I don’t think many people believe me when I tell them “strength is a skill.” Just like any other skill - writing, playing the piano, cooking - you’re only as talented as the depth and breadth of your practice. And not to sicken you with cliches, but I truly believe that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
So what are the best assessments of someone’s strength and skill? The deadlift and a strict kettlebell military press. For those that know me, you can’t be surprised to read that!
Why are these two exercises so important in developing strength? Because neither movement has an eccentric component - meaning there’s no downward movement before someone begins their lift. This eliminates someone’s ability to load their body for the movement upwards. Instead, you see how well someone can “wedge” themselves underneath the weight to create the requisite force and stiffness to finish the lift.
The other reason is simple: these two exercises cannot be cheated. The weight either comes up or it doesn’t. You can’t create a bigger arch in your back, like you can on a bench press, to decrease the range of motion. There’s also no debate as to whether someone completed the full range of motion, which can often be a point of debate on pull-ups or a squat.
So it’s no surprise that most of my clients are very good at - you guessed it - deadlifting and pressing. I’ve discussed the deadlift in several articles on my site, as well as in an article I’ve written for StrongFirst. But since one of the keys to happiness is putting heavy things overhead, I figured it was time to focus on the second half of what I call the “strength equation” - the strict KB Press.
Lesson #1: Use Your Lower Half.
The most common misconception about the press is that it’s entirely dependent on upper body strength. This is false. And if you’re only focusing on your upper half, you’re leaving a lot on the table.
One of the core concepts of StrongFirst is “total body tension.” For example, when performing any exercise - even a bicep curl - perform a set as you normally would. Perform the next set by squeezing your grip, especially as you fatigue. Odds are you just got a little stronger. On the next set, squeeze your grip but also your glutes. Once again, you probably got a little stronger. Finally, squeeze your grip, glutes, and contract your abs as hard as you can on your last set.
Congratulations! You probably just PR’ed your bicep curls - and are now ready for something else. But applying these concepts to another (and more useful) exercise is where you’ll really begin to see appreciable strength gains almost immediately.
Everyone has their own way of using these tension tools to strengthen their press, but I start my press by thinking from the floor up. As soon as I clean the bell into position, I’m trying to lock my feet into place so that I can maximally squeeze my glutes and quads. (This is also why I don’t wear shoes.) In fact, I know I’m doing a good job with total body tension on a press if my legs are more fatigued than my arms. Yes, you read that correctly.
When most people think about integrating their lower half into a press, they immediately think about bending their knees to perform a push press, clean and jerks, or some other variation. As you can tell, that’s not what I’m discussing. But if you can harness the tension from your lower half without moving it, you’ll see increased numbers on your strict press.
Lesson #2: Find Your Width
When it comes to your using your lower half, it’s equally important as to where you place your feet. Close together or far apart? There’s no correct answer, only what works for each person.
And I never would’ve guessed, but by failing the Beast Tamer Challenge this past April, I’d learn that I was using the wrong stance.
When I first started pressing, I used a narrow stance as it gave me the feeling that I could get more tension through my lower half (see above). I was able to use it successfully for a while - I was able to press the 44 kg kettlebell, or 97 lbs, regularly. On the perfect day with perfect conditions, I was also able to press The Beast, 48 kg or 106 lbs. The problem? I wasn’t able to press The Beast on command, or after much fatigue, which I would need to conquer to complete the Beast Tamer.
After failing that attempt I received very valuable feedback from my instructors: my love affair with my narrow stance - which earned me the reputation of an “Oldtime Strongman” that weekend - was the very thing preventing me from pressing The Beast.
Specifically, using such a narrow stance reduced my leverage in a very asymmetrical lift. As I think about it now, I don’t think you can get more asymmetrical than trying to push 106 lbs above your head with one arm, while the other isn’t holding anything!
I was told that by using a wider stance it’d allow me use my frame, slightly shifting my weight underneath the pressing side to act as a heavier base. Here’s a comparison of the two stances and you can see the difference.
Isn’t that crazy!? The weight is the same (106 lbs), but it looks at least 15-20 pounds lighter with my feet apart. Even crazier? I’ve pressed The Beast a minimum of 3 times each week and haven’t missed a rep since April 28, 2018 - my last attempt at the challenge.
What does this mean for you? Finding the stance that maximizes your strength might take some tinkering. Because what got you here may not get you there.
Lesson #3: Look Up!
People that have trained their KB press with me have probably heard me quip, “the more possessed you look, the stronger you are.” I jest but this isn’t just some #broscience I made up in my spare time - our eyes guide our movement.
For example, try jumping as high as you can while looking at the ground. Then try a second jump looking at the ceiling or the sky. I’m guessing you’ll see (or have seen) an appreciable difference. When looking up, you’re going to jump much higher and feel more explosive. Our vision impacts so much in our body, from our cervical and thoracic mechanics, to our spatial awareness and other neurological systems.
So if you’re trying to build your press it only makes sense to use this strategy. The next time you’re pressing, keep your head still but let your eyes watch the bell as it ascends. Or shift your eyes to look straight up the entire time. Will it take you from a 16kg to a 32kg bell? Probably not. But will it enable you to eke out an extra rep or two, or make the bell move faster on your normal sets? Absolutely.