Is the Kettlebell Clean & Jerk the Ultimate Cross-Training Tool for Athletes?

As an athlete, you are looking for an edge. You want to be as fast, strong, powerful, mobile, and durable as you can while staying healthy.

At the same time, since you are an athlete and the name of your game is performance, the most important aspect of your overall training plan is (sports-specific) skill development. It won’t be of much use to be the strongest person in the gym if that strength does not translate into improved performance on the field.

Therefore, it’s quite possible that most of your total training time will be directed to the practice and performance of your sport. Any cross-training that you do is going to supplement your sport practices, so it makes sense to maximize your use of time in the gym.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Of course, as a competitive athlete, you put so much time and effort into the skill development that you are left with little time or energy for extensive gym workouts.

Less Is More

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single exercise that encompassed most of the general conditioning attributes that are needed by the majority of athletes? If you can get a lot of bang-for-your-buck out of one exercise, that would leave you more time for recovery and skill development. Sometimes, less is more and a smart strategy is to accomplish the most with the least.

For a lot of athletes, the kettlebell clean & jerk just may be the ultimate cross-training exercise.

First Do No Harm

Killing it in the gym only to pull up lame on the field is a formula for a short athletic career. To have a sustainable career, you’ll want your best performance the occur on the mat, the field, ring, pitch, court, fairway, green, rink, etc. Your gym workouts are to make you a better athlete, not a lame athlete. Being jacked up from your workouts is not the sign of “effective”. Avoid unnecessary wear-and-tear by trying to do “everything” and ending up with nothing.

Think long-term, consider sustainability, and stay in the game.

Your gym workouts need to be time-efficient and involve movement patterns that transfer into your sport performance. Exercises don’t get much more “functional” than when you are moving a load from floor to overhead.

Kettlebell Clean & Jerk Vs. Barbell Clean & Jerk

You may be thinking, why use a kettlebell for clean & jerk when I can do the barbell clean & jerk?

Well, unless your sport is actually Olympic weightlifting or a sport in which you are tested on your Olympic lifting prowess, for most athletes, the kettlebell is going to be easier to learn and offer more carryover for your sports conditioning.

Consider, most people are significantly weaker with one hand then with the other. The unilateral benefit of single kettlebell work helps to close the gap over time between your dominant in non-dominant sides.

For most athletes the highest return is going to be with exercises that train multiple athletic qualities. The kettlebell clean & jerk effectively works cardio, power, strength, and muscular stamina, and using kettlebells instead of barbells makes a better exercise for conditioning and work capacity in particular.

It also reinforces arm/body connectivity in a way the barbell cannot, which is especially important for athletes like wrestlers and other combat sports athletes in which you want to keep your elbows in and close to the body. 

[Using a kettlebell instead of a barbell may also be better for overhead stability and upper back engagement. Read more of the benefits here.]

The True Full-Body Exercise

Here are two more reasons the kettlebell clean & jerk is the ideal exercise to build your sports-conditioning workouts upon. First up: it’s ground-based. You’re on your feet, which, unless you are a rower, is how you play your sport.

Second, it’s comprehensive. A full-body pull matched with a full-body push covers a lot of ground. Back and biceps, legs, shoulders and triceps, midline stability (core), explosive leg drive, grip, cardio? Yes, to all.

The ground-based, full-body kettlebell clean & jerk ticks all the strength and conditioning boxes.

How to Perform the Kettlebell Clean & Jerk

Grip a kettlebell with one hand and swing-clean it to your check, then jerk it overhead to complete the rep. Drop back down to the chest and lower down with a backswing. Build your endurance by setting a timer for 1, 2, 3 or more minutes and continuously switching hands every 5 to 10 reps.

[Thinking about getting a kettlebell? We reviewed all the major brands; these are our favorites.]

Form

Select a load that allows you to move fast, but not so fast that your form becomes a sloppy mess. Make sure to execute every repetition with complete fixation in the jerk. Fixation means that your arm (elbow) is fully extended, the legs (knees) are fully extended and the kettlebell and body stop moving for a moment—freeze momentarily at the top.

The completion of every rep will reinforce precise execution and instill the habit that even when you are highly fatigued, your default form becomes perfect performance. Quality trumps quantity and strict attention to perfecting form sets the foundation for long-term progress.

Mindset

Training is as much about the mind as it is about the body. The happy place for the athlete is “the zone” in which time slows down, movement is easy and natural, vision is clear and focused. The cyclical rhythm of the kettlebell clean & jerk facilitates the zone through harmonization of the movement pattern with your breathing. Similar to what avid runners describe the “runner’s high”, extended sets with the kettlebell foster the same relaxed, meditative state. This is mind-body conditioning that is useful beyond the physical training.

Pick a Winner

If you’re an athlete looking to get a higher-value return out of your cross-training workouts, the kettlebell clean & jerk is a constant winner.

Featured image via @stevecotterikkf on Instagram.

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