Unlock The Power of The Kettlebell Clean

By Karen Smith

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

This skill is often overlooked in most training programs, or treated as a transition movement to the rack position in preparation for others skills like the Military Press or Squats. However, the kettlebell clean is valuable and beneficial, as a stand-alone skill.

It isn’t one of the easiest skills to learn, but once you've mastered it, the kettlebell clean is one of the easiest to perform.

In this article, I’ll start with a step-by-step review of the kettlebell clean, then take a look at it as a transition exercise, discuss its importance for other exercises, and review some variations you can add to your program as stand-alone skills—but only after you have mastered the basics. In the final video I’ll show you some common errors with the kettlebell clean and how you can, well… clean those right up!

First Things First: The “Cheat Clean”

When working with someone new to kettlebells, or new to kettlebell cleans, I like starting with a modification called a “cheat clean.” Though its name may imply that this version of a kettlebell clean is somehow inferior or not the correct way to perform a clean, it’s actually a great movement to start with when learning to clean, and I use it with all my beginner students.

If you are a beginner and have never performed a kettlebell clean, or you’ve been doing cleans for a while, but keep bruising your wrists*, it’s a good idea to start with (or step back to) this modification, before progressing to a proper kettlebell clean.

*Note: A kettlebell clean should not be leaving bruises your wrists or forearms.

Make sure you understand the movement and stay safe—read the step-by-step cues below for the cheat clean as well as the proper kettlebell clean, then watch the video before you try these skills:

  1. Start by standing about a foot back from your bell with your feet about shoulder width apart or slightly wider.
  2. Hinge at the hips while keeping your feet planted and shins mostly vertical, pushing your hips back until you feel a slight hamstring stretch or “catch.”
  3. Maintaining a flat back and keeping your lats engaged, reach for the bell’s handle with your right hand using an overhand grip and place the left hand on the other side of the handle, keeping a loose grip over your the fingers of your right hand.
  4. In one smooth motion perform a two-handed hike (similar to the hike in a kettlebell swing), then stand up explosively.
  5. As the bell begins to come back toward the front of your body, do not allow your right elbow to lose contact with your ribs. Rather, bend at the elbow and “spear” your right hand up your body as if “zipping up” a jacket. The left hand remains on the bell’s handle for support.
  6. Finish with your bell in the crease of your bent arm, with your thumbs pointing at your right collar bone. Pause momentarily with your body in a standing plank position (core engaged, ribs down and aligned over your hip bones, neutral spine, glutes tight), then re-hike and repeat a few more times.
  7. Rest, and then perform the same thing on the opposite side.

Until you are smoothly finishing in the rack position consistently, I do not recommend doing cleans for a high number of repetitions.

How To Perform A Proper Kettlebell Clean

Stand in the same position as with the cheat clean above, only this time you will grab the bell only with the right hand. You can leave your left arm by your side.

All other steps are the same as above. It is important to note that the working hand and arm stay close to the body and the kettlebell should not be flipping and banging down onto your wrist.

Watch the video below for demonstration of the cheat clean and proper kettlebell clean before giving this skill a try:

Using The Clean As A Transition

The clean is often a transition step to get into the starting position for other skills such as the military press and squat. To stay safe and reduce the likelihood of an injury, this skills must be dialed in.

We have a saying at StrongFirst: “Your press is only as good as your clean.” If you clean a heavy bell, but it’s sloppy and knocks you off balance, you likely won’t be able to press it, or if you manage to press it, it won’t be with good, safe technique. The same holds true when doing front squats. If you do not have a solid clean—with a pause in the rack position with your abs braced—your squat will not be as strong. Cleans are also used as a transition to other kettlebell skills like the push press, jerk, and bent press.

When you realize just how important it is to have a good clean, you can see how spending some time building a solid foundation with each new bell size will help you improve your ability to perform each skill.

Adding Variety After Mastering The Basics

After you have mastered the kettlebell clean, you can begin to load it with heavier bells, or work on more challenging versions of the movement to add variety when training the clean as a stand-alone skill. The following are three of my favorite clean variations. Review the step-by-step cues, then watch the video to make sure you understand the movements.

1. Dead Clean

The dead clean is done without the hike pass.

  1. Begin with your feet about hip-width apart or slightly wider, and place the bell between your feet in line with your ankle bones.
  2. Hinge and grip the bell by the handle with your right hand.
  3. With an explosive hip drive, stand up straight as you pull the bell up your body into the rack position. Note: If you miss the explosive hip drive required here, this drill will turn into a very ugly (and possibly painful) bicep curl and you’ll miss the benefit of this skill entirely.

2. Bottoms-Up Clean

The bottoms-up clean can be performed in the same manner as the proper kettlebell clean or the dead clean, however in the final position the bell ends up balanced upside down in your hand, greatly increasing the difficulty level.

One of the many things I love about the bottoms-up clean is that it exposes any weak links in your core and/or grip strength. This skill requires full-body tension, from your feet all the way up to your shoulders. Without it, you won’t be able to keep the bell in the bottoms-up position. It will flip over (and bang up your wrist and forearm—ouch!).

Stay safe. No matter how heavy your regular cleans are, start with a very light bell for bottoms-up cleans, and work your way up.

3. Double Clean

The double clean is no different than the proper clean, except that you clean a bell with each hand simultaneously. This requires more grip strength and more hip drive, plus a slightly wider stance to allow enough room to hike both bells without hitting your knees.

Again, safety first! Start with lighter bells until you get the hang of doing a clean with two bells, and when you feel comfortable with your technique, progress to heavier bells.

Common Errors With The Kettlebell Clean

The three most common errors you might experience when learning to perform kettlebell cleans include:

  • disconnecting your elbow from your body
  • bending your wrist
  • bending your knees

In the video below, I review common errors and cues to help you avoid them.

As with any new skill, focus first on understanding and learning how to perform a basic clean correctly. Pattern and practice it with a lighter load, and only after you’ve mastered the basic movement, progress to using a heavier bell. In order to build a solid foundation and stay safe and injury-free, it’s important that you follow this approach. Though it is an often-overlooked foundation movement in kettlebell training, when executed correctly the kettlebell clean (and its many variations) is one of the keys to developing a strong, functional core and unlocking your explosive hip power.

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About the author:  Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person.

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