Bottoms-Up Training: Fix Your Joints, Body Mechanics & Pressing Technique Today
This article is exclusive to AHP. It represents the uncut, fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured on elitefts.com on 5/17/2016
Until roughly a decade ago, kettlebells were often dismissed as an archaic and bizarre training instruments useful only for cheap circus acts and oversized paperweights. Fortunately, times have changed and the fitness industry has come to understand the value of these medieval-looking objects. In fact you’re likely to find kettlebells in a majority of mainstream gyms, fitness facilities, CrossFit studios, and performance centers.
Long before gaining popularity in our country, Russians and Europeans had been using kettlebells for centuries to promote strength, coordination, hypertrophy, performance, and conditioning. Whether it's swings, squats, cleans, presses or snatches, there’s no limit as to what can be done with these unique instruments of torture.
One such variation that is exceptionally useful yet often underutilized is the bottom’s-up technique.
If you’re unfamiliar with this humbling training method it’s quite simple. Rather than holding the weight with the bell hanging below the hand, the kettlebell is flipped upside down so the heavy portion sits above the handle. This creates significant instability to the kettlebell forcing the lifter to recruit additional muscle fibers and motor units to control the volatile load. If it still doesn’t make sense check out this video.
Over the years, I’ve found bottoms-up exercises to be one of the most effective training techniques for my athletes and clients. Not only does this method improve strength, performance, and movement mechanics, but it also does wonders for enhancing joint integrity especially throughout the shoulder complex.
Real World Example
I commonly work with athletes who come to me after sustaining some form of injury during competition, practice, or training.
When it comes to upper extremity injuries, I’ve utilized bottoms-up variations to mend shoulder issues in both pro and collegiate athletes who supposedly needed full-scale surgical operations to repair the problem. With a combination of neuromuscular re-education techniques as well as a heavy dose of bottoms up movements, several notable things tend to occur in these scenarios.
First, the athletes are able work around the shoulder and upper extremity issues while continuing to train their upper body. Secondly, strength, motor control, and overall muscularity particularly in the upper torso substantially increase. Third and most importantly we’ve found this form of training to be effective at essentially mending the injury altogether allowing the athlete to regain full function of the previously injured site.
In fact I recently I had the pleasure of working with NFL quarterback Taylor Heinicke to help him overcome a fairly serious shoulder injury he sustained in his collegiate playing days. When Taylor first came to me he had significant limitations in his throwing arm that restricted movement, range of motion, and any significant amount of tension or loading. Taylor reported pain with a majority of exercises including many lower body movements.
Because of this, several orthopedic doctors and physical therapists suggested we avoid any intense upper body work and use predominately traditional rotator cuff exercises, band resisted movements, stretches, mobility drills, self myofascial release (SMR), soft tissue work, and low intensity corrective exercises.
Having seen the futility of these methods in the past, I disregarded this advice and decided to employ other techniques I had successfully utilized with similar injuries and athletes. This included a very heavy dose of bottoms-up movements, eccentric isometrics, and other unique neuromuscular re-education techniques, to help reprogram the nervous system with appropriate firing patterns.
After several weeks of these procedures, all restrictions and limitations, whether field or training-related, were eliminated. Taylor was able to perform heavy barbell squats, dumbbell presses, Olympic lifting variations, overhead presses, bench presses, and weighted pull-ups all with intense loading and no pain. Furthermore, his technique on all movement patterns had become nearly flawless.
In addition, Taylor’s strength and muscularity began increasing at such a rapid rate we had to dial back the intensity for fear of making him overly muscular even by NFL standards.
I’ve had similar scenarios with other athletes and although there are multiple training factors that attributed to their recovery, bottoms up movements always played an integral role. For instance I recently helped all-star collegiate quarterback and NFL athlete Blake Sims recover from a shoulder injury using bottoms up movements in conjunction with eccentric isometrics.
I’m highlighting this example to illustrate how simple therapy can and often should be and how overly complex many trainers, therapists, and physicians make it. By incorporating basic yet challenging exercises such as bottoms-up movements this facilitates the reprogramming of the nervous system with appropriate movement patterns.
In turn, the muscles begin to function as they should, absorbing force and tension that was previously placed on the injured regions.
The Benefits of Bottoms-Up Training
Now that you’ve heard the sales pitch, you’re probably wondering what exactly makes bottoms-up movements so effective. Here are 20 convincing reasons.
1. Improves Postural Control and and Spinal Alignment
Few exercises require such a high level of spinal control and postural awareness as bottoms-up exercises. Without proper spinal alignment and shoulder positioning bottoms-up movements feel utterly impossible, particularly when combined with heavier loads. To successfully perform any variation especially overhead movements, the lifter will be forced to maintain proper t-spine mobility and thoracic extension, which requires military-like posture. The key is to focus on keeping your shoulders pulled back, chest out, stomach pulled in, and head tall.
2. Corrects Movement Patterns and Lifting Mechanics
If you’re having trouble finding proper technique on any lift, performing them bottoms-up will provide an immediate enhancement. Bottoms-up exercises are some of the most challenging movements you’ll ever perform and when using substantial loads, anything short of perfect technique and positioning will result in an immediate failed attempt. This forces the lifter to find the most biomechanically sound position ultimately allowing them to produce the greatest force with the safest mechanics.
3. Improve ability To Handle Vertical Force Vectors
The inability to match joint osteokinematics to vertical force vectors created by heavy external loads is one of the most common mistakes I see in lifters. Bottoms-up movements are excellent for exposing this issue. Without proper body positioning such as ample t-spine extension, scapular positioning, and overall spinal alignment, it’s nearly impossible to produce perfectly vertical force vectors against a heavy load as some of the energy is angled horizontally and laterally. Besides compromising force-producing capabilities, this produces de-stabilizing forces making it nearly impossible to control the load.
4. Teaches Grip Efficiency
Inability to handle and match vertical force vectors also leads to lack of grip efficiency as the load is unable to sit completely perpendicular in the hands. As a result, holding a heavy bottoms-up object becomes a nightmare on the grip as the load is never able to lock into position due to faulty elbow, forearm, and wrist stacking. This is simply a byproduct of producing lateral and horizontal forces against a vertical force vector, which completely inhibits grip efficiency. This is one of several reasons that many lifters often struggle with bottoms-up movements. It’s really not so much about grip strength as it is body positioning. In fact the next time you hear someone blaming their inability to perform bottoms-up movements on grip strength and hand slippage, call them out on their technique and overall movement mechanics, as these are more likely the culprits than pure grip strength alone.
5. Promotes Centration of the Glenohumeral Joint
Bottoms-up movements force the lifter to stabilize their scapula by properly activating all the muscles that surround the rotator cuff and shoulder joint. Not only does this have an immediate impact on shoulder health but it also teaches the athlete optimal recruitment patterns for protecting the glenohumeral joint on other movements.
6. Teaches the Lifter to Stay Tight and Locked In
The phenomenon is often referred to as irradiation or concurrent activation potentiation (CAP). This simply describes a state in which every muscle in the body is forced to activate in order to perform the movement successfully. Call it what you like, but few techniques can produce the same level of full-body tension and tightness as heavy bottoms-up movements.
7. Minimizes Energy Leaks
With bottoms up movements, ever muscle in the body is activated, making the chance for energy leaks slim to none. Besides maximizing force production this also reduces the likelihood of injury by providing support for joints and connective tissue.
8. Co-Activation of Reciprocal Muscle Groups
Similar to irradiation, maximal tension induced from bottoms-up movements is typically accompanied by co-contraction of opposing muscle groups. This helps stabilize a joint as well as provide a level of motor control that few exercises can match. Furthermore, learning to co-contract during eccentric movements increases reciprocal inhibition on the subsequent concentric phase. This maximizes peak torque and power output via the “sling shot effect."
9. Eliminates the Tendency to Collapse
Performing movements with an excessive range of motion (i.e. collapsing at the bottom of a lift), is one of the most common training mistakes. Not only does this cause the targeted muscles to temporarily relax, but it places significant tension on the joints and connective tissue. Bottoms-up movements reinforce an ideal range of motion as it rewards the lifter for proper execution. In contrast, even the slightest degree of collapsing will be punished with a failed-lifting attempt as it becomes nearly impossible to control the load.
10. EnhanceS Mental Focus
The level of focus, concentration, and mental engagement required for heavy bottoms-up movements is nearly impossible to replicate with other training techniques. You’ll be forced to center your body and your mind like a kung fu master in order to successfully complete the task. Lose your focus for an instant and you’ll dump the weight. Whether you’re an elite athlete or novice lifter, the mental benefits associated with such a training technique are invaluable.
11. Enhacnes Grip Strength
The amount of grip strength needed to perform a heavy bottoms-up movement is exceptionally high. Depending on the variation, these require significant crushing or pinching grip strength. This forces the lifter to summon all available fibers in the fingers, hands, and forearms eliciting significant strength and hypertrophy benefits in these regions.
12. Improves Anaerobic Conditioning
One of the most common complaints you’ll hear athletes make in regards to bottoms-up movements is the sensation of rapid heart rate, breathlessness, fatigue, and light-headedness. This is simply a byproduct of the intensity associated with these movements, which also has a tendency to expose a lack of conditioning in athletes. Due to the amount of co-contraction and full body tightness, don’t be surprised if your heart rate elevates to near maximum.
13. Reinforces Proper Breathing
Having the ability to control your breathing is a pre-requisite for heavy lifting. Bottoms-up movements teach the lifter to essentially sip air through a straw rather than take large laboring breaths. Regardless of what you've heard, heavy exaggerated breathing during intense lifting is one of the single worst training miscues still perpetuated by the fitness industry to this day. Bottoms-up movements dispel this myth once and for all, as any loss of intra-abdominal pressure will result in a failed lift.
14. IS Joint-friendly
Besides acting as a therapeutic modality for a variety of shoulder issues, bottoms up movements reinforce proper lifting mechanics into the CNS. As a result, the trainee is able to return to heavy barbell and dumbbell movements with reduced pain and increased function.
15. Promotes Symmetry
Any asymmetries (right vs. left side) in strength and motor unit recruitment will become immediately evident when attempting bottoms up movements. In fact, your dominant side will most likely be disproportionately stronger and more coordinated than your non-dominant side. Master bottoms-up movements and watch your asymmetries disappear.
16. Improves Coordination and Motor Control
When it comes to bottoms up movements, motor control is the name of the game. Essentially all the muscles in the body must work together in unison to find the most biomechanically sound position. This teaches controlled aggression, coordination, proprioception, kinesthetic awareness, and motor control.
17. Enhances Stability and Balance
This one goes without saying but the degree of stabilization involved in bottoms-up movements is exceptionally high. Besides taxing the primary muscles you’ll experience intense innervation to the stabilizers and core musculature.
18. Is Useful for Athletes
Bottoms up movements are beneficial for any athlete. In terms of sports performance, the benefits in shoulder stability, mental concentration, and motor control are significant. Strength athletes can also reap numerous benefits. For powerlifters, the amount of tension necessary to perform bottoms-up movements transfers exceptionally well to max-effort lifting. CrossFit athletes will also find great value in these for improving shoulder stability in various movements including overhead lunges, handstand pushups, ring exercises, and overhead lifts. Olympic lifters will also benefit from bottoms-up movements, as stability in the overhead position is pivotal for completing a snatch or jerk.
19. Requires Minimal Recovery
Although bottoms-up movements generate incredibly high levels of motor unit recruitment they typically produce minimal levels of soreness and micro-trauma. This is primarily due to the reduced loading that’s necessary to counteract the extreme difficulty of the movements. As a result, muscle damage is kept to a minimum, allowing the trainee to perform movement patterns with greater frequency
20. Promotes Hypertrophy and Functional Muscle Mass
Although bottoms-up movements do not rely on muscle damage to elicit hypertrophy, there is considerable mechanical tension and metabolic stress involved. The former is produced from the incredibly high amounts of tension development within the muscles. The latter (metabolic stress) is induced the the continuous tension necessary to control the load creating a degree of occlusion and lactate accumulation. The result is an added bonus of increased functional muscle mass.
Traditionally, bottoms-up movements are performed with kettlebells. However, Iron Grip style plates, bumper plates, and hex style dumbbells each provide their own unique attributes. Here’s a quick rundown of each.
Kettlebells: require crushing grip strength; moderate to extreme difficult depending on the size and shape of the kettlebell
Iron Grip Plates: require crushing grip strength; very difficult to extremely difficult especially with 45’s, due to their height and size
Hex Dumbbells: require pinching grip strength; moderately difficult although hand size can limit total loading
Bumper plates: require pinching grip strength; extremely difficult
Unilateral vs. Isolateral
Similar to most exercises, bottoms-up movements can be performed isolaterally (both arms working simultaneously but independently) or unilaterally (one side at a time).
With the isolateral version, the difficulty of managing two unstable objects tends to make these variations more physically and mentally demanding.
During unilateral versions, a majority of neural drive is channeled to one side of the body often times making it easier to stabilize and balance. However, the unilateral variations also possess other unique attributes such as rotary stability and anti-lateral flexion of the spine as a by-product of handling an offset load.
Eccentric Isometrics and Eyes-Closed Variations
If you’re looking to gain the most from bottoms-up training I recommend performing them as eccentric isometrics. This involves a slow and deliberate eccentric phase (three to four seconds) followed by a several second pause in the stretched position, before smoothly yet powerfully driving the weight up. This combination produces an incredible amount of proprioceptive feedback from muscle spindles thereby maximizing kinesthetic awareness. In essence, the instability from the load combined with the emphasized stretch during the eccentric isometric produces an incredible amount of sensory feedback of which the lifter can use to fine-tune their mechanics and overall body positioning.
If you want to kick up the level of somatosensory feedback a notch further, try closing your eyes while simultaneously performing bottoms-up eccentric isometrics. Eliminating the visual component forces the proprioceptive mechanisms of your muscles to work overtime. Just be prepared physically and mentally, as this will be one of the most challenging yet effective techniques you’ll ever attempt.
Note: For more on eccentric isometrics click HERE.
Although overhead presses with kettlebells are the most traditional bottoms-up movements there are dozens of variations that include both vertical and horizontal presses.
If you’re unaccustomed to bottom-up movements, the single arm overhead press with a kettlebell is a great starting point. Just remember to create ample t-spine extension
If you’re looking to amp up the difficulty and intensity, the double arm bottoms-up version performed with plates from a kneeling position on a bench is one of the most challenging variations you’ll every try.
Chest presses from both the flat and incline position as well as floor presses are excellent movements for enhancing your bench press technique. Here are a few of my NFL combine athletes working on improving shoulder stability with a bottoms-up dumbbell chest press.
Employing bottoms-up movements during squats is a fantastic method for improving squat form and stability as you’re literally forced to maintain a high degree of intramuscular tension, spinal rigidity, and core stabilization.
If you have trouble with lunge mechanics, you may want to consider employing bottoms-up variations as the instability of the load will almost immediately enhance your stride pattern. The overhead variation in particular can do wonders for correcting numerous forms of dysfunction such as lack of t-spine mobility and tight hip flexors.
4. Clean and Snatch Variations
Bottoms-up cleans and snatches are highly challenging hip extension movements that are excellent tools for teaching an athlete how to control and stabilize their power output. For athletes this can result in incredible transfer to the playing field.
5. Loaded Carries
Bottoms-up loaded carries can be performed with the arms overhead or in the bottom, semi-racked position. However, the overhead version is typically more challenging as the load is farther from your center of gravity, making it harder to balance. You can also make the movement even more challenging by simultaneously combining overhead presses and loaded carries at the same time as demonstrated by one of my figure athletes Leslie Petch.
6. Double Offset Bottoms Up Training
The double offset sounds complicated in theory but it’s quite simple in practice. There’s essentially 2 forms of offset loading involved; one is the actual load being heavier on one side, and the other is the use of different training tools in each hand. While one arm is essentially performing a relatively standard overload movement in the form of a heavy dumbbell press, the other arm is performing a lighter yet highly unstable pressing variation in the form of a bottoms-up press. The goal is to transfer the same crisp and proper mechanics produced from the bottoms-up kettlebell technique to the arm that’s simultaneously pressing the heavier dumbbell on the opposite side. Here's one of my clients Matt Jordan demonstrating how we used this technique along with other bottoms up movements to repair an old shoulder injury.
6. Single Leg Bottoms Up Movements
Single leg bottoms up movements represent the epitome of full body stability and motor control. If there's a weak link in any portion of the body from head to toe these will immediately expose it. Once you master single leg bottoms up cleans and single leg bottoms up presses you'll most likely have eliminated a majority of dysfunction throughout your body.
One exercise that's incredibly challenging even for the most advanced lifters is the single leg bottoms up clean. The double leg version tends to be a bit too light to truly maximize hip and glute activation. However, single leg variations performed with plates quickly resolves this, as the total weight is loaded to one hip. Furthermore, the plates can swing to the sides of your body without hitting your thigh – something that can't be duplicated with kettlebells. Besides requiring a high degree of balance and motor control, you'll need Jedi-like focus to successfully complete these.
If that doesn't give you enough of a challenge this next one should do the trick. Essentially you'll be performing single leg, bottoms up, eccentric isometric, overhead press with bumper plates. And yes it's as hard as it looks.
7. Reverse Bottoms-Up Presses
The reverse bottoms-up overhead press provides many of the features associated with typical bottoms up. However there are several additional benefits.
First, the athlete can generally go heavier on this variation as grip strength is not the limiting factor as it often can be with traditional bottoms up movements.
Second, the reverse bottoms up press employs an overhand or pronated grip making it one of the best if not only unstable isolateral movements that uses a pronated grip (most variations use a neutral grip). As a result this translates incredibly well to barbell bench press movements, pushups, and fighting skills as the pronated grip is the common hand placement during these actions.
Third, it's impossible to outgrip the instability (the lifter cannot grip their hands around the kettlebell due to the large circumference). Therefore every bit of stabilization must come for the shoulder joint. In other words you can't outgrip poor mechanics which is in fact something that very strong lifters can accomplish with traditional bottoms-up variations. In essence all stabilization must occur by centrating and packing the shoulder joint rather than relying on grip or hand strength to lock the movement in. If your mechanics are lacking this will feel nearly impossible to perform particularly when you use heavier loads.
Lastly, there are actually more subtle and continuous oscillations during these in comparison to standard bottoms up movements since as previously highlighted grip strength cannot be used to help stabilize the load as the weight is resting in the palms. It actually feels incredibly unstable even in comparison to traditional bottoms-up movements. If you're in need of an exercise to help you lock in your mechanics, going lighter on this can help greatly as the movement will gradually help you dial in your form. It should also be noted that single arm movements are more user friendly when you don't have a training partner as it's quite tough to position two kettlebells at once.
On a side note I want to point out the athlete in this video, Pittsburg Pirates outfielder Austin Meadows. I started working with Austin several months ago at which time he had several injuries including a very complex shoulder issue that was preventing him from throwing. By strategically implementing numerous eccentric isometrics into his routine (for both upper and lower body) alike including the implementation of many bottoms up overhead pressing variations, Austin is now back to throwing bombs and crushing his batting sessions.
In addition, I had Austin perform no additional corrective exercises, rotator cuff drills, soft tissue work, stretches, mobility drills, or any other treatment for his shoulders. Instead we relied on the correct execution of foundational movement patterns combined with eccentric isometric bottoms up exercises to provide all of the therapeutic effects that Austin needed to restore his shoulder function and mechanics.
8. Other Movements
Having personally experimented with hundreds of bottoms-up variations, there is literally no limit to how you can apply these to your training program. Whether it’s variations of presses, Turkish getups, or loaded carries, when it comes to bottoms-up options you’re only limited by your imagination. The one thing all of them have in common is they provide immediate improvement not only to movement patterns and lifting technique but to muscle function and joint health.
Note: For more unique bottoms-up movements, visit Dr. Joel Seedman's Youtube channel