Learning to perform the Hardstyle Clean

The Kettlebell Clean gets it’s name from the act of picking the weight up to shoulder in one clean movement.  It is a great conditioning technique all by itself and a great transition move for use in combinations and complexes.  Senior RKC Dan John uses the Kettlebell Clean to pack on muscle and builds his athletes ability to withstand physical punishment during contact sports.

One highly disturbing question I get often from uncertified Kettlebell trainers is
“How can I perform the Clean without the kettlebell crashing into my [wrist, shoulder,collar bone, or head]” 
From my experience, when a kettlebell is consistently crashing into your shoulder or collar bone during cleans it’s because you are essentially attempting to perform a barbell clean with a kettlebell.  The unique shape of the kettlebell allows for different technique than barbell cleans, which actually makes kettlebell cleans safer AND easier  [ unless done for high reps ].

Once you have built a good foundation of practicing kettlebell swings under a qualified instructor it should only take one or two session to learn to perform the clean safely.

Double Kettlebell Clean
Midway through a Double Kettlebell Clean at the June 2008 RKC Instructor Certification Course.

The kettlebell clean requires a strong & fast hip movement to get the weight up into position. I think this is best learned by using a bell that is too heavy for you to curl into position. From my experience, if the bell is too light the client will always use the arms to drive the movement instead of the hips.

Here is the progression I use to teach the Hardstyle Clean.
It starts with a static movement: the plank and progresses to the deadlift, the swing and eventually the clean. Depending on the client and their level of experience I may be able quickly review or skip certain stips if they’ve been previously mastered. 


  • One-Minute Plank: Perform a rock solid, ram-rod straight plank and hold it for one minute. (Shaking is fine, sagging is not)
  • Learn to deadlift: The hip hinge and back position for the clean is identical to the hip hinge for the deadlift.
  • Learn the two handed hardstyle swing
  • Learn the one arm swing

Learning the Clean
Once you can perform the plank, deadlift, two-handed swing and one-hand swing to RKC standards you can begin practicing cleans.  If any of the techniques listed above are questionable, stop now and return to the basics.

  • Short “T-Rex” Arms
    This is simply teaching you how to keep you armpits shut and elbows glued to your side during the clean.  It is demonstrated without a kettlebell. It should be obvious from the name that this position resembles a child imitating a T-Rex’s short arm position. If your elbow separates from your side or your armpit opens up the kettlebell will either be too heavy to clean because you’ve increase the lever length and effectively multiplied the weight of the bell… or it will sail up over shoulder height then crash down hard against your wrist, shoulder, collar bone or head.
    From this T-Rex position the path your hand takes upward should be up the center of your body as if you are zipping up a jacket. DO NOT allow your hand to swing outward outside the line of your hip and shoulder as this puts your elbow and shoulder at extreme risk of injury.
  • Cheat Clean to the Rack Position
    The cheat clean is  essentially curling the kettlebell into the rack position with both hands.
    It starts with a hike pass identical to the swing. As the kettlebell swings forward you will keep the short “T-Rex” arm position by keep your elbow pinned to your side.  The kettlebell will finish resting against the side of your arm nestled between your forearm and upper arm in the “Rack” position.  This position is like a standing RKC Plank and you are standing up ramrod straight. The sensation is as if you are holding the weight with your abs and diaphragm, not your back. From here the Rack is reinforced with some RKC style “tough love” drills and Racked Walks.
  • Learn the Drop from the Rack
    Once you are comfortable holding the kettlebell in the rack position the next step is to drop the bell. While keeping your armpit shut tight, simply let the kettlebell roll over the top or side of you hand into the same hike-pass motion used with the kettlebell swing with your thumb pointing to the rear, and let the kettlebell fly loose behind you. Obviously you should do this outdoors or somewhere where nothing or no one will get damaged.  The goal is let your arm go completely loose and redirect the force of the kettlebell backward instead of straight down.   Cheat clean the bell back into the rack position repeat.
  • Learn the Clean proper.
    Once you are familiar with the short arm position, the rack and the drop,  you are ready to start performing the clean for single reps.  From the rack position, drop the bell into the hike pass redirecting it’s energy backward. At the end of the hike pass, stand up (just like the swing). If you keep your elbow tight to your side the kettlebell will swing up in front you near belt level. Before the kettlebell stalls you should immediately accellerate the handle upward around the bell, this feels like you are about to upper cut your own chin.   The kettlebell should come to rest softly in the rack position. 

Don’t expect to “Master” the clean in one session.  The Clean requires good timing and finesse that takes time to develop. Until your technique is spot on doing too many cleans too soon will lead to bruising if you are letting the bell crash and that is UNACCEPTABLE . Similar to the Swing, the Clean is a mile deep as far as details go and is something you practice for a lifetime and continuously improve upon.

Here’s a simple workout to familiarize you with the clean while keeping your reps low.
5-10 Heavy One arm swings followed by 1 clean, then a racked walk. Switch hands & repeat.
The idea is to improve your technique the longer you go.
Stop the workout while your technique is still at it’s best.
Progress by performing either less swings or more cleans or both. 



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