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.