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Classic Kettlebell Lifts

This is an excerpt from Kettlebell Training by Steve Cotter.

Classical Kettlebell Lifts

Once you have become familiar with a proper warm-up and the introductory kettlebell movements, it's time to learn the classical kettlebell lifts. The classical lifts are those foundational exercises that introduce the mechanical standards and principles used throughout all other kettlebell exercises. Special attention should be paid to smoothly and accurately practicing these exercises, because correct execution of the classical kettlebell lifts will set the foundation for developing fitness safely and effectively.

A sensible approach to learning these movements before putting them into a program is to practice them each several times with a light kettlebell. Think of it as practice, not training or performance. Just get the feel of it and try to get comfortable. Once you have a good idea of how to perform the exercises, you can begin to challenge yourself more, and when you have a strong grasp of a particular exercise, you can put it in a training program.

Single Swing

The single swing is the foundational movement of all the classical lifts. Within this exercise, you will find many of the universal principles and unique aspects of kettlebell training, such as inertia, pendulum grip endurance, and anatomical breathing. The swing needs to be mastered before moving on to the other classical lift exercises (e.g., clean, snatch). It cannot be understated: All other kettlebell lifts build upon the foundation of the swing.

To perform this exercise, stand with the feet hip-width apart and with one kettlebell on the floor in front of you (see figure 6.10a). Sit back with the hips (think box squat) and with one hand, grab the handle with the fingers (see figure 6.10b). Thumb positioning for the swing can vary depending on the individual and the training goals. There are three options:

  1. Thumb forward, which allows for faster pacing due to minimized motion (creates a shallower downswing) and seems to be more comfortable for those with shoulder tightness because there is no rotation at the shoulder during this position.
  2. Thumb back, which provides better grip endurance by distributing some of the stress from the forearm to the triceps and creates more of a momentum-based movement because of the spiral nature of this variation (thus, there is a greater range of motion to reduce and produce force).
  3. Neutral thumb, which distributes stress more equally along the grip, arms, and shoulders.

Next, keep the shoulders back and chest lifted as if you are going to do a deadlift, and as you begin to stand, swing the kettlebell between your legs (see figure 6.10c). When the swing reaches its end point behind you, stand up completely, extending the ankles, knees, hips, and torso (see figure 6.10d). Sustain this pendulum swing through the duration of the set.

When performing this exercise, use one or two cycles of anatomical breathing (a cycle is defined as one exhalation and one inhalation). There are two variations you can use: Exhale at the back of the downswing and inhale during the upswing (one breath cycle), or exhale at the back of the downswing, inhale, exhale as the kettlebell transitions from the horizontal to the vertical plane at the top of the forward swing, and inhale as the kettlebell drops again preceding the next backswing (two breath cycles for every one swing).

Key Principles

  • The pendulum is a perfect analogy for a good kettlebell swing because it relies upon mechanical energy conservation in order to sustain the movement indefinitely. Swinging the kettlebell this way creates a more momentum-based movement, which allows for greater work capacity in addition to less stress on the lower back and grip via efficient deceleration of the bell during the downswing.
  • Maximize the connection between the arm and torso on the upswing, ensuring optimal power transfer from the lower body to the kettlebell.
  • Relax the arm completely and visualize it as a rope that starts at the base of the neck and ends at the fingertips.
  • Deflect back via the hips at the top of the upswing to counterbalance the weight in front of the body and as a catalyst to complete hip extension. Maintain deflection as you drop the kettlebell into the downswing until you feel the triceps come into contact with the rib cage. At that point, softly absorb the downward force with a slight bend of the knees and ankles and then crease the hips into the pendulum spring mechanics.

Single Clean

The single clean is a natural progression from the swing and is the intermediary point between the swing and many of the overhead lifts. The clean introduces hand insertion, alignment points connected to the rack position, and positioning of the kettlebell in the hand in order to avoid injury and grip fatigue. It also teaches you how to use your legs to transmit vertical power from the lower to upper body. With practice, your clean becomes a smooth, rhythmic movement that you can sustain for extended lengths of time, although it may take hundreds of practice reps before it flows and becomes polished.

Resting the kettlebell on the forearm is a distinguishing characteristic of kettlebells that makes them behave differently than dumbbells and makes them effective for developing the fitness that comes with high-repetition resistance training. By placing most of the load on the forearm, the muscles of the hand and grip are able to relax. It takes practice before the kettlebell will move smoothly in your hand and into position. Sometimes you will have bad reps and the kettlebell will crash into your forearm. To make this learning process a little kinder, you can wear wrist wraps or wristbands. In time your technique will become more polished and the kettlebell will just float into position on your arm in cleans and snatches, and at that point you may prefer to not use any wraps at all. However, it is an option for those with more tender arms—no sense giving yourself bruises if you don't need to.

With the kettlebell on the floor, sit back with your hips and grip with the handle with the fingers of one hand (see figure 6.11a and b). Swing the kettlebell back through your legs as you did in the one-handed swing (see figure 6.11c) and as it swings forward, keep your forearm braced against your body (see figure 6.11d). During the swing, your arm comes away from the body as inertia pulls the kettlebell forward and up. During the clean, on the other hand, the arm does not disconnect from body, and at the point where the arm would disconnect during the swing, it instead moves vertically along the front of your body. Imagine you are standing inside a chimney. The walls of the chimney block you so that you cannot move out or to the side; you can only move the kettlebell up and down the chimney wall. When the hips reach forward extension, pull with the hip on the working side and give a gentle tug with your trapezius on the same side, pulling the kettlebell up the chimney (see figure 6.11e). Before the kettlebell settles to the chest, loosen your grip and open your hand to insert your fingers as deeply into the handle as you can at a curved angle until the medial portion of your forearm, the ulna, blocks you from inserting the hand any further (see figure 6.11f). Complete the vertical pull by letting the kettlebell rest on your chest and arm (see figure 6.11g) into what is called the rack position. This is the top position of the clean. Here are the key alignment points in the top rack portion of the clean technique:

  • The kettlebell is medial to the lateral shoulder (toward the midline). If the kettlebell shifts away from the midline, it will bring the load outside your base of support and require more effort to hold.
  • Find the ideal placement of the kettlebell between your chest and shoulder and your upper arm. One useful tip is to put the kettlebell in the triangle that is formed with the elbow, forearm, and chest. Keep the kettlebell between the forearm and the chest by moving the upper body back and rotating the palm away from you to about a 45-degree angle.

This rack position works well with the single kettlebell but is much more difficult with double kettlebells because of the flexibility demands and limited range of motion of the doubles. The goal of the rack position is to be comfortable and stable in the position and able to control the top portion of the clean. Now complete the lift by turning your palm faceup and deflecting the force by moving the shoulders back (see figure 6.11h). Remember you are standing inside a chimney, so the kettlebell can only move down, not forward. Your elbow stays braced to your body. As the kettlebell is falling, just before the elbow reaches full extension, pull the hand back to catch with the fingers, then tighten the grip to complete the backswing (see figure 6.11i). As in the swing, you can use any of the three positions in the bottom portion of the clean—thumb forward, thumb backward, or neutral thumb. Continue this smooth pendulum motion throughout the set.

When performing this exercise, use anatomical breathing with three or more breathing cycles. Starting from the rack position, inhale as you deflect back and drop the kettlebell into the downswing, exhale at the back of the downswing, inhale during the transition into the forward swing, exhale at completion of the forward swing, inhale with hand insertion, and exhale as the kettlebell lands in the rack position. This equals three breath cycles. During a long set, or anytime you are very tired during a set, you can take additional recovery breaths while the kettlebell is resting in rack position.

Key Principles

  • Begin hand insertion at approximately hip level and ensure that the angle of the hand as it begins insertion is 45 degrees. Note that hand insertion is also used in the snatch and many other lifts. The starting and ending of each rep use the same hand position as the swing, and the hand moves in and out of the kettlebell during the up and down phases of the movement.
  • Experiment with a variety of thumb positions to find the configuration that feels most comfortable for you.

Learn more about Kettlebell Training.

More Excerpts From Kettlebell Training