Hang In There… The Kettlebell Clean is a Great Exercise and an Acquired Taste

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The kettlebell clean is an acquired taste, for sure.

It reminds me of a craft beer drinkers first sips of an I.P.A. or a Double I.P.A.  Do you remember the bitter beer face commercials?

One quick search on the old Dragon Door article library or the new StrongFirst forum, and people will praise the hell out of this move, but I am here to warn you up front, you might not enjoy this exercise at first.

It’s an acquired taste.

Both from a technique standpoint and a “Why the hell would I choose this exercise over kettlebell swing variations, kettlebell snatches, weighted jump squats or even barbell cleans”?… standpoint.

For quite some time, I wasn’t exactly sure what significant purpose kettlebell cleans served.

At that time, the kettlebell clean seemed more like a sweet little method to move the kettlebell from the floor up to the rack position, and not much more than that.

Photo credit:  FitBomb

Photo credit: FitBomb

In case you’re not familiar, the rack position describes a static posture where the bell rests for a given amount of time (split second or for multiple seconds) against the chest with elbow tucked tightly to the side.

Also, at that time, my timing was way off with the kettlebell clean.  I was mostly pulling the bell up from between my legs using my upper extremities, and flipping it over the top of my knuckles.  Obviously, the upper body does have some involvement in most kettlebell training, but one of the main principles of any ballistic kettlebell movement is hip snap.  I have always viewed “hip snap” as the slang terminology for aggressive/powerful extension of the hips.

Kettlebell drills like swings, snatches and cleans all thrive off of aggressive hip extension, or hip snap to catapult the bell through its trajectory/range of motion.

[Improving your ability to aggressively extend your hips is incredible for sport performance and fat loss.  The research on the influence that kettlebell swings has on body fat elimination has been growing rather consistently in recent months.  Anyone that has spent any time working out with kettlebells in a dedicated manner will no doubt give the nod to kettlebell training (specifically swings, cleans, snatches) and its dramatic effect on fat loss.  Almost to the point of zero dietary intervention.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pursue higher standards of eating… because you should.]  

Ok, back to kettlebell cleans.  Originally, I didn’t like them.  I just didn’t see the value.  Swings (moving the bell to about sternum height) provided a noticeably large training stimulus that mimicked an explosive deadlift and kettlebell snatches (moving the kettlebell overhead) worked very similar to dumbbell snatches, which are amazing for building uni-lateral explosive power.

But kettlebell cleans seemed like the red-headed step child (forgive my joke if this offends anyone).  I kept asking myself,  “What are they good for?”

I never felt like I was achieving anything while practicing the kettlebell clean.  The hip snap didn’t feel like it was present, and quite frankly, it didn’t seem like it really needed to be present in order to execute the clean.  So then what?

Again, as I stated early in this post, the clean (to me) felt like an efficient method to transport the kettlebell vertically to the rack position so that I could set up for other exercises like:  squats, overhead pressing or carries.

Eventually, I made the decision to work on my clean technique in a diligent manner.  I also spent some time combing over the forums and articles from trusted resources for to increase my understanding of what the kettlebell clean is and why it was important.

Here’s a messy synopsis of what I found…

From a basic observation, I thought of the kettlebell clean as a variation of the swing, and still do.  Obviously the motion is different, but hiking the kettlebell through the legs, moving forward into an arcing pattern is very similar to that of the kettlebell swing.  However this arching pattern is interrupted as the hand/arm pulls the bell much tighter to the anterior (front) aspect of the body than the arc of the kettlebell swing.  Some people will refer to this as “taming the arc”.

You can read more about “taming the arc” from this excerpt:

Kettlebell Taming the Arc

Once the bell begins its ascent vertically to the chest, this is where most people will get lost, as I did.

Why?  Because in the time that it takes to blink your eyes, the bell needs to transition from a prone (hand over the top) grip to a neutral grip (palm toward the midline of the body) with the kettlebell nestled partially against the forearm and chest, at armpit height.  The entire sequence happens really quickly.

The most common mistake here is “flipping” the bell.  Technically, it’s incorrect yes, but the bigger mistake is that flipping the bell over the hand is essentially beating yourself with the greatest mass of the kettlebell.  Kettlebells are constructed of dense cast iron so… it hurts.  Once the bell flips over the hand, the only object to stop its motion is your body, and this can be painful.  If you’ve played contact sports, the sensation of the bell impacting your body will be eerily similar to the impact of another human hitting you.

So what is supposed to happen?

Around waist height, the bell begins to turn over and rotate.  It’s a combination of both.  The only way to successfully accomplish this, is to relax your grip and allow the kettlebell to turn over/rotate around your forearm.  I said RELAX, NOT LET GO.  Your hand position changes on the bell, without your hand ever leaving the bell.  I use the terminology turn over/rotate because I feel this is the best description of what happens to the kettlebell as it transitions into the rack position hand position changes on the bell, without your hand ever leaving the bell.

This “relaxed” grip was uncomfortable for me at first.  It didn’t feel natural to loosen a grip and relax while dynamically swinging a 53lb piece of cast iron.  I am sure that you might feel the same way when you give this movement a go.  It can be unsettling for the first few reps.  Make sure that your hands are dry and free of any grease.

Chalking your hands is a great technique for improving hand/grip integrity kettlebell training, although chalking can be messy for you house over time.  Check out this Metolius Eco Ball chalk bag that really helps to save yourself the hassle of cleaning up chalk mess.

But, like anything other new stimulus or skill, consistent practice will move your  technique of the clean from completely foreign to second nature.

Filming my kettlebell clean (which I encourage you to do always) revealed that I wasn’t initiating my turn over/rotation of the bell soon enough.  I was attempting to mimic the barbell clean, where the hands and elbows (and body) move under the vertical moving barbell above waist level.

Again, if you attempt to “flip” the kettelbell above waist level you’re going to get some tough love from the bell in the form of a shot to the chest/shoulder.  As long as you don’t hurt yourself, this type of feedback is probably a good thing, as there will be no question that your timing is off.

The kettlebell should park itself into the rack position rather peacefully.

The kettllebell clean is a “steering strength” movement that requires adequate attention for successful completion.

You might start out despising it like I did and end up loving it as I do now.

A series of simple tips that can help you out:

  • In the beginning feel free to learn using a lighter bell.  This is important.
  • Quickly move into a heavier kettlebell that demands some  hip snap to make the bell move.  Otherwise, you may find yourself “muscling” the bell as I was.
  • Work the single arm kettlebell clean until you feel you are proficient with technique at heavier weights.  Forget about “work capacity” training while you are learning, learn it first, don’t get ahead of yourself.
  • Once you’re moving a heavier kettlebell (32kg men/24kg women), consider transitioning into the double kettlebell clean, which will require attention to be paid to both arms and an increase in hip snap to move the bells to the rack position.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

On a positive note, if decide to dedicate some time and practice into learning the kettlebell clean, you’re going to find great carryover to all of your other lifts also (kettlebell swings, presses, etc).  The move requires timing and coordination, but improving both will boost your performance and your results in the race to lose fat.

The clean is nothing that I thought it was and everything that I thought that it wasn’t.  I have been pleasantly surprised and challenged by its technique and it’s purpose inside of a balanced strength and conditioning program.  I highly suggest that you work it for yourself and see how it benefits you.

 

 

Cheers to kettlebell cleans babies!

KG

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