Kettlebells are a uniquely effective and productive fitness tool and yet often misunderstood. A kettlebell is not just a big round weight with a convenient handle. In fact, the shape of the kettlebell when used correctly is decidedly inconvenient, by design. It is meant to exert constant leverage against you as you exercise with it, in ways that conventional dumbbells or barbells do not. Because of this, it requires and rewards ballistic power and maximum control in a wide variety of exercises. It’s one of my favorite fitness tools, and on this blog, I may from time to time “geek out” over the kettlebell in order to hopefully give you a better understanding of how and why it’s so good for maximizing your fitness.
Today I’d like to focus on the Turkish getup, which is undoubtedly my favorite kettlebell exercise. What’s a Turkish getup? If you train with me, you may already know. It’s a move that intimidates many for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s intimidating because of its name, which evokes intense, scary Olympic weight lifters and wrestlers. Honestly I would wager that if you’ve ever seen someone do it, it was “that guy” in the Spartan helmet t-shirt at your local big box gym doing it with like a 45 pound kettlebell and 100 decibel grunting. And it does look difficult, with one part of the move in particular, which I call the “kick” below, looking both precarious and demanding. But I assure you that you can learn to do it, using a well-chosen weight load, at any age and any starting level of fitness. I once had a 65 year old client who could multiple sets of full 35 pound getups AND controlled “get downs” at will without problems.
It’s a slow, deliberate whole body move that starts lying flat on your back, with one hand extended straight out/up from the shoulder, which I’ll refer to consistently as the high side hand, and the knee bent on the high side leg, with the high side foot flat on the ground. Your kettlebell is in that high hand, gripped at one “apex” of the handle so it is riding on the back of your forearm. That way the leverage exerted by the bell stabilizes it. That’s important because you will have to keep that arm extended and steady, almost stationary throughout the whole movement despite the kettlebell “wanting” to shift and pull your arm out of position while your body is moving all over the place. The other arm, hereafter consistently called the low side arm, is extended straight at a 45 degree angle out from your supine body. The low side leg is also extended straight.
From that starting supine position, you shift your weight over to the low side elbow and begin to sit up with a slight roll of your shoulders about 45 degrees down toward the low side. This is vital because the kettlebell load is trying to pin you straight down and if you go directly against it you won’t make it up. In effect, you’re dodging “around” the load, which will remain extended overhead and essentially stationary throughout the move. Then you straighten the low side arm out and shift your weight to the low hand and bring your torso up to vertical in a sit-up motion with a slight “unroll” to straighten and square your shoulders. You should now be comfortably seated with your back straight up and down and your upper body
flexed at the hip at right angles with your straight low side leg, looking straight up at that kettlebell in your extended high hand. The body weight that slightly roll-shifted to the low side “bun” when you went to the elbow is now evenly distributed across your glutes so you’re stable and relatively relaxed. At this point you’ve successfully executed a Turkish sit-up or half-getup, which is the threshold move and one anyone can learn quickly, especially unloaded. It’s a standalone move that I use with beginners in small sets of 3 to 5, because it’s fundamentally sound and self-contained, provides a ton of core conditioning all on its own, and develops a lot of the skills needed for the full getup in a very low-risk, high-reward way.
If you’re going to continue on to the getup, from that sitting-up position, the next section of the move to tackle is a bridge. From the “up” position slide your low side hand about a foot rearward, turning it slightly so your fingers now point at a slight angle backward, engage your triceps and exert pressure with that low hand for leverage. Simultaneously press down with your grounded high side heel and raise your hips off the ground with your extended low side leg engaging just enough to stay straight and support a minimal portion of body weight, externally rotating so the ground contact is the outer edge of the low side foot. Most of your weight will be split between the low side hand and the high side foot, and you’ll feel the work from your low side triceps and shoulder and your high side quad. The high hand with kettlebell is still straight up and your head is up, eyes on it. You are now in the bridge. This is yet another branching point where you can do sets of multiple reps from the supine starting position to this end position and back down, and get a great core workout without doing the full getup. This bridge can also be done as a sustained isometric position like a plank, with or without a weight.
But now we’re at what rock climbers would call the “crux” of the Turkish getup: you’ve actually done most of the hard work already, but this is the very brief section that feels the most risky because, unlike the other stages of the getup, it requires a fast, dynamic movement with a touch of precision. From the bridge, you kick the low side, straight leg foot back and across your body, bending that knee for the first time in the sequence, while still supporting most of your weight with the squatting power of that bent high side leg. You end up with the low side leg at 90 degrees, crossing your body, half kneeling on the low side knee and high side foot, whose knee is also 90 degrees bent. Doing this while keeping the high side hand and weight up will feel slightly scary but as long as you have confidence you’ll be fine.
At this point you are just about guaranteed to make it to your feet. Next you turn that low side leg in a “windshield wiper” sweep of the lower calf and foot to set up in a conventional and stable half kneel with your head up, now looking forward while keeping the high hand fully elevated, back straight, hips square, high side foot flat on the ground, low side knee on the ground and that low side leg now running parallel to the high leg instead of perpendicular as it was after the kick. For best results dig the low side toes in for traction and leverage. Use that traction and the strength of your high side leg, energize the high side quad again and stand in a stationary lunge, then bring your feet side by side, placing the low side foot up parallel with the high
side foot, both feet at about shoulder width and the weight still straight up in the high side hand. It should not have moved this whole time. And you have just executed a full Turkish getup. When I coach people through this the 6 commands I give at the key points are “Over, up, bridge, kick, turn, stand,” hence the boldface. Fun fact: those are the inflection points at each of which “that guy” I mentioned earlier would let out that 100 decibel grunt! OK, at this point I’ll confess, that guy may have been me.
Anyway, the Turkish getup excels because it is complex, holistic and challenging yet simultaneously calming and almost yoga-like in its slow, deliberate, low-impact structure. It’s functional, it’s core oriented, develops balance and enhances the resilience of multiple cross-body lines of connective tissue. And that’s why it’s sad that its value has been obscured by the kind of “intimidation” I described at the start. As a “getup” from a supine position to standing, it is precisely the kind of exercise older people can and should benefit most from, since difficulty getting up from a lying or sitting position to standing is one of the benchmarks of the physical deterioration that inevitably comes in our old age if we don’t take actions to counter it.
“The Turk,” as I affectionately call it, can be progressed or regressed in any number of ways. It can be an effective body weight move without any weight at all in your hand. It can be broken down in smaller, easier parts like the “Turkish situp” or “Turkish bridge” mentioned above. You can do it in slow motion, holding each position for 3 or 5 or 10 seconds. You can do controlled “get downs,” which are probably the next thing you can begin learning after you’ve done your first full getup. There’s a whole family of variations to try. But the takeaway for today is, do give it a try! Just do that first, sit-up portion, with your high hand empty. I promise that it will activate your core in a way you haven’t experienced, and maybe, as Obi Wan Kenobi might say, represent “your first step into a larger world.”