The Kettlebell Overhead Press

Is it the king of overhead pressing, or just a pretender?

(Photo by Tom Knighton)

The overhead press is one of the most important movements in resistance training. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a barbell, a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or a big old rock. It’s important.

Once upon a time, the measure of strength wasn’t the bench press, but the overhead press.

While it’s prominence has fallen in many ways, the overhead press is still pretty damn important. Even while focusing on the kettlebell snatch, I’m still making it a point to press with a kettlebell too.

There are a lot of people who claim that pressing with a kettlebell is the bee’s knees.

But is it?

What Science Has To Say

While there are a lot of holes in the scientific literature regarding kettlebells, we know that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any.

Of course, most of those were focused on either kettlebell-specific movements like the swing other ballistic movements like the snatch.

That doesn’t mean that’s all anyone’s looked at, though.

In particular, one study looked specifically at the kettlebell overhead press and compared it to the dumbbell overhead press. What they found was that using a kettlebell doesn’t necessarily convey benefits. As they noted (in the PDF you can download at this link):

Contrary to our hypothesis, muscle activity in the stabilizer was similar when using different implements. Specifically, no significant difference was noted in average EMG activity generated in the PM between the DB and KB conditions, respectively (31.0±20.0 v. 29.5±22.0 %, p > .05, Table 2).

A significant main effect of muscle was also determined, wherein the normalized EMG values for the AD were significantly higher than the PM across both implements (Table 2).

They thought they’d see increased activation and didn’t. It wasn’t the only study to suggest this, either.

This study standing barbell presses activate more muscle than dumbbell presses.

In other words, the whole “it’s better because more muscle is needed to stabilize it” argument–one I shared for a lot of years, to be fair–is bunk.

So there’s no point in doing it, right?

I didn’t say that.

While muscular activation wasn’t seen in the stabilizer muscles, there’s no evidence I can see to suggest that it’s not useful for the muscles the barbell overhead press trains.

Plus, if all you have is a kettlebell, then the kettlebell overhead press is going to be your go-to.

My own take is that if you do the kettlebell overhead press, you’ll be fine. It’ll still train your deltoid and triceps just fine.

More than that, though, is getting used to lifting an unbalanced load.

Did you just say it doesn’t work stabilizers?

Yeah, I did. Well, more to the point, researchers said it and I’m taking their study’s word for it. But just because EMG data didn’t show activation of stabilizer muscles doesn’t mean there’s no benefit to lifting an unbalanced load.

When you do a kettlebell overhead press, that unbalanced load is more difficult than a dumbbell or barbell. That’s a simple fact that almost everyone who has tried them can relate to.

Kind of like how lifting in the real world tends to work.

When lifting something over your head, the chances are good that it’s not going to be perfectly balanced.

Using the kettlebell overhead press can prepare you psychologically for lifting an unbalanced load, and if you’re putting weight over your head, you want to be psychologically ready.

Either that or you want to wear a very sturdy helmet. Either way.

So the kettlebell overhead press is superior?

I didn’t say that.

I’m saying it’s a good tool to have in the toolbox and that if you do them, you’ll enjoy certain advantages over a barbell or dumbbell press. It depends on your goal.

For example, if you’re interested in strength lifting competitions, you need to overhead press with a barbell because that’s what you’ll do in competition.

To be honest, I don’t think any overhead press is superior to any other overhead press. Gains being made are dependent on rep and set schemes, rest periods, nutrition, and a whole host of factors.

So what’s the point?

The point is that if you’re doing kettlebell only training, don’t expect the kettlebell overhead press to be a magical lift with tons of muscle-growing potential.

Instead, look at it as a lift that will give you good results and help you gain strength, but it’s not some uber-special movement handed down from the gods of strength.

At the end of the day, the kettlebell overhead press is just another overhead press variation. It conveys plenty of good, a bit of bad most likely, and is just a little bit different.

So long as you’re doing some kind of overhead press, I don’t think it really matters what kind. It’s the movement that matters.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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