Kettlebell training is quite unique compared with other forms of resistance training, Olympic Lifting probably being the closest in terms of complexity of movement. It’s the technical nature of the lifts that really motivates me, because I’m a bit of a movement geek. Unlike with more conventional weight training you have to develop a different mindset with kettlebell training, that’s not to say that conventional weight training isn’t good because it is, it’s just different. Rather than thinking of each lift as a means to an end to building strength or size in a certain muscle group, you have to approach each lift as a skill, much like you do with skills training for sports like rugby or martial arts, for example.
In the blog ‘Kettlebells for beginners’ I outlined what I consider to be the 3 prime lifts for kettlebell training. This is always up for debate and very much depends on which style of kettlebell training you favour. Personally, I use kettlebells primarily for strength and conditioning, for developing core stability, mobility and making me a better, more athletic individual. Therefore, the goblet squat, swing and the Turkish getup cover the prime movements for athletic or sports specific training and until you master – or at least get quite good – at these lifts it’s difficult to justify moving on to any other techniques.
If you recall I listed the 7 prime moves for athletic training as. Renouned coach Dan John uses a simplified version, trimming that down to 5 prime movements, which make programming workouts a little less tricky:
- 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.
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 forearm needs to remain close to your hip, 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 on how to do the clean:
Once you have practiced the clean and rack position and are confident with it you now have a whole array of cool new exercises open to you such as.
• The overhead press
• The single arm squat
• The military press
• Bent press
• Clean and press
• Clean and jerk, etc.
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!
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