Unlock The Power of The Kettlebell Clean

If your training goals include developing explosive hip power and core strength, mastering the kettlebell clean is a must!
By Damali Fraiser

Who’s ready to start cleaning?

Hearing the word “cleaning” may have you jumping for joy… or running for the hills. (And this goes for both the chore and the exercise!) But today we’re talking about the kettlebell clean specifically.

Your first experience with kettlebell cleans can often leave a lasting impression on your kettlebell journey. If you dove in head-first to explore the clean before reviewing the basic mechanics, you may have been met with overly bruised forearms and excessively ripped hands — not a great way to get acquainted.

But mastering the clean without bruising your forearms and or ripping up calluses is possible! And it’s a skill worth learning. The clean is a powerful tool for building muscle in your booty and strengthening your hip flexors, core, and forearms. It’s also a great transition movement that will help you progress to other fun kettlebell exercises, like kettlebell complexes, chains, and flows.

In this article, you’ll learn how to perform the kettlebell clean (including a useful perfecting drill!), how to avoid common errors, a fantastic way to regress the clean as you’re learning, and two ways to up the intensity once you’ve mastered the basics.

What Is a Kettlebell Clean?

The kettlebell clean is the fastest and most efficient way to get a heavy kettlebell to the rack position. It’s also the safest way to handle and rack two kettlebells at once.

(The rack position allows the bell to rest comfortably on your forearm with minimal strain on the muscles, and it’s a necessary transition position for many other types of kettlebell exercise.)

Damali demonstrating the kettlebell rack position

Although the clean may seem to be an arm exercise, it’s actually unlocked by the hips. A successful clean requires a powerful hip hinge — meaning you’ll be working major muscle groups, like your glutes, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, and core.

One of the reasons kettlebell cleans are so popular is the number of variations and additions you can take advantage of. Interested in full-body strength training? With the kettlebell clean and press plus a squat, you don’t even need to hit the gym for a great workout.

Additionally, the transition from tension to relaxation and back makes it ideal for conditioning work — speed, agility, and strength all in one!

How to Do a Kettlebell Clean

The kettlebell clean starts with a swing and ends in the rack. Here’s how to tackle the movement with proper technique:

  • Set the bell about one foot in front of you, just as you would when setting up for a kettlebell swing. Your feet should be a bit wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed slightly out.
  • Hinge at the hips with your shins maintaining a vertical position. Lead your hips back, maximizing your hamstrings tension, and make sure your shoulders remain higher than your hips and your head is in a neutral position. Place your hand firmly on the bell’s handle and lean it slightly toward you.
  • Hike the kettlebell high between your legs to connect the upper arms to your ribs. In this version of the kettlebell clean, we are generating momentum via a back swing before we move to the next step. We call it a “hike” since the kettlebell position should end up looking like a football hike.
  • With your feet rooted to the floor, focus on keeping your elbow tucked into your body as you squeeze your glutes, engage your core, and extend your hips. The kettlebell should land softly on your forearms (if the bell is not landing softly, check out the common errors that might be leading to a painful clean).
  • Your elbows and torso should be connected at the top of the clean when you find your racked position.

Keep in mind that as you clean the kettlebell, your hand will shoot through the kettlebell window. When you finish the movement in the racked position, the bell handle should be diagonally crossing both your palm and the crease of your wrist. This position allows you to maintain a more vertical alignment of your forearm while keeping your wrist in a neutral position.

New to kettlebell training and wondering what kettlebell weight to choose? Learn all about how to safely use a kettlebell.

A Perfecting Drill: The Dead Clean

The kettlebell dead clean requires a powerful hip extension to take the bell from a dead stop starting position into the rack position (no kettlebell swing required).

How to Do a Dead Clean

Stand with the kettlebell between your feet, just like you would if you were preparing for a kettlebell deadlift. Skipping the hike, clean the kettlebell into the rack position. Hold for a moment, then return the bell to the same spot. (Remember: The kettlebell is not a handbag, so we never want to see our wrist bent backward in the rack position!)

With the dead clean, you shouldn’t be casting the bell out or hiking it back. The trajectory of the bell should straight up from the ground and toward the ceiling.

Common Errors With the Kettlebell Clean

There are three common errors I see with clients learning the kettlebell clean.

Error #1: Casting the Bell Too Far

Casting the bell too far out from the body means you’re not fully in control of the movement — and you may find your wrists and forearms paying the price with bruising.

The main trajectory of the kettlebell should be upward. Focus on keeping your elbow connected to your body throughout the movement so you don’t let the bell swing away too far out.

Note: The dead clean (described above) is a great move to practice if you tend to cast too far out — with your arm securely against your ribcage, you won’t be swinging the bell out from your body as you would (to a certain extent) with a conventional clean. Plus, it’ll help strengthen your hamstrings and develop your hip drive.

Error #2: Shrugging Your Shoulders

If you find your shoulders climbing upward during your clean, it may be a sign you’re relying on your upper body and shoulder muscles too much. Shrugging puts a lot of torque on the lumbar spine, which could lead to low back pain.

Focus on keeping your shoulders down and away from the ears, and make sure you’re generating power from your hinge to hip extension movement (meaning no squatting or knee dips either).

Error #3: Bending Your Wrists

One of the most common issues with the kettlebell rack position is the alignment of the kettlebell handle. If the handle sits straight across the lifter’s palm (rather than diagonally), the wrist may bend backward and put unnecessary pressure on the elbow and shoulder.

Keep your wrists straight with your knuckles pointing up, like a punch or jab. This neutral wrist position may help reduce the risk of injury during your training.

Regressing the Kettlebell Clean: How to Cheat Clean

If you’re brand new to kettlebell cleans, try starting with a regression first. (A regression is a way to decrease the demand of a particular exercise until you gain more familiarity with the proper technique or develop the necessary strength.)

The Cheat Clean

The cheat clean is a great starting point. It allows new kettlebell athletes to use their free hand to gently guide the kettlebell into the rack position as they master the timing and mechanics of the clean. But it’s useful for more than just beginners! The cheat clean is a great option for kettlebell enthusiasts who are looking to practice the rack position for one-arm holds and carries with heavier kettlebell weights.

How to Do a Cheat Clean

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and the kettlebell about a foot in front of you. Hinge at the hips and hike the bell, using your free hand to guide the bell’s arc.

When you snap your hips, pull the bell close to your body and keep your elbow attached to your rib cage. As the bell begins to float, focus on pulling your elbow back and behind you.

Your forearm should be horizontal as you catch the bell with the opposite hand and guide it into the rack position.

Don’t overgrip the kettlebell handle during this movement. In order to land in the rack position, the handle will need to move swiftly and smoothly to land deep in your palm.

Progressing the Kettlebell Clean: 2 Advanced Clean Variations

Once you’ve mastered the basics and feel comfortable performing a proper kettlebell clean, it’s time to up the intensity!

The Bottoms-Up Clean

Bottoms-up cleans are super tough, but also super rewarding. If you’re looking to develop your shoulder strength and stability, this movement is for you. The bottoms-up clean requires your larger shoulder muscles to do the lifting work, but it also simultaneously challenges the deeper stabilizing muscles and strengthens the muscles in your forearm.

How to Do a Bottoms-Up Clean

The bottoms-up clean is performed in the exact same way as the standard kettlebell clean — but with one big difference.

Instead of keeping your grip loose so the bell handle can sink deep into your palm as you find your rack position, you need to crush the handle of the bell with a tight grip that keeps the bell in the bottoms-up position. This tight grip also helps activate your core and encourages proper alignment of the wrist over the elbow.

Always start with a lighter bell than you would use for your standard clean to make sure you can balance it safely.

The Double Clean

Ready for a double-bell challenge? If you’re getting serious about your kettlebell training, learning how to clean two bells up to the rack position is a must.

How to Do a Double Kettlebell Clean

The starting position and steps for a double-bell clean are generally the same as for a single-bell clean, but you may need to start in a wider stance so you have room to hike both kettlebells at once. You don’t need to go as wide as a sumo stance — just wide enough to fit both bells.

Additionally, using a “V” grip is often very helpful for women when it comes to both taming the arc and keeping the shoulders safe. Using this grip helps keep the bells closer to the sides of your body, which can help you avoid hitting your breasts when getting into the rack position. To set up a “V” grip, place the kettlebells with their handles forming a “V” pointing away from you.

To perform the double kettlebell clean, start by focusing on your breath. Breathe in on the hike, and then exhale as you extend your hips and drive those feet through the ground.

If you’re ready to take your kettlebell training to the next level and build full-body strength and endurance — it’s time to take advantage of the hardstyle kettlebell snatch.

Cleaning Up

Kettlebell cleans are both great solo exercises and fun transition movements to take advantage of. With the kettlebell clean on its own, you can focus on building muscle and refining your technique — or you can try it out as an intense sprint at the end of your kettlebell workout to really push yourself. When used in a continuous flow of movements, you can build full-body strength, endurance, and power with this seamless transition element.

Remember to always master the basics of proper kettlebell technique before you move on to more advanced movements or heavier weights. It’s time to start celebrating when it’s “cleaning” time!

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About the author:  Damali Fraiser

Coach Damali is a StrongFirst Certified Level 2 Kettlebell Instructor and a GGS Certified Pre- and Postnatal Coach, and she holds her Precision Nutrition Level 1 and Flexible Steel Level 1 certifications. She owns Lift Off Strength & Wellness, a body-positive kettlebell studio in Brampton, Ontario. Damali is also passionate about Muay Thai, and was the CSC National Champion (+70kg) in 2014. She’s the executive director of SHEspars, a non-profit organization advocating for women in Muay Thai, as well as a Qualified Poo Choi Kru (assistant instructor) and a judge/official for Muay Thai Ontario. She’s a wife and a proud mother of two teenage daughters. You can also learn more about Damali on Facebook and Instagram.

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