By Tarek Michael Chouja, Director of FTI
The Kettlebell is the superior tool to challenge the shoulder’s stability and increase coordination.
When it comes to challenging the stability of the shoulder the kettlebell is simply the best. Am I biased towards the kettlebell? Yes! But my bias stems from years of witnessing first-hand its amazing results personally, on thousands of clients and trainers.
Now Let’s Define Shoulder Stabilisation.
The shoulder is designed to be a highly mobile joint. The shallow groove of the glenoid fossa means that the head of the humerus needs to be secured by the crucial tendons known as the rotator cuff muscles. The image below brilliantly displays the integrity of the shoulder joint and the interplay between the rotator cuff muscles; ligaments and the bony structures that make up the joint.
When the shoulder is functioning normally, a Scapula-Humeral rhythm occurs where there is no impingement and the shoulder operates in a full range of motion.
The Scapular operates in tandem with the shoulder, and functions as follows when performing:
- Rowing movements causes a scapular
- Pushing movements (such as push-ups) causes a protraction of the scapular
- Overhead presses cause an upward rotation of the scapular
- Pull-up or lat pull-down causes a downward
If we go one step further, then we see that the thoracic has a major role to play in the optimal function of all these movements.
Note: It is important to do not get caught up with the language of the ‘shoulder’ without due reference to the global operating system of the body i.e. Scapular and Thoracic involvement.
Understanding the Shoulder’s Function
The following three-part article series will identify common challenges with not only understanding the function of the shoulder but how to provide base-line solutions. Rehab Trainer founder Ulrik Larson explores what he terms ‘patho- mechanics’ of the shoulder which can be caused by injury or imbalanced programing. These articles will form the foundation of your strength and stability programs.
Part 1 illustrates the muscles’ imbalances within the shoulder and its impact on the ability to perform functionally and optimally.
Part 2 explores the ‘under-trained’ muscle trio of Subscapularis; Serratus anterior and Lower Trapezius.
Part 3 reviews practical drills designed to ‘fire up’ the inhibited muscles mentioned in Part 2.
Coordination refers to the neuro-muscular coordination involved in performing certain movements. When the difficulty of a movement is increased, its complexity is also increased resulting in an enhanced coordination response.
The concepts brought about by neuroscience such as neuro-plasticity has given us greater insights into how to program for coordination. More complex exercises force the person to think more about movement and exercises which in turn increases the neural pathways and allow cells to fire more efficiently.
For example, performing a handle clean with the right arm activates the left arm via cross-transference. When we perform something like an alternating handle clean both the left and right sides of the brain coordinate the movement. Therefore, the development and focus of coordination is a necessity in any ‘smart’ program.
Z-Health’s Dr Eric cobb from has been doing great work in this space. Check out his 4-part series on the body-brain loop to increase strength.
Improving Shoulder Stability and Coordination: With Specific Kettlebell Exercises
The Kettlebell Handle press also known as the ‘bottoms-up’ press is a dynamic stability exercise used by many physical therapists and corrective exercise specialists like Eric Cressey and Mike Reinold.
For an excellent article on this topic check out Coach Cressey’s article, ‘Coaching Up the Bottoms- UpKettlebell Carry
Check out this complimentary article by Andrew Millett via Mike Reinold called ‘Shoulders of Steel to Stay in the Iron Game
Kettlebell Handle Clean and Press Progression Series
The following exercises represent a progression continuum that will allow you to easily adjust the difficulty level by making the movement more complex (as opposed to always just increasing the weight).
One Arm Kettlebell Handle Clean
- Weight: Female – 8kg, Male – 12kg
- Reps: 5 reps per side with a pause and hold at the top for 5
- Stability and coordination are the two goals, with strength gains being a secondary by-product (as Michol Dalcourt says, ‘A stable joint is a strong joint’)
- This manoeuvre is not
- intended to be high volume. (There are better, less tiring was to achieve high volume results – such as kettlebell standard cleans or )
- primarily for building strength – so don’t go “gun-ho” early on with load demands
- Keep performing the Handle Clean to work on control and stability with good shoulder and elbow alignment: think of cutting at the middle of the body on the way down and up. Teach the normal clean movement
- The simple version of this is to assist the client into the position, thus taking out the swing element. However, the objective is for the client to become proficient enough to do the full
- Instruct your client to keep their eyes on the kettlebell thought the movement to gain extra focus and help maintain
- Be mindful of forearm fatigue as it will influence the number of quality reps performed.
Progression #1 ‘Handle Clean to Press’
The key to this movement is to slowly press the bell whilst keeping eyes on the bell. Track with elbow forward and slowly bring the bell down into the handle rack position
We can treat this movement as a short cycle: that is one handle clean to 5 presses or as a long cycle: clean and press continuity for 5 reps. Remember to change arms.
Progression #2 ‘Double-Handle Cleans’
From the swing phase control the kettlebells into the handle clean position. You will feel your core activate and fire as well as the stabilisers of the shoulder. Keep eyes on the kettlebells and hold for 5 seconds before performing another repetition. Perform up to 5 reps max in one go
Progression # 3 ‘Alternating Presses
In the video below you will see how the alternating press is performed in a controlled manner. One side must stabilise whilst the other is slowly pressing the bell overhead. Bring the bell down slowly and perform on the other side.
Note: this is a very high demanding exercise so perform between 3-5 reps at a time only
Progression #4 ‘Double Handle Press’
The double handle press requires good thoracic and shoulder mobility first and foremost. It is a greater skill balancing two bells overhead and you need to contend with twice the load. Again 3-5 reps max!
Progression #5 ‘Kneeling to Standing Complex’
This is the pinnacle of our movements as it incorporates more complexity and time- under-tension with the bell.
- Step 1 – From standing position clean the bell and keep in handle rack position.
- Step 2 – Lower down onto knees with hips extended then come back to
- Step 3 – clean to other side and perform the same
- Simply build up to 5 each side
The next step is to perform the same movement but with the kettlebell pressed overhead for the entire movement.
Video Progression Recap
In the video below I have recapped all the progressions so you can give them a crack and, hopefully, add them to your own smart program.
- The exercises we have covered are a fantastic way to increase shoulder stability!
- While these exercises can certainly be used to supplement an existing strength program, these manoeuvres must begin with minimal reps so that your client’s energy is largely reserved for the ‘main program’.
- Crucially in all this, remember to assess and constantly screen your clients so they perform functionallyand optimally inside and outside the gym
- Always remember: there is a time and place for all exercises and knowing how, when and where they fit into your clients’ program is paramount.
- Lastly, for anyone whom has not yet done a kettlebell certification, I highly recommend doing so as Kettlebells are technical tools that must be thoroughly understood, and – even more importantly – coached correctly.
Until next time, keep active and keep learning!
Co-Founder of Functional Training Institute and the Master Functional Trainer
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