One Arm Kettlebell Work – What to do with your other hand?

by Charlie Manganiello, SFG II

I can’t help, but think of the scene from Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby (Will Farrell’s character) does an interview and he keeps holding his hands up while he talks because he doesn’t know what to do with them.

ricky bobby

Most people feel the same way when they first learn one-arm kettlebell lifts. I know I did. What do I do with my other hand? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! Does this arm even belong to me? Why does my free hand take this funny claw form when I’m pressing weight overhead? Am I turning into an animal…I hope I’m an eagle…bald or golden though?

I digress.  

We’ll get back to the eagle later. First, let’s look at the importance of being mindful of that rogue arm and hand. There are two types of kettlebell lifts – ballistics and grinds. Ballistics are explosive, like swings and snatches. Grinds are slow, like presses and get-ups. Each require different techniques to give your other arm something to do. This isn’t just busy work either. Employing the right techniques will actually make you stronger and more efficient, even though that arm isn’t doing all the heavy lifting.

We’ll start with ballistics. Let’s take the one-arm kettlebell swing for example. You should always start a one arm swing with both hands on the kettlebell. Why? This will square your shoulders and you won’t start off in bad form before you even start the swing. Right before you hike the kettlebell between your legs, you’ll let your non-working arm drift off to the side. Make a fist and clench. Think of your arm being inline with your torso. As you swing, think of the non-working arm mirroring the working arm. It goes up, it goes down. All in one fluid motion.  It’s just like a shadow or that annoying brother who keeps following you around. Just for the record, I was the annoying brother.

By mirroring the other arm you’ll keep your shoulders square throughout the arc of the swing. By keeping your shoulders square, you’ll avoid rotation of your neck, back, and spine. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that rotating your torso with a heavy load, moving at high speeds, in varying planes, may be bit of a problem. “Houston, we have a problem. We tried for lift off, but we were left grounded because we thought it would be a good idea to put rockets on a wet noodle.” Don’t be a wet noodle.

At the top of the swing there are two types of finishes. The first way is to have your non-working arm finish the same way your working arm does at the top of the swing. Both arms out in front. Think vertical palm plank. The other way, the more badass way, is to finish your non-working arm in the “fighter” pose. As your non-working arm comes up past your hips, instead of letting it float out in front of you, you’ll tuck your arm in close to your chest and make a fist. Think of how a boxer looks in the ring.

Both are allowed, but personally I prefer the fighter pose over the other. Do some experimenting and see what works best for you. I like to think people who aren’t familiar with kettlebells, look at me and think, “Wow, that dude looks like a kettlebell ninja.”

However, with the kettlebell snatch you only want to mirror your working arm so much. You don’t want to end up with both arms overhead. Not only would this look terrible and ruin your snatch technique, most folks don’t have the necessary shoulder mobility to pull it off. This is why the “American Style” swing gets so much criticism (two handed swing that ends up overhead instead of at chest level). With the kettlebell snatch you’ll do all the same steps as before at the bottom of the swing, but you’ll stop your non-working hand somewhere just past your hip. Don’t think about this too much. Let that arm float out there and it will stop where it needs to naturally. As you begin your next rep and the kettlebell is somewhere around your waist, get right back to mirroring the working arm as you hinge. Again, by mirroring your working arm your shoulders will stay square, the hips will load big and you’ll snap that kettlebell up overhead with ease. Have you ever seen someone jump high with only swinging one arm back? I rest my case.

Now for the grinds and the eagle talon you develop when you’re pressing a heavy kettlebell up overhead. Don’t worry you aren’t the only one.

Just promise me one thing. Don’t ever have a gun in hand while pressing a kettlebell overhead. What do I mean by that? While digging around the depths of the internet, I found numerous articles about involuntary hand clenching causing accidental shootings, even by seasoned gun handlers. In a short and concise article, Greg Ellifritz, explains this eagle talon phenomenon. To be clear and fair to Greg, that’s what I’m calling it. I don’t think anyone calls it this, but if you hear it at your gym, know it came from me.   

Here is what I gathered. There are all sorts of ways one can involuntarily clench their hand. You could lose your balance or trip, you can be startled, or one hand can be closed or clinching (I.e. holding the handle of a kettlebell) and the other will spontaneously mimic the other hand. Unless you are doing your workouts on a tightrope, while watching the Blair Witch Project, we are really only dealing with a clenched hand causing the other to do the same.

Instead of letting your hand do whatever it feels like, you should close the ‘strength loop’ by making a fist and send more strength to the loaded arm. This is called muscle irradiation. If you create more tension in other muscle groups that energy will spill over and make you stronger and more stable. Robert Ruxandrescu has a great article that explains this and the tension techniques you can use.

In short, there are a few key muscle groups that you want to fire when pressing weight overhead or for any big lifts (squats, deadlift, turkish get-up, etc). He mentions forearms, abs, and glutes. I’ll add one more, the quads. By tensing all these muscle groups, it makes the Central Nervous System (CNS) feel safe and you’ll generate more power. Have you ever tried to jump and kick as high as you can, with crocs on your feet, on a wet linoleum floor? The CNS does not feel safe and will shut it down before you do your best Bruce Lee impersonation. Sometimes, 18 year old males can trick their CNS into trying it anyway. “Hold my beer CNS, and watch this!”   

Being able to tense these major muscle groups while performing your lift, is something you need to practice. Just like practicing free throws. It will take some time to feel like you’re firing everything at once. At first it will feel like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time. However, if you practice it enough, it will become second nature and you’ll feel the strength in your lifts. A quick tip: it can be hard to clench your bare hand. Try squeezing a hand towel or water bottle. It may feel better and stronger at first when you’re learning.

One really great way to practice full body tension is the hardstyle plank. It’s hard enough to practice while you still learning a new lift like the press. In the hardstyle plank you can focus just on tension. This is also a great core exercise and puts a little spice on the traditional plank.

The hardstyle plank is hard, if done correctly, and you’ll hold it for about 10 seconds. No more two minutes planks. Remember, if you’re “feeling the burn,” you’re not training strength. In this plank, you’ll be on your forearms, elbows and shoulders in-line, feet about shoulder width apart, and on your toes. When the timer starts, draw your knee caps to your hips (tensing the quads), pinch the penny (tensing the glutes), brace for the punch (tensing your abs), and squeezing your fists. You should be quivering and don’t forget to breath. Take small sniffs of air through your nose and purge air out through your mouth with a “tsst…tsst…tsst,” then take another sniff of air. We call this breathing behind the shield. (To make the “tsst” sound, put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, flex your abs, and force air out).  

Now relax. Much harder than the zumba plank eh? Put these hardstyle planks in between sets to reinforce this new skill. These tension techniques should be used any time you’re doing one arm kettlebell work. Weather it’s a ballistic or a grind. It could be during a one arm swing, snatch, turkish get-up, one-arm front squat, bent press, etc. When you are swinging mimic your arm and when you have something heavy in hand, clench that fist, and tense your body. Remember, just because your other arm isn’t doing the lion share of the lifting, it doesn’t mean it can take a siesta. Put that arm to work and recruit all your muscles for strong and safer lifts.   





Why Doing Push-Ups as Part of a Burpee is Stupid

A few months back, I had a young visitor to one of my classes, and one of the exercises we were doing was the burpee. Each time his hands hit the floor, he did a half-push-up with a low hip dip, which slowed him down enough that he was getting about two-thirds the reps of athletes in their fifties. I showed him how we like to do burpees, and he said “Oh, I forgot you guys do the easy kind.”

The burpee is a conditioning exercise. It’s not a measure of your manhood. It’s not a competition. And it’s not a good time to do push-ups. There are any number of variations to the burpee, from adding a push-up, to jumping up to a pull-up bar to add a pull-up, to holding a medicine ball, to wearing a weight vest. We are well aware of the existence of these variations, and we don’t do them. It’s not by ignorance that we came to this choice.

I won’t argue that adding a push-up to the burpee doesn’t make it harder. It does. And so would holding your breath, or putting vaseline all over your hands, or wearing swimming flippers. I will argue, though, that it’s likely that your push-ups already suck and you don’t need to do a bunch of jumping around to make them worse. On the same token, the push-up always is the weak link in the burpee, which takes a great conditioning exercise, and makes it more a test of your upper body pressing endurance.

If you think the burpee is too easy as it is, simply jump higher, move faster, and stop every fifty reps and do fifty push-ups while you rest your bad ass.

Adding more to a good thing is not always a gooder thing…unless you eat at Taco Town.

It’s Not You, It’s The Plan

by Charlie Manganiello

Ok, bear with me here. Let’s pretend your workout plan is a person you’re in a relationship with and you sense a break-up coming. This person is thinking it has been good for a little while, we’ll say it’s been great for two months, but the honeymoon phase is over. They are beginning to have doubts. Not normal doubts, but the “I’m in over my head” type of doubts. The person they originally liked and wanted to date just isn’t that person anymore or maybe never was. They are thinking “Wow, we just aren’t compatible.”

You see where I’m going with this…

If your workout plan or gym routine could talk, it might sound something like this. “I’ve really enjoyed our time together. The first couple of months you were knocking this New Year’s resolution out of the park! Seriously, you were killing it! We’ve had a blast, but you just aren’t the person I thought you were. You’re coming to the gym less, you’re cutting corners, I barely see you anymore. It’s not you, it’s me. We just aren’t a good match and I’m breaking up with you. I wish you the best. I know this really great workout you should try.”

Painful, right?

Now, you can take this one of two ways. People are usually pretty hard on themselves both when they fail at relationships or workouts. The inner dialogue goes right to the negative. You tell yourself you suck, you’re a terrible person, and you’re just a big heaping pile of shit that can’t be successful at anything. I know it’s harsh, but we’ve all been there.

Another way to look at said relationship, the more logical (but often overlooked) way, is to look at why it failed. Did I pick the best plan for me? Was I realistic in my approach? Did I bite off more than I could chew or put on more plates than I could deadlift?

Listen, if you are starting a new plan and try to go from zero to one of those sculpted dudes in the movie Magic Mike XXL, you’re most likely going to fail. People try the same approach with the Powerball all the time. Friends will say, “No way you can win!” And they’re probably right. However, someone has to win at some point and they do, but the odds are NOT in their favor. Let’s put the odds in your favor.

I’m not saying don’t try a hard workout, but let’s look at how you can pick up a sustainable workout that leads to those mega workouts you see your friends doing.

For example, I live in a very small rural western town. I live four blocks from my gym. I work at that gym. I’m single. I rent a small apartment. I don’t have any kids. I don’t have many reasons or distractions to keep me from working out. However, it is still hard for me to get my workouts in, life happens, willpower and motivation can wane. I’ve skipped or pushed workouts to other days and I LIVE FOUR BLOCKS FROM THE GYM. FOUR BLOCKS PEOPLE! I should have no excuses! For the most part I keep to my plan, but remember I am an outlier, I’m on one end of the extreme where most people don’t reside. Most people don’t work at a gym and live within skipping distance. Seriously, I could even moonwalk to the gym, that’s how close I live.

Let’s take my brother for example, and I imagine this goes for most people. Yes, I’m making a generalization here. I know your situation is different. You’re special, but let’s take a deep breath now.

He has to commute 45 mins each way to work. That’s only if the roads are clear and there’s no traffic. He has to wear a suit every day and travels a lot for work during the week. In those three sentences I’ve told you he has, best case scenario, 3-4 hours less than I do just by getting ready for work, traveling, and commuting. Now add on an 8 hour work day on top of that, eating, sleeping, and just existing. It’s super hard for him to get a workout in. Not to mention a commute to the gym.

If I gave him this kick ass workout plan I knew worked, but involved two-a-days and lots of time at the gym he would fail before he even started. I’m not saying he couldn’t get there with some serious habit changes or maybe even lifestyle changes, but that takes much more time and he chooses to have a job that far away from his house and chose that lifestyle. Remember, we are starting small. We can think bigger once we kick the crap out of the smaller plan.

Instead of telling him he has to have more willpower and motivation I told him this: “We must pick a workout plan that works for you. Let’s get really simple.” No need to schedule 2-hour mega workout sessions. My brother used to be a competitive runner, but he’s been out of the game for a while. I told him, and this is very important, “Don’t base past success and past fitness on how you feel today. You’re just not there and that’s OK. We can get there, but it will take time.” Here’s the workout I gave him. (This workout is from strength coach, Dan John.)

5 Rounds (No Rest)

15 kettlebell swing

5 squats

3 push-ups

Don’t be fooled on how easy it looks. It covers all the major movement patterns and packs a serious punch. I said once you feel good at 5 rounds gradually work up to 20 rounds. Add a round or rounds when it makes sense. Once you hit 20, start over with a heavier bell. The original program also mentions you can increase the number of push-ups to make it harder, but first make sure everything else is being executed with perfect form. Here’s a link to the workout I’m referring to.

He was skeptical at first, but I told him to try this for 30 days and if he didn’t see results or feel more fit he could fire me. As I write this article we are just about a month into our plan. He’s up to 10 rounds with a 45lbs kettlebell and is feeling stronger. He’s even excited about it! He bought his own kettlebell and gets the work done in 30 to 45 mins. He is now working a plan that he really can’t fail at. He doesn’t have to drag his ass to the gym after a long day. All he has to do is stretch, warm-up a bit, and knock this thing out in his living room and he’s done with it. He does it most days with a rest day here and there. He’s working at a load that isn’t trashing him for days after the workout. He is continually progressing, slowly of course, but he’s moving forward. Remember, a body in motion…you know the rest.

Stop trying to follow a ridiculous training plan you found on and simplify your workout. Pick a plan that works best for you. The plan I suggest in this article is a great start. Your plan may even be just to walk 20 minutes every day for 30 days.

You can’t just get more willpower or motivation like you can just ask for extra guacamole on a burrito. It comes with habit change and takes time. It doesn’t just happen. Even with simple plans you’ll lose sight from time to time. It is very important to not be so hard on yourself, block out that negative inner dialogue, and attack the next day.

To quote, dare I say a book I’ve read more than once, The Hunger Games, “May the odds ever be in your favor.”

Choose strength!