Recently in Kettlebells Category

In about May of 2003 I discovered CrossFit when I typed "pull-ups" into an Internet search engine and, no surprise, it appeared high in the results list. I read through the workouts posted on the CrossFit site and was both amazed and skeptical. Who does 100 pull-ups in a workout?! Anyone capable of doing ten was considered a superman in the gym. And who combines lifting with "cardio" for rounds for time? That wasn't what I read in the bodybuilding magazines, and it sure wasn't what the powerlifters in my gym did. I was intrigued and figured I had nothing to lose.

I had joined a gym in 1981 when I finally got sick of being obese and weak. I started with "20 sets per body part" Muscle and Fitness-type bodybuilding workouts, and then moved into competitive powerlifting when I realized I had actually become fairly strong. After sustaining several shoulder injuries and becoming disillusioned with the use of support gear, I stopped powerlifting and was again going through the motions of non-productive lifting routines until CrossFit changed the way I thought about what a workout could be and the results I could get.

In the beginning, I picked through the posted CrossFit Workouts of the Day (WODs), attempting the ones I thought I could manage and posting my results.

The push press and jerk are essential functional exercises in the CrossFit toolbox. These movements can easily be adapted from traditional barbells to dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, etc. In this article, you will learn how to perform the double-kettlebell push press and jerk. To get there, we must first cover the proper method of cleaning two kettlebells and establishing a comfortable rack position.

Double-kettlebell clean

1. Set two kettlebells on the ground in front of you, handles on the diagonal (photo 1).
2. Take a slightly wider stance than you would to clean one kettlebell.
3. Set your grip in the corners of the handles (photo 2).
4. Keeping your head up and back straight, extend your legs and pull (i.e., hike) the kettlebells up in a backward arc between your legs (photo 3).
5. Once the kettlebells reach the back end of the arc, explosively extend your knees and hips to drive the kettlebells forward and up, cleaning them to the rack position (photos 4, 5, and 6).

Caution: It is imperative that you unwrap and tuck your fingers as the kettlebells reach the rack position (photo 7). If you forget, it will be a "self-correcting," since tucking your fingers will keep them from accidentally getting crushed between the two handles. Trust me, it will only happen once!

The Kettlebell Press

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Pressing weight overhead has been one of the classic tests of strength for centuries. Pressing barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, logs, bodyweight, etc. all have their place in a well-balanced training program, and all offer slight variations in stimulus and technique. Kettlebells, like dumbbells, have the advantage of permitting either one-arm or two-arm lifts, and they are biomechanically easier on the elbows and wrists than barbells and most odd objects. Regardless of the implement used, the tips and techniques outlined in this article will increase your strength and safety while pressing your implement of choice. The difference is in the details.

I know many people who have completely removed pressing movements from their training programs because they tend to aggravate a chronic wrist, elbow, shoulder, or back injury. If this is true for you, try the exercises below and pay attention to the subtle techniques of generating maximal tension before completely throwing in the towel on presses. Begin with a light weight, be patient, and practice the high tension skills outlined below.

The TGU overhead squat is the final progression in this series on kettlebell get-ups. It is an outstanding exercise that requires and develops balance, strength, stability, and flexibility in the ankles, knees, hips, upper back, and shoulder girdle. This exercise is an advanced progression that may initially prove too challenging for some people. It is commonly very challenging for those who fit the profile of "mature" male athletes with "high mileage," or others with a lifetime of acute and chronic pre-existing injuries resulting in various range-of-motion limitations.

If you fall into this category, do not despair. Focus your efforts on what you can do (i.e., maximizing your performance of the tactical TGU and gradually working your overhead squat at light weight). Over the years I've been doing and teaching this move, I've noticed that women often seem to transition to this exercise more naturally than men.

There is an art to kettlebell lifting and it begins with selecting a formula for success. This article aims to highlight differences among kettlebell training methodologies and to help you understand these differences so you can maximize the productivity of your kettlebell lifting practice.

If you ask someone why they do something a certain way and their answer is "because that is the way it was taught" or "because that is the way everyone else does it," is that a sufficient reason to adopt the same way? I think that would depend greatly upon the performance of the person doing that thing.

It is performance that drives the CrossFit athlete, and it is performance that can be measured and tested. My opinion about kettlebell lifting styles is not necessarily important to your goals. However, rather than just my opinions, what I try to offer here is an analysis that allows you to test and evaluate the two methodologies with respect to your performance and progress.

I hope that Part 1 of this series, in last month’s Journal, motivated you to practice and experience the benefits of the Turkish get-up (TGU). Now let’s build on that foundation. Last month you learned the "arm-bar" stretch and the tactical TGU. In this issue, we will move on to the gladiator and explore implement alternatives for when kettlebells aren’t readily available.

The Gladiator
This move is a tremendous core and stabilizer strengthening exercise that seamlessly blends into the tactical Turkish get-up. To begin, grab a kettlebell and perform the sit-up portion of the tactical TGU.

Then, from the sit-up position:

1. Press the shoulder of your support hand (the hand that is on the ground) away from your ear. This is an important but often overlooked step. It puts your shoulder in a strong position. It keeps the shoulder "active," as when you are performing dips on parallel bars.

2. Simultaneously press off that support hand and your posted foot, lifting your hips off the floor. This will create the space necessary to slowly extend your left leg in front of you. The side of your foot is pressed firmly against the ground, and the knee on that leg is straight.

The Turkish get-up (TGU) is an outstanding exercise that develops strength, flexibility, and stability throughout the entire body. It has especially proven itself as an excellent prehabilitation and rehabilitation exercise for the shoulders. In addition, a mastered TGU will make all overhead exercises safer and easier.

Historically, the TGU was a staple exercise for old-time strongmen and wrestlers. It’s been said that in the days of old, this was the first and only exercise taught to many aspiring weightlifters to practice. Supposedly, no other exercises were taught or practiced until the pupil could perform the TGU with a 100-pound weight in either hand. At first, I thought this might have been just weightlifting folklore. However, I decided to make the 100-pound TGU a personal goal. After reaching this goal, I quickly realized the wisdom behind the methodology. First, it takes tenacity and commitment to conquer this feat of strength. Second, it slowly yet steadily builds a solid foundation of strength that nearly "injury proofs" the body, making it ready for more demanding training. Third, it significantly strengthens the major muscle groups, small stabilizing muscles, and connective tissues.

In the last issue, I outlined the basic mechanics, common errors, and corrective drills for the traditional kettlebell clean. This month, I will quickly cover two variations on the move—the dead clean and the bottoms-up clean—and then give you several challenging combination drills that incorporate them. These drills are best performed on a flat, level surface with a kettlebell that has a flat and even bottom.

The dead clean is a little more challenging than the traditional KB clean, which typically cycles immediately from one clean into the next, because it has removes momentum from the complex and because each rep begins and ends on the floor.
1. Place a kettlebell on the ground between your feet.
2. The starting position is the same as if you were going to perform a one-handed deadlift. Look straight ahead and keep your chest open and your weight on your heels.
3. Clean the kettlebell to the “rack” position (with the handle at shoulder height and the bell resting between the forearm and the biceps, almost in the crook of the elbow.
4. Return the kettlebell to the floor.
5. Repeat for reps or time on each side, or alternate hands after every rep.

Kettlebell Clean

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The clean is a traditional and versatile kettlebell exercise that everyone needs to master. Its original purpose was to provide a safe means to get one or two kettlebells in position for overhead lifts. The clean is the precursor for the military press, push press, double jerk, etc. The clean can be used by itself as an exercise for strength and endurance or in combination with bodyweight exercises or other high-repetition kettlebell exercises. Many combination exercises will be addressed in future articles. For now, lets concentrate on mastering the KB clean.

Contrary to the belief of many beginners, the KB clean is not supposed to be a forearm-toughening exercise! When properly executed, it should land as light as a feather and cause no bruising or pain to either the forearm or shoulder. Make a permanent “note-to-self”: Sharp pain, consistent pain, or bruising usually means one thing—you are doing it wrong! Stop, assess the situation, make the necessary corrections, and then move on. The goal is training—not maiming.

Once you have mastered the two-arm swing, H2H Swing, and Swing Release, it's time to move to the next progression: H2H (hand-to-hand) tapping drills. These drills are excellent for increasing your hand-to-eye coordination, hand speed, dynamic grip strength, and work capacity. When learning new H2H drills, it is best to practice multiple sets of low reps using a light kettlebell. Grass, sand, or a firm mat provide the best surface for such training. Develop skill first. Initially, the goal is mastery, not a workout. The "workout" will be a byproduct of practicing and perfecting H2H skills.

Tapping Drill #1: Swing Release and Tap Chest

Warm up with a series of two- arm swings and Swing Releases as described in the last issue of the CrossFit Journal (#53). As you become comfortable with those, it's time to progress through the "crawl-walk-run" phases to master the H2H tapping drills. Crawl Phase Using one light kettlebell, perform:
1. One repetition of the two- arm swing (photo 1).
2. One repetition of the Swing Release (photo 2).
3. One repetition of the Swing Release & Tap Chest. As soon as your hands let go of the kettlebell, quickly tap your chest (with the fingertips of both hands) and re-grip the kettlebell handle before it drops to below chest level (photos 3 and 4).
4. Repeat steps 1 through 3.

In the last two issues, I discussed the mechanics and fundamental movements of the two-arm kettlebell swing. Through proper, regular practice, your swing should now be more efficient, consistent, and powerful. Now it's time to move to the next progression: the one-arm swing.

Performing the kettlebell swing with one arm at a time makes it a more demanding exercise, even though the technique is the same as for the two-arm swing. You will quickly notice increased demands on your grip strength and stamina as well as increased core activation. In addition, any previously undetected technical deficiencies will soon become obvious. For these reasons, I highly recommend that you practice one-arm swings with a lighter kettlebell. If one is not available, then it is better to practice more sets with fewer repetitions in each.

Strive to work as hard as possible, while staying as fresh as possible. Fatigue is counter-productive when learning new skills.

The mechanics of the deadlift and the importance of achieving and maintaining lumbar and thoracic back extension during the deadlift are also essential when performing Olympic lifts or kettlebell swings, cleans, and snatches. The same holds true for Coach Burgener’s definition of the Olympic lifts as "a vicious extension of the ankles, knees, and hips that creates momentum and elevation on the barbell." This same "vicious extension" also takes place in the jumping movements of gymnastics and parkour. One movement, many applications—now, that’s inspiring.

Last month I covered three drills to improve your body mechanics, range of motion, power, and efficiency of movement as applied to the two-handed Russian kettlebell swing. Adding the wall squat, hip flexor recruitment drill, and hip flexor stretch that I describes into your daily warm-up should lead to a noticeable increase in your "jumping" performance. The kettlebell should feel lighter and move faster with less perceived effort.

This month I will discuss a few additional kettlebell swing errors and their remedial drills, and then move on to the power swing and American swing.

The purpose of this series of articles is to share specific kettlebell training tips and progressions to assist the CrossFit community in maximizing the full potential of their kettlebells. The kettlebell is an extremely versatile "old school" strength and conditioning implement. Used properly, it can build functional strength, stamina, flexibility, and amazingly rehabilitate old injuries. Used incorrectly, it can aggravate old injuries or quickly create new ones. The difference is in the details.

Remember, attention to detail and mastery of the fundamentals is what separates world-class performers from the rest of the pack. It is also the key to minimizing risk of injury. The goal is to train, not maim (ourselves or anyone else).

Veteran CrossFitters are very familiar with the two-arm swing. The swing is the foundation of kettlebell exercises. You will reap big dividends if you invest a lot of time in this drill. Uncorrected technical errors in the swing will only be magnified as you progress to the more sophisticated kettlebell lifts such as the clean, jerk, snatch, hand-to-hand (H2H) drills, etc. World War II veteran Sergeant Steve Prazenka said it best: "Learn it right, and you will do it right the rest of your life. Learn it wrong, and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get it right… and in battle, you meatheads that get it wrong—the rest of your life will be very short." Listed in the "Rules of Engagement" (following page) are proven teaching progressions that will help you to learn it right the first time and address common errors before they become habit.

The most strident objectors to the kipping pull-up advocated by CrossFit have been the kettlebell swingers. They despise our "sloppy" pullups. Other communities have been confused by kipping but are ultimately receptive to it after an explanation of our reasons. The reaction of the Kettlebell community has been to call us a cult.

I know how much they love swinging kettlebells, so here is my attempt to show that their flavor of Kool-Aid is really not that different from ours. The trajectories of the kettlebell swing, snatch, and clean are eerily similar to the trajectory of a kipping pull-up. Both use horizontal displacement to generate momentum along an arc that ultimately produces vertical displacement. In simpler terms, the backswing adds power to the movement. My grandpa had a good term for this motor recruitment pattern. He called it "the old heaveho."

Dragon Door's brochure claims, "Amazingly, the Russian kettlebell will make you good at many things you have not practiced. Gireviks report on our Strength Forum that they run faster, bend sixty-penny nails, bench or deadlift heavier, etc., just from lifting kettlebells. The only time they see the barbell, a nail, or running shoes is during the test!"

I put emphasis on the heavier deadlifts because it goes to show that the ballistic loading of kettlebell swings can improve your limit strength. If you look at Dragon Door's testimonial page, you will find no less than eight happy customers who report new personal records on the deadlift following a period of nothing but kettlebell work.


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