So of course I love Turkish get-ups (TGUs).
The Turkish get-up is an exercise that systematically takes you from lying on the floor, up to standing, while holding a heavy weight over your face. Like a badass.
TGUs are one of the exercises that I feel has great carryover for dancers to their art and athleticism. Not only are they useful for getting you strong and mobile, they look pretty bad ass, too. Which is important, obviously.
In my online training group over at DanceStronger.com, the exercise that gets the most number of questions is the TGU:
“What does this thing even do?
“What’s the point?”
“What muscles am I working?”
“Why is it Turkish?”
Today I’m going to break down why I feel that the Turkish get-up is one of the most useful exercises for dancers, and how to start working on them so you can reap the benefits for yourself.
Looks fun right?
10 Ways TGUs Make You a Better Dancer
1) Creating and controlling rotation
Dance is all about rotation. Creating it, resisting it, trying not to get dizzy and fall on stage.
TGUs are pretty similar- The whole movement requires that you create and control rotation, and not fall over. But with a heavy weight over your face.
From the very first roll portion of the TGU, you need to be able to coordinate lats, glutes, and obliques to roll up onto your elbow. If they aren’t coordinating, it turns into more of a crunch or a side bending movement. This compensation can happen in dance too- Moving in another plane to compensate for a lack of rotation.
A good example of this is when a dancer lacks sufficient hip rotation (think turnout), other ways of mimicking hip rotation include to tip the pelvis or hike a hip to create the illusion of more turnout.
A successful TGU requires you to differentiate between rotation and other cheaty ways of moving.
2) TGUs are a self-limiting exercise
A self limiting exercise is one that gives you immediate feedback as to whether you’re performing it correctly. This is quite useful, especially if you don’t have supervision.
As described beautifully by Gray Cook from his book Movement:
Used correctly, self-limiting exercises improve poor movements and maintain functional movement quality. These exercises are challenging and produce a high neural load, which is to say they require engagement and increased levels of motor control at the conscious and reflexive level.
Anytime we don’t acknowledge our weakest links or confront them in training, we demonstrate the same behavior that caused our collective functional movement patterns to erode in the first place. Embedded in each workout, the self-limiting activities continually whisper the message that we cannot become stronger than our weakest links.
How is a TGU self limiting? Well, there’s the pressure not to drop a heavy thing on your face, for one.
If you’re not getting your body under the weight efficiently, you will feel it. A great variation for those just learning the TGU is to balance a shoe on your fist.
I suggest for beginners to use the shoe variation to practice getting under the weight first, before loading it up. If you drop the shoe off your first, you get immediate feedback as to whether your arm is in a straight line with gravity, or not.You want that straight line. Your face wants that straight line, because it wants to stay pretty.
Here’s Perry Nickleston of Stop Chasing Pain showing the shoe variation:
3) Develops useful upper body strength and can help rehab/prevent shoulder issues
Notice that I didn’t say functional? I don’t want to go on the “functional training rant” so I’ll send you over to Dean Somerset, because he can say it better than I.
The TGU has similar upper body demands as dance, such as being asked to roll on the floor, and stand up, land in a roll to the floor, balance on one arm, etc.
And I’m sorry to say this, but science has shown that most dancers (not all of you lovely people!) have brutal upper body strength.
I’m currently working with a dancer who says that rolling on the floor, and having push herself up off the floor from a lying position really hurts her elbows. Why? Because she doesn’t know how to coordinate her obliques and shoulders together with her lower body, so the path of least resistance just happens to be the bones that articulate to create her elbow. Not cool!
Fortunately, TGUs can help with this issue.
Not only that, but in a TGU you’re using both arms in two completely different ways- The supporting arm is working in a closed chain, creating rotational movement by pushing into the floor, while the top arm is working open chain, developing shoulder stability in an overhead position integrated with the whole body.
The sequence in which muscles fire changes depending on whether you’re working in a closed or open chain, and with the TGU you get both at the same time. That’s a lot of awesome stuff happening at once!
In dance, even ballet sometimes, you will need to support your body with your arms (or just one arm), in an awkward, rotated position, and sometimes you need to lift people. So you’d better train both those abilities outside the studio.
If you have cranky shoulders, or too much shoulder mobility as is common in many dancers (making dislocation a dangerous possibility), the TGU just might be your money exercise. I’ve heard a colleague of mine refer to the TGU as one of his favourite shoulder rehab exercises, and I can see why.
In fact, when my shoulders are feeling crappy, TGUs often help. And from all the typing I do for this blog, sometimes my right wrist gets sore, but TGUs always seem to make it feel better.
Dean Somerset agrees, and I quote him from THIS excellent piece he wrote on the TGU:
“You also have to stabilize the kettlebell from rotating around your wrist, which takes a lot of rotator cuff involvement, making this a much more involved shoulder training movement compared to endless external rotations with a band.”
So there you go- A totally badass shoulder rehab exercise that doesn’t require elastic bands or cables. You’re welcome.
4) Mimics dance movement
It’s like a weighted dance-move.
The way the TGU felt like a dance move was what initially attracted me to it.
It’s important for dancers to understand why an exercise will help them become stronger for dance and, because this movement has some moments that feel “dancey” it helps the dancer to feel more motivated to do actually do it.
Can you see how this:
Is similar to THIS:
Building a solid TGU will also help immensely with floor-work in dance. If you have the strength to roll off the floor with a heavy thing over your face, you will for sure have the requisite strength and coordination to roll around on the ground and be in complete control, without screwing any of your joints.
And if you happen to be a bit more of a pointy person, then the more lightly you can roll on the floor the happier your protruding bones will be. I happen to not be a very pointy person. My tibial tuberosity is pretty much non-existant.
I also have enough muscle on my back and shoulders to cushion them, and I can’t even round my lower back (lumbar flex) enough to feel those vertebrae grinding on the floor. I was built to roll on the ground. But I seem to be more an exception than the rule, so having the strength to not weight bear completely on all your pointy bits will likely help you appreciate floor work a bit more.
5) Exposes all your limitations
This is a good thing. It’s good to put your ego in it’s place once in a while. Like when you go to a dance class and every exercise is 9 bars of 17 counts and you can’t pick any of it up so you laugh your way through class. Not that that’s ever happened to me. This week…
But anyway, there are so many individual phases of the TGU, each capable of revealing your weaknesses. Good news, because now you know exactly what you can work on and you can start to become better, stronger, faster, and all that Daft Punk tells us to become.
For example, in the first roll to elbow you can tell a lot about someone’s preferred way to rotate. Are the obliques creating the torso rotation along with help from the lats and glutes? Or do you create momentum from your neck, thrusting your ribs, or kicking up a leg? These habits are all quite common, and the sooner you can become aware of them the better because if you’re cheating rotation in a TGU, you’re probably cheating it every where else.
6) Builds insane amounts of body awareness
As Tony Gentilcore references in THIS hilariously informative article, Gray Cook has referred to the Turkish get-up as being loaded-yoga (which to me means coffee-yoga-bacon). Yoga being an activity that requires you to calm your mind, breathe, and feel the positions you’re moving through.
In fact, one of my favourite experimental sessions I’ve done recently involved super-setting TGUs with sun salutations. It was all kinds of bendy-strong awesome.
So back to body awareness. It’s pretty obvious- The demands of the TGU to move through multiple planes, while centering your body efficiently under a weight, and not dislocating a shoulder or getting your face smashed require that you know exactly what each part of your body is doing at each phase of the movement.
I don’t think I need to make a strong case for how important body awareness is for dancers. Dance IS body awareness.
7) Helpful for teaching anti-extension
I don’t have stats on this, but I’d say that one of the most common issues dancers need to overcome in their training is learning how NOT to extend when they don’t need to. By extend I mean arching the lower back and allowing the ribcage to flare up, or extending the neck by thrusting the chin forward and up.
These are all helpful cheats to create forward momentum and find stability, but they aren’t highly effective long-term I’m afraid.
I love the TGU for teaching anti-extension because it allows you to develop this awareness in all planes of movement- Rotation, laterally, and in the saggital plane (forward and back).
It is common on the first roll up to the elbow for trainees to accomplish the rotation by arching through the lower back, and flaring the ribcage. You can see a good demo of this in the video below:
Learning to control excessive extension in the context of a TGU is incredibly helpful for teaching dancers to own the true power of their anterior core in conjunction with rotational movement, a stressful environment (remember that big ass weight over your head?), with a heavy demand for shoulder and hip control without using their common bendy dance cheats.
8) Fundamentals, transitional moments, and forward/backwards movement in one exercise
Turkish get-ups are like watching a baby grow up in fast motion.
I’m into teaching movement developmentally, progressing from lying supine, rolling over, crawling, trying to stand up and then stepping.
Unfortunately, as we grow older and learn new ways of moving (or not moving), we can “forget” these helpful developmental phases, which were so important in teaching us to move efficiently and pain-free when we were young.
Re-learning to roll and crawl can have an amazing effect on your physical performance, as well as your body’s well-being and risk of injury, and being able to crawl and roll are essential for TGU mastery. It rewires your nervous system with the fundamentals it needs to do complex movements more easily.
Ignoring the fundamentals of movement is like trying to put icing on a cake that you haven’t baked yet. And as much as a bowl of icing mixed into cake batter sounds awesome, it’s not a cake no matter how much you pretend.
As Dr. Kathy Dooley writes in this excellent article on crawling, as babies we instinctively needed to master crawling before moving to the next movement milestone, but years of sitting and poor movement patterning can rob us of our right to crawl:
Baby You knew how to [crawl] without being taught. But you didn’t do it before your joints were backed up with perfectly equilibrated stability points. Your anterior and posterior functional slings worked in unison on a stable trunk.
Then, you were stuck behind a desk for 12 years of schooling. Add potentially decades to that if you have a desk job. So, jumping right into quadruped ambulation may not go well. People who crawl after years in absentia end up with joint pain.
Remember: Baby You used perfect stability points on a stable trunk that Adult You currently may be missing.
Crunches don’t do it, no matter how many you do. Baby You didn’t do crunches. Trunk stability will have to be earned back like Baby You earned it. Learn to breathe again, as you did at 4 months.
Another beauty of the TGU lies the transitions. Has any dance teacher ever emphasized the importance of the transitions between movements? I bet.
TGUs are an excellent opportunity to own the transitional phases, and you’ll feel immediately if they aren’t happening smoothly because remember that heavy thing right above your face? Slow down these transitions and have fun getting ridiculously strong.
And then, after you’ve transitioned from lying, to kneeling, you have to stand up integrating bipedal propulsion into the equation. And THEN you have to reverse the movement all the way to the floor. The word “retrograde” still gives me nightmares… Thank you improv class.
9) Promotes cross-lateralization and addresses asymmetries
Lateralization refers to how some cognitive functions tend to be dominated by one side of the brain or the other.
Asymmetries is another word you need to be a genius to spell correctly the first time.
Cross-lateralization refers to the ability to coordinate the right and left sides of the body. In this article Sharon Krull explains the importance of crossing the midline and cross lateral movement for the healthy function of our brains as we develop :
“Crossing the midline” refers to the ability to move a part of the body– such as a hand, foot or eye– into the space of the other hand, foot or eye. Being able to cross the midline indicates that the child has reached the point in his or her development that the right and left side of the brain are working in tandem.
Unfortunately, sometimes we “forget” how to perform cross-lateral movements, or we get stuck moving in patterns wherein we only cross the midline in one way. In dance, we can get stuck in patterns like this, such as always turning on our preferred leg (generally the left leg, turning to the right).
It is completely normal for dancers to develop lateral biases, but as explained in this review, working consistently to re-establish some sense of symmetry might be useful for preventing injuries.
“In an ideal world, dancers would be totally balanced in their physical and technical training on both sides of their body. They would be able to perform any of these dance tasks equally on either leg and to either side, and thus provide a “perfect,” symmetrically balanced instrument for the choreographer. Realistically, it is more likely that a trained dancer has an asymmetrical body structure, a preference for learning and performing specific skills on one leg or one side, and a dance technique that is functionally asymmetrical—that is, dance skills are performed more proficiently on one leg or side than the other.”
And as the same review describes, we can see that dancers tend to favor using one leg for support, depending on the movement taking place,
“Strong right turning preferences were identified in both studies, but this right bias did not necessarily carry over to other skills, which varied between right and left. A right preference for balance was evident when balance was challenged (as in piqué) When range of motion (ROM) was the issue, however (in battement à la seconde and ronde de jambe the balance preference switched to the left leg.”
I’d like to see a ballet include fouettee turns to the left. Yeah… One day.
So how do TGUs come into play? A well executed Turkish get-up requires the brain to coordinate the right and left sides of the body (and brain), and seeing how dance causes us to move in preferred patterns, especially when rehearsing repertoire, there are likely a lot of cross-lateral gaps that need some filling.
To sum up: Practicing TGUs on both sides is good for lopsided dancer brain. When you try them out, be aware which side is easier for you. Can you rotate better to the right or to the left? Which direction do you turn better to in dance? *hint* the results will probably add up.
10) TGUs can help you improve your balance
We all just want balance like THIS:
So how can TGUs help with balance?
As described here by Strong First leader Brandon Hetzler, the TGU stimulates all 3 systems that contribute to balance:
- Vestibular system– You must know the orientation of the body with respect to gravity and be able to adjust your position accordingly.
- Proprioceptive system– You must know where your body is in space throughout the movement.
- Visual system– You must have your eyes on the weight throughout the movement.
You cannot get that bang for your buck doing weird “functional” things on a bosu ball.
How to get started
So I bet by now you’re totally stoked to start adding TGUs into your life. But hold on there, cowboy. Don’t just grab a weight and start flinging it around. I recommend to break down the movement into it’s individual chunks, and mastering each one before moving on to the next.
Here’s how I would break it down (others may not agree with me, but that’s ok, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat):
1) Practice the first roll up to elbow on it’s own. Initially getting off the floor is arguably the hardest part of the whole movement. If you can do this easily with bodyweight, add in a shoe, as demonstrated in the video above. When you stop dropping the shoe, add in a reasonably weighted kettlebell. When you can do 5 reps with a weight, move along to the next step.
2) Up to halfway. While probably not technically the halfway point, I like to call the high bridge position half-way. Some people don’t care about the high bridge, but I do. You need a good high bridge in dance, so I say you should do it. I like to visualize my hips stretching out at the top of the bridge.
It’s not wrong not to do this phase, but you’re going to use this position in dance, so I recommend that you practice it in a TGU. When you feel solid going up to high bridge and back down with your bodyweight, try adding the shoe, then try adding the weight, same as before.
3) You’re ready to stand up! Same progression as before: Wrap your brain around the movement, use a shoe, and then add in a weight.
As Mike Roberston recommends in his article HERE:
DO NOT go out and try this Day 1 with a heavy kettlebell. Work through the positions/steps with body weight first, or even with a shoe on your fist. Please take the time to really feel this lift out. I often tell my clients to pause for a 2 count at each position, as if they’re getting their picture taken at a photo shoot. Beginners are notorious for blowing through this lift, and not really milking all of its benefits. When in doubt, slow it down!
I agree 100%. One of my favourite ways to really juice all the vitamin T out of a get-up is to hold each individual position for one or two breaths. And I mean real deep breaths with complete exhalations that make your CNS want to spaz.
You probably won’t be doing more than one complete repetition per side with weight, and you shouldn’t feel totally destroyed by the end of that one rep, so choose a weight that feels reasonable, and that doesn’t make you fear for your life.
I’m also going to add in that it is highly valuable to get a skilled professional to coach you through a get-up at least once.
Initially, I learned from a Youtube video, and I was doing ok, but realize that this is not a complete education. There are many subtle nuances and ways to tweak your technique that change the way it feels, and the efficacy of the movement.
And from a general fitness perspective, a lot of typical “gym” exercises don’t ever allow us to create rotational movement, using all sorts of points of contact with our bodies on the floor, providing for a very rich sensory experience (while looking totally badass). I urge you to get out of saggital plane only workouts, and out of the seated exercise machines.
Get down on the floor and get up. And then back down. Feel the rotation necessary, coordinating efficiently from all parts of your body.
Try the first roll + shoe. Do it 5 times without dropping the shoe. See if you can accomplish this in a week (you totally can). Progress it from there. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.
The Turkish get-up is an exercise I include in my latest brain child, Dance Stronger– A book + training program + community that gives you the tools to develop dance-specific strength for improved performance and less injuries. Check it out and see how to include the TGU into your training routine.
Click the image above to get the first two chapters of Dance Stronger for free. Yay!