Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.
ACE Technique Series: Turkish Get-up
The Turkish get-up is a deceptively simple-looking exercise that can be challenging to learn, but it is incredibly effective for developing total-body strength. A long-time favorite of the wrestling and martial arts communities, the Turkish get-up (TGU) has become a staple of many workout programs, thanks to the incredible popularity of kettlebell training. The TGU involves moving through multiple planes of motion to transition from lying supine on the floor to standing upright, all while holding a weight overhead. This requires a tremendous amount of strength and coordination between the shoulders and hips, making it useful as a warm-up before a heavy lifting day or as the only exercise on days when workout time is limited.
It is recommended to have clients start with only body weight and practice the TGU with no resistance to learn the proper movement sequencing and coordination before progressing to using an external load. The TGU is typically performed with a kettlebell, but it can be done with almost any weight, including a dumbbell, Sandbell or barbell.
Primary Movement Pattern
The most significant benefit of the TGU is that it is not just one single movement pattern; rather, it is an almost perfect combination of sequencing stability and mobility throughout all segments of the body. The TGU requires mobility of the ankles, hips, thoracic spine and glenohumeral joints, combined with the stability provided by the knee, lumbar spine and scapulothoracic joints. The exercise starts in the supine position with one arm extended over the chest, while the initial move is trunk flexion to come up to a seated position with one arm posted on the ground. The next move requires extension from both hips to move into a bridge position, which is followed by hip mobility to come to a kneeling position. Finally, the exercise culminates in moving from kneeling to a standing position, all while keeping the arm fully extended overhead.
Joint movements include:
• Flexion at the glenohumeral joint with concurrent stability at the scapulothoracic joint so the arm can maintain the extended position
• Mobility through the thoracic spine, which is required to allow the body to move under the extended arm
• Mobility from the hips to transition from lying to kneeling, then from kneeling to standing
• Stability at the lumbar spine as all of the other movements are occurring
Major Muscles Involved
Given its whole-body nature, it would likely be easier to list the muscles not involved in the TGU.
• Most of the muscles responsible for controlling movement at the shoulder, including the trapezius (the upper, middle and lower segments), rhomboids, rotator cuff, latissimus dorsi, triceps, deltoids and biceps, must develop the synergistic strength to stabilize the scapula while keeping the arm in an extended position and holding a weight.
• Deep core muscles, including the lumbar multifidii, transverse abdominis and posterior obliques, need to establish coordinated firing patterns to maintain spinal stability during the various stages while transitioning from lying to standing.
• The muscles responsible for creating hip extension, such as the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings and adductor magnus, contract to generate the force to move into the standing position and eccentrically lengthen to control the hip as the body lowers back to a lying position on the ground.
• Finally, the hamstrings and gastrocnemius muscles are responsible for producing closed-chain knee extension, while the gluteus medius muscles are essential for controlling lateral stability when balancing on one leg and transitioning from kneeling to standing.
The use of so many muscles makes the TGU a very energy-expensive exercise, so it can be a good addition to exercise programs focused on weight loss.
All exercises involve coordination and timing of the involved muscles' motor units, but most exercises focus on these activities within a specific muscle or group of muscles. The TGU is a great way to develop the strength to maintain spinal stabilization, because it synchronizes movement between the upper and lower segments of the body while transitioning through a variety of planes and angles—all while holding a weight straight up in the air. The TGU ensures that the entire myofascial system is involved in producing and stabilizing force. As a result, no single tissue or joint experiences a force overload, which actually minimizes the risk of injury.
Physical therapist, strength coach and educator Gray Cook uses the TGU with his patients and clients specifically because it is based on rolling on the ground, which is a primal movement pattern. According to Cook, the TGU can “help develop symmetry, proper muscle timing and movement sequencing between both the right and left sides of the body.”
Successful execution of the TGU requires hip mobility, lumbar spine stability, thoracic spine mobility and the ability of the scapulothoracic joint to create a stable platform for the glenohumeral joint. Achieving this multijoint coordination involves developing the proper timing, mobility and stability between the muscles involved in producing lower- and upper-body movements, while also maintaining essential stability of the spine. When done correctly, the TGU is an excellent option for improving mobility and flexibility of the hips and thoracic spine and can actually help reduce or minimize lower-back discomfort.
The TGU can also help improve strength in the entire shoulder girdle, stabilization strength of the core muscles surrounding the spine, and strength in the muscles responsible for controlling hip extension and lateral hip stability. In addition to being effective for developing total-body strength, Cook believes the TGU can be a helpful tool for identifying movement asymmetries between the right and left sides of the body. A client may be able to perform a successful TGU with his or her right arm extended, but may not be as functional while performing the exercise on the other side of his or her body. Once identified, this imbalance can be addressed with a proper exercise program.
When learning and teaching the TGU, it is essential to first practice the move without any weight to ensure that proper muscle coordination and movement sequencing can be developed without the risk of dropping a heavy weight. Cook recommends this tried-and-true way of helping a client learn the TGU: Have the client extend his or her arm and make a fist, as if holding the handle of a kettlebell, and then balance a shoe on top of the fist. This helps the lifter learn how to maintain shoulder extension and stability while transitioning through the various stages of the movement.
The TGU is best taught by working on its individual components, which can then be sequenced into the complete movement pattern.
The following steps are for performing a TGU holding a weight (or practice weight) in the right hand:
- Press the weight into position: Lie on your right side and hold the kettlebell with both hands so that your right hand is wrapped around the handle and your left hand is on top. Pull the kettlebell close to your body as you roll on your back and extend both arms to lift the kettlebell over your chest. Release the left hand and lay it on your left side at an approximately 45-degree angle while you bend your right knee and place your right foot flat on the floor. (Note: Throughout the entire movement, maintain a strong, tight grip on the kettlebell as if you’re trying to squeeze water out of a sponge.)
- Roll to elbow: With your right arm extended and your left arm to the side, lift your right shoulder off the ground as you curl your trunk to end up on your left elbow.
- Post to hand: From your left elbow, push your left hand into the floor as you maintain a straight spine and come up to an almost seated position.
- The bridge: Push your right foot into the floor as you straighten your left arm and left leg to lift your hips off the floor. (Note: Push the hips into full extension while leaning on the left arm.)
- The sweep: As you hold the bridge position with your right foot pressing into the floor, bring your left leg back and place your left knee on the floor (Note: During this phase, your arms should make a straight line from the floor up to the kettlebell to ensure optimal strength and stability of the shoulder girdle.) Remove your left hand from the floor as you move into a kneeling position with your left knee and right foot on the ground.
- Kneeling to standing: Continue to hold your right arm overhead as you press your right foot into the ground and swing your left leg forward (performing a lunge) to bring the feet next to one another.
- Return to the ground: Step back with the left leg and slowly lower to a kneeling position. Place your left hand on the floor and move your left leg to the front of your body as you hold the bridge position between your left hand and right foot. Slowly lower your hips to the ground before rolling all the way back to a supine (face-up) position.
To teach or learn the TGU, start with the first four steps and focus on moving into a stable hip-bridge position. According to Cook, the ground provides an excellent source of feedback. It is important to learn how to push into the ground with the hand and feet when moving into the bridge position, because this can help improve mobility and range of motion in the shoulders and hips. As you’re working on moving into the bridge, also practice the kneeling-to-standing phase by kneeling on your left knee with your right foot on the ground and the arm extended straight into the air. Finally, practice the leg sweep phase by holding a bridge with your right foot on the ground and the left leg extended, while bringing your left knee under your body to end up in the kneeling position. Once you or your client can successfully perform each of these three moves, it is time to put them all together into the complete movement.
Start with sets of two to four repetitions and work up from there. Using a stretch mat can help minimize the discomfort of putting the knee directly on the ground. If you work with older adults who do not have any significant mobility restrictions, practicing the TGU can help improve their mobility, dynamic balance and ability to get off the floor—an important skill if they ever experience a slip and fall.
Tips for Perfecting the Technique
- At the start of the exercise, if the right arm is holding the weight in the air, then the right knee should be bent and the right foot placed on the ground.
- Cook stresses that it is essential to take the time to learn each phase of the TGU and to not hurry the learning process.
- Don’t rush the movement—focus on bracing the abdominals to maintain spinal stability while moving through each step of the exercise.
- Breathe normally—breathing should be natural and relaxed.
- Your body follows your eyes. It is best to look up and keep your eyes focused on the kettlebell during the movement to help you keep your spine long as you transition to the standing phase.
- Practice the kneeling-to-standing portion with your arm extended overhead to develop a strong and stable shoulder that can support an extended arm throughout the entire movement.
- Because so many muscles are involved in the TGU, you will sweat a lot while practicing and learning the movement, so be sure to use a non-slip floor or stretch mat.
- The transitions from the arm post to bridge and from the bridge to the sweep and kneeling require sufficient hip mobility. Therefore, it may be necessary to stretch the hips before practicing the exercise.
Common Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)
- Rushing through the exercise without taking the time to learn the individual components and using external resistance before learning the movement pattern.
- Not being able to maintain an extended arm throughout the entire movement. Practice holding the arm in an extended position by holding a weight and as the arm is extended overhead pull your shoulder down toward your back pockets.
- Allowing the weight to pull the wrist back into an extended position, which can restrict the arm’s ability to remain extended throughout the entire movement. Improve grip strength by doing front squats and overhead presses while holding a kettlebell with the wrist flexed (similar to how the wrist is held when arm wrestling).
- Trying to move from the bridge directly to the standing position. Take the time to practice sweeping the leg to come to a kneeling position.
- A lack of hip mobility can restrict the transition from the bridge to the sweep and the transition from kneeling to standing phases, and can increase strain on the lumbar spine. The glute bridge and Romanian deadlift exercises can be used to help improve hip mobility while maintaining spinal stability.
The TGU is unquestionably effective, capable of strengthening the major muscles of the legs, core and shoulders in just one exercise. It is also extremely useful for developing a combination of hip mobility with lumbar spine stability. As with all exercises, it is important to perfect your own TGU technique before attempting to coach your clients. By taking the time to learn the sequences of the movements, you will have a better understanding of how to develop specific cues to help your clients master this challenging exercise.