Here's what you need to know...
- Bottoms-up training has incredible benefits. It improves strength, size, athletic performance, mental focus, anaerobic conditioning, posture, and more.
- Hold a kettlebell with the bell up, handle down. The instability requires you to recruit additional muscle fibers and motor units to control the volatile load.
- Kettlebells and Iron Grip plates work best. You can also use bumper plates and hex-style dumbbells for 9 different exercises.
Bottoms-up training is simple. Rather than holding a kettlebell with the bell hanging below the hand, flip it upside down so the heavy portion sits above the handle. (It can also be done with a weight plate.) This forces you to recruit additional muscle fibers and motor units. This method improves strength, performance, and movement mechanics. It even enhances joint integrity. My NFL athletes use it and you should too.
Choose Your Weapons
Traditional bottoms-up movements are performed with kettlebells, but Iron Grip style plates, bumper plates, and hex-style dumbbells will produce similar yet slightly different stimuli. Kettlebells and Iron Grip plates both require crushing grip strength. Plates tend to be more challenging, especially once you work up to 45-pound plates. Bumper plates and hex-style dumbbells also share similarities – both require pinching grip strength.
1 – Overhead Press
The overhead press is an essential bottoms-up movement. As with any of press variation, it 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 makes these variations more demanding.
During unilateral versions, all neural drive is focused to one side of the body, making it easier to balance. However, there's a degree of rotary stability and anti-lateral flexion of the spine as you're essentially handling an offset load.
Kneeling on a bench with Iron Grip style plates is one of the most challenging variations. Just be prepared to get some unusual stares in the gym as anyone watching will probably think you're training to become a ninja.
2 – Horizontal Chest Press
If you're looking for an immediate solution for poor bench press mechanics, bottoms-up horizontal chest presses are just what the doctor ordered. Not only will they force you to stay tight while engaging every muscle in the body, but you'll be forced to tuck your elbows and centrate the glenohumeral joint – an important maneuver for any chest press.
Check out quarterback Taylor Heinicke performing the unilateral floor press variation during one of our workouts as a means of rehabbing his shoulder and improving movement mechanics.
If you're looking for an extreme challenge, the bottoms-up bench press is incredibly difficult. You'll be required to clean, squat, and gracefully sit back with the load while managing to keep the plates from falling on your face.
3 – Clean
Okay, these "cleans" are far from traditional, but the movement is close. Any bottoms-up "clean" will give you a run for your money. The only drawback is the load 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.
4 – Snatch
Again, we're using the term "snatch" loosely here, but these bottoms-up "snatches" are a true full-body movement. Every muscle from head to toe must be summoned aggressively to accelerate the load and quickly stabilize it overhead.
5 – Lunge
Since the rise of CrossFit, overhead lunges have become increasingly popular. Unfortunately, most lifters fail to execute them correctly. One of the most common issues is allowing the weight to drift forward rather than keeping the arms pulled back and in line with the ears. The bottoms-up variation is a tremendous self-diagnostic tool for correcting this mistake. Any tendency to let the weight drift forward and you'll be immediately penalized with a failed lift.
6 – Turkish Get-Up
As if Turkish get-ups weren't already challenging and complex enough, bottoms-up variations take it a step further by forcing you to control the load with intensity and concentration on par with that of a Samurai warrior.
7 – Loaded Carry
Bottoms-up loaded carries can be performed with the arms overhead or in the bottom, semi-racked position. However, the overhead version is more challenging as the load is farther from your center of gravity, making it harder to balance.
8 – Squat
Bottoms-up squats will immediately clean up the squat pattern. First off, the amount of tension necessary to stabilize the load transfers to full body tightness, which does wonders for positioning and mechanics. Second, you're forced to stay in a more upright position, mimicking a front squat or goblet squat. If the chest drops, the weight does too.
9 – Ultimate Stability Challenge
This movement is a true test of full-body stability, strength, and motor control: the single-leg bottoms-up press performed with bumper plates. Master this and you'll eliminate most dysfunction throughout your body.
The Benefits of Bottoms-Up Lifts
- They correct movement patterns and lifting technique. If you're having trouble finding your technique on any lift, performing them bottoms-up will provide an immediate improvement. When using substantial loads, anything short of perfect technique and positioning will result in an immediate failed attempt. This forces you to find the most biomechanically sound positions, ultimately allowing them to produce the greatest force with the safest mechanics.
- They increase centration of the glenohumeral joint. Bottoms-up movements force you to stabilize the scapula by properly activating all the muscles surrounding the rotator cuff and shoulder joint. Not only does it have an immediate impact on shoulder health, but it teaches you optimal recruitment patterns for protecting the glenohumeral joint on other movements as well.
- They teach you to stay tight. 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. Few techniques can produce the same level of full-body tension and tightness as heavy bottoms-up movements.
- They eliminate energy leaks. When every muscle in the body is activating, the chance for energy leaks is slim to none. Besides maximizing force production, this also reduces likelihood of injury by providing support for joints and connective tissue.
- They help with co-contraction 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."
- They keep you from collapsing. 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 they reward the lifter for proper execution. In contrast, any amount of collapsing will be punished with a failed lifting attempt as it becomes impossible to control the load.
- They increase 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 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 are invaluable.
- They improve spinal alignment and posture. Few exercises require such a high level of spinal control and postural awareness as bottoms-up movements. Without proper spinal and shoulder positioning, they feel utterly impossible, especially when you go heavy. To successfully perform any variation, especially overhead movements, you'll be forced to maintain proper thoracic extension, which requires military-like posture. Think chest up, shoulders back, head tall, and stomach in.
- They improve grip strength. Depending on the variation, these require significant crushing or pinching grip strength. This forces you to summon all available fibers in the fingers, hands, and forearms, eliciting significant strength and hypertrophy benefits.
- They incorporate anaerobic conditioning. Rapid heart rate, breathlessness, fatigue, and light-headedness. These are simply byproducts of the intensity associated with these movements, which also has a tendency to expose 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.
- They make you breathe properly. Having the ability to control your breathing is a prerequisite for heavy lifting. Bottoms-up movements teach you to essentially sip air through a straw rather than taking large laboring breaths. Heavy exaggerated breathing during intense lifting is one of the single worst training miscues still perpetuated by the fitness industry. Bottoms-up movements disclaim this myth once and for all, as any loss of intra-abdominal pressure will result in a failed lift.
- They're 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, you're able to return to heavy barbell and dumbbell movements with reduced pain and increased function.
- They require minimal recovery. Although these lifts 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 difficulty of the movements. As a result, muscle damage is kept to a minimum, allowing you to perform movement patterns with greater frequency.
- They increase hypertrophy and functional size. Although bottoms-up movements don't rely on muscle damage to elicit hypertrophy, there's considerable mechanical tension and metabolic stress involved. The former is produced from the high amounts of tension within the muscles. The latter is induced from the constant tension necessary to control the load, creating a degree of occlusion and lactate accumulation. The result is an added bonus of increased muscle mass.
- They require coordination and motor control. 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.
- They increase stability. The degree of stabilization involved for bottoms-up movements is exceptionally high. Besides taxing the primary muscles, you'll receive intense innervation to the stabilizers and core musculature.
- They help you with symmetry. Any asymmetries (right vs. left side) in strength and motor unit recruitment will become immediately evident. 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.
- They're helpful 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. For powerlifters, the amount of tension necessary to perform bottoms-up movements transfers exceptionally well to max-effort lifting. CrossFit athletes will improve shoulder stability in various movements including overhead lunges, handstand push-ups, ring exercises, and overhead lifts. Olympic lifters will also benefit as stability in the overhead position is pivotal for completing a snatch or jerk.