Bulletproof Your Shoulders III: Improving the Armbar

I’ve previously written about the Kettlebell armbar. The armbar is a fantastic drill for the mobility and stability of the upper body. Today, let’s dive deeper. A multitude of progressions and variations of the armbar exist to attack different aspects of shoulder health. Before exploring these variations, make sure you have the basic armbar down. If you’re unsure of correct Kettlebell armbar form, I break down the movement here.

These additional variations turbocharge an already powerful movement drill. By performing the basic armbar, you can get most of what you need in terms of shoulder health. When the  right variation is applied, even the most stubborn of shoulders will benefit.

Before we dive into the variations, I want to stress that if you have shoulder pain or an injury, clear your injury with a medical professional before you attempt any loaded mobility movements. Be smart. If it hurts, don’t do it.

Variation 1-The Bottoms Up Armbar

Why it Works:

One of the advantages of a kettlebell is the off-set nature of the weight. When held overhead, the off-set bell constantly applies a force pulling the arm out of alignment. This forces the rotator cuff to contract to hold the ball of the humerus (upper arm) in the center of the shoulder socket.

Dr. Quinn Henoch describes the shoulder joint as a golf ball on a tee. The golf ball is the end of the humerus, and the tee is your shoulder socket. The tee is extremely small compared to the golf ball, so the rotator cuff needs to contract to keep the ball centered on the tee. Correct and timely contraction of the rotator cuff is critical to a healthy and well aligned shoulder. By holding the kettlebell in a bottoms-up position, the “wobbliness” is magnified, training the strength and timing of rotator cuff contractions.

How To Do It

The steps for this movement are the same as the vanilla armbar, with one crucial difference. The kettlebell is held upside down by the handle. It’s important to get set up in the position safely, because dropping a kettlebell on your face is not fun. Or, at least I would assume it’s not fun. I’ve never done it, and I will always take extreme measures to make sure it never happens.

-Start with a bell smaller than your normal armbar bell. This will be a greater challenge than a normal armbar, especially just starting out.

-Lay curled up on one side with the kettlebell lying on its side next you, handle facing you.

-Grab the handle with your bottom hand and grab the bell with your top hand.

-In one motion, roll to your back and raise the kettlebell, supporting the bell side to make sure you don’t lose control.

-Stabilize your starting position, which is the same as the starting position for the armbar.

-Continue with the armbar steps. Once you return to your back, stabilize the bell with your free hand again and return to the ground.

-Drag the bell around you, or get up and face the other way to perform the movement with the other hand. Never pass the bell over your body.

Variation 2-The Crooked Armbar

Why It Works:

The Bent or Crooked armbar was introduced to me as movement prep for the Bent Press. The Bent Press is one of the more demanding movements for the upper body, requiring considerable mobility and control of the shoulder and upper back.

One of the benefits of the vanilla armbar is the gentle “opening up” of the pec minor area while ensuring the shoulder does not creep forward in its socket. The crooked or “bent” armbar is a way to intensify the movement. It can reduce tightness in the pec minor and promote proper shoulder mechanics in a more demanding position. Improving all of these qualities helps reduce the hunched back common in overhead athletes or people with poor posture.

How To Do It:

First off, this is a more advanced drill, so it’s important to never work outside of your level of comfort in this movement. David Whitley states “Work within your limits to expand your limits”. Since he literally wrote the book on the Bent Press, it’s probably a good idea to listen to him.

If you are forcing your elbow down and holding your breath because you’re trying as hard as you can to open everything up, you are way past the effective zone of this movement. Honestly, you’re way past the safe zone of the movement. Relax. You should always be able to breath deep into your belly in any sort of mobility work. If you can’t, the changes you are chasing probably won’t last.

-Lay on your back and press a LIGHT kettlebell up with your left hand, like you would in the beginning of a Turkish Get Up. Reach your right arm up behind your head.

-Keeping your right arm and leg straight, bring your left knee towards your chest and roll to your right.

-Find a “tripod” position with your left knee and breathe. This is where things change from the vanilla Armbar.

-Open up your kettlebell arm until your elbow points in the direction of your legs and feet. Open up through your chest and try to bring the elbow down towards your opposite hip.

-Keep your shoulder connected to your back, don’t let the front of your shoulder rotate or slide forward.

-Once you have reached the lowest comfortable point for your elbow, hang out there. Get a couple belly breaths in.

-To press the bell back up, visualize breathing into your lat area and bring the bell back up to the normal Armbar position.


Movement Frequency

With any movement prep, consistency is the key to obtaining optimal joint health. Perform these movements before any overhead practice to keep your shoulders healthy. Movement prep opens up windows of greater mobility. Using that newly found mobility in your sport or strength training helps transform these short-term improvements into long-term joint characteristics. If you don’t use it, you will lose it.

Interested in moving better and getting stronger? Reach out! Crux Conditioning is open 6 days a week, and ready to work with you to help you crush your crux.