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Kettlebell Training

By John Davies, Founder Renegade Training

A number of years ago I was contracted by a very large University to develop their Football teams off-season training program. At that stage the team was firmly entrenched in last place of their conference and few considered a chance of success likely. After visiting with the coaching staff and observing their training my initial thoughts were that while they were using "fine" exercises in their training but within my many concerns, they lacked the challenges and diversity required to become a successful team. The workout program that I developed was tough, exhausting and pushed them beyond what they thought they were capable. To be successful, the athletes would have to rise up, bond as a team and leadership would need to come from within. The sessions were never easy, nor were they ever intended to be but through that off-season they learnt how to overcome adversity and become a top-flight group of athletes that worked together as a team. And in that one year that I was with the program, they went from dead last to winning one of the most storied conferences in the NCAA. In an era of "image is everything" it's nice to see one place where "getting the tough-job done" is the only thing that you need to say. The secret to their success came on many fronts and I don't want to minimize any of them. However, in many ways it was the acclimation to chaos and the ability to adapt to "the fog of war" that pushed them beyond their own pre-conceived notions and other teams when things got tough, they were made of the mettle to dominate. While others prepared for the stabile and safe environments, they prepared for devour their competition. They not only learned the great lesson that exercise / training is meant to teach; overcome adversity but equally from the physicality vantage of their training, it reinforced proper concepts of training and developed a powerful general athletic base that would springboard their specialized skills. Unfortunately in today's training environment "general athleticism" has went the way of the wholly mammoth (for those not up on paleontology, read "extinct") and young athletes have few examples to follow. Movements and exercises that were once considered "basic" are now oh-so challenging and often eliminated from curriculums in lieu of "simple" exercises, in essence teaching through the example that challenges are something to be avoided. Oddly, the worst example of this is not the general public but the loosely defined "expert" who publishes in this "profession" or trains / coaches others, yet whose own level of general athleticism / technical skills are so deplorably poor that their training ideas have been manipulated whether knowingly or not to suit this lower level. Gradually the state of the athletic training as seen such a tremendous lowering of the bar and an over-simplification to the point that training has become watered-down, shrouded in mystery and barely a challenge. Simple tumbling, the classic Olympic lifts, not to mention more standard training mediums of the past such as swimming, obstacle course work or rope-climbing are rarely considered because general athleticism has been allowed to sink to such wretched levels matched by a weakening of the spirit. Simply said, many great movements and training mediums are being "sold" as complicated but in-fact are quite easy for a real athlete / coach of another era. For any individual looking to teach, coach, train themselves or others they should, like great coaches of the past, be able to confidently handle a wide variety of challenges and training mediums. It's not a debatable point but a basic fact that needs to be dealt with. One such training medium that is a tremendous tool for all individuals, that many find quite complicated to use but is in-fact extremely simple, is the kettlebell. The kettlebell has a long and rich history in the iron game that dates back centuries. However, for whatever reason, the kettlebells popularity waned and slowly disappeared from mainstream exercise catalogs by the very early 1970's and only re-appeared recently. Of course like many vestiges of the past that have been forgotten, the kettlebells value within any exercise program is tremendous and thankfully is growing in popularity. The great brilliance to the kettlebell is that is has a multitude of uses for a wide spectrum of individual needs from general training to an advanced athlete and quite obviously is highly transportable. It is tremendous medium to teach and implement proper hip thrust that is so important in virtually every major lift, a superior tool to most training mediums in the acceptance of force and amongst its many other benefits, for advanced lifters it can a astonishingly effective form of General Physical Preparation. One very surprising element and quite contrary to public opinion to kettlebell lifting is that the learning curve is extremely steep and a first time user can become quite proficient in a short period of time if and I will stress, if they learn the right way and not become mired in making the lifts seem for too complex or mystical. Oddly as you re-visit the Renegade Concepts of TrainingTM which stress proper postural alignment in movement generation, acceptance and re-direct of maximal force you will see quickly how this is extremely apparent within proper KB lifting technique. Simply stated as you learn to "root" (that being your legs "rooted" into the ground) and initiating force with your hips, glutes and hamstrings, the major KB lifts will become significantly easier. In unique twist of events because of the KB is extremely easy to learn technically, once you capture the approach of driving with your legs, executing your lifts with much greater loads (i.e. with "KB doubles") is relatively simple. Because of this and the rationale to place greater loading on the trunk (and thus legs), I recommend the wearing of the XvestTM (as seen in photos) while lifting with KB's (doubles preferred) for seasoned lifters who will likely require the extra resistance and wish to promote even greater development of their lower body.

The basics of kettlebell work really revolve around a few major movements that are used in Renegade TrainingTM known as "Focus Lifts" and are merely a simple change of medium (as is the case with non-conforming objects as well). In the first stages of learning proper use of the kettlebell it is important to tackle the major lifts as follows:

  • Swings
  • Power Clean
  • Power Snatch
  • Push Press / Push Jerk / Split Jerk
As we go through the technical side of the above lifts you should note that I have listed protocols in a very simplified and straight-ahead manner on purpose. They are specifically presented in this approach so that you do not over-complicate the movements and become intimidated. In each of these photos I have combined the Iron Woody kettlebells with the XvestTM to further enhance the load and training effect. Please note, with each of these lifts the trunk should be in powerful, tight and stable position while the angle of the hand grip to forearm region should be firmly held strong and straight on the bell. Do not allow the wrists to flip at any time. Pay careful attention to that rule of thumb and never deviate from it.
  • Swing
    Standing upright with feet slightly shoulder-width apart and holding bell with hands closed together. Push hips / buttocks back with bell shooting behind you. Do not, I repeat do not allow the back go beyond a neutral back position. From this position, your hamstrings are "locked and loaded" and you should vigorously thrust the hips up and forward thus projecting the bell with your hips. As the bell reaches eye level and above, allow it to release and swing down, reversing your position, accepting force easily with bent legs and continue through the movement for a desired rep range of 12-15 per set. This is a highly effective and taxing movement to help the lifter assimilate to generating explosive movement from the hips. While repetitive, I need to stress never allow this movement to degrade and become more of a back / upper body lift. This movement should be done near the start of a training session to once again, promote proper hip movement and I will equally do this between training days as a form of weighted general physical preparation.
  • Power Clean (shown with doubles)
    This is an extremely simple lift that can be learnt in a remarkably short time. However, there are a few things I wish to stress in teaching the kettlebell Power Clean. First and this will seem odd, do not over complicate this movement, you are simply lifting the KBell "enough" to perform the catch and anything above will only cause problems with the catch and the bell striking the forearm harshly. Secondly, consider the arm position similar to that of a boxer in protecting their ribs ? never allow the elbow to be positioned far from the protective area against the ribs. Thirdly always lower the bell in a safe manner, in essence reversing the execution of the lift and never allowing the elbow to "turn out" away from the body. Stand upright with feet slightly shoulder-width apart. If you are performing with one bell, place hand in middle and opposite to side or on hip to aid with balance. In the event you are performing with two bells (as shown), you can elect based upon personal preference to hold kb's between knees or to the outside. To initiate movement push hips / buttocks back. Once again do not, I repeat do not allow the back go beyond a neutral back position. From this position, begin explosively driving hips up and forward, projecting elbows upward relatively close and tight to the body, rising up on your toes. As the kettlebells approach mid sternum level, shoot the elbows through, akin to an upper-cut, held strong against the rib cage and allowing the bell to smoothly land against the forearm, nestled on the bicep / deltoid region while you simultaneously dip slightly underneath to "soften the catch". While maybe this might seem like an obtuse metaphor to some but I liken it to fielding a hot ground ball, seamlessly absorbing it up into your glove. At the completion of this part of the lift your fists will be pointed directly towards your chin and your body has absorbed the downward force. With the weight now resting, lift the elbow ("the flipper"), thus allowing the bell to smoothly descend in reverse order of the lift and begin the next repetition.
  • Power Snatch
    I wish to heavily stress the mechanics of this lift as I only lift it in the "pull-through" fashion as opposed to "swing" style, given that the pull through places greater emphasis on leg drive and is less likely to overly stress the lower back and shoulder capsule. Once you learn the pull-through style you will find this lift extremely simple technically but a powerful overall muscle builder. Standing upright with feet slightly shoulder-width apart. If you are performing with one bell, place hand in middle and opposite to side or on hip to assist with balance. In the event you are performing with two bells, you can elect, based upon personal preference to hold kb's between knees or to the outside. To initiate movement push hips / buttocks back. Do not, I repeat do not allow the back go beyond a neutral back position. From this position, drive the hips up and forward in an explosive thrust projecting the hands upward. As the momentum of the movement accelerates the bell above your chest region, you will begin turning your hand as if reaching for the top flight of a ladder / wall when climbing, in essence safely turning your hand and allowing the kettlebell to safely rest against your forearm. Like in the Power Clean, you will absorb the force of the bell softly with a very slight dipping of the knees and rebound to standing position. In returning the weight to the start position, I prefer in early stages to lower the weight safely to the shoulder as the Clean and then "flipper" it down.
  • Push Press / Push Jerk / Split Jerk
    Possibly the finest lift in developing explosive power, the Split Jerk along with the Push Jerk and Push Press are superb movements with the kettlebells. As with all the other movements I have elected to wear the XvestTM to further emphasize hip / leg drive with added weight on the trunk. In the example above with kettlebell doubles cleaned, you begin the drive phase of the lift with a slight dipping of the knee's and then powerful thrust up with legs as if jumping, projecting the load upward as you simultaneously launch in the deep split lunge position and catch bells. With bells locked firmly upright "drive" back leg forward to standing position, lower bells while dipping at knees to softly accept force and begin next repetition. In the Push Press variation the lift is performed in precisely same manner except legs do not perform the split and the weight is "caught" with legs straight. The standard (without the pictured split) Push Jerk is performed with catching the kettlebells with bend at the knees, then straightening to standing position.
So there you have the first four kettlebell lifts you will need to learn. By following this simple and effective plan you can learn and ultimately through practice, master this great training medium. We will continue to look into kettlebell training and a multitude of exercises so you can learn proper and safe training techniques in simple and cost effective manner. As I say this I wish to note that as we move forward into the next frontier of training, make sure that you as coach, trainer or athlete take the time to learn and master many training mediums. The rich history of the Iron Game depends on each of us being ambassadors for the next generation so that they can pass it on. Amongst these easy to perform lifts, the greatest lesson to be taught is that there are no limitations, there are no boundaries and are no mountains you cannot overcome. Challenge your greatest challenges, fear not your greatest fears. Learn to overcome adversity and make your dreams a reality.
John Davies, Founder Renegade Training Chat Live with Coach Davies in the Renegade Training forums and learn more on the upcoming series of Renegade Training Camps where you can learn how to master everything from kettlebell and Olympic lifts to highly advanced Med ball training.