The kettlebell overhead press can transform your upper body making it look, feel and perform at its peak.
However, the kettlebell overhead press is not as simple as just pressing a kettlebell over your head a few times.
Let’s delve deeper into this important kettlebell exercise and understand why and how it should be used for maximum results.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Overhead Press
The kettlebell overhead press takes the kettlebell from the racked position at the chest to overhead and into a straight arm position.
When performed correctly the overhead press lights up almost all the muscles in your body.
Creating overhead strength is important not only to strengthen the upper body but also so that daily overhead tasks become a lot easier.
Your heart and lungs will also have to work hard when overhead pressing correctly because the heart has to push blood all the way up to the top hand during every repetition.
Good overhead pressing also demands perfect alignment throughout the body from head to toe in order to produce a strong and stable base of support.
There are a great many kettlebell overhead press variations for you to practice to add to your workouts in order for you to keep things interesting.
So just to recap the kettlebell overhead press benefits are:
- Activates most of the muscles in the body when performed correctly
- Improves overhead strength for daily tasks
- Develops better alignment throughout the body
- Increases cardio due to the heart having to work harder to pump blood to the top hand
- Conditions the shoulders and upper body
- Adds variety and spice to existing workouts and combinations
Muscles Used During the Kettlebell Overhead Press
As mentioned there are not many muscles that the kettlebell overhead press does not activate if performed correctly.
However, the main muscles that do most of the heavy lifting are the shoulders (deltoids) and the back (latissimus dorsi & trapezius) and the arms (triceps).
Here are the main muscles used during the kettlebell overhead press:
- Deltoid Muscles
- Tricep Muscles
- Latissimus Dorsi Muscles
- Trapezius Muscles
The core muscles works hard along with the buttocks in order to maintain a strong and stable base for the other muscles to work from.
The legs and even the toes can be activated when pressing challenging and heavy loads.
Mobility Required for the Kettlebell Overhead Press
Shoulder and upper back mobility is very important when pressing overhead.
If you lack the movement necessary in the upper back or shoulders to extend the arm directly overhead then compensations must be made further down the body in order to maintain correct alignment.
The human body is strongest when all the joints are stacked in good alignment one on top of the next.
When you can’t naturally extend your arm vertically overhead the lower back must arch in order to maintain that vertical top arm.
If you look for it you will see this compensation in gyms all around the world
You can see people pressing overhead with arched lower backs because they lack the ability to extend their arm vertically overhead.
You can test your own shoulder mobility by standing with your back to a wall and extending your arm overhead and touching the back of your hand to the wall.
Does your lower back excessively arch away from the wall?
If you lack overhead shoulder mobility then working on your shoulder and upper back are important to save the health of your lower back.
Watch my shoulder mobility video below:
Watch my upper back mobility video below:
Using Irradiation to Overhead Press Heavier
When you press a kettlebell overhead you can increase your overall strength by activating as many muscles as possible.
Rather than relaxing as you overhead press get as tight as possible.
Squeezing the handle of the kettlebell, clenching your other hand into a fist, clamping your buttocks together and locking your legs straight.
The act of ‘getting tight‘ will cause as many muscles as possible to activate and through the process of irradiation transfer the strength throughout your body.
Basically the body conserves valuable energy by only using the muscles it needs to in order to perform a movement.
By getting tight your can ‘up regulate‘ your muscle activation and become much stronger in your movements.
4 Kettlebell Exercises You Should Practice Before the Kettlebell Overhead Press
The kettlebell overhead press is a very important kettlebell strength building exercise but it should not be rushed into.
Just like with lots of the other kettlebell exercises there is a natural progressive pattern of exercises that needs to be followed to avoid injury.
Holding strength is more important than pressing strength when you begin your kettlebell training journey.
When you hold a kettlebell overhead it challenges your smaller endurance based stabilising muscles.
Your stabilising muscles keep your joints in their correct alignment, your shoulders rotator cuff muscles are the perfect example.
When you press overhead without developing your stabilising muscles first you allow your larger prime mover based muscles to overpower your stabilising muscles.
Shoulder injuries are so common because everyone tries to develop their larger shoulder muscles before their smaller stabilising muscles.
Use the following 4 overhead kettlebell stabilising exercises in order to strengthen your muscles in preparation for your heavy lifting later.
1. Kettlebell Overhead Warm Up
The most simple kettlebell overhead stabilising exercise is just to hold a kettlebell straight overhead for up to 60 seconds.
Once you can do this you can practice walking around a little with the kettlebell overhead for 60 seconds.
Finally, you can move on to the kettlebell overhead warm up that involves a little more movement while the kettlebell is held straight overhead.
Keep your shoulder down and ear away from your shoulder during the complete exercise.
Never unlock the arm and keep your wrist nice and straight.
Practice: Holding, Walking or Performing the Overhead Warm Up for 60 seconds non stop is the ultimate goal.
2. Kettlebell Windmill
The kettlebell windmill takes the kettlebell overhead hold to the next level adding in more shoulder and hip mobility.
You will feel your shoulder joint rotate as you perform the kettlebell windmill challenging the joint from different angles.
Keep good focus on the kettlebell throughout the exercise.
Practice: 5 repetitions on each side is enough as the exercise is performed slowly and deliberately.
3. Kettlebell Turkish Get Ups
The ultimate overhead stabilising and mobilising kettlebell exercise is the kettlebell turkish get up.
The shoulder will be challenged from all angles as you stand up and then lay back down again all while keeping the arm locked.
Beginners should practice without a kettlebell before slowly adding load to the exercise.
Practice: progress towards 10 alternating kettlebell turkish get ups.
4. Kettlebell Bottoms Up Clean
The kettlebell bottoms up clean is a fun exercises that will help correct shoulder and arm alignment issues.
I talked earlier about the importance of stacking joints when load is added in order to gain strength, the bottoms up clean helps you naturally develop this skill.
As the kettlebell is cleaned to the racked position the handle is pointing downwards and the weight balanced above it.
You will need to keep your shoulder and arm in the correct position in order to maintain balance of the kettlebell.
Practice: use as a nice warm up performing 6-8 repetitions holding in the balanced position for as long as possible.
7 Kettlebell Overhead Press Variations
Once you have developed good overhead holding stabilisation then you will have a strong base for general kettlebell overhead pressing.
You can perform many of the next 7 kettlebell press variations with either one kettlebell or two kettlebells.
I recommend that you start by only using one kettlebell and once you can perform all variations start to add in a second kettlebell.
1. Kettlebell Half Kneeling
The half kneeling kettlebell press will not only challenging your pressing strength but also your core stability.
Keep one knee on the floor in the lunge position as you press overhead.
Keep you core muscles tight and engaged and your buttocks tight.
Do not allow your hips to rotate backwards and for your midsection to fall forwards, stay upright.
You will find it interesting to see how each side compares.
Always work on your weaker side and do not press more on your stronger side to prevent developing imbalances.
Practice: progress up to 12 repetitions on each side.
2. Kettlebell Tall Kneeling
The kettlebell tall kneeling press isolates the upper body by taking away your base of support.
You will find this variation of the overhead kettlebell press more challenging than the standing variation.
Keep the buttocks and abs pinched nice and tight throughout the full movement.
Do not let the hips slowly track backwards as you progress through your repetitions.
Practice: progress up to 12 repetitions on each side.
3. Kettlebell Standard Overhead Press or Military Press
The classic kettlebell overhead press or military press takes the kettlebell from the racked position and overhead.
Here are a few teaching points that you can apply to your overhead pressing:
- Engage the Lats by tensing the armpit as you press
- Make sure the forearm is vertical as you press
- Keep the shoulder down away from your ear and back in its socket
- Squeeze the whole body to create tension
- Push away from the floor
- Use your breath by inhaling first, then forcing air out through tight lips as if letting air out of a balloon
- Lock the arm at the top with the shoulder away from the ear
- Ensure that the kettlebell is vertically overhead and not in front or behind the head
- Actively pull the weight down slowly and with control
Practice: slowly work up to 10 repetitions on each side
4. Kettlebell Push Press
The kettlebell push press is similar to the kettlebell overhead press except that you use your legs a little to help with the press.
The hardest part of the kettlebell overhead press is taking the kettlebell from the racked position and moving it the first 12 inches.
You have a distinct mechanical disadvantage with the kettlebell in the racked position so in order to overcome this you can use your legs to pop the kettlebell up.
The kettlebell push press does not involve much work from the legs just a slight knee bend and then a sharp snap of the hips.
Once the kettlebell is moving upwards you can then use the momentum to help with the rest of the overhead press.
The kettlebell push press is not an excuse to not press correctly, but when you can press well it’s a great option to help crank out a few last reps or work into a heavier kettlebell.
Practice: progress up to 12 repetitions on each side
5. Kettlebell Jerk Press
The kettlebell jerk press is a more technical way to press a kettlebell overhead.
Fundamentally with the kettlebell held in the racked position you push press before dropping quickly underneath the kettlebell and then driving it overhead.
As the arm is stronger in the locked out position the idea is to get deep enough under the kettlebell so that you can finish the press with the legs and a straight arm.
Timing is everything with the jerk press.
First you use a slight push press to begin the momentum of the kettlebell moving upwards before dropping for a second time underneath the kettlebell and driving upwards with a straight arm.
Practice: work up to 10 repetitions on each side
6. Kettlebell Bottoms Ups Press
The kettlebell bottoms up press progresses on from the bottoms up clean that you practiced earlier.
With the kettlebell balanced upside down in the racked position the kettlebell is pressed overhead.
You will need excellent body and arm alignment in order to press the kettlebell overhead from the bottoms up position.
Maintain a strong grip throughout the exercise and always be prepared to get out of the way if the kettlebell flips over.
Practice: work up to 5 kettlebell clean and bottoms up presses on each side
7. Kettlebell Sotts Press
The kettlebell sotts press is a more challenging variation of the kettlebell overhead press.
You will need good upper back and shoulder mobility in order to complete this exercise.
From the racked position squat down into a deep squat.
At the bottom of the squat press the kettlebell overhead and then return it to the racked position before standing up.
If you struggle with good squatting technique or have mobility issues then this exercises is going to be a real challenge for you.
Practice: work up to 10 repetitions on each side
5 Kettlebell Overhead Press Combination Exercises
Once you are skilled at performing all the overhead press kettlebell exercises you can then start to combine them with other kettlebell exercises.
Combining kettlebell exercises with the overhead press not only adds variety to your workouts but also increases the overall muscular and cardiovascular demands of the exercise.
Many of the following kettlebell exercises can be performed with either one kettlebell or two.
1. Kettlebell Clean and Press
One of the simplest and most common ways to incorporate the overhead press is to add it to the kettlebell clean.
The kettlebell clean is a full body exercise that takes the kettlebell from the ground and into the racked position.
From the racked position you can then press the kettlebell overhead either with the standard overhead press, push press or jerk press.
Make sure to complete the clean correctly and rack the kettlebell securely before moving into the overhead press.
Using two kettlebells at the same time is a very demanding full body exercise.
Practice: work up to 10 reps on each side before changing.
2. Kettlebell Squat and Press or Thruster
The kettlebell thruster combines the kettlebell racked squat with the overhead press.
This kettlebell exercise is very cardiovascular and works most muscles in the body.
From a deep squat you use your momentum on the upward part of the movement to help push the kettlebell overhead.
You can think of the exercise as an even more exaggerated type of push press with a full squat at the bottom.
Performing the kettlebell thruster will make the overhead pressing part of the exercise much easier so slightly heavier kettlebells can be used.
Try two kettlebells for the ultimate full body blast, or hold one kettlebell with two hands.
Practice: 10 continuous repetitions on each side will really get your heart rate racing.
3. Kettlebell Reverse Lunge and Press
If you can perform nice deep smooth reverse kettlebell lunges then adding a press to the exercise will ramp up the muscle activation.
As you transition from the bottom of the lunge to the standing position continue to drive the kettlebell to the overhead position.
Make sure you keep the arm tucked nice and tight to the body during the lunge to save exhausting the shoulder prematurely.
The back knee should kiss or get very close to the floor in order to activate the buttock muscles fully, do not cheat the movement just to get in the overhead press.
Practice: work up to 12 repetitions on each side for a full body and cardio based workout
4. Kettlebell Static Lunge and Press
The kettlebell static lunge and press takes the standard static lunge and adds a press into the movement.
Keep your feet glued to the floor throughout the exercise and ensure the back knee drops down close to the floor.
Drive up from the bottom position using the momentum to press the kettlebell overhead.
You will need good core stability and cardio in order to perform a number of quality repetitions.
An excellent full body and cardio based kettlebell exercise.
Practice: work up to 12 reps on each side for a demanding little workout.
5. Kettlebell Sit and Press
The kettlebell sit and press is our only floor based pressing exercise.
Keeping the legs straight sit up and press the kettlebell overhead.
You will need good hip mobility, shoulder mobility, core strength and shoulder strength to complete this exercise.
Ensure that you lower your body down to the floor slowly using a 3 second lowering count.
The kettlebell sit and press is a great exercise that you can use either to develop weak shoulders or as a finishing exercise after other shoulder based exercises.
Practice: work up to 10 repetitions
Kettlebell Overhead Press Strength Workout
If your goals are purely gaining strength from the kettlebell overhead press then I suggest you follow a simple strength ladder protocol like this:
Kettlebell Strength Ladder Workout
- Overhead Press – left x 1
- Overhead Press – right x 1
- Overhead Press – left x 2
- Overhead Press – right x 2
- Continue up to 5 reps
The format of this strength workout is simple just alternate sides adding 1 extra repetition to the total each round.
You don’t need to rush between sides, take your time so you are fully switched on for every repetition.
If you find the last few repetitions too difficult then use the push press to finish off the reps.
As you get stronger and can manage all 5 repetitions without using the push press then add a second set starting at 1 and increasing to 5 again.
When you can complete 2 sets of the above ladder increase the weight.
Complete the workout 3-5 times per week.
Conclusion to the Kettlebell Overhead Press
The kettlebell overhead press, when performed correctly, is a full body exercise with extra emphasis on the upper body.
You will need good shoulder and upper back mobility in order to prevent your lower back from over arching.
You should first develop your shoulder stabilising muscles using overhead holding exercises before moving onto the larger pressing exercises.
There are 7 overhead kettlebell pressing exercises for you to practice some will help you pop the kettlebell out of the racked position easier than others.
Finally when you have mastered the overhead kettlebell press there are 5 kettlebell combination pressing exercises that you can use to really ramp up the cardio and full body muscle engagement.
If you want to develop some serious overhead pressing strength then you can use a strength ladder workout 3-5 times per week.
Happy overhead pressing!
Do you use the kettlebell overhead press? Let me know more below…