Poise Under Pressure - The Turkish Get-up

By Chris Carlsen

The Turkish Get-up - Poise Under Pressure

  The more skill an athlete has developed, the better he or she can perform during states of less or greater than optimal arousal.

 The more skill an athlete has developed, the better he or she can perform during states of less or greater than optimal arousal.

             Reaching the pinnacle of athletic performance requires a sound mind and body. While many gym-goers opt for Smith Machine bench presses or endless hours on the elliptical, true students of strength care little about a machine-based muscle pump. Students of strength train to perform better; to move better; to lift more weight, and more importantly, to do so with proper technique. Students also train for maximal performance within high-pressure situations. In the context of the gym, these situations include carefully programmed exercises (e.g. squats, deadlifts, pull-ups). Yet what happens when we are required to call upon our strength and technique in real-life situations, which are unpredictable and sporadic? 

In all truthfulness, we never know when we will need to generalize our athletic performance to the outside world. Whether it’s a mother sprinting after her wandering child or a major league baseball player at-bat with two outs in the bottom of ninth, people are called into action in unexpected circumstances. How we respond to these random events is correlated to the training provided by a great coach, which can dramatically increase our success in such situations.

Great trainers will strengthen your body utilizing precise movement progressions that maximize your physical sphere, leading to improvements in your posture, breathing mechanics, core awareness and general fitness level. Students, who are now better equipped with the skill of strength, will be better prepared both physically and mentally for the challenges ahead and will have complete confidence in their abilities.They can then regulate their heart rate and operate with precision, which in turn gives way to a cool-headed state.  Regulation to this degree is known as poise: an essential skill that will dramatically ameliorate strength and performance.

“What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can only get from practice.” Teddy Roosevelt.

                Poise can be defined as the balanced distribution of energy, wherein each part of the whole system works synergistically with the other. Look no further than professional dancers and athletes for examples of poise; these individuals move gracefully in their given sport.  Moreover, what distinguishes them from others is their ability to exhibit poise under pressure.  For the purpose of this article, pressure is both physical and mental stress. Stressors can come in the form of anxiousness over scoring a winning goal, fatigue from competing in gymnastics for a few hours or, as is the case with many students, the daily grind of our modern lives.  There is arguably no better way to train poise-under-pressure than with one of the ultimate core and total body exercises:  the Turkish Get-Up (TGU).  

The Turkish Get-Up is the epitome of poise-under-pressure. The head, neck, and torso align perfectly to form a harmonious postural relationship. In other words, our bodies are properly stacked during this exercise, allowing us great freedom and an enhanced capacity for global movement. In Michael J. Gelb’s book Body Learning, he wrote of the link between head, neck, and torso: “[The link] increases our store of potential energy, allowing movements to be undertaken in the most economical way possible, so long as the balancing mechanism is not interfered with. And it promotes the best possible functioning of the body’s life-support system (i.e. breathing,circulation, digestion) and of intelligence and emotions”. This is the exact relationship that occurs in a well-executed TGU. The Get-Up is the perfect blend of looseness and tension and encompasses all qualities of fitness, including strength, stability, mobility, flexibility, endurance and hypertrophy. Of particular note, the TGU also promotes proper alignment of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spines, as one’s eyes are continuously fixated on the kettlebell (with the exception of the lunge position), which forces this spinal configuration. Without a fixed gaze on the bell, the neck would not be allowed to move freely through each step of the exercise and movement functionality would be compromised. In relation to the TGU and its functional carryover, renowned physical therapist and Functional Movement Systems (FMS) founder Gray Cook refers to it as a form of loaded yoga, wherein each muscle is simultaneously lengthened and strengthened. The Get-Up translates well to other strength exercises and is a microcosm of a total body workout, as you can see specific movements (e.g. the tall-sit, overhead press, lunge) within the larger movement itself. 

Often, after completing a few repetitions of the TGU, students will feel as though they have just stretched for hours; a phenomenon attributed to the body’s balance of tension in successfully executing the movement. The nervous system senses this balance and allows the muscles to reach their full length. Our bodies are an inter-connected system of sensors that must communicate effectively in performing the TGU. It follows that any weaknesses or imbalances of tension within the kinetic chain will surface in this exercise. The Get-Up takes about 40 seconds to complete, and within that time frame, a good coach can assess a number of factors related to a student’s strength, mobility and flexibility. Of other significance, that 40-second time frame encompasses maximal time under tension, which is the reported sweet spot for hypertrophy. I can personally speak to this. Upon awakening the morning after a get-up session, I feel like a brick house. My body is tantamount to a coat of armor: one big protective callous, dense and tough. 

Many students initially experimenting with the TGU are inclined to rush through each step of the movement, starting from the floor and finishing in the overhead press position.  Doing so dilutes the effect of this powerful exercise and compromises spinal alignment, breathing, and above all else, poise. It takes poise to refrain from completing the Get-Up in a cursory manner; to execute each component of the movement fluidly, to make the kettlebell one with our bodies. This poise renders the TGU a tremendous skill to both develop and keep.  It also has great carryover to other endeavors, and can aid us in the aforementioned unpredictability of the real world.  The mother can catch up to her toddler. The baseball player can hit a homerun.  Thus, the TGU shares an important commonality with life: the ability to assess stimuli and execute action in a high-pressured situation. 

World famous tennis player Arthur Ashe described his style as “physically loose and mentally tight.” He was fluid and precise. That is poise under pressure.

                If you want to be in all-around good physical shape, the TGU needs to be a part of your training arsenal.