As far as kettlebell training goes I don’t think there’s a more misunderstood exercise than the kettlebell clean. I’ve written previously about it here in terms of why it’s such a useful exercise. Now it’s time to learn how to do it right.
If you look at the clean, it is the central link in many cases to get the bell from the floor to a position where we can squat, press, or jerk it. Regardless of whether you’re a Hardstyle or Girevoy Sport fan you’re going to need to make sure your clean is good. The saying “your press is only as good as your clean” can also be applied to your jerk and squat, too.
The first thing to keep in mind with the kettlebell clean is that it is a swing that just ends up with the bell going to a different location. I think about the swing as the driving force behind my clean and snatch. I find when I focus on keeping the elements of the swing in those moves they are much more fluid and powerful. So, always keep in mind all the things we spoke about when we were doing swings.
The fastest way to learn the clean is actually backwards. To begin, grip the kettlebell in one hand and grasp over the top of your first hand with your other hand. Now curl the bell to your chest. Remove the non-working hand and get comfortable in this position. Your elbow should be tucked in against your side, as if trying to hold a newspaper between your upper arm and your ribs. Your forearm should be mostly vertical, but angled slightly across your chest. The thumb should be pointing back toward you. It is important to make sure the wrist is straight at all times. Position the handle of the bell parallel to the callus line for now as we’re only concerned about the clean, not setting up for pressing or jerks.
This rack position needs to be strong and firmly imprinted in your head so you’ll be able to direct the kettlebell there during your work sets. A good drill at this point is to go for a walk in the rack position working on keeping the elbow in and maintaining good posture – you’ll find it’s far harder than you think.
If you had to find an exercise to mimic this position, one I like to use is a single arm plank. If you drop down into a plank on both elbows, then remove one you’ll be in the same position as if for the clean. You’ll need to tense the whole body – glutes, abs, legs, and the lat on the side of your working arm to keep your alignment. Wedge yourself between the floor and your feet. Get up and shake it off and cheat curl the bell back to the rack position as before and try to get that same feeling now in your rack position. Get everything nice and tight – squeeze the legs, glutes, and abs.
Next we need to develop a strong bottom position. Standing on mats or being outside is best for this drill. Starting from the rack, we need to get confident hike passing the bell back behind us. The best way to do this is to drop the bell from the rack. Do this by hinging at the hips, turning the hand slightly, as if pouring water, and allowing the kettlebell to trace an arc down between your legs and behind you. Then let it go. Once you’ve released your bell stay in your bottom position. You should be able to stay here with no movement. Your lower arm should be pressed into the thigh of the same leg, not in the center of your body.
This last bit is quite important. If you imagine where your hands would go if you had two bells – into either thigh – the only difference now should be we’ve removed a bell. The working side should be in the exact same spot it was when you had both arms working, not in the center of your body. If it comes into the midline you will rotate your trunk. One of the benefits of single bell training is that it forces the body to work hard against those rotational forces – don’t give in to them.
When you drop the kettlebell make sure the arm goes completely straight. Trying to keep a slight bend in the arm will likely cause damage, the same as trying to deadlift with bent arms. The thumb will end up slightly turned behind you in the bottom position thanks to your “water pouring” at the start of the drop.
Once you’ve done a few drops on each side – I like 5 x 5 – it’s time to move on.
The only thing left to do is to reverse the drop. Many people overthink this step but there’s no need to. All the action of getting the bell into the rack is taken care of by the power of your clean. Simply swing the bell hard as if doing swings and guide the bell into place in the rack.
If you really struggle with this part one drill, what I like doing is using a sequence from the rack that goes – drop, swing, hammer curl, clean. The hammer curl is like a halfway move for the clean. Your lower arm will be parallel to the ground, elbow at roughly ninety degrees, upper arm against your side, and thumb up. From the rack the drill is simple – we drop the bell and turn that into a swing as in the video above. Then we add a step with the hammer curl – don’t yank on the bell with your arm but use your swing to get it into the hammer curl position. Your arm should be loose, as it is the hips doing the work, not your arm. The next step occurs at the same point as the hammer curl position. Now, instead of stopping halfway, drive the handle around the bell to rest the body of the bell against your forearm. The power of your swing will drive it into place.
For a final look at the clean from a Girevoy Sport perspective, world champion Ivan Denisov shows that the clean is still more similar to the swing than different – legs straight at the top, wrists straight, elbows in, and driven into place by the swing.
Practice the clean – trust me. A good clean makes a strong starting point for all of the most important kettlebell exercises like the jerk and press.
Learn the six basics RKC exercises:
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.