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Champion of the Clean

April 3, 2012 11:12 AM

DanJohn ART championclean
I think the fact that I was a lousy javelin thrower has actually made me a pretty good coach in the event. Not great, trust me, but I can get you better in the spear toss simply because I had such a hard mountain to climb. I’m not sure people realize how honestly horrible I was in the javelin until I started my Kettlebell training and followed the excellent advice of javelin coach Bill Witt. With a few simple Kettlebell exercises and some simple technical clues, I managed to add seventy feet to my javelin throw. I am convinced that this Track and Field event might be the most important reason that you and I can discuss "all things training" because we survived a fairly wild landscape with our ability to pick up a sharp stick and either defend ourselves or provide dinner.
Not long ago, I decided that my javelin throwers needed "something." Like an artist, coaching is sometimes as much about instinct and intuition as it is about applying physics to the human body. Actually, science can often lead one astray as did the famous biomechanical study of the shot put that determined that the second place thrower at the Olympics actually beat the winner according to the calculations. (If you remember the cartoon character "Foghorn Leghorn" and his attempts to outwit the young "Egghead, Jr.," you might have an insight into why the winner kept his gold medal even when the science geeks thought he got second place.)
So, I had this idea. My athletes have always complained about some kind of early season malady for javelin throwers. "Coach, my elbow hurts." "Coach, my shoulder hurts." "Coach, my back hurts."
My normal response has always been "So?" "Compassion" is not my middle name (it is "Arthur," actually and I have dinner at a Round Table every night…and that’s all true.). But, this year, I had already had an idea. Before the season began, I took them out to the back part of our campus where we have a set of Monkey Bars. If you ever want a full upper body workout in about a minute, swing from hand to hand across the Monkey Bars.
Hold on. Why do we call them Monkey Bars? In Wikipedia’s definition of "Brachiation," there is a very interesting description of the traits of brachiators:
"Some traits that allow primates to brachiate include short fingernails (instead of claws), inward-closing hook-like fingers, opposable thumbs, long forelimbs, and freely rotating wrists."
Sound familiar? Yeah, well, look in the mirror! As we so often say in the RKC community, the Monkey Bars (the Javelin Thrower Bars?) were actually "Reverse Engineering" the Javelin throw. In the same way that the upper body works in harmony to move from bar to bar mimics the movement of the javelin throw. Moreover, it is difficult to do this movement without an RKC approved "packed shoulder." And, for once, I didn’t hear about "this hurts" in the preseason.
And, like all my insights, this one kept gnawing at my brain for a few weeks. There was something "right" about this idea and I knew that it would help me (Help me. Help you! Where’s Jerry McGuire when I need him…) in my recent long venture into studying the potential of the kettlebell clean.
For the record, not long ago, I looked at the "Kettlebell Six," the six core moves of the RKC Kingdom (Snatch, Get Up, Press, Squat, Swing and Clean). It occurred to me that we had "Champions" of every movement with entire books being written about some (the Snatch and the Get Up come to mind) and others so insightfully drilled and corrected that there is literally an answer for every questions for the movements, even if you don’t have any questions!
And, then…the Clean. In response to any question about the Clean, the answer is usually something as uninspiring as "Well, um, it gets you in place for the press and, well, we teach it on Day Two." I felt we needed a "Champion of the Clean" and I laid the mantle upon my shoulders!
This is how I began a long dark journey into studying the Kettelbell Clean. As an Olympic lifter, I knew first hand the issues teaching the Kettlebell Clean as there are stunning differences between the Olympic version and the correct Kettlebell style. In the Olympic lifts, you finish with soft legs (think of a quarter squat position) to absorb the shock of the weight. Not so in the Kettlebell version as you strive to "zip up" the finish. From Enter the Kettlebell, Page 98, we read this:
"Tense your glutes and brace your abs—don’t suck them in, but wall them up as you would for a punch—to absorb the impact. Don’t rebend your knees."
In the Olympic lifts, we need loose, bendy wrists to catch the barbell in the clean with elbows high to not only secure the weight as you rise from the squat catch, but to allow a springy jerk. Again, the kettlebell is the opposite:
"The fist should be kept on a straight line with the forearm and there should be no bending of the wrist in any direction." Ditto with the kettlebell lifts. A limp wrist bent back is a guarantee of weakness and injuries. (ETK, 90)"
It’s funny to look at those first two points as the BULK of the teaching for a young athlete concerning the Olympic style clean is dealing with technique and timing of the squat catch and dealing with the constant issue of wrist flexibility and resulting pain in the forearms.
You might remember that we started this conversation with soreness and injuries in the javelin throw. Don’t worry, we will make the connections soon.
In the standards of the Kettlebell Clean, three points rang out to me:
  1. The kettlebell, the elbow, and the torso must "become one" on the top of the clean. 
  2. The shoulders must be pressed down.
  3. The arms must stay loose, and the hips must do all the work.
Number Three practically defines what we began to witness on the Monkey Bars. In addition, Number Four literally IS the definition of excellence in not only the throwing sports but probably the kicking and fighting sports, too.
The two points collided in my brain: Our javelin throwers were becoming better at the javelin by doing the Monkey Bars. They were getting stronger, more supple and remaining pain free by "becoming one." Moreover, they were learning to keep the arms loose and move through space with their upper body by using huge hip movements as part of their locomotion.
So, if the insights of the Kettlebell Clean helped me appreciate the relationship between Monkey Bars and Javelin throwing, wouldn’t it make sense to look at the Kettlebell Clean as a way to replace the Monkey Bars? All I can answer you with is a resounding: "Maybe."
So, I began to add a lot of Kettlebell Cleans to our training for all of our athletes. Oddly, an additional insight came from my athletes: "Coach?" Yes. "Hey, my arms having been getting bigger lately!" It was an interesting point and it led Pavel and me to an interesting concept that we are now calling "Armor Building." In our upcoming book, I note:
"I played varsity football for South City High back in the glory days (key Bruce Springsteen) and all my games were at night. My last game was played on Thanksgiving early in the morning. Hours later, when I normally would've been asleep, we ate Thanksgiving dinner. I was simply amazed at how much pain my upper arms felt from the banging of a game. Since that time, I've bought into the idea of armor building for football. There's no question that the more time one spends under load, the more hypertrophy that will result."
So, "Armor Building" is a term I used for Functional Hypertrophy; it is that extra mass that allows you to handle the contact and collisions of sports and life. Yes, it is possible to compete without a lot of mass, but for greater mileage consider a little padding of muscle.
The best exercises I know for Armor Building are:
Single and Double Cleans
Double Kettlebell Front Squats
The Kettlebell Press Variations
Zercher Squats
Suitcase Deadlifts
Snatch Grip Deadlifts
Bench Press
Curls (Try doing them with a Thick Bar!)
So, why do Kettlebell Cleans work the "guns" so well? To continue from our upcoming book:
"I hate being any kind of anatomy geek, but I need to add one thing: the Kettlebell Clean might be the best "gun," or bicep, exercise made. Now, every school kid knows how to "make a muscle" showing off the bicep and we soon learn that the twisting into the "guns" position is also a big key. The third function tips us off to why the Kettlebell Clean is superior for rapid gun advancement:
"The biceps brachii assists in forward flexion of the shoulder joint (bringing the arm forward and upwards). The short head of the biceps brachii also assists with horizontal adduction (bringing the arm across the body) when the arm is internally (or medially) rotated. Finally, the long head of the biceps brachii, due to its attachment to the scapula (or shoulder blade), assists with stabilization of the shoulder joint when a heavy weight is carried in the arm."
And, honestly, it makes sense. No part of the body works in isolation (well, maybe the "mind," but even then try losing it!) I discovered some amazing soreness in my lats after doing a recent "Cardio Clean" workout (see below) and I am convinced that when you do something that is both heavy and dynamic, good things happen. I nominate that as the understatement of the year.
The more I work and teach the Kettlebell Clean, the more simple insights I have and I am willing to share with our community. There are few technical cues that seem to need universal review.
First, the Clean is related to the Swing. Check that: it IS a SWING. Don’t dead hang clean the weight (and then wonder why you keep crashing into it!). In ETK, we are given the simple directions:
"Pick up a kettlebell, swing it back between your legs as if for a swing, and bring it to the rack in one smooth movement."
So, insist on "Hike Passing" each and every Kettlebell Clean, then zip up to the rack position. Remember, it is a Swing that finishes in the Rack. It is not a drop and flop backwards!
Herein lies the great issue with NOT Swinging the Kettlebell to start: You end up "Swinging." Okay, definition alert here: In Tommy Kono’s brilliant recent book, "Championship Weightlifting," he notes (page 132) the differences between "Pullers" and "Swingers." Folks, we want to be pullers, or better stated: we want to be Hike Passers. The Swing exercise is the RKC approved hip exercise that will burn fat and train jumping better than anything I know. Tommy’s concern is that many lean back away from the bar/bell well past vertical to accelerate to finish. He calls this the "Swing" as the body is countering the bar/bell by leaning backwards and causing a kind of "false acceleration."
In the RKC Community, we call this "slouching." Don’t do it. Yet, so many do. They are wrong.
In the Kettlebell Clean, it would be great to have a device that doesn’t allow any rearward movement beyond vertical of the upper back after the hip snap. It is easy to see, and even easier to hear, when this is done wrong. At the "finish" of this kind of Kettlebell Clean, the person’s upper body travels about a foot forward (to regain vertical) and the bell travels a foot backwards to meet the shoulder. Auugh. Listen for it. Watch it. Enjoy it when others do it. Don’t do it.
So, for clarity:
RKC Swing: Great movement, do it often.
Tommy Kono’s Swing: Awful movement, don’t do it ever.
Remember the sound advice from ETK (95):
"Throw the kettlebell behind you between your legs—not straight down. Just like the hike pass from football. The closer your forearm is to your groin, the better. The tighter the arc, the better. Taming the arc is a very important concept in kettlebell quick lifts."
Don’t start from a dead stop, a dead hang clean, or a plumb line position. Swing it and Clean it!
The Second great recent insight involves the elbows. Whereas wall cleans are a good start (protect your face!), many people, especially those from either Olympic lifting or a sport that does Power Cleans in training, want to do large, loud, big elbow movements.
Try to stress something I call "Quiet Elbows." You can also use the term "Small Elbows" or really anything you want to teach the movement as a Swing followed by a Rack with very little flair or movement from the elbows. I continue to flail my left elbow around too much in my Double Cleans. The Monkey Bars are actually excellent for teaching this: try doing a set with a lot of conscious arm bend and see how fast or efficient you move. The elbow should be "whippy" with the hands the tip of the whip, not the bend of the elbow. Take a few sets actively trying to "quiet" the elbow movements.
The third element I am stressing is a drill. I have noticed for a while something I call "Tick Tock Cleans." On the first rep, the body finishes just a little off vertical to the side away from the bell. On each successive rep, the athlete slowly comes up to vertical so that on the final rep, we have a suitable clean with a vertical snappy finish. Like a second hand on a clock, the athlete seems to "Tick Tock" to the top:
56, 57, 58, 59, Gong!
A quick side note here: a good coach doesn’t correct a thousand details per rep. In fact, the opposite would be true: one should strive to focus on one issue for a thousand reps. I remember asking a great high school football coach the secret of his success, he told me: "You just can’t let yourself get bored watching the same play over and over again. It’s really up to you to have the discipline to keep getting it right." So, when working with someone, find and fix the key issue. It’s amazing but true: if you fix the big problem, the little ones disappear, too.
Especially with Single Kettlebell Cleans, it is difficult to get the person to zip up both legs. I have been doing a very simple drill called "Off Leg Snaps." Feel free to find a better term as my originality has been wiped out by a lifetime of stealing and copying everything I can get my hands on. Very simply, during a Single Kettlebell Clean, place the off hand on the off leg’s Quad. After the hip snap, focus on "making a muscle" with the Quad. Squeeze the off heel deep into the ground and feel everything tighten up. This will end "Tick Tock" Cleans in about one set. Don’t worry if you need to come back to this movement over and over again. Especially with stronger males, there seems to be a tendency to want to simply "bully" the bell into place. This simple drill seems to cure that need.
I think the Kettlebell Clean has also been underappreciated as a cardio trainer. I know we have all explored the avenues of the snatch as a VO2 trainer and a Man Maker, but I would offer the "lowly" clean as an option. Let me offer an important point, too: since reading Mike Boyle’s "Advances in Functional Training," I have reassessed my opinions about certain things. Now, Mike doesn’t teach the KB snatch because of the wrist banging. Now, I am sure I hear our community scoffing at that, but Mike has an important point: if his client, say a young high school athlete, goes home and complains to mom about these bruises and the soreness, mom is going to stop writing checks to Mike and his business will go elsewhere.
My other concern about high rep snatches has been both grip issues: first, the grip goes out. Well, you might counter, you need more grip strength. Well, maybe so, but if our cardio workouts are getting cut because of grip issues, it seems like we have the "horse before the cart," or, whatever, as I never knew what that phrase meant anyway. The second issue is the tearing of the skin. Even well trained athletes with excellent technique find skin issues on high reps snatches. Again, if you have an athlete preparing for "this" yet is in the training room for skin tears, you may find your career on a short list.
I must also add this after conversations with some of the brightest names in our community: high rep snatches seem to lead to Brett Jones’s concept called "Uglystyle." I noticed in my own training that when I start to push the reps on snatches, the lock out becomes more and more dicey.
Can all of my objections to high rep snatches be addressed? Yes, of course. But, if you are coaching athletes, just remember that every minute you spend on overcoming something in the weight room or in a drill is time away from the actual performance of the sport. Moreover, if you become more famous for the perception that you are hurting your clients rather than helping, your income is going to be impacted in some way. This isn’t a "good" or "bad" discussion, merely some observations and thoughts about our approach to fitness. If you feel like you need another option, consider the Cardio Clean.
So, what is the "Cardio Clean" workout? It is very simple on paper and a bit harder in reality. For a massive hit to the body, do them with Double Kettlebells, but for most of us, like me, I choose the single bell. It is simply a set of Cleans, followed by an active rest with the single front squat (or Double) to rest the grip and keep things ratcheted up.
Let’s start with the Left Hand:
8 Single Kettlebell Cleans
3 Single Front Squats
Swing and Switch Hands
8 Single Kettlebell Cleans
3 Single Front Squats
Swing and Switch Hands
5 Single Kettlebell Cleans
2 Single Front Squats
Swing and Switch Hands
5 Single Kettlebell Cleans
2 Single Front Squats
Swing and Switch Hands
3 Single Kettlebell Cleans
1 Single Front Squats
Swing and Switch Hands
3 Single Kettlebell Cleans
1 Single Front Squats
It’s a simple gasser where you end up with 32 Cleans and 16 Front Squats. Try it with a heavy bell (I use my 28 although certainly one could use less or more) and note the impact throughout the body. Notice how the squats are minimal, I would recommend you keep them in the range recommended. On the cleans, doing more than eight with a heavy bell seems to begin to sneak into the area of technical issues, although your mileage may vary.
So, there you go: I’m still experimenting and learning with the clean. I offer some insights and ideas here to improve yourself and those you work with in the gym. But, I’m not done. I am still looking for the Holy Grail of the clean the Alternating Double Kettlebell Clean, but I can’t make it work for everyone. Yet.

Dan John, Master RKC, is the Strength Coach and Head Track and Field Coach at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah and a full-time on-line religious studies instructor for Columbia College of Missouri and contributing writer to "Men's Health." Originally from South San Francisco, Dan came to Utah to throw the discus for Utah State University and never left. Dan has Masters degrees in history and in religious education, as well as intensive work at the American University in Cairo, University of Haifa, and Cornell. Dan has written articles for "Catechetical Update" and "Utah Historical Quarterly," as well as being a columnist for the Intermountain Catholic. In addition, Dan writes articles for a variety of strength magazines and publishes a little newsletter called "Get Up" which registers up to a quarter of a million hits a month. Dan has been teaching for over twenty-nine years.
At home, he is humbled by his lovely wife, Tiffini, whose middle name is not "long suffering" no matter how often it is repeated and his two daughters, Kelly and Lindsay. At home, Dan wins arguments with the dog.
Currently, Dan is the reigning 50+ Master Pleasanton Highland Games champ, holds the American Record in the Weight Pent and holds numerous National Championships in weightlifting and throwing and maintains a full-time free internet coaching site.
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