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Detail Oriented Kettlebell Training

February 22, 2007 12:10 PM

Straighten your wrist, lockout your elbow, suck in your shoulder, tighten your glutes, finish your hips, pressurize. These are just a few things I say over and over when I'm training. My clients may think I am a broken record but practice makes permanent, and when they are with me their practice will be perfect. This is how I train my clients because this is how I train myself. I have always been a detail oriented person, and that is no different when it comes to lifting. The difference is in the details. That difference can affect progress, goals, and may mean the difference in a trip to the ER or making substantial gains. You cannot make dramatic gains or progress if you are hurt from using sloppy form. As a matter of fact getting hurt means a significant training set back.

Doing things correctly in the beginning pays off big in the long run. Steve Maxwell has said in his experience "once poor technique becomes a habit, it takes 10 perfect reps to rewire the body for each bad rep." Learning all the details is time consuming and requires concentration, but "a stitch in time saves nine." Take the basic kettlebell lift, the swing. I tell my clients that although the swing is the most basic drill, it's one of the most technical. As Brett Jones, RKC Sr. would say for the swing, "Still waters run deep." If you can pull off a smooth and simple looking swing, you are doing the right thing. It's not until the new girevik picks up the bell and attempts his first swing that he realizes it's a true butt kicker and a complex drill. I have personally witnessed many a man humbled by the "simple" swing.

Detail Oriented Training is the only way to train if you want to make serious gains fast. Paying attention to details will save you much time and much pain. Get down the basics; wire your system to do things right from the beginning and you will do nothing but progress in your training. RKC Sr. Brett Jones also says, "It's all easy until it's heavy." If you are training lighter in the beginning to focus on form, treat the weight as though it is heavy. As you progress to the heavier weight, your form will hold up under pressure.

I have seen nine common errors with new kettlebell lifters. All the errors can be fixed with a few simple corrections. Correcting what may seem like minor details in the beginning, again, will save you a lot of time and pain in the long run. If you bypass the details in the beginning, you are asking for pain in the end.

The nine most common mistakes I see gireviks make are:
  • Bent wrists
  • Bent elbows during overhead drills
  • Disconnected shoulders
  • Wide arc during cleans
  • Incomplete hip snap
  • Rounded backs
  • Weight on the toes during swings
  • Incorrectly distributed weight during Windmills
  • Trouble with Snatch grip and wrist banging
Bent Wrists
Bent wrists are one of the first things I spot. If you are looking at the weight, as you should in most of the KB lifts, the wrist is right there. If it's cocked back it can create a lot of stress on the joint and make your lift weaker, especially as you increase the poundage. Bent wrists are one of the most overlooked, yet easiest corrections to make. Make sure your wrists are straight in all lifts, including overhead squats, snatches, cleans, presses, and get-ups.

Bent Elbows
Most beginners have never seen anything resembling a get-up. Breaking down the movements into smaller fragments is often more manageable for new gireviks. The get-up sit-up is a good place to start. Be sure to look up at the bell during the get-up. This way you can not only see when you need to get out of the way of a falling bell, but you can keep the elbow and wrist in check. The elbow should also lock out at the top of your presses, which is another beginner mistake that is often neglected.

Disconnected Shoulder
A disconnected shoulder (meaning the shoulder is lifted away from the body ? not pulled tight and connected to the body) is a major pitfall of beginners and sometimes longer term kettlebell lifters. If the lifter is not in control of the bell, or if it is swaying wildly, that's a good indicator of a disconnected shoulder. If the shoulder is not properly "sucked in," one faces not only potential shoulder damage, but also unnecessary back strain. An excellent drill to correct this issue is taught at the RKC workshop.

Lie supine on the floor with one arm lifted up toward the ceiling. Have a partner gently pull on the lifted arm. Your arm will be pulled away from your body if it is disconnected, (or not sucked in). Correct this issue by bringing the shoulder down and in to your body. This movement will engage the much stronger and bigger lat. muscle of the back. Perform the partner drill again. With the shoulder down and in, your entire body will lift off of the ground as one unit. Mimic this feeling during the swing to protect the shoulders and the back. Also mimic this drill in overhead lockouts and during get-ups.

Wide Arc
Another basic drill that is literally painful for beginners is the clean. First and foremost, DO NOT OVER THINK THE CLEAN. If you do, you will bang your forearms every time. This is a problem I had up until about a month or so ago. Essentially, pin your upper arm to your side, and follow all the steps of the swing. Don't overdrive with the hips. Give the bell just enough energy to get to the 'v' of your forearm and upper arm. A good tip I picked up in Pavel's Russian Kettlebell Challenge is to visualize cleaning to your waist, not to your shoulder. Keep the bell as close to your body as possible throughout the movement and you won't torque your shoulders or elbows, and you won't bang your forearms. If you aren't training for a particular event, it is okay to keep your clean repetitions low.

Incomplete Hip Snap:
This is where most new gireviks get frustrated and confused. The swing is the best drill for teaching hip drive. Avoid the temptation to use your arms to muscle the weight up in a swing. Don't think of the weight as going 'up,' but rather out in front. Your arms should simply be a connection from your body to the bell.

If you are having trouble taking your arms out of the equation, try the towel drill. It is a practical drill I use that is taught at the RKC workshops. Loop a towel through the kettlebell handle, turn the bell so the handle is facing front to back instead of the typical left and right. Grab the towel by either end with your thumbs pointing downward. Assume the starting swing position. Hike the bell back and then quickly snap it forward. If done correctly, your arms, the towel, and the bell will form a straight line. Quickly return to the hiked position and repeat. Don't be concerned with the height of the bell in the beginning. Get the hip snap down first and then start playing with height variations. Once you understand the hip snap you will know how to manipulate the energy transfer, thus affecting the height of the bell.

Many people new to kettlebell swings are also tempted to lean backward when trying to execute the hip snap. Instead of leaning the upper body backward, visualize a straight line from your heels up through your legs and torso, and out the top of your head. (There is a great illustration of this in Pavel's new book Enter the Kettlebell!) Your body should form one straight line. Your arms and the bell should form another straight line. As described in From Russia with Tough Love, Pavel states you should "[contract] the glutes explosively, a motion similar to a vertical jump," this will help you complete the hip snap. One client I have claims that I "saved [his] back" by simply telling him to squeeze his glutes hard at the top of the swing.

Rounded Back
A rounded back is a sure way to get hurt and out of the game in no time. The temptation to let the shoulders creep up is very common and is asking for injury. Andrea Du Cane RKC, Sr. says to "keep your shoulders as far away from your ears as possible." I tell my clients to pinch their shoulder blades together and visualize their spine as a two-by-four, stiff and rigid. Keep your chest out as if you are a proud peacock. Hinge at the hips FIRST to begin your squats, deadlifts, and swings. I keep my fingers in the middle of client's backs and tell them to pinch my fingers with their shoulder blades as they descend. This drill helps them keep the shoulders in place and their chests out.

Weight on Toes During Swings
This is a real pet peeve of mine. I start emphasizing weight on the heels in my very first session with my clients during box squats. Because the box squat translates nicely to the swing technique, they learn right away how and where to distribute their weight. I often simply say "Heels" when the time is necessary to put the weight there and I keep contact with their heel during the lift as a subtle reminder. Having the client lift their toes is another obvious way to confirm proper form. Another sure fire way to know if the form is off is to watch the hip movement. If the movement is started correctly with the hips, the person's weight should consequently transfer to the heels. (The knees should not start bending before the hips; this is an incorrect start to the drill).

The windmill is a complex drill and too often rushed through. Take your time with it. After cleaning the bell, adjust your feet. I often see only one foot turned out. Both feet should be pointed in the same direction at 45?. In some variations of the windmill, it is acceptable to have the feet positioned differently. But for beginners, turn the feet out at the same angle.

If someone has a hard time figuring out just where 45? is, I have them make a 90? angle using both of their feet. They stand heel to heel with one foot pointing straight forward and the other foot pointing strictly sideways. From there I have them keep one foot stationary and rotate the other foot to the half-way point between where their two feet were. The stationary foot then falls in line at the same angle as the rotated foot, respectively.

Once you have your feet in the correct position, shift your weight to the same side that you cleaned the bell to. To make sure the weight is shifted to the back leg where it should be, I lift my front leg. Keep in mind that the windmill is a back resilience drill, not a hamstring flexibility test.

Snatch Grip and Snatch Wrist Banging
Advancing to the snatch from the swing can be a daunting and sometimes frightening step for new kettlebell trainers. A big ball of solid iron flying past your face to over your head is not for the faint of heart. I must emphasize the importance of the hip snap. Hip snap, hip snap, hip snap! Don't try this drill if your grip is fried, either.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Kettlebell Convention in Las Vegas in the spring of '04. I participated in the snatch test with very, very, VERY little snatching and even kettlebell experience. After ten minutes of the USSS snatch test, everything was fried. But my hands took the worst toll. I had to perfect my grip. Grip is usually the first thing to go in kettlebell endurance work.

At some point during the convention, Fireman Tom gave me a few pointers on improving my snatch technique. He showed me the high pull. It helped me with my hip drive, which took a lot of strain off of my grip. Instead of swinging the bell out, high pull it above your shoulder, punch through the handle, and there's your snatch. This helps reduce the velocity at which the bell is coming around from a swing style snatch, too.

When teaching the high pull, I tell my clients to visualize a string connected from their elbow to a wall behind them. As they are coming to the top of the high pull, I tell them to picture the string yanking their elbow straight back to that wall. I also use the popular "starting the lawn mower" analogy. Fear may ultimately be the deciding factor on your snatch. Do not be afraid of the bell. Fear will get you hurt.

Perfect your high pull. When you are comfortable and confident, punch through the handle at the top of your high pull and you have snatched the bell. I picked up another snatching tip from my husband, Mike. When I first started snatching, he told me to "beat the bell around the handle." I trained a guy at one of the squadron's here on Nellis Air Force Base a few weeks ago who was having problems with banging his forearms during his snatches. I told him to punch through the handle and beat the bell around the handle. He hasn't had problems since.

In most cases, a simple solution will fix a painful problem. Training improperly may not have immediate effects, but injuries will eventually rear their ugly heads and will hit you like a tons of bricks when you least expect it. Blowing your knees during a squat or slipping a disc at the bottom of a windmill is a bad time to realize you have technique problems. In most to all cases it isn't the drill that causes the damage; it's the poor form and follow through during the drill that causes trauma. It's like the age old saying, "It's not the device, it's the operator." So if you are still hurting during and after training, (as Rob Lawrence would say), "It's all your fault." Pay attention to the details and lift smart. Detail Oriented Training is training for success without pain or injury.

Sara Cheatham, M.S., RKC Team Leader is a Level II instructor and the only active certified kettlebell instructor on Nellis AFB, in Las Vegas, NV. Sara is available for workshops, consultations, military PT, group sessions, and personal training. Contact her at