Kettlebell press vs barbell press: Your ULTIMATE guide

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Pressing a heavy weight over your head is pretty much the pinnacle of strength. Nothing demonstrates strength like a huge overhead press. How does it feel? I’ll let you know when I get there… 😉

When planning your training block a common question is whether kettlebell pressing is better than barbell pressing? There are certainly benefits to both. Here’s what I think.

Kettlebell press vs barbell press: Your ULTIMATE guide

At a glance…

  • If I had to choose between kettlebell press vs barbell press I would likely pick BARBELL as it suits my strength-focused routine MORE
  • Kettlebell presses are suited to circuit training and aerobic-focused trainees as they are commonly trained in dynamic circuits
  • Barbell presses are better for strength trainees as they allow the most absolute weight to be lifted
  • Dumbbells offer a great alternative for a general trainee or bodybuilder
  • Kettlebells are ergonomic to lift with and are great for trainees with a history of wrist pain. Barbell pressing can agitate such injuries.
  • The downside is that progressing a kettlebell press is difficult as weight increments between KB’s are typically large and getting heavier KB’s in to position can be awkward

Should you press with kettlebells?

Ultimately this depends what you are training for. Personally I think pressing with dumbbells offers the best balance for MOST trainees, with kettlebells being better suited for CrossFit or more dynamically focused individuals. I would still recommend barbells for the strength athletes.

Kettlebells offer a great ergonomic way to lift weight overhead as the weight hangs down around your wrist with the handle naturally nestling in to the nook of the palm. Compared to a straight barbell a kettlebell feels much easier on the wrists and elbows as your hand can adopt a far more natural angle as a result of this freedom to rotate.

Similar to dumbbells a KB press moves each arms independently so stabilising muscles get a bit more work compared to a barbell. This means each rep is ‘harder’ than a barbell press for any given weight. This is great for some goals as it allows you to keep the weight and fatigue down while still ‘feeling’ like you’ve hit a high exertion (high RPE) set.

The downside is that loading kettlebells is difficult. They typically have large weight increments (usually 4kg per hand) which is a huge jump for an overhead press. 

Further getting them in to position can be awkward at heavier weights due to the aforementioned ergonomic ‘hanging’ grip as they need cleaned in to position whereas barbells can be taken from a power rack at the correct height. This reduces the energy burnt getting in to position and makes setting up easier. Because of this (and combined with the barbell needing less stabilisation) a barbell is better suited to those wanting to press the most absolute weight possible overhead.

Is overhead press a powerlifting movement?

What is different with a PRESS compared to other popular compound lifts is that an overhead press is not usually a contested lift – that means it is not included in a powerlifting total. This is because the form varies so much it can be difficult to judge consistently. This means any press is NON-specific for powerlifters main goal of increasing their total.

Is kettlebell press better than dumbbell press?

No I do not think a kettlebell press is better than a dumbbell press. For most trainees I would recommend a dumbbell press as the training effect is similar to kettlebells but with less awkwardness getting in to position.

Kettlebells are more suited to CrossFit or similar dynamically focused trainees who want to quickly work with a single weight for circuits. A kettlebell can quickly be pressed before transitioning to a goblet squat, set of kettlebell swings or other movements. In these situations a kettlebell is ideal.

But for most people looking to train strength or build physique – I think dumbbells are a better compromise.

Are kettlebells as effective as barbells?

Depending on your goals both barbells and kettlebells are great to press with. Despite being a similar movement they both have their own unique advantages and disadvantages which need considered when deciding between kettlebell press vs barbell presses. Here are some pros and cons for each method:

Kettlebells: Pros and Cons for pressing

ProsCons
Ergonomic grip across palm reduces elbow and wrist painHarder to progress weight lifted
Can do one handed pressesHarder to get in to position
Longest range of motionNeed pairs (unless you alternate each hand – takes longer)

Overall kettlebells are better than a barbell when you have less space in your home gym or have experienced wrist or elbow discomfort when lifting. Kettlebells offer independent movement for each arm and shoulder which is usually perceived as ‘harder’ for any given weight. They can also be used for rehab work for this reason as you look to work a specific joint or ROM over time.

Barbells: Pros and Cons for pressing

ProsCons
Easy to accurately load with microplatesShorter range of motion
Can lift heavierHarder on wrists and elbows
Easier to get in to position

Overall barbells are better for those who already have the equipment (such as an olympic barbell) and who want to train with heavier weights.

Note that the straight bar can trigger wrist pain in some people if you allow the bar to bend your hands backwards. This is typically associated with gripping the barbell too far ‘up’ your hand rather than resting across the palm. When pressing focus on the ‘bulldog’ grip which is where the line of the barbell crosses diagonally across your palm and over your wrist. At rest this looks like your hands are rotated slightly inwards like the bulldog breed of dogs – thus the name!

How to perform a kettlebell press

There are a ton of different ways to perform this movement and there is no right answer, but my preferred technique is below:

  • Pick two matching kettlebells from the rack (same weight)
  • Clean these in to position on the shoulder, so the weight hangs down around the wrist and is securely held across the palm (thumbs around NOT thumbs over)
  • Hold your elbows “out” such that the centre of the weight is directly over the elbow joint (this allows you to drive up through the weight efficiently later)
  • The elbow should be as low as it can reasonably go while still remaining vertical. The lower it is the longer the range of motion, but do not jeopardise the angle of the arm for this
  • To keep the weights ‘on the shoulder’ your body will naturally lean back slightly. This keeps the centre of mass over your mid-foot and is unavoidable
  • Take a deep breath (valsalva style) and brace your core strongly. 
  • Simultaneously tighten glutes and hold knees in a locked, straight position
  • Drive upwards from the elbow vertically
  • As you drive upwards you will push your chest and body forwards ‘through’ the space opened up by your arms moving out of the way. 
  • This drive forwards will allow you to keep the arms going vertically up as the centre of your mass moves forwards subtly. 
  • Lock your elbows and squeeze the traps at the top of the lift
  • Drop your arms back to the starting position in a fast and controlled way (don’t slacken off completely!)
  • Repeat as many times as required

As it is not a contested lift there are a ton of variables that can be changed between lifters and goals. Single arm pressing, push presses, you name it – you can try it if it suits your goals! Above is just how I like to do them for my hypertrophy and strength focused workouts.

Breathing routine when pressing

A quick shout out to different breathing techniques – some like to breath at the bottom of each rep, others at the top, and others like to do whole sets (or at least a number of reps) on each breath. 

Find what works for you and stick with it. PERSONALLY I like to breath at the BOTTOM of each rep if it is a heavy strength focused rep (so with a barbell I will breath at the bottom) BUT for high rep hypertrophy focused work I typically do a batch of reps on each breath as it works better for me and my time constraints.

What weight kettlebell should you start with?

Carry over from regular barbell pressing to kettlebells is not a direct ‘like for like’. There is stronger correlation where the range of motion and technique is similar – so dumbbells carry over MORE than barbells – but it is still not an exact science.

Personally if I were to dumbbell press 20kg I would attempt to use a kettlebell around 20% – 25% lighter to start with and taper the weight up from there. I prefer to go a bit lighter than start off too heavy!

If coming from barbells it is far harder to estimate but I would typically try out around half the weight (for both hands, so a quarter of the weight per hand) and take it from there. The subtle difference in bar path can make the barbell and KB presses feel very different!

Do not get too disheartened by lower weights – the training effect (both as an accessory or as a hypertrophy movement) can be the same if the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is similar!

How can I progress KB presses over time?

Progressing the movement is far harder with kettlebells and it is the main downside. The jumps are simply too big most of the time at 4kg PER HAND! 

Consider using an adjustable dumbbell to load the weight more finely, or progress by adding sets and/or reps instead of weight.

Conclusion

As someone focused on hypertrophy and strength training I do most of my overhead pressing with dumbbells and barbells. Where I do LOVE to incorporate a kettlebell press is when running a GPP circuit as I can quickly get a bit of shoulder work in!

When deciding between kettlebell press vs barbell press there really is no 100% right answer – but if you made me choose? I would go for the BARBELL, as I just love lifting HEVIER weights!

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