How to Master The Kettlebell Clean

If you recall, in that blog, I listed the 7 prime moves for athletic training. Renowned coach Dan John uses a simplified version, trimming that down to 5 prime movements, which make programming workouts a little less tricky:

  • push
  • pull
  • squat
  • hinge
  • loaded carries

Those 3 basic lifts pretty much cover all those except the loaded carries but, I often recommend adding loaded carries in at the end of most workouts, but, like most things, depends on the individual, their training history and heir goals.

Once you have got the hang of these and are able to do at least one good Turkish getup with an optimal weight for your body composition (generally 16kg for females and 24kg for males) you need to be looking to develop the clean. The clean is how you safely bring the kettlebell into rack position which then opens the door to a whole array of intermediate to advanced level lifts. Think of it as a bridge crossing a busy motorway, on one side is home, your familiar surroundings and on the other side is a wide open field where you can play to your heart's content, but in between is traffic jams and road rage. OK, that was a pretty shit metaphor but I think you get my point... Actually, probably not. Anyway!

Developing the clean

Before you can do the clean you should be able to do a good single arm swing, the technique is the same as with the 2-hand swing but with more strain on the forearm (it develops grip endurance) and more engagement of the cross-sectional muscular subsystems. Doing the single arm swing with the right hand requires more recruitment of the muscles of the left hip complex and vice versa.

I feel that you should be able to competently perform 20 reps of this exercise with the same weight you are attempting to clean to start with. Practice the clean with a lighter weight, as always, get the movement technique right before trying to rack up a heavy bell. Note, this is the hardstyle swing, which emphasises the hip hinge. The Girevoy, or kettlebell sport technique is different, using a pendulum motion to increase efficiency of movement over multiple reps.

This is a technique that I find a lot of people tend to struggle to get right and often end up, pulling or curling the weight up to their shoulder, rather than swinging and pulling it in to your rib cage. It starts like the swing, but your arm needs to remain in contact with your ribcage, so don’t swing it up through the full arc, unless you are purposefully trying to condition your forearms to absorb impact (maybe useful for striking based combat sports).

Engage the traps by slightly pulling your arm into the shoulder socket and then pull the weight in, wrapping your forearm inside the bell and nestling the bell against the fold of your elbow - I can't emphasise this enough, DO NOT SWING IT TOO HIGH AND DO NOT GRIP IT TIGHTLY.

In this position, the core should be tight, the shoulder slightly rounded and spine a little flexed, like in an ab crunch. Your elbow should settle atop the ASIS (the bony part at the top and front of your pelvis) and the knees slightly flexed to absorb the weight. There should be very little strain on the upper arm, you’re resting the weight against your body rather than holding it up with your biceps. Always think about efficiency.

Take a look at this clip explaining good form, study it, copy it, film yourself and then compare your technique:

And here is is in slow motion:


Once you have gotten the hang of the clean, it will open up a whole new world of kettlebell training for you, here are just a few examples of exercises that you can start to include once you can clean the kettlebells effectively:

  • The overhead press
  • The single arm squat
  • The military press
  • Bent press
  • Jerk
  • Clean and press
  • Clean and jerk, etc.

Anything else?

Yes, actually. I like to incorporate ‘playtime’ as a way of making time to practice new techniques. You can do this at the end of a programmed workout, maybe 5 or 10 minutes of just playing around with a couple of next level lifts, obviously you would grab a lighter kettlebell and, as I mentioned earlier, treat it like skills acquisition rather than strength development. Or, you can schedule in a 30 to 40 minutes play session on a recovery day, again using a weight that is well within your limits and don’t worry about sets and reps, just pick a handful of techniques to practice and have fun. Use this to perfect your technique with your stronger lifts and/or to develop new lifts ready for your next program progression.

I believe there is a quote from a famous master which seems fitting here:

Fail you will, if practice you won't!
- Coach Troy

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