A Program to Train for the Half-Bodyweight Kettlebell Press

So you have done your kettlebell clean and press ladders and have put in your volume. You can press for sets and reps with a fairly heavy weight, but when it comes time to put up that half-bodyweight kettlebell press for just one rep, it just doesn’t go. You either lift your shoulder first or don’t get the required amount of full body tension or something messes it up.

Every powerlifter knows that being able to do heavy weight for a top set of three or five reps does not always convert to a great max single. The same is often true for the single kettlebell press.

This program is designed specifically to increase your ability to press a kettlebell for a single rep. The focus is on getting to a half-bodyweight kettlebell press, but this will work just as well for getting you to the next bell size, whatever that is. The protocol is based on Westside Barbell‘s template of how to train the three powerlifts using a speed day and a maximum effort day. The basic concept is teaching the body how to apply maximum force at all times.

Half-Bodyweight Kettlebell Press

Force=Mass x Acceleration

You can increase force by increasing either the mass (weight of the bar or kettlebell) or by moving the same object faster. You shouldn’t lift heavy weights slowly on purpose. Heavy weights move slowly because they are heavy.

Learning to move medium to light weights quickly is an advanced skill as is a half bodyweight press. Trying to grind a max effort from the start usually results in failure for most. You may to be able to grind out the finish, but rarely does that work at the start. Learning how to accelerate weights with 60% loads will carry over to the heavier loads if you practice moving the heavy weights fast as well. This, too, is a skill.

The Skill of 1RM Efforts

Yet it’s an entirely different thing when you only have to do a single rep and there is no eccentric contraction first to “get the feel of it” like the first rep of a press. It’s almost like a single rep deadlift—the first rep is always the hardest.

If the reps are done in a touch-and-go fashion, then each successive rep is easier until muscle fatigue sets in. With no eccentric loading first on the deadlift, or the kettlebell press for a single, you have to be able to commit all your energy and focus into driving hard into the rep without losing any form or total body tightness.

It is no small task, especially if you don’t have much experience with single-rep efforts. Strength is a skill and one-rep max efforts are a specific subset of that skill. Many miss that rep, not because they are not strong enough, but because they don’t have enough experience with maximum effort for just one repetition.

This type of training addresses that problem specifically. The program has two parts, two workouts most effectively separated by two days.

Half-Bodyweight Kettlebell Press

Day 1: Speed Day

The purpose of the speed day is to teach and develop perfect form and accelerative abilities in the standing kettlebell press. Using compensatory acceleration (meaning each rep will be done using as much accelerative force as possible) while still maintaining perfect form and short rest periods, the necessary muscle tension will be developed in the groove.

An important point: When doing the press on speed day, do not think of pressing the bell up. Think of shoving the bell from rack position to lockout in one movement. Of course it’s not really possible, but you need to think about it this way in order to move the bell as quickly as possible. The lower body has to be rock solid and not give an inch as you shove the weight overhead for this to work. You have to be locked in completely.

This does not mean to use sloppy form to move the weight fast—just the opposite. Learning to move the weight very fast will require optimal biomechanics. Just like you can’t spring fast with bad biomechanics, neither can you press fast or heavy.

You can only do 3-6 repetitions above 90% 1RM effectively, but in this method you will be trying to do 30 reps with 100% force (or as close as feasible). Westside uses jump stretch bands and/or chains to accommodate leverage in the squat and bench exercises, and while this can be done with a kettlebell press, it’s not done this way in the starting phase. You will learn to control the bell while still maximally accelerating it. This is especially important when you push hard and the bell seems to go nowhere, at first. The ability to keep pushing and not lose the groove is the key to making max effort lifts.

Day 2: Max Effort Day

On the second day, a variety of “same but different” versions of the press will be done. I suggest a few basic variations, but it’s up to the individual lifter to decide which movements actually transfer for them into the main lift. This will take some experimentation, but for now go through this cycle exactly at least two times before subbing out.

It’s very important to understand that max effort lifts must be done with no psych or increase in blood pressure. Just take the lift in a workman’s type fashion. This will equate to approximately a 90% effort in competition, but that’s not important. What is important is that you get used to pressing very heavy weights for single reps almost casually—just another day at the office.

The easiest way to get stronger is to lift maximum weights. The only problem with a program of maximum loads is that you only get two to four weeks of progress before you go backward. Fast. This program circumvents that by switching the variation every one to three weeks—same but different. This way you get your body used to very heavy single reps but in a neurological pattern that is slightly different from the classic lift for which you are training.

After the main press on each day, a variety of assistance exercises will be done to build the foundation muscles of the press. Their order of use should be decided based upon your weak points. If your lats are a weakness, do lat exercises first. If it’s your shoulders, start there. Still do a lat move, but put things in order of weakness. Do your strongest muscles last.

This will change as working on your weak points continues. It is a seven-week program with a test in the seventh week. Reassess after each testing and new personal record. as your weak links will change very often.

Half-Bodyweight Kettlebell Press

The Half-Bodyweight Kettlebell Press Program

Kettlebell Press Speed Day: Monday

  • Choose a bell approximately 60% of your current best 1RM standing military press.
  • All sets are to be done on one arm before switching to your second arm.
  • Start with the weak arm first.

Kettlebell Press: 60% x 8-10 sets of 3 reps, 20 seconds rest between sets, then do second arm. Start each press from dead pause in the rack position. Press it as strongly as possible, and then pause at the top with a one-count. Let the weight down quickly, but do not drop it. Pause and repeat.

Loaded Cleans: 5 sets of 5 with two-second pause in rack, focus on zipping up the entire body into a standing plank. Use a weight one kettlebell size up from the press.

Tactical Pull-ups: 3-5 sets of 3 with pause at top of rep, 30-second rest/set.

Floor Kettlebell Extensions: Lie on the floor with a kettlebell behind your head. Hold the horns of the bell, elbows tucked in. From a pause, extend your arms and flex the triceps hard. Lower back to the floor and pause for one second. Repeat. The goal of this is to work the triceps, but also to accelerate the bell quickly as you build more triceps meat. 5-6 sets of 8 of a challenging kettlebell (don’t worry about pushing this weight up its for hypertrophy)

Kettlebell Side Raises: Hold light kettlebells (or dumbbells) at your side and with slightly bent elbows lift them to shoulder level or slightly above. This is a classic side lateral done for eons by bodybuilders. The kettlebells give it a slightly different feel, but the goal is to work the medial deltoid and create more shoulder mass and stability. 3-5 sets of 10-12.

Max Effort: Thursday

  • Each Thursday for six weeks, you will perform a variation of the press.
  • Do 3-6 singles with the same weight. You can stay with each variation for one to three weeks, increasing the number of sets each week if you can. When you miss or go backward, change to the next variation.
  • You could also change variations every week, if you like.
  • If the first cycle around you can only get 3 singles, the next time you do it, shoot for 4 (and so on). The idea is to prepare both physically and mentally for one-rep sets and get used to grinding through maintaining perfect form.
  • If you miss a rep, miss it like a professional (maintaining perfect form tension and alignment). Keep your focus the entire time.
  • Rest as much as desired between sets, but for at least two minutes.
  • Week 1: Bottoms-up kettlebell press
  • Week 2: Stacked kettlebell press
  • Week 3: Floor press with single kettlebell
  • Week 4: Kettlebell get-up
  • Week 5: Medium grip weighted push-ups on floor or to a bar in the power rack, reps between 15 and 30—2 sets to 90% failure—if you tried one more rep you would miss
  • Week 6 (De-load): Kettlebell military press with one bell up from Monday’s weight for 5 sets of 1 done perfectly strict
  • Week 7 (Test): Test kettlebell military press—work up in single after using Monday’s weight, and rest 3-5 minutes between attempts

Assistance Work:

  • Loaded Clean or Bottoms-up Clean: Work up to 1-2 sets of 1-2 reps with goal weight or above on clean and one below on bottoms-up or as heavy as safe as possible on bottoms-up clean. Must be able to pause each strongly for 2-3 seconds for it to count. A “loaded” clean is where you do a regular kettlebell clean, but tighten up the entire body, from the toes to your nose, as if someone where hanging their entire bodyweight off the kettlebell in the rack position. Zip it up for one to two seconds and do the next rep. The ability to tighten up the entire body just before pressing is vital for single max rep success.
  • Heavy Two-Hand Swings: For rooting ability. 5 sets of 8-10.
  • Kettlebell Row of Your Choice: 3-5 sets of 5, heavy add weight each set.
  • Weighted Abdominal Work of Your Choice: 3-5 sets of 5-8.

That’s it. On your other training days, do as you like but don’t fatigue the pressing muscles. As important as the exercises and the loads are, your mindset is equally key. You must get used to the idea of only one rep as the set. Each single rep has many components to it and you must get used to all of them, the setup, the breathing, the tension where you need it, etc.

Most important is controlling your mind so it does not wander when it comes to starting and finishing that heavy weight. Visualize the lift from start to finish every time you are to get under a max effort. See it. You can’t spend too much time practicing mentally. It is vital.

Good luck comrades and please report back with your progress or any questions you have.

Mark Reifkind
SFG II

Mark has been traversing the physical culture world for the last 44 years. He has been an elite gymnast, bodybuilder, and powerlifter. He has also trained and raced for ultramarathons and triathlons. Mark found the kettlebell in 1998, was certified in 2005, and has been teaching others around the globe since. Mark opened the first ever kettlebell-centric gym, Girya, The Art of Strength in 2003.


As a coach, he has worked with Olympic gymnasts and was the Head Coach for Women’s Team USA in 1995 and the first ever Pan American Powerlifting Chanpionships in 2000. He was the personal coach for one of the most successful American female powerlifters Catherine Kelii. He was also personal coach and training partner for Pro Mr. America and bodybuilding legend Scott Wilson.


Mark has been writing in the field since 1979 and has been published by IronMan Magazine, Muscle Mag International, Milo, Runners World, and Velo. He has also written numerous articles for StrongFirst. He has authored Mastering the Hardstyle Kettlebell Swing, Lats, the Supermuscles, and BodyMaintenance, the Users Guide, and Restoring Lost Physical Function.


His blog was the first ever kettlebell blog. His website is Girya Strength, and he can also be found on Facebook. Mark’s current project is co-authoring a book with Dr. Ken Ford on delaying sarcopenia (muscle wasting).


6 thoughts on “A Program to Train for the Half-Bodyweight Kettlebell Press

  • Rif,

    Great article and explanation of the program. Makes complete sense how you write it out. Started today and will report my progress in 7 weeks. I think this is a big piece of the puzzle I am missing in my max press.

    Sincerely,

    Mark Snow

  • Just wanted to post my progress using this program.

    I’m registered for the Philly SFG2, so need to make my 1/2 BW press!

    Started this program a couple months ago and was at a shaky 32kg Press after not overhead pressing heavy for almost a year due to elbow issues. Followed it to the letter except for exchanging cable triceps work for the kettlebell extensions as they bothered the elbows. I tested myself at the end of the 7-weeks and was able to do one not so great rep at 36kg (my goal weight) and easily stacked press 34kgs (24+10). I’m on week three of my second time around and have no doubt I’ll get those extra 2kgs by the end of Sept.

    The speed work is something I had not tried before but it seems to work wonders. Well, of course it does… look at Westside Barbell!!!

  • Ben

    rest as long between sets as the actual set takes. For instance, if you are doing pullups and the set takes 20 seconds, rest 20 seconds. the goal of assistance work is hypertrophy not actual strength increases .
    good luck!

  • Fantastic article Mark!

    I have a new baby (14 days old!) and my available time to train is drastically reduced. Your program for increasing the kettlebell press looks ideal for my new situation.

    My only question is – how long are the rest periods for the assistance work? You specified for the Tactical Pullup (30 seconds) but I didn’t see it listed for the other assistance work.

    I want to run your 7-week program and then retest my C&P.

    Thanks!

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