There are many exercises that you can do with a kettlebell.
But as far as utility there is one exercise that stands above all the rest.
Learn what it is (and how to do it correctly) below.
The most important exercises to do with a kettlebell are the Kettlebell Swing and the Turkish Get-Up. If you are an extreme minimalist you can use those two exercises to reach most fitness goals.
But if you are like me you will eventually get bored doing only two exercises. And to keep things interesting you will want to use more exercises.
When it comes to utility there is a kettlebell exercise that is even more useful than those two “important” exercises.
How can this be true?
Because this exercise is in and of itself a great exercise and it is also the transition move that allows you to do many other exercises. By mastering this exercise you open up a world of other exercises and complexes that can always keep your training interesting.
That exercise is the Kettlebell Clean.
What is a Kettlebell Clean
I define the Kettlebell Clean as:
“A swing that ends in the rack position.”
One of the reasons the swing is more important is that it is the foundation of many other kettlebell exercises, one of which is the Clean.
You should be very comfortable with your swing before you learn to clean. And not just the two hand swing, for the clean you need to be competent at the one hand swing.
This is because the “rack” position is the proper way to hold a kettlebell at chest height with one hand.
Chest height, not shoulder height (a very important distinction).
Let’s take a deeper look into the fine points of this position.
The first thing that you need to know about the rack position is that it is often different for men and women.
For health reasons women should not hit their breasts repeatedly or apply large amounts of direct pressure to them with the kettlebell, upper arms or forearms for extended periods of time. (1)
Because of this, women often have to use a more awkward wider position with the forearm and the kettlebell outside of the breasts.
For men we want the kettlebell closer to the centerline, because it is a mechanically advantageous way to hold the weight.
Meaning safer and easier, which is a win-win.
The second thing to note is the wrist position. There is a popular (and useful) saying I like to teach…
There are no wrists when you train with kettlebells.
What this means is that your wrist is always straight with a kettlebell, it should never bend.
The picture above is correct, the picture below is incorrect.
This is a lesson that you should have learned from your Turkish get-up. If you didn’t then, fix it now (in both your rack and Turkish get-up).
Next, the body. You are in what is called a “Standing Plank” position. Stiff and strong, but ready to move when it is time (whether that be uncleaning the bell, pressing it, squatting it, etc).
You must always be ready and focused, until all the kettlebells in your vicinity are parked safely on the floor.
-The shoulders are shrugged down
-The spine is long
-The elbow is pressed tightly against the body
-The butt is squeezed, the hips pushed slightly forward
-The abs are braced
Finally, the position of the kettlebell. The kettlebell should be on the outside of your forearm in the “triangle” that your elbow creates. This will help your forearm from having to support all the pressure all the time.
Think about finding the place where the kettlebell, your arm and your body are all “one” unit.
Everything is squeezed nice, tight and secure.
The most common faults we see in the rack position are bent wrists and not holding the bell tight to the body.
Always remember you are only as good as your finish.
Having a strong rack is important because in addition to being the end of your clean, it is the “start” of many other fun (and useful) exercises such as the kettlebell press and front squat.
One of the best ways to get good at the rack is an exercise I call The Kettlebell Rack Carry.
Get at kettlebell (or two) into the rack postion. This can be done by cleaning the kettlebell or “cheat” cleaning the kettlebell (an exercise we cover later in this article).
While holding a strong rack position, walk. This can be done for time or distance.
And say hello to your abs and real functional core strength!
Learning the Clean
Now that you know the end position of the clean how do you get there?
As mentioned earlier the first step is competency with your Kettlebell One Arm Swing.
If you don’t have that down you will never get the clean down. Just like the swing, while the clean might “look” like an arm exercise your arm is doing almost nothing. The hips generate the power and the arm just directs the power until you catch the kettlebell with your body.
All that happens when you clean is you perform a one arm swing and after you have finished the “deadlift” half of the swing, before the momentum of the kettlebell takes your arm away from your body, you keep your elbow locked against your body and rotate your hand so your palm faces the inside of your body and then you “catch” the kettlebell in the “V” of your elbow.
Now that you have heard a verbal description of what is happening, forget it. If you try to think through the clean (or any other ballistic movement) you will screw it up.
Instead, if you learn the clean in reverse (starting from the rack) and remember to keep your elbow close to your body everything else comes together naturally.
So how do you get to the rack if you don’t know how to clean? Enter the Cheat Clean.
The Cheat Clean
The cheat clean is a clean variation where you can cheat to make it easier. This allows you to get into the rack position so you can learn the clean in reverse or practice an exercise that starts from the rack before you have mastered your clean.
It is also the best way to set up for the Double Kettlebell One Arm Press. But you won’t need that exercise until you want to press more weight than the biggest kettlebell available.
This falls into the category of “advanced.” You almost never need “advanced” (unless you are showing off!).
Start by setting up the kettlebell as if you were going to do a Kettlebell Two Arm Swing.
Then rotate it 90 degrees. Either direction will get you to the same position.
Grab the handle solidly with the hand of the side that you are cleaning to (i.e. that side that will be in the rack position).
Wrap your other hand around the first, so it can help.
Hike the kettlebell back, stand up strong and cheat curl the kettlebell into the rack.
Now let go with the second hand and you are in the rack position.
The Clean in Reverse
Uncleaning a bell will allow you to feel the path of the clean. Then all you need to do is reverse that path and you will have done a successful clean.
Uncleaning the bell means “dropping” it behind you. But without letting go of the handle.
Always begin with a light kettlebell and a surface that won’t get ruined if you need to drop it.
And if things go bad or feel strange, don't be afraid to drop the kettlebell.
And remember, “quick feet are happy feet!”
From the rack position:
-Relax your arm
-Turn your thumb down as if you were pouring a drink
-Allow the kettlebell to roll off your arm
-Throw the kettlebell behind you, through your legs
-Don’t throw the kettlebell forward, keep it close to your body
-Don’t overgrip the handle, keep it loose in your fingers
-Don’t let your elbow flare out, it must remain close to your body
If you can’t do these things the root of the problem is usually fear. The solutions are:
-Use a lighter kettlebell
-Spend more time mastering the kettlebell one arm swing
Now, throw the kettlebell behind you, just like your hike pass.
Then reverse the motion to return to your rack position.
It starts just like your swing, exactly the same. Until you are standing upright.
But now keep your elbow close to your body.
And remember that drink you poured on the way down? On the way up you need to turn the bottle you were pouring from back upright.
The kettlebell will roll around your arm and you will catch it in a strong rack position.
Unless you aren’t moving smoothly or you use too much power for the bell. Then you will bang your forearm with the kettlebell before you catch it.
Practice with a light weight and plenty of rest until you stop banging yourself.
The Clean Proper
Once you have put in your time with the clean from the rack it is time for the clean proper.
If you practiced the above drills enough this is the easiest step.
Set up just like you would for a one arm swing.
Hike and from the backswing do what you did in the reverse clean.
Congratulations! Now keep practicing until it is smooth and you have learned how to minimize the impact on your wrist.
One of the most common problems in learning the clean is the elbow leaving the body.
If you didn’t get it from the instructions this step is critical.
Luckily there is an easy fix to the problem.
Begin by taking a piece of paper and folding it in half. Put it somewhere that you can reach it once you get to the rack position.
A counter, table, friend, pocket, whatever works for you.
Cheat clean the kettlebell.
Place the folded piece of paper in the armpit of the arm that has the kettlebell in the rack.
Practice your reverse clean and don’t drop the piece of paper.
This drill is known as the “Paper in Pit” clean.
Once you have competency with your kettlebell clean you will have access to the wide world of Kettlebell Complexes.
This opens up an infinite world of kettlebell workouts that can be used for getting in shape, adding muscle, losing fat, whatever your goal is.
Just remember to take your time, don’t rush the practice and always stay safe.
As always, if you have any questions or are having other problems feel free to send me an email: David@Magenfitness.com
1 - Enter the Kettlebell, Pavel Tsatsouline