kettlebell clean, squat and press

By combining high repetition kettlebell lifting with full-body kettlebell complexes, you can access a world of conditioning techniques suitable for use with athletes and everyday clients, says Emily Friedel.

The kettlebell started life as a counterweight for measuring out goods in Russian markets 300 years ago. Its potential for developing fitness only became apparent later when peasants started playing around with it, lifting it overhead, swinging and throwing it. Then the military got hold of it and found it to be a simple but highly effective tool for conditioning troops. Specifically, kettlebell training using high repetition, full-body lifts lent itself to training strength and power endurance that helped soldiers keep moving, lifting and carrying for extended periods of time. The kettlebell has also proved itself to be perfect for complexes because it can so quickly and fluidly be transferred from one exercise to the next.

Combining high repetition kettlebell lifting with full-body kettlebell complexes allows you to tap into a conditioning goldmine that can be used to supplement the training of a wide range of athletes, and for all-round fitness for everyday clients.
The kettlebell clean, squat and press complex works almost every muscle in the body in a balanced manner while simultaneously providing serious challenge to the cardiorespiratory system.

Where to begin and how to progress

The starting point with the kettlebell clean, squat and press complex is to master each of the lifts individually before chaining them together into one smooth flowing sequence.

Once technique has been mastered, there are several options for progressing:

  • Increase the weight of the kettlebell (but don’t go heavier than a weight with which you can perform at least five technically good rounds of the complex on each side, to ensure you’re lifting safely).
  • Increase the length of time you do the complex for, e.g. you may start doing a minute each side and eventually progress to 2 minutes each side.
  • Reduce the number of times you swap hands, e.g. you may start doing 4 minutes, switching hands every minute, and progress to 4 minutes with a single hand, switching at the 2-minute mark.
  • Increase your pace. Start with a certain number of rounds of the complex, time yourself and aim to reduce the time it takes tocomplete the same number of rounds.

The kettlebell clean

Before you start ‘cleaning’ you need to have mastered two kettlebell lifting essentials: the one arm swing and the rack position. You can think of it as having two targets for the clean (the end of the backswing and the rack position), and then moving as directly as possible between the two.

The one arm swing

To perform the one arm swing:

  1. Stance: begin with a comfortable, stable stance, feet roughly shoulder-width or slightly wider apart. Start with the kettlebell between your feet so the handle is in line with your heels.
  2. Pick up the kettlebell: soften your knees and hinge at the hips, keep your spine neutral. Pick the kettlebell up on the inside corner (so if you’re picking it up with your left hand pick up near the right side of the handle). Use the ‘finger lock’ (thumb over forefinger) and let the other three fingers just cradle the handle.
  3. Stand up: fully extend your legs
    and hips.
  4. To start swinging: gently ‘bump’ the kettlebell off your leg and let it swing back behind you.
  5. Power with the lower body: when your torso reaches a roughly 45 degree angle, stand up again to propel the kettlebell forward.
  6. Finish square: at the top of the swing retract the scapula of the swinging arm and be sure to square your chest up so the swinging shoulder isn’t dragged forward.
  7. Let the other arm swing: the non-lifting arm should mirror the swinging arm and should remain very relaxed.

The rack position

These are the essentials for a stable, safe kettlebell rack position:

  • Handle position: The handle should sit diagonally across your palm so that the pressure of the handle is on the heel of your hand and the handle is locked in on the forearm (there should be no gap between the handle and forearm). You can’t hold the kettlebell in the same way you’d hold a dumbbell because it has what is termed a ‘displaced centre of mass’, i.e. the centre of mass sits away from the handle rather than being in the middle of it (as it is with a dumbbell).
  • The ‘V’: The kettlebell should rest in the ‘V’ created by your biceps and forearm. When this ‘V’ is set up properly it should be very stable and reasonably comfortable. A good test is to apply downward pressure to the kettlebell: if it feels stable without you actively resisting the downward pressure, you’ve likely got a solid position.
  • Elbow-body contact: Aim to have your elbow in contact with your body – this connection provides stability and a point for power transference from the lower body to the kettlebell. Your hand should be around the midline of your body, with the elbow positioned laterally to the hand so that your arm forms the ‘V’ shape.
  • Straight legs: Straight legs ensure the lower body helps to support the weight properly and gives the quads a bit of a rest. Ideally, the weight of the kettlebell should sit directly over the hip joint and heel.

Once you have the one arm swing and rack position down pat, you can start working on the clean with what’s called the ‘Top Down Drill’:

Use both hands to get the kettlebell into the correct rack position, then let the kettlebell roll off your body into a swing. Perform a couple of swings, then use both hands to bring the bell back up to rack, and repeat.

Only when you can perform the Top Down Drill smoothly should you try bringing the kettlebell back up to rack. The greatest challenge lies in getting the kettlebell handle to land in the correct position on your hand and avoiding impact on your forearm and biceps.

There are three keys to a comfortable landing with the clean:

  • Bring the kettlebell up close to your body (it should start moving up as soon as it passes in front of your knees), rather than swinging it out in front of you then trying to pull it back into the rack.
  • Completely release your grip in order to slide your hand through the handle, rather than having the kettlebell flip over your wrist and hit your forearm.
  • Bring your hand straight up the centreline of your body from the backswing into rack – the more direct this path and the less lateral movement there is, the better.

The rack squat

The rack squat is very straightforward. Once you have a solid rack position as described above, you just need to squat, keeping your elbow tracking vertically (so that it finishes on the inside of your legs).

The kettlebell overhead press

As with the clean, you first need to understand your two ‘targets’. For the overhead press these are rack position and overhead lockout.

Here are the essentials for a safe, stable overhead lockout position with the kettlebell:

  • Locked arm: As with any overhead lockout, your arm should be completely locked out so that it is fully extended (the exception being those who are hypermobile who should stop at anatomical lockout).
  • Externally rotate your shoulder a fraction: Do not position the palm of your hand parallel to your body overhead, as you do with a dumbbell or a barbell, as this would position the kettlebell directly over your head (which is unsafe) – and as you fatigue there is a tendency for the kettlebell to pull you further in that direction, resulting in stress on the shoulder joint and a danger of dropping the bell on your head. Instead, when using a kettlebell turn your little finger in slightly towards your body (externally rotating the shoulder), so that your hand is on a roughly 30 degree angle.
  • Pull your shoulder down: Use your upper back muscles to pull the shoulder down into its socket (rather than shrugging the shoulder up) to get into a more stable position and avoid too much tension in the neck and upper trapezius.
  • Make sure your arm is vertical: A vertical arm is a stable arm with the kettlebell.
  • Use your lower body: The weight of the kettlebell should sit over your hip and your heel in overhead lockout: this way your lower body is helping to support the weight and will make your overhead lockout position more stable. This position will require a slight anterior tilt of the pelvis and good thoracic extension.

The hardest part of performing the overhead press is getting rack and overhead lockout position right – once that’s done, the press itself is actually very simple: all you need to do is lift the kettlebell straight up overhead (so your elbow tracks in a vertical line, avoiding any horizontal movement or twisting).

Emily Friedel, BSc
Emily is a world champion kettlebell lifter and Australia’s first ‘Master of Sport’ in the discipline. She has been using kettlebells with her personal training clients for over five years and is passionate about helping other trainers use kettlebells safely and effectively. A WKC Master Trainer with the Australian Kettlebell Club, Emily’s blog can be found at