Welcome to the Pentathlon Series. This is the first in a five part series detailing the five exercises used in the Kettlebell Pentathlon. If you are not familiar with this strength and conditioning test please see my post here. First up, Cleans.
The kettlebell clean (in this case the one arm version) is a combination of two very common elements in kettlebell training, the swing and the rack position. The swing is used to bring the bell from between the legs and propel it upward towards the rack or overhead, the rack is the resting position between reps and is featured in almost every kettlebell exercise. The Clean in itself is a great conditioning exercise providing most of the benefits of the swing with the additional benefit of a resting position which allows you to pace yourself through the set and rest your grip, something those who have completed long sets of swings will appreciate. The trick is to seamlessly link both elements!
I have had the privilege of learning the clean from several top class coaches, Dr Mark Cheng, Andrew Read and Shaun Cairns have taught the clean in the hardstyle method while Emily Friedel, Steve Cotter and Valery Fedorenko have taught the girevoy (kettlebell) sport method. Each of these coaches has had their own cues and drills designed to teach the clean in the most effective way. I have taken information from each and distilled it into my own coaching to provide you with the cues and drills I believe will help you learn the clean in the safest and most effective way. For the purposes of the pentathlon we will focus on the kettlebell sport style clean. The training method you choose must always match your goal.
Firstly we must identify the start and finishing points of the clean. If you do not know the starting and finishing points and how to achieve them correctly then you will never be able to link them together effectively. The starting point of the clean is the bottom position of the swing and the finishing point is the rack position.
Start position: The bell handle is at approx 45 degrees with the thumb pointing backwards. The handle is gripped with the hook grip towards the corner of the bell. This places the shoulder in an internally rotated position. You will see the counter of this position during the overhead exercises.
Finish position: The bell handle sits across the heel of the hand at approx 45 degrees. The handle is loosely gripped in the top corner and contacts the wrist. The elbow is pressed against the body, ideally resting on the iliac crest.
It is common to miss either or both of these positions. The easiest to correct is the rack. After every clean you must check your rack position and if it is not optimal then adjust your hand position before dropping the bell. This will ensure that your catch position is correct and therefore your chance of hitting the correct rack position on the next rep is maximised. Understanding these two positions is crucial to an effective clean.
Secondly we must understand how to bring the kettlebell from the bottom of the swing up to the rack. This is where an understanding of swing mechanics is crucial. If you are projecting the bell forwards instead of upwards then you will be chasing the bell from the start and will have to pull the bell back towards yourself in an exaggerated manner. This is often the source of the banging of the forearms that many people experience when first learning the clean. The trick here is to re-bend the knees on the upswing. If you need more coaching on the kettlebell swing please contact us or come along to our Saturday morning training group.
Once you have the bell travelling in a vertical path you can start to think about how you are going to get the bell to rest smoothly on your forearm. The short answer is to sneak under it. You must release your grip once the bell is weightless at approx waist height. At this point the handle will still be at 45 degrees to your body and your elbow will be bent slightly to guide the bell upward. Once your grip is released it’s time to sneak underneath. It helps to think of coming to meet the bell instead of waiting for the bell to meet you. If you have a relaxed grip and fast hand and elbow speed you will be able to get your hand under the bell so that it rests on your forearm without the dreaded forearm banging. Let the elbow sink into your hip and check that you have the correct hand position. Congratulations, you have now cleaned the kettlebell.
Thirdly the kettlebell must be returned to the starting position. This is easy, with practice. From the rack you let the bell roll off your arm, catch it again at waist height and let it swing back between your legs. Do not cast the bell over the top of the hand on the drop. This will shift the bell too far forward and you will be forced to recover this on the drop, often resulting in excess grip and back stress. The idea here is to try and keep the bell trajectory close to your body, “tame the arc”. Learn this technique by doing your cleans facing a wall. Start a couple of feet away and clean. When you drop the bell you will need to tame the arc to prevent the bell hitting the wall. It works equally well on the upward portion of the lift too. You will quickly learn to guide the bell upwards, not outwards.
The drop is the portion of the lift that causes the grip stress responsible for those nasty blisters that are so often associated with kettlebell training. These are caused by over gripping the handle. The hand should be relaxed in the rack position, relaxed during the initial portion of the drop as you let the bell roll around your hand, and only re-grip the bell as the handle returns to the 45 degree position at approx waist height. At this point the handle is gripped again in the hook grip and swung on a straight arm back into the swing ready for another rep.
This is a very basic run down of the kettlebell clean as it applies to the pentathlon. I have not covered breathing in this post as it is worthy of a full post on its own. There are obviously many other cues and drills to help you achieve the clean which you can learn at our Kettlebell Sport Training Group.