When you think about gym exercises that scare the living shit out of you, what comes to mind? For a lot of us, the list is probably pretty short: pulling a true 1RM deadlift, a heavy squat, 30 minutes of cardio. However there’s one mythical exercise, rarely seen performed at commercial gyms, that’ll make your dick shrivel up in fear and it’s certainly worthy of being on that list: Turkish get-ups.
In the simplest sense, a Turkish get-up is when you lay on the ground while holding a weight straight over your head, stand up, and then you reverse that entire movement until you arrive safely back on the ground.
Don’t let this short description fool you. This is actually quite a complex movement, one which involves many different movement patterns and physiological skills (which we will get into in just a second).
The exercise has been dubbed the Turkish get-up because it is said to have originated in Turkey. Ancient Turkish soldiers supposedly used the get-up as part of their strength training regime.
Legend has it that old-time strongmen would teach a prospective student the Turkish get-up, and then tell them to come back when they were able to perform it with 100 lbs. Their real training would begin only after this was accomplished.
Even long ago, old-time strongmen knew about the tremendous benefits of the get-up. Here’s a quick rundown:
If you want any prayer of successfully completing a heavy get-up, you are forced to learn how to actively engage and tense many muscles at once.
Remember that part about making your dick shrivel up in fear? This is that part. There’s nothing like holding a 100lb ball of cast iron straight over your face to teach you a lesson in basic physics, tension, and fear.
The get-up requires that the arm holding the weight stays locked in a stable position throughout the whole movement. This isometric hold is great for promoting shoulder strength. To prevent the weight from rotating about your wrist the rotator cuff is fired up big time. Training the rotator cuff is great for promoting shoulder stability. The get-up also teaches you how to correctly “pack” the shoulder joint by pulling it down and into the socket.
You may even feel a triceps workouts in your upper body, especially if you focus on keeping your elbow locked out the entire time.
Everyone wants a strong core (or at least they should). Just to make sure we are all on the same page, allow me to very briefly explain the role of the core because contrary to popular belief, the muscles of the core make up more than our six-pack muscles.
The muscles of the core wrap from the front of our body, around the sides, and all the way around the back to our spinal cord. They are designed to work in harmony allowing force to transmit to our limbs, but more importantly, they stabilize our spine during movement.
Exercise physiologist Bret Contreras (aka The Glute Guy) used electromyography (EMG) to determine that a Turkish get-up as light as 50 lbs was enough to cause over 100% peak activation in the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the spinal erectors. These are all major muscles of the core.
In layman’s terms, the Turkish get-up is a badass exercise for building core strength, as well as training these muscles to work together as one unit.
Building the coveted thick and impenetrable looking torso is a hallmark of years spent straining under heavy iron. You don’t just accidentally build thickness worthy of a nod from Sir Gregor Clegane. It’s a planned effort, requiring an unwavering commitment to your craft.
There are a lot of ways to do Turkish get-ups. Let’s go over a few of them now.
Naked means with just your bodyweight, not your birthday suit. Naked get-ups are great for adding into your warm-up. They really are a full-body warm-up by themselves that promote hip flexibility, glute activation, strong breathing, and any number of things.
Dumbbell get-ups are great because they force your wrists to get strong AF. A lack of wrist strength is one of the biggest limiting factors for folks who are attempting to go really heavy with the get-up. If that’s you, you will be sore the first few times that you do it, and that’s totally normal.
Kettlebell get-ups are awesome because you can lock the wrist into place with the handle and really start to crank up the weight.
This is a video of be doing a Turkish get-up with The Beast, a 105 lb kettlebell. It’s a worthy goal for guys who want to work towards something. For the ladies (Yes, ladies, I want you to be strong as well.) a get-up with a 70 lb kettlebell is a most impressive feat of strength.
Another fun (and exceptionally difficult) variation is to hold the kettlebell “bottoms-up.” You hold the handle but the rest of the kettlebell is above the handle. In this variation, the hardest part will be the wrist stability. It’s a great variation to practice if forearm strength and grip strength is your weakness. If you lack stabilization from your wrist to your shoulder, this will be nearly impossible (and humbling).
Barbells are the least forgiving tools when performing a Turkish get-up. If you’re going to use a barbell make sure that you’re using bumper plates (just in case you have to bail). When using a barbell it has a tendency to rotate, which adds a challenging stability component to the exercise.
Again, weak wrists are the big limiting factor here, as you will need some serious wrist strength to stop a rotating barbell. If you’re attempting a heavy barbell get-up I suggest taping your wrists, or simply developing stronger wrists first.
So far, we’ve mainly referred to the Turkish get-up as a strength exercise, and in the purest sense, it is. That said, you can certainly turn this exercise into a high-intensity metabolic suck-fest.
Instead of holding the weight over your head drop a sandbag across one shoulder and stand up with it. Repeat 1-5x per side and then switch shoulders. A killer workout is 10 minutes of non-stop sandbag get-ups with an 80lb sandbag. Your lungs will hate you, but your abs will love you.
If you made it this far, I suspect that you aren’t afraid of a challenge.
So, here’s my challenge to you:
Remember, a 100lb get-up was the price of admission to start training with old-time strongmen. This exercise is a lesson in full-body tension, promotes flexibility and stability, builds tremendous shoulder strength, and can certainly help build a thick and enviable torso.
There you have it.
Turkish get-ups are cool. Unfortunately, they still look stupid. But if you want do them while still looking stupid but at least more ripped, then we have a quick little free fat loss guide.
By now I’m sure you’re convinced of how awesome Turkish Get Ups are, and you have full reign to just jump right into it.
However, in my experience teaching this exercise to all types of clients from sixth graders to elite athletes to general population adults, it can be a bit confusing. Not only in terms of what they should be feeling and focusing on, but in terms of what the actual steps are (because there are a lot).
That confusion leads to focusing on the wrong things, and ultimately not reaping all the amazing benefits that Tom outlined above.
That’s why, when I teach Turkish get-ups, I break it up into four steps that are progressed over a series of weeks. Each new phase in the program will add one step of the Turkish get up until you’re doing the whole movement smoothly.
I learned these progressions from Sean Skahan, the head strength coach of the Minnesota Wild. He also outlines this same progression in his book, Total Hockey Training.
In the first phase, you just work on setting up with your implement of choice and pushing through the hand on the ground.
Often in training, there are those little left-to-right errors that people make and can’t seem to remember. TGU’s are one of those examples. If you’re holding your left hand in the air, you’re going to want your left leg bent and vice versa. In this variation, you can ingrain that so you never have to worry about it again.
Even this portion of the movement I break up into two parts:
You press through your arm (right arm, in this case), then reverse it back down. You can start with higher reps here because each rep will take much less time. Start 3-5 reps per side.
Now, from the position with your hand straight, you push through the bent leg (left foot in the video) like you’re doing a glute bridge and extend your hips up. Reverse back down again. Stick with 3-5 reps to start.
From the hip extension position, now you bring the leg through while keeping your core tight and into a half-kneeling position (synonymous for the bottom of a lunge). Then reverse it back.
Lastly, once you’re in the half-kneeling position, now you stand up tall. From the standing position, you do a reverse lunge. Fro the lunge position, bring the leg back out in front, and then control yourself back down to the floor. That’s the full TGU.
Over the course of an eight-week program, you can do each variation for two weeks.