The Side Press: A Guaranteed Improvement in Strength and Flexibility

Any coach out there has some finite goals they use to measure the levels of strength of an athlete. For me, two of those are deadlifting three times your own body weight and performing 15 body weight overhead squats. These are just two of my goals. They may not represent your own goals. I’ll refer back to these two throughout this article but only as examples.

With both of these, there are two common factors. One is a definite amount of strength required to lift your body weight three times or hold your body weight overhead while you grind out 15 reps. The other factor is flexibility. Tight muscles are weak muscles. One movement holds the solution to both of these.

The side press improves flexibility in the shoulders and hamstrings while also strengthening the lower back and hips, all of which have some transfer to my goals. I like to tell my athletes that if I want to know how flexible your shoulders are, I want to know how much you overhead squat.

I had the privilege of meeting 2008 Olympic athlete, Natalie Woolfolk Burgerner, at an Olympic Weightlifting seminar taught by USAW Senior International Coach Mike Burgener. During the seminar, Coach Burgener had Natalie hold a PVC pipe over her head with both hands together and squat down. If I’m not mistaken, she also had her feet together, though I’m not sure of her foot position. In the 2008 Olympic games, Natalie snatched 97 kilos (213.4 lbs), so at a minimum, she is overhead squatting 213.4 pounds. If your shoulders aren’t flexible and mobile enough, you aren’t overhead squatting 213.4 pounds. Trust me. This is coming from a guy who could barely overhead squat a PVC pipe when he first learned about the overhead squat.

How many of you can reach down and touch your toes without bending your knees? How about placing your palms on the ground? If you can’t do that, your deadlift will never reach its truest potential. There was a point when I couldn’t pick something up off the ground without having to squat because my hamstrings were so tight. What was the result of that? My deadlift went from 425 pounds to about 365 pounds with a major struggle to get that up. I realize that in this arena 425 pounds isn’t anything special, but a 60-pound decrease is significant to any lifter.

So how does the side press help to correct these issues? When in a bent over position, a lifter’s legs should be straight, leading to a stretch in the hamstrings. As the lifter stands up, he better be ready for a muscle burn in his love handles, and with a weight over head, the arm should be vertical giving the stretch in the shoulder. If the legs can’t stay straight or the arm can’t be absolutely vertical, the lifter shouldn’t increase in weight. Start out without any weight at all and then gradually increase the weight as you gain the strength and flexibility to do so. Swallow your ego and be smart with your training.

Start out by cleaning a kettlebell up to your shoulder. It doesn’t matter which arm because you’ll switch when you’re finished. From here, your feet should be in a classic squat stance or the proper stance for a kettlebell clean. If the kettlebell is in your right arm, you will turn both of your feet 45 degrees to the left, keeping your heels in the same spot. Obviously, if the kettlebell is in the left arm, your toes will point to the right. This is your starting position. From here, with a straightforward gaze, push your hips back at a 45-degree angle toward the kettlebell. So if I have the kettlebell in my right hand, I’m pushing my hips back to the right.

Next, turn your head and start looking up as you begin to press the kettlebell straight upward. Never, ever, ever, press in any direction other than completely vertical. Hold 53 pounds out at a 45-degree angle and tell me how long you can hold it before you become fatigued or something tears. Don’t actually do it. I’m just proving a point. While you’re pressing vertically, your free hand is reaching toward the ground and toward the inside of the plantar (sole) of your foot. You will keep pressing and reaching until your arm locks out and your free hand touches the ground with the legs straight and your pressing arm vertical. Your hand should touch the ground at the same time your elbow locks out. Following so far? Good. Now it gets really fun.

While still looking straight up at the kettlebell and with a fully extended arm, stand back up, returning to your original position with your arm locked out overhead. As you stand, go in reverse order as your descent. Come up and then once almost fully erect, bring your hips back to where they should be. Only after standing all the way up will you safely lower the kettlebell to your shoulder to repeat for the specified number of reps. This entire movement is to be done with precise control and a focus on technique and execution. Never sacrifice form for weight in this movement and never allow your back to lose its arch.

Mastered that? Great! Let’s improve upon this. Put another kettlebell in your free hand. That will make standing up harder to do, thereby working your core musculature more. Want to throw some balance into it? Grasp a barbell in the center of the bar and press with that. This is best done from a rack. Note that this is an even more advanced movement than using a kettlebell and should only be done after you’re very competent with the kettlebell. I’m talking months of practice.

How will this improve my deadlift? When we break this down into its simplest form, this is a straight leg deadlift. The major difference here is that your center of gravity has shifted from your S2 vertebrae to probably somewhere at and slightly behind your pressing elbow. Sixteen kilos (35 pounds) will never work your lower back more. So after getting a PR on your 1RM deadlift, I think it would be safe to assume that your lower back might be a little stiff, weak, and sore for, at a very minimum, three days. If we look at the law of accommodation, we’ll see that after so many repeated efforts of the same movement, your body will eventually accommodate to the resistance and the gains will diminish. This is just another tool to throw in your tool box to help break up the routine.

Dan John, in Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Enter the Kettlebell has stated, “Power to the People! had all the earmarks of a perfect program. Do this. And, ‘this’ was deadlifts and side presses.” I‘ve also read that one of Pavel’s pupils was able to deadlift 405 pounds with just kettlebell training. To paraphrase Pavel, “405 pounds is not impressive by powerlifting standards, but when only kettlebells were being used, that says something.”

Shoulder flexibility aside, the overhead squat movement requires a tremendous degree of hip and lower back strength. If you even attempt 15 reps at the heaviest you can possibly lift, you will feel this around rep number nine. Now the side press is helping us in three areas as opposed to two with the deadlift—shoulder strength/mobility, lower back strength, and hamstring strength/flexibility. All are critical to the overhead press. Lack in one area and you’ll never hit your full potential.

Side presses have become a staple in our program and will remain as such.

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About the Author

Chris Davis is a former marine currently living in St. Cloud, Florida. His credentials include the RKC, NASM, and the NSCA. In addition to this, he won the 2011 NSCA Challenge scholarship. Chris is a volunteer strength and conditioning coach for his local high school as well as a volunteer in local rehabilitation centers. In December 2011, he will receive his bachelor's degree in exercise science from the University of Central Florida. Chris can be found on his website at stcloudperformance.com.