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Your Set Up Is Your First Rep

Your Set Up Is Your First Rep

"Your set up is your first rep" - Pavel Macek

After my first Strong First Kettlebell certification, I remember walking away with some really strong take-aways. This line from Senior SFG Pavel Macek, who was quoting Master SFG Fabio Zonin, has repeatedly played over in my head and is now one of my favorite coaching cues in my tool belt. I see a lot of people try to rush to get to get to their reps without taking much time to get into their set up. We spend tons of time talking about how we move through an exercise but we forget sometimes that the set up is what initiates this movement. You would never build a house on a shaky or unstable foundation, so why would you want to start a movement on top of a shaky or unstable body position?

I am going to take you through some of the most common set up mistakes and then explain how to correct those mistakes. Keep in mind there may be slight variations from person to person.

KB Swing

This may be the biggest offender when it comes to sloppy set ups. The set up for a swing is so important because it is a ballistic movement, meaning it is an explosive, very fast paced movement. Because it is so fast paced, it makes it very challenging to adjust during the movement. Making adjustments during these kinds of ballistic movements also leaves you more vulnerable to possible injury. Here is what to look for in the set up of a KB swing:

Poor Set Up Position:

  • Back rounded
  • Lats unengaged
  • Weight in my toes
  • KB upright, no tension in bell
  • Hamstring unengaged, unloaded
  • Core unengaged

Good Set Up Position:

  • Back neutral
  • Breaking the bell handle to engage lats.
  • Weight evenly distributed in feet or slightly shifted back to heels.
  • KB tilted, tension in bell
  • Hamstrings engaged
  • Core braced
  • Head neutral


These photos may not be quite as obvious in seeing the differences. Just because it isn’t as easy to see, doesn’t mean the set up isn’t as important. By creating a good set up in the back squat, you make the bar, and the weight, feel part of you. With a sloppy set up, the weight just feels on top of you instead of connected to you. Keep in mind that the set up for a barbell back squat may vary a bit based upon if someone prefers a high bar or low bar position, and how far apart their hands feel comfortable.

Poor Set Up Position:

  • Bar at the base of the neck.
  • Hands wide with no tension
  • Feet in split stance
  • Weight shifted backwards, not directly under the bar.

Good Set Up Position:

  • Bar sitting on top of traps. (Whether you go low bar, or high bar, it should never be sitting at the base of your neck)
  • Hands in to create tension in back and serve as a “shelf” for the bar.
  • Feet hip to shoulder width apart
  • Feet, and weight directly under the bar


Like a high or low bar position in the squat, the set up for a deadlift will be slightly different from person to person. However, whether you practice conventional, or sumo, there are certain aspects of the lift that will be true regardless.

Poor Set Up Position:

  • Bar far away from body
  • Loose grip in hands
  • Weight shifted towards toes
  • Back slightly rounded
  • Core unengaged
  • Hips too high

Good Set Up Position:

  • Bar close to body, completely up against shins
  • Thinking about breaking the bar in order to engage the lats
  • Feet screwed into the ground to evenly disperse weight in the foot
  • Wedging yourself under the bar to load the hamstrings
  • Core braced
  • Hips lower and closer to bar

Bench Press

The set up for bench press is often misunderstood. Unlike most lifts, we want a degree of arch in the back in the set up. Extreme powerlifters will try to get as much arch as possible in order to get them ahead in their sport. For general lifting and strengthening, we want just enough lift in order to create a stable position for the shoulders but not too much to create discomfort or loss of mobility.

Poor Set Up Position:

  • Back flat
  • Shoulders unpacked, shrugged up towards ears
  • Hands too close together (This would be ok for a close grip bench press)
  • Feet not on the floor

Good Set Up Position:

  • Eyes looking straight at the bar
  • Hands placed at comfortable distance (routine is created to find this same distance each time)
  • Shoulders packed away from ears
  • Shoulder blades squeezed together to help pack shoulders
  • Arch created from stabilizing shoulders
  • Feet on ground in order to create a stable base to push off of

Turkish Get Up

The TGU is compiled of multiple small movements all put together. Having a bad set up in the get up has a domino affect that can lead to a sloppy and unstable complete movement. Whether you are performing this move body weight or with a 24kg kettlebell over your head, this move should be set up and performed with the same amount of attention to detail. Because of limb length and and leverage, there will be small degrees of differences in where an individual places their foot and opposite side arm.

Poor Set Up Position:

  • Shoulder unpacked
  • Wrist bent
  • Heel close to midline of the body
  • Opposite side leg is straight
  • Opposite side arm is close to body

Good Set Up Position:

  • Shoulder is packed
  • Wrist is straight or even slightly flexed
  • Heel is slightly outside of hip
  • Opposite side leg is at an angle
  • Opposite side arm is at about about a 45 degree angle.

By taking an extra few seconds to go through your mental checklist and get a solid set up, I guarantee you will see an improvement in your lifts and skills! Talk with you coach about which part of the set up you could be improving on.


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