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From Handstands to Bench Press to Jerks...

December 18, 2007 01:23 PM

It's ironic that after living on my hands for so many years as a kid and then as a gymnast that I completely neglected that overhead position during my 'strength' phase as a bodybuilder and powerlifter. Or course, when your shoulder dislocates at the slightest provocation there wasn't a large desire to have it do so with a barbell overhead! Plus, in my obsessive quest for an Elite Powerlifting total I threw out anything that didn't directly correlate to increased platform numbers and the standard thinking of the day was that powerlifters did not need overhead work to make their bench bigger. In retrospect a serious mistake but we'll discuss that later.

While powerlifting I did incline presses, front plate raises overhead, partial overhead lockouts in the rack and lots of shoulder laterals and rear delts but lost the most basic function of the shoulder: pure shoulder flexion and overhead stability. I didn't really have a choice; it just hurt too much to do with a barbell and while I do have a masochistic streak it has to have a payoff and barbell military and behind the neck presses clearly did not. Strangely, I could still flat bench without any problem if my technique was solid, just nothing overhead.

By the time I had come to the end of my power lifting career trying to bench without hand offs and going too heavy at that had left me at the point where I could no longer even get the bar onto my back for the squat and couldn't even lower an empty bar to my chest without serious shoulder pain! Thank goodness for kettlebells which allowed me to train without pain (well, almost).

I discovered very quickly that the offset weight and design of the kb allowed me to put my arm overhead in a way that was impossible with a db or a barbell. I could snatch the weight up, or press it with a single bell but double bells presses or jerks with a single bell would not go. No worries, I was just happy that I could still do some work for the upper body and felt that I had a method to regaining my overhead strength and stability. Training for the RKC certification required that I do many, many snatches as well as work the Turkish getup, windmills and bent presses and demonstrate solid overhead stability. Needless to say right side windmills, TGU's and bent presses with an arm that refuses to externally rotate didn't work so well. Luckily, my left side techniques were proficient enough to pass the testing but I knew I had a long way to go to open up a very out of balance right shoulder.

I continued to try to use the windmill, TGU, kettlebell armbar as my stabilizer exercises for my shoulder. I dropped all movements that worked my pecs or triceps and focused on developing more passive shoulder flexion, more upper back strength and hypertrophy. I was still doing snatches and kb presses although they were problematic as they would tighten my already tight teres major ,biceps complex and front delt.

I started using these methods to open up my shoulders and rebuild the strength of my rotator cuff. I also spent a lot of time hanging from the chin bar with my heels just a few inches off the ground. Usually when I started the hanging session my heels were off the floor by a few inches. Five to ten minutes of stretch hanging and they were flat on the floor! This really opened up my lats, teres major, abdominals and oblique's (which when tight can really inhibit shoulder flexion)as well as decompress the lumbar spine, always a good thing. I used close, medium and very close grips to hang from and stretched each arm separately or both simultaneously. But it was when I started hanging with an undergrip that the shoulder really started to open up. I didn't even know I was missing that ROM. Things were going well and I soon developed the ability to hang from a chin bar with my legs off the ground( which up until then was impossible) and with the help of the partial scapula pullups ( just pulling up with the shoulder blade muscles, a half rep) I regained my ability to do full range pullups again! Another piece of the overhead puzzle was coming together .The full deep stretch of my tight lats and teres seemed to really benefit my overhead flexibility and mobility. But it was one step forward and two steps back as the pullups and military pressing allowed me to work the overhead position and stability but also tightened up the muscles I need loosened!

Then I saw an article on scapula mobility that focused on barbell overhead shrugs to increase scapula ROM. Since I couldn't do anything weighted overhead I substituted stick presses and shrugs. I decided to 'guide ' the stick on the sides of the powerrack to insure a 'perfect rep' with no lateral listing or rotation. Square, plumb and neutral. I dropped the pullups for volume and weighted presses and focused on increasing the range of motion with stick presses or stick slides as I called them. That left me with just KB swings and snatches for weight work but that was ok. I added in snatch holds as I discovered that once the bell was overhead just holding it for time really let me find the best position and work stabilization without the tightening after effect of presses and pullups. The stick slides were working some kind of magic and lots of shoulder impingement disappeared.

Here are some pictures of the overhead stick shrugs:
This move and a new stretch:stick squat rack position stretches( using the squat rack position as a pec, shoulder and forearm stretch, held for time) combined with LOTS of overhead holds put me on the right path to comfortable overhead position with my right shoulder .I would snatch and hold the 16,20 and 24 kg for various lengths of time at the end of each workout. I realized I need mobility, flexibility and stability in that right shoulder way more than strength and this had to be the priority.

Here's a video of how to do the stick slides and scapula pullaparts:

I even stopped snatching as that was creating a tightening effect as well. Just swings with various weights for varying loads, snatch holds, stick work and rack walks. I soon realized I could hold the bar on my back correctly again and knew the shoulder was going in the right direction. I was finally following the correct training progression of : flexibility, stability, THEN strength and power .I hadn't realized just how tight the muscle surrounding my long injured shoulder was from so many years of benching , heavy triceps and lat work. Thank God for the power of swings as that kept me sane as I let go of almost all other strength work.

Playing with the stick all the time let me realize another crucial ROM my shoulders were missing: shoulder extension!

Here's a blog post and video of the shoulder extension stretches:

Adding these in really helped restore shoulder ranges of motion I didn't know I was missing! This is when the shoulder really started to improve.

I started adding presses, windmills and snatches but just on my left side, still just working on ROM and flexibility on my right.

But after the Level 2 RKC and hearing Kenneth Jays great presentation on using the snatch as a way to increase Max VO2 levels I decided to try to add it back in. It was just the 16 kg after all, right? I always want to snatch hard when I come back from a certification! It's so motivational there.

To my surprise all the pure ROM work I had been doing worked very well and I found I could snatch without pain again! I added things back in slowly and continued to work on maintaining ROM with overhead holds, stick presses/shrugs, scapula pulls and LOTS of static stretching for the lats and shoulders.

This was my blog post about getting back into snatching:

So now I could snatch again and was very careful building my volume back in. One day of light work but high volume (max vo2) and one day of heavier loads but lower volume. I still didn't think I could press without tightening up so that stayed in the toy box. For now. But hey, I could snatch again and my shoulder ROM was still improving!

The next phase of this was biting the bullet and ordering the Z health R Phase manual and DVD. RKC Team Leader Geoff Neupert, among others that I respect, had been singing the praises of this joint mobility system for many moons but I resisted. What I had been doing was working well and I just didn't get how this would be any different. Well, I was wrong. Seriously wrong. One of the promises of Z health system is that results are very quick in coming and I found this to be true. Just a few days after beginning the very simple system of movements I found my shoulder opening up in ways I couldn't even imagine just a few weeks before. Here's my post about my first session with Z:

Although I knew that regular pressing would still not be a good idea for me I decided to try push presses and see whether the shoulder would tolerate that. To my great delight it did. By passing the grind of the start with a little leg drive made a world of difference as did not fighting the descent and just letting the bell fall onto my torso .Here's a clip of my first efforts with the 24 kg and my realization that I could jerk the bell with my left arm. Little did I know I would soon be able to do so with my right as well:

Jerks, with either one arm or two, require both solid knee mechanics, good shoulder ROM and back stability. It's basically two jumps; one to get the bell moving and then another jump under the weight. I of course had had little of any of these abilities of late and when I ended up jerking the bell with my left arm by instead of push pressing it (in the above clip) a light bulb went off in my head. It seemed not only could I stabilize my back with my arm overhead but I could jump a bit again as well! Of course I knew it was just a matter of time before I tested this with my right shoulder:

This was such a great surprise! Not only had I regained so much of my long neglected overhead strength and stability but it seems I was able to learn a skill I had never even thought I could do nor tried in all these years Jerks! In addition to snatches, clean and jerks are perhaps the most athletic of all lifting movements. For most people these moves with a barbell are neither safe nor functional, but with a kb, especially a single bell, they are both safe and fun to do and deliver a host of strength and conditioning benefits.

By backing off to a place where I was no longer creating tensions and restrictions and then slowly building my base back in the correct training progression (mobility, stability, strength, endurance, power) I have re discovered what I thought was long gone: the overhead position that I grew up with as a gymnast. And with it more stability and muscular balance in my upper body than I thought I would ever have again.

Of course the journey is far from over; I still can't do DOUBLE push presses, jerks and snatches. Those are next on the list though. It's only a matter of time.

Here's the goal:
Square, plumb, neutral and strong.

Remember, if you think you can or you think you can't, you're right!

Mark Reifkind, Sr. RKC has been a competitive athlete, coach, and student of physical culture for the last 34 years. A former national level gymnast, he has trained Olympic gymnasts, was the Head Coach for Team USA in powerlifting, and has written for Milo, Ironman, and Muscle Mag International. A masters level rated powerlifter, he now focuses his training on the kettlebell and the depth of its applications.

Rif is the owner operator of Girya Kettlebell Training, the first studio in the country to use the kettlebell as its primary method of conditioning. Palo Alto, CA based Girya offers private and semi-private instruction and classes as well as specific workshops, seminars and instruction for the Mixed Martial Artist. Visit

Mark is the author of Restoring Lost Physical Function DVD.