The goal of most strength and conditioning programs is to increase their athletes ability to produce force at higher velocities, which is known as power. There are a number of methods and exercises that can be used to develop power, such as plyometrics, medicine ball throws, loaded jumps and utilizing the Olympic lifts.
The Olympic lifts seem to be a staple of many collegiate strength and conditioning programs because of the high power outputs that can be developed with the lifts and the many benefits that can be achieved through the movements. The two lifts that make up competitive Olympic weight lifting are the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch. I haven’t seen many programs that utilize the Clean and Jerk in conjunction but separate the movement into two different exercises along with the snatch. Talking to most coaches, it seems as the clean is utilized by a large majority as an indicator exercise (test exercise) and becomes a primary focus of the training program. The following is an account of my personal experience of how we don’t perform the clean anymore as part of our programs. I hope it makes you think and you can better assess why you do what you do as a coach.
The clean has been a primary exercise in my training programs with all athletes since 2001 when I started training teams on a full time basis. This changed in 2004 when I started working with basketball and had a coach that didn’t want to perform the movement for fear of risking injury. I obliged and utilized other movements to develop power and started seeing great results with vertical jumps and sprint times. I continued to use these methods with my basketball athletes and continued to utilize the clean with my other athletes as I felt it was a fantastic movement to develop power and athleticism.
I came to Quinnipiac University in 2008 and began working with both Men’s and Women’s Ice Hockey and Men’s and Women’s Basketball. I continued to teach the clean to my hockey athletes but not to my basketball athletes. After our first year of training, our clean average for both hockey teams went up 25 lbs. but our vertical jumps did not go up accordingly. I started to look back at my athletes verticals from Holy Cross and noticed that their verticals didn’t improve as well as their cleans had and started to assess why I was performing the movement if it wasn’t improving our power based on the vertical jump. Were we just becoming more efficient at cleaning? Could we better utilize our time developing power performing another movement? I started to take notice of what position seemed to be the weak point in the clean (I’ve always implemented the clean from the hang position) and noticed that it was the above the knee position. This was also the position that we would jump from, so my thought process was to increase the amount of force we could develop from this position and then program jumps and throws for our power development. We tested our vertical jumps after the season with our hockey athletes and nearly everybody’s vertical jumps went up or stayed the same in a sport that doesn’t jump. I continued to go with my intuition and started to program the rack pull (elevated deadlift) and other deadlift variations (trap bar, sumo) in place of Olympic lifting in phases when strength was our primary goal. The other problem I realized with the clean was that if I wanted to improve my athletes’ clean, we had to perform the clean year round. But when we made the switch to a deadlift variation, we were able to perform more movement towards developing force in a strength phase and then progress that to a jump when we were in a concentrated power phase.
This switch has worked for our program and with all of our athletes and I’m glad that we made this switch four years ago now. I hope I was able to make you think critically about why you do what you do in an effort to make your programs better for your athletes.
The following is an article from one of my assistant strength coaches at Quinnipiac, Sergio Merino. He does a great job and is up and coming young strength and conditioning professional.
IntroductionKettlebells have gained much notoriety since 2001 when Pavel Tsatsouline began the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC). While highly touted for their metabolic effect and fat loss applications, the RKC was first and foremost a “School of Strength”. Strength is the foundation upon which all qualities are built and is often represented as a glass. The bigger the glass, the more stuff (power, explosiveness, mobility, flexibility, conditioning, speed, agility, etc…) you can fit in there. The only downside to the quest for levels of ridiculous strength and increased muscle mass is the wear and tear the body may endure through constantly using high loads. To counter this, kettlebells can be used to decrease the load on the body, yet still increase strength, power and lean body mass (lbm). For example, Powerlifter Donnie Thompson stopped deadlifting altogether, started kettlebelling and took his deadlift from 766 to 832 in less than a year. If you are a power lifter, olympic lifter or a novice athlete, you’ll need to spend time under the bar but, double kettlebell lifts will provide excellent assistance work in a comprehensive training program.
I would highly recommend finding a local SFG** instructor to learn the proper mechanics of the following double kettlebell movements.
Tension = Strength, Power & LBM
By utilizing kettlebells, you can decrease load by up to 75% and still make significant progress in your strength, power and body composition goals. While some may argue that kettlebells put you at a mechanical disadvantage (which is what causes the use of less weight), the bottom line is you are still utilizing tension to optimize strength, power and lbm with decreased load on the body. The Central Nervous System does not know the difference between 300 pounds across your shoulders against 120 pound kettlebells in each hand. The CNS does understand tension though, through information relayed by the muscle proprioceptors. If kettlebell training offers any benefit, it is learning how to develop and utilize full body tension.
Tension is achieved through high intensity muscle contractions. Greater tension development allows you to generate greater force output. How does this work? According to Powers, (2012):
For the nervous system to properly control skeletal muscle movements, it must receive continuous sensory feedback from the contracting muscle. This sensory feedback includes (1) information concerning the tension developed by a muscle and (2) an account of the muscle length. Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) provide the central nervous system with feedback concerning the tension developed by the muscle, whereas the muscle spindle provides sensory information concerning the relative muscle length.
By generating tension, we allow for more efficient control of skeletal muscle. This is why training with kettlebells can lead to increased numbers in the big lifts (squat, deadlift, press). The key is to learn how to efficiently generate tension within each lift.
Kettlebell Front Squats
Ask anyone who has tried their front squat weight cut in half and put in each hand as a kettlebell if it felt the same. You will get a resounding no (unless maybe you know a group of elite monsters). Holding two heavy kettlebells requires focus, a strong upper body, and strong legs. In order to generate tension in the kettlebell front squat, proper alignment of the pelvis is a key aspect. Once the kettlebells have been cleaned into the rack position, a posterior pelvic tilt should be performed to ensure proper alignment. Once the pelvis has been set, drive your heels into the ground (while maintaining contact through the entire foot) and screw your feet into the ground. This should lead to an increased arch in the mid foot and external rotation of the femurs. Crush the handles of the kettlebell and develop lat tension by imaging pencils in your armpits that you are trying to snap in half. The scapula should now be depressed and slightly protracted. Take a deep belly breath and pull yourself into the bottom of the squat. Maintain tension throughout the entire movement and initiate the ascent with a forceful grunt and exhalation.
Key points for kettlebell front squats
Clean the kettlebells into the rack position or have a partner assist the kettlebells into position.
Maintain a neutral spine and pull yourself into the squat “imagine pulling your knees to your chest instead of lowering yourself”.
Hips and shoulders ascend simultaneously.
Kettlebell military press
The double kettlebell military press requires intense focus and tension throughout the entire body. Tight glutes (posterior pelvic tilt), breathing behind the shield (diaphragmatic breathing with a brace), and lat tension (grip and breaking the pencils in your arm pits) are musts in this lift. If we look at the construct of the kettlebell vs the dumbbell, the kettlebell’s line of resistance falls straight through the forearm while the dumbbell’s line of resistance falls outside of the wrists on each side. This allows for better loading of the deltoid. The kettlebell also increases the demand on the external rotators of the shoulder in order to stabilize the weight at the top of the press.
Key points for the double kettlebell military press
Clean the kettlebells into the rack position or have a partner assist the kettlebells into position.
Maintain a neutral spine & pelvic alignment, tense the glutes & lats, and utilize breathing behind the shield throughout the whole lift.
Sharp inhale of air before the lift and a forceful exhalation as the kettlebell is being pressed.
Avoid arching the lower back and allowing the rib cage to rise as you near the top of the press.
Actively pull the kettlebells back down by utilizing the lats.
Double Kettlebell Cleans & Snatches
Olympic lifters have some of the most dense and well-developed physique of any athlete because the clean & snatch train the whole body. The clean & snatch cannot be narrowed down to a particular muscle group being worked which is what makes them great muscle building exercises. The problem with barbell cleans & snatches are that most coaches and trainees would agree that there is a very high learning curve with extreme mobility & stability demands. One must have very mobile wrists, thoracic spine, hips, ankles and a near perfect overhead squat.
While there are mobility demands and a learning curve to the kettlebell clean & snatch, it is much lower than the barbell variations with just as much benefit. Watch anyone perform heavy double clean & snatches and you will see a level of savagery not found in many lifts. The forceful hip snap and the quick bracing of every muscle in the body during the top portion of the clean & snatch followed by a massive eccentric loading of the glutes, lats, and arms are what make these two lifts great variations.
The kettlebell also holds a few advantages over the barbell variations. With kettlebells, the weight can be swung between the legs increasing the eccentric load and leading to more powerful hips. Kettlebells can also be used for many reps without stressing the wrists. Unlike the barbell lifts, kettlebell cleans & snatches seem to get better with more reps.
Key points for the double kettlebell clean & snatch
Ensure that you lock your arm out overhead with a neutral wrist at the top of the kettlebell snatch
At the top of the snatch, slowly lower the bells to chest level (rack position), and swing them back between your legs to begin your next rep.
During the clean, finish in the rack position with your arms pressing tight against your torso. This position enables you to safely absorb the shock when cleaning the kettlebells.
Keep your elbows tight to your body as you clean the bells into the rack position.
As with all the lifts, maintain a neutral spine.
Avoid excessive arching of the low back at the top of the snatch. Finish with your hips all the way through and avoid allowing your rib cage to flare up and out.
*I strongly suggest addressing your double bell swing before getting into the clean & snatch as the clean & snatch are simply a swing variation. If you feel like your clean or snatch is “off” go back and make sure your swing is efficient.
The purpose of this article was not to dismiss the barbell variations but to simply offer complimentary movements that are similar movement patterns albeit with a different implement. The double kettlebell lifts allow for decreased systemic load (less stress + better recovery = more frequent training), a better line of resistance and increased range of motion that allows for greater eccentric loading. Whether you’re looking for improvement in your big lifts, a new lift to master or just to give your body a break from the high loads of barbell lifts, the double kettlebell lifts are worth the investment.
**Go to www.strongfirst.com/instructors/ to find an instructor near you.
Powers, S., & Howley, E. (2012). Exercise physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance. (8th ed., p. 572). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
I’ve put together some training videos of our teams so you can see how we train and what we do in-season.
This first video is of our men’s ice hockey team training during the playoffs.
This is womens basketball training session right before the playoffs.
This is a men’s hockey recovery session.