Until roughly a decade ago, kettlebells were often disregarded as 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.

RELATED: Powerful (Yet Healthy) Boulder Shoulder Training

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 facilitates 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.

In regards to upper extremity injuries, I’ve utilized bottoms-up variations to mend shoulder issues in both pro and collegiate athletes that supposedly needed full-scale surgical operations to repair. 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 that 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 physicians and physical therapists suggested we avoid any intense upper body work and use predominately traditional rotator cuff exercises, band resisted movements, stretches, mobility drills, 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 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.

RELATED: Kettlebells for Conditioning and Strength

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.

I’m highlighting this example to demonstrate how simple therapy 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 Capability of Handling of 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. 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 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’d 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 chance for energy leaks slim to none. Besides maximizing force production this also reduces 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, any amount of collapsing will be punished with a failed-lifting attempt as it becomes impossible to control the load.

10. Enhanced Mental Focus

The level of focus, concentration, and mental engagement required for heavy bottoms-up movement 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. 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 summon all available fibers in the fingers, hands, and forearms eliciting significant strength and hypertrophy benefits in these regions.

12. 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 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. 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 taking large laboring breaths. Regardless of what you 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 disclaim this myth once and for all, as any loss of intra-abdominal pressure will result in a failed lift.

14. 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. 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. 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 to work together in unison to find the most biomechanically sound position. This teaches controlled aggression, coordination, proprioception, kinesthetic awareness, and motor control.

17. Stability and Balance

This one goes without saying but 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.

18. Usefulness 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 values 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. 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 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. 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 from continuous constant 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.

loading implements

Loading Variations

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: requires crushing grip strength; moderate to extreme difficult depending on the size and shape of the kettlebell

Iron Grip Plates: requires crushing grip strength; very difficult to extremely difficult especially with 45’s, due to their height and size

Hex Dumbbells: requires pinching grip strength; moderately difficult although hand size can limit total loading

Bumper plates: requires 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 from 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 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.



Although overhead presses with kettlebells are the most traditional bottoms-up movements there’s 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 the 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.

Cleans and Snatch Variations

Performing 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 have incredible transfer to the playing field.

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 shoulder function and joint health.

Dr. Joel Seedman, PhD, CSCS, ACSM, USAW, and FMS, obtained his doctoral degree in kinesiology from the University of Georgia (UGA).  During this time he studied the neurophysiological mechanisms of resistance training as well as various factors relating to performance and health.  He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Exercise Science from Indiana University.