Hail the Turkish Get Up

A good friend, who's a middle-aged, devoted triathlete, told me he's out of competition for a few months due to a pretty serious ankle injury. He's working hard to resume his run-bike-swim routine.

To stay fit during his rehab, he's been doing some biking and Turkish Get Ups (TGU), a smart choice because his body won't miss a beat when he's able to resume running. He sent the following request: "How about a write up - TOJ style - about Turkish Get Ups? Lace it with ancillary tidbits typical of the TOJ exercise profile."

Good idea, and anything for a friend. The Turkish Get Up (TGU) is such a powerful exercise that if for any reason you could only do one exercise, it might be the one because it is a total body exercise, strengthening muscles, ligaments and tendons from head to toe.This is truly an uber-exercise, like the yoga Salute to the Sun, only much more challenging.

The TGU has been around for a long time, maybe 300 years or more. If you Google it, you'll find it was a staple of strongmen in the old days. The TGU has risen in popularity right along with the Russian kettlebell. When you see or experience the intensity of the TGU, you get the Russian connection - simple, cheap, challenging, effective, unfashionable (like their space suits).

Grab your anatomy charts (I don't really expect you to look these up, but if you want to, here they are!). Your body has over 600 muscles. Of the prime movers that enable us to lift, walk, bend, squat, and lunge, the TGU relies on the Deltoids, Erector Spinae, Glutes, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Adductors, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Flexors, Extensors, Serratus, Rectus Abdominus, Abductors, Gastrocnemius and Soleus. In addition, the TGU enlists scores of smaller stabilizer muscles that enable these prime movers to safely and effectively accomplish their work.

There are two videos below. If you've never performed at TGU, this TOJ suggests you just watch the first them to see how they're done to gain the maximum benefits offered when done properly.

Unfortunately, some professionally-produced videos and YouTube videos show people doing sloppy TGU's, skipping some of the key movements, showing poor alignment, not fully extending, and hurrying like its a race. You want to mimic how the professionals in the videos below execute the movement. Like so many things Americans try to make easy, say frozen gourmet French cuisine, the TGU is not. You are moving directly against gravity, the greatest force on earth.

In the first video, Gray Cook, a leader in the emerging field of functional movement, demonstrates the TGU. Cook is a physical therapist who wrote an influential book called "Movement" that is very critical of the reliance on machines and fancy technology that is so prevalent in gyms because they don't really prepare people for everyday life or athletic competition - they don't build basic mobility and stability.  He writes: "People move muscles without the burden of controlling body weight, maintaining balance or managing alignment, but that is not life." All these "burdens" are in the TGU.

Note that he says he's is not that good at them. The TGU is much like a difficult piece of music that you must practice over and over again. Many times, especially at when you're learning, it's a struggle, but then it gets manageable.

Here's another excellent video by a Russian Kettlebell Association certified instructor. What's worth noting here is the full extension of his legs and back and how he stays centered under the kettlebell.
Note how during the transition from ground to single leg kneeling position, his body is held up by one leg and two feet in a rotated plank.

So why does this TOJ think the TGU is such a great exercise? It looks so awkward and easy - you just have to stand up. What's so awesome about the TGU is that 14 separate movements are incorporated into it that build the legs, core, and shoulder. This is not the typical gym machine muscle grunt in a single plane like the bench press. The TGU involves rotating the torso and sitting up (using deep core muscles like the internal obliques) and single leg lunge movements firing the glutes. From the very beginning of the exrcise, your shoulder performs one of the most challenging tasks there is for the scapula and glenohumeral joint (ever hear of rotator cuff injuries?) -an overhead press while the body moves. Finally, the TGU improves your balance in all multiple planes (up, down, sideways, forwards, backwards) . When you move through all the postures in the TGU, literally hundreds of  muscles are communicating neurally with each other and the brain with reports as to the status of the body in space, and what muscles may need to be enlisted to support other ones.

The TGU is not a beginners exercise. You must have a relatively strong core and strong, stable shoulder to do this safely. The TGU is really a good guage of your overall

If you've not done it before, train for the TGU by breaking it into three stages: the sit-up, transition to a lunge position, then the rise up. The second half is just those same movements in reverse order. At first, just do these movements with no weight, then, when you know how if feels, add a light kettlebell or dumb bell.

You'll notice that both men in the videos keep their eye on the kettlebell during the entire exercise. They do this to maintain good alignment and stay centered under the weight. The further away a weight is held from your body, the more unstable it will be. The TGU increases the challenge of keeping the weight stable overhead because the weight is loaded asymmetrically - that is, it's held in one hand on one side of your body. The challenge for the rest of your body, which is accomplished when the TGU is done properly, is to maintain your body's center of gravity in complete alignment with the weight overhead.

Here are a few other tips if you want to learn or improve with the TGU:
  • It's not necessary to do more than 3-6 reps per side of your body. At first you may find it challenging to do it on both sides because you have muscle imbalances such that one side is stronger than the other and you may need to train both sides into parity.
  • Concentrate on doing the entire movement properly, not how much weight you are lifting. This exercise is powerful even with light weights.
  • Remember to breath throughout the entire exercise. Don't hold your breath. You're going to use a lot of muscle that needs a steady supply of oxygen.
The TGU never gets easy because you'll steadily want to increase the weight and reps to keep stimulating your muscles. Yeah, it's one of those exercises you'll take a deep breath before you get on the floor to do the first one. Sometimes your arm holding the kettblebell and all the rest of your body will tremble and waver as you struggle to maintain proper form. But you will feel exhilerated like Atlas when you see the kettlebell overhead after you stand up, and you feel a wonderful sense of relief and accomplishment when you lay down the kettlebell after that last rep.

The TGU is training for real life, not building faux muscle for strutting on the beach or in the gym. The real rewards are much more important and long term - you can get out of bed, lift up your child, kneel to pick up something you dropped, reach overhead across a fence to pick an apple, roll under your car to see if the muffler is coming loose. As you watch or do the TGU, think of all the everyday physical activities that are rehearsed in the TGU.

The rewards aren't just physcial either. Sometimes life knocks you down and you have to get back up. You have a setback in your health or at work, wherever. The TGU gives you mental stamina and toughness. Do them so, like my friend, you'll get up.


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