cover the entire range of motion of an overhead press, and it involves in totality, thanks to the lockout, the muscles of the upper back, including the para-scapular muscles and those of the rotator cuff. I believe the kettlebell military press is essential for the harmonious development and coordination of the shoulder joint district.

There are three factors that make the kettlebell military press the best way to develop overhead strength:

  1. The Kettlebell’s Shape: With dumbbells, the center of mass is in the palm of the hand, but the center of mass of a kettlebell is located about eight inches away from the handle, depending on the kettlebell size. Therefore, the center of mass of the kettlebell locked out overhead aligns better with the shoulder, keeping its center of mass over the center of the joint that supports it. This means if the kettlebell is large enough, even though the arm isn’t perfectly vertical, the center of mass of the kettlebell aligns over the shoulder. This is totally different from what happens with dumbbells and offers unique advantages in regards to the joint’s health.
  2. The Starting Strength: This is the strength necessary to press the kettlebell from the rack position.
  3. The Rack Position: To perform the kettlebell military press, you must have the ability to hold the kettlebell in the rack, which requires the exertion of a certain amount of tension. A strong rack position will lead to a strong press, which is the primary transfer to the bench press.

The Trial Study

This study was done with the intention of demonstrating the importance of adding the hard style kettlebell military press into bench press strength programs. The end numbers show that, by inserting the kettlebell military press, significant results were obtained in the bench press, also ensuring a balance of strength that is typically lacking in cases where the bench press is used exclusively for the upper part of the body.

  • A sample of ten athletes participated to the study, some of them students of the University of Rome “Foro Italico,” IUMS. The results of this study will be the subject of their degree thesis.
  • The subjects, all coming from the world of strength, were instructed by me until they could perform a strict military press for 5-8 reps with a given kettlebell size. By strict, I mean a modality that meets all the SFG standards of the military press. Technique comes above the training weight in a study just like in “real” life.
  • The press program that the subjects followed involved rep ladders, with a volume that increased every week. The progression was inspired by Pavel’s Rite of Passage program, except that the volume grew in a predetermined way, week by week, for six weeks.
  • During the six weeks of the program, all subjects never touched the bench press and performed the kettlebell military press, according to the program, as their sole press exercise.

Don’t think it was easy because of that, though. The athletes faced a huge amount of very demanding and increasing work. By the fifth week, during the heavy session, they had to perform a total of 150 military presses. A huge amount of work!

My Research Into the Kettlebell Military Press and Its Transfer to the Barbell Bench Press

The Study Results

The blue bars indicated pre-trial 1RM performances, and the red indicates post-trial. Weight in kilograms.

My Research Into the Kettlebell Military Press and Its Transfer to the Barbell Bench Press

Kettlebell Military Press

According to the results, we have seen a significant increase in 1RM of both the bench press and the (single-arm) military press. We are talking about an increase ranging from 15 to 20% in the 1RM of the bench press and an increase of one or two sizes of kettlebell in 1RM of the military press.

To make an approximate conversion of kilograms to pounds, multiply by two and add 10%. You can see in the bench press chart that the first athlete started the plan with a 160kg bench press and ended with 170kg. If we do the math for both 160 and 170kg—160×2=320. 320+32=352 and 170×2=340. 340+34=374—we see that this athlete’s bench press increased from 352lbs to an impressive 374lbs.

Press a lot and you will press heavy, which will make you happy. In fact, as we all know, the meaning of life is “press heavy weights overhead,” right?

We must feel good, be happy, and continue to cultivate our passions in a healthy environment. Enjoying our time practicing our kettlebell military press is one way to achieve these objectives.

Be strong and be happy!

Shoulder anatomy graphic by OpenStax [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Giada Flamini
Giada Flamini is an SFG Level I Instructor and a powerlifting athlete with the Forma Club Team of Monza. She is a former professional swimmer and distance runner, and is a member of the Italian law enforcement. She has trained with the greatest athletes in swimming and distance running, and she now studies strength in all its forms.

Giada is also an FMS Level I and II Certified Trainer (USA); a KBI Level I Certified Trainer KBI - Kettlebell Institute, Denmark; a GFM Level 1 Instructor; and a Strength and Powerlifting Trainer (FIPL – Italian Federation of Powerlifting). She holds a diploma in kinesiology from the Kinesiology Academy, Milan, Italy.

15 thoughts on “Press the Kettlebell—for Healthy Shoulders and a Big Bench Press

  • I don’t see the 150 reps on the last week.

    I also don’t see any 15-20% gains on the graphs. Am I missing something.

  • While I like the kettlebell military press, I’m unsure if it’s the thing we should credit in this study.

    If this study had a control group of bench-press only, but using a similar protocol (ie modulate the weight ROP-style) we could compare with this kettlebell military press only group.

    That said, I found your section about serratus anterior restriction and the dangers of its underdevelopment very important, and make me wonder if I should stop doing bench press altogether.

  • As someone who has dealt with problematic shoulders for the majority of his life, (poor mobility/stability) I am convinced that pressing with relatively low-moderate volume and moderate – high loads has been the biggest thing that has saved my shoulders. (once I improved mobility/stability and strength which took 2ish years of work. but totally worth it).
    Push-ups and bench press used to be very painful but they feel great now.
    Pressing over head is the glue that holds the shoulder girdle together most definitely.
    Thanks for the great article. It’s very much appreciated.

  • Just wondering – is the week 4 heavy day a typo? It is the same volume as the light day.

    Also – were all the reps completed on the final weeks? The program looks like a compressed version of ROP in the last 2 weeks – going from 30 reps to 75 in two weeks seems extremely hard having been through ROP.

  • As with the ROP programme, the volume of pressing becomes a problem. Huge volumes interestingly enough are proven to increase absolute strength far above the weight trained with, but the tradeoff is time (and effort) invested in something that could be done more profitably with heavier weight. In the case of the benchpress, I think I’m right in thinking of it as a much easier exercise to load weight onto than a military press, making it easier to train the benchpress with higher weights.

    Anyhow, the overhead press is definitely an important exercise, and very healthy, and this article reinforces that it should be done alongside forward pushing exercises to balance things out, and that the angle of the kettlebell overhead press is a bit easier on the shoulders than with a dumbbell or with a barbell.

    This article also goes to show that we aren’t losing out on everything by not training with barbells and benches, if we’re like me who likes to train at home and doesn’t have space for a barbell and bench station.

  • This is somewhat misleading. I would agree with you that everyone should do overhead press and also that it is more beneficial to do so than to do bench presses but aside from that I disagree. Most strong overhead Pressers who do not Bench Bench nothing-little more than they press. Most very accomplished benchers who do not press press nothing: Nuckols, a powerlifter, for example only had a 185lbs press despite benching 435lbs. Myself personally I had a 250lbsx1 Bench for one hell of a grinder despite being able to put up a decent enough 225×2 in a strict standing military. Neither this powerlifter’s 185lbs Press nor my 250lbs Bench would be accurate indicators of our respective upper body strength. Furthermore I have known numerous kettlbell enthusiasts who find themselves unable to Press with the mightiest of effort using a dumbell what they can do quite comfortably with a kettlbell. I am not saying the kettlebell or military press generally speaking are not valuable exercises here but only that they are not some magical key to “simply being strong” as some uninformed person enthusiastic about lifting might very well assume to be truth after reading your article. You, as a strength professional, must understand this and therefore I can only assume make an attempt here to indoctrinate persons without concern for encouraging their development according to their varied goals. While I understand Pavel owe’s a good deal of success to the kettlebell and assume you work for him I cannot fathom how he would approve of this specific article as misleading as it is since I gather from his writings and speech that he is dedicated to offering completely legitimate strength training advice and laments being referred to simply as “the kettlebell guy”…

    • Directly from the article:

      This study was done with the intention of demonstrating the importance of adding the hard style kettlebell military press into bench press strength programs

  • What is the load for the Pavel-inspired Rite of Passage program? I remember it as Shoulder Shock. Is that right?
    Is it a 5-8RM?

  • Hi, it appears that the same bench press graphic was included 2 times by mistake, while the KB overhead press graphic is missing

  • Just finishing Pavel’s total tension complex. Looking at this protocol, and was wondering what else you do with it (if anything)?

    Lower body?

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