You might turn to the barbell first and foremost when you want to develop pressing power and upper body mass. But that doesn’t mean the barbell is your only option. The kettlebell clean & press will develop your unilateral strength, combat pesky imbalances, and make you a much more dynamic athlete.
This move is a compound, dynamic, and total-body exercise that builds strength, muscle, and power. The clean requires powerful hip extension, strong legs, and an explosive display of force output. Once racked, the press builds upper body pressing strength and shoulder stability. When you integrate this powerhouse of a move into your program, you stand to increase fitness, unilateral strength and power, and enhance movement integrity in your squat, pulls, and presses.
- How to Do the Kettlebell Clean & Press
- Benefits of the Kettlebell Clean & Press
- Muscles Worked by the Kettlebell Clean & Press
- Who Should Do the Kettlebell Clean & Press
- Kettlebell Clean & Press Sets and Reps
- Kettlebell Clean & Press Variations
- Kettlebell Clean & Press Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
The kettlebell clean & press is a complex exercise that requires skill and strength to properly perform. First, you’ll need to understand how to handle kettlebells and learn proper racking positions. You’ll also need to use momentum to smoothly transition from your swing to the front rack, then the overhead position.
This guide focuses on a double kettlebell clean & press, with one bell in each hand. The kettlebell clean can be done with or without a squat. Ideally, you’ll pull the kettlebells upwards and meet them wherever you can. Heavier loads often require you to squat under them before standing up to perform the press.
Step 1 — Grab Kettlebell and Set Your Back
Start by taking an overhand grip on the kettlebells. Grab the inner corner of the handle (not the middle), with the pad between your thumb and index finger against the curve of the handle. This will help when you are cleaning the weights so they do not bang against your forearm as you rack them.
Coach’s Tip: Try thinking about keeping your thumbs turned towards you slightly.
Step 2 — Push the Weights Under You, Then Stand Up and Rack Weights
Initiate the kettlebell clean by swinging the weights backwards underneath you with a flat back a few inches. Stand up. Pull the weights up. Keep them close to your body. Rack the bells in a squatted position or standing. Keep your elbows by your ribs and your thumbs by your clavicles.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your thumbs towards the body as much as possible, do not let the kettlebells swing too far out in front of you, or they will crash against you at the top.
Step 3 — Press the Weights Overhead
With the kettlebells in the front rack position, make sure your wrists are not bent back. Point your knuckles toward the sky with your wrists slightly flexed. Push upwards. Take your biceps to your ears. Have the weights end above your head, slightly back over the shoulders.
Coach’s Tip: You should feel the upper back muscles working when the weights are overhead. Most people do not place the weights back enough overhead, so make sure you press them up and back, behind your head (over your traps).
The kettlebell clean & press is such a dynamic movement that its benefits come in from all sides. Different components of the movement develop specific parts of your body, while the movement as a whole has its own set of benefits.
Due to the large range of motion and movement complexity, this is a great exercise for total body metabolic conditioning workouts. It can even substitute into some workouts for more advanced barbell clean & presses.
Unilateral Strength, Coordination, and Performance
Similar to the dumbbell clean & press, the kettlebell clean & press increases unilateral movement, coordination, and strength. These side-by-side differences are often overlooked when working with the barbell.
By performing the kettlebell clean & press, you also introduce a more dynamic exercise. It requires fluidity, timing, and body mechanics. You’ll have to develop all these skills with one arm at a time.
Overhead Strength and Stability
The kettlebell clean & press targets overhead stability and strength. Arguably, it does this even better than the barbell version because of the unilateral loading of the kettlebells. That instability adds to the need for scapular stabilization in the press.
Similar to other overhead pressing movements, the kettlebell clean & press can increase upper back strength, shoulder development, and increase core and scapular stabilization necessary for proper overhead mechanics.
Power Production (Hips)
Similar to the kettlebell swing and the barbell power clean, the kettlebell clean (single kettlebell or double) teaches and promotes powerful hip extension. That extension is what forcefully drives the kettlebell an upward arching motion.
You can do this from a deadstop. But more frequently, you’ll do this from a cyclical pattern to reinforce hip flexion and extension, glute and hamstring engagement, and neural grooving to the specific movement mechanics.
Positional Strength for Squatting
Kettlebell squatting, either with one or two kettlebells, is highly demanding on the upper back strength, scapular stability, and anterior chain. That’s your abs, hip flexors, and quads. This movement is a great way to develop proper technique and positional strength in a front-loaded squat position.
With the kettlebell clean & press, you will spend time building your vertical torso positioning and squat patterning in the catch of the clean. Even in the press, you have to establish positional strength to remain in control during the strict or push press overhead. This can translate into the kind of strong, solid upper back you need for both overhead squats and low bar back squats.
The kettlebell clean & press is a total-body exercise. However, there are some main muscle groups responsible for the large force outputs this move will produce.
The hamstrings are the main muscle group used to drive the kettlebells upwards in the hip extension phase of the clean. Performing cleans eccentrically loads the hamstrings, which is great for strength and muscle-building. The hamstrings then contract concentrically to produce force to lift the kettlebells upwards.
Back and Traps
Your back supports you and the load throughout the entire lift. During the clean and squat portion, your back muscles remain contracted and support the front-loaded kettlebells. In the overhead position, your back stabilizes you so you can properly push and stabilize the weights overhead.
Your shoulders, along with some of the supporting muscles of the arms (triceps and biceps), are most active during press. During the clean, your shoulders help to elevate the kettlebells to the front rack after hip and knee extension.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes would benefit from performing these movements when looking to increase general strength and athleticism. If you’re aiming for max power output, you might be prone to using a barbell, since you can load more weight and move faster. Olympic weightlifters preparing for competition might choose to stick to using the barbell because the form of barbell moves is so specific. If you’re training off-season, though, kettlebells can help.
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An advantage of training this move with kettlebells is that you can add volume to your program and improve your unilateral strength and muscle symmetry. Other athletes, such as Strongwoman and Strongman and powerlifters, can use kettlebells clean & jerks to add more dynamic movement to their training.
Regular gymgoers can use kettlebell clean & jerks to offer variety, dynamic lifting, and odd object training into their program. If you are looking to get stronger or build bigger muscles, kettlebells are a good option. When you’re training for max strength, they may have limitations. If you want it clean & press 140kg, it’s hard to do this with two kettlebells — but, you can get generally much stronger by using these implements.
Learning how to use kettlebells brings your training to the next level, whether you’re a competitive athlete or not. These implements can teach you more skills, body awareness, and build new coordination. This move will also build your conditioning, so you’ll get stronger and more cardiovascularly fit at the same time.
When you want to integrate the kettlebell clean & press into your workouts, you can program them in three main ways. If you are a specific strength sport athlete like a weightlifter or powerlifter, make sure to train this move as an accessory to your main barbell lifts.
To Build Power and Strength
You probably won’t try to max out on this exercise, so even when focusing on strength, keep more than one rep in your repertoire. The ballistic and momentum-based nature of the move makes it common to perform more reps in succession.
To Build Muscle
If you’re aiming for muscle growth, you typically want to shoot for heavy and moderately-weighted exercises. Often, that might call for higher volumes in your movements. But with complex, full-body moves like the kettlebell clean & press, you won’t want to quite go that high with your reps.
If you are looking to build muscle with these, try five to seven reps for multiple sets with moderately heavy weight. Like barbell clean & presses, there is a limited eccentric component of the movement, so making sure to maintain control where you can to increase time under tension is key.
To Build Endurance
Building endurance often means performing higher reps or increasing your movement time. You’ll try to stay in continual motion, so you’ll want to lower the weight you’re using substantially — especially if you’re new to this kind of training.
When looking to build endurance and stamina, aim to perform continuous kettlebell clean & press work with lighter loads. Try to perform anywhere from 10 to 20 reps, for durations longer than 60 seconds.
The kettlebell clean & press has some direct variations where you can train unilaterally. You can also use variations to safely increase your load. All of these variations offer the same strength and power benefits of the clean & press, with the added ability to increase loading and force outputs.
Single-Arm Kettlebell Clean & Press
This single-arm variation is done in the same manner as the regular kettlebell clean & press with two weights.
The main difference is that by training with one kettlebell at a time, you are often able to often lift heavier loads. This variation also places more emphasis on unilateral strength and power.
Kettlebell Clean & Push Press
This clean & press variation has you perform a push press instead of a strict press. The push press allows you to use your legs to dip and drive the loads overhead.
That leg drive can help increase the amount of weight you can lift and increase the power production needed.
Kettlebell Clean & Jerk
The kettlebell clean & jerk is the most complex variation of the clean & press. The jerk involves dipping and driving the load overhead. You’ll bend your knees and hips to receive the kettlebell overhead.
The jerk is a highly technical movement, but it offers you the ability to lift the most amount of weight overhead.
There may be times when you need to look for an alternative to the kettlebells. Maybe you don’t have any available to you. Or, maybe you just want to use a barbell for maximum weight loading. You may also want to use a less complex piece of equipment. Either way, these three kettlebell clean & press alternatives are a great place to start.
Barbell Clean & Press
The barbell clean & press is a classic explosive power lift. The barbell clean is a complex movement that lifers devote years and a lifetime to perfect and improve.
This move is very similar to the kettlebell alternative. However, you can lift more weight — and therefore generate more force and power — with a barbell.
Dumbbell Clean & Press
You can perform the dumbbell clean & press with one or two dumbbells. Like the kettlebell version, this move trains both sides of your body independently. This unilateral independence creates more need for stability and coordination.
Medicine Ball Clean & Press
The medicine ball clean & press is an alternative that can be great for all levels of fitness. The medicine ball clean is a good way to introduce people who may be less well-versed in training to the overall movement and complexity of the clean. It uses a very approachable piece of equipment that requires a strong but less technical grip.
To do this, stand over the ball. Lift it to your hips explosively. Then pull it higher and squat underneath. Stand up, press the ball overhead, and repeat.
The kettlebell clean & press is a great total body exercise that you can do to train strength, power, and muscle mass. You can also use this movement to increase endurance and stamina with longer duration work sets or reps. The skill needed to perform these properly takes time. But with practice and focus on doing them well, you can unlock new levels of fitness for years to come.
The kettlebell clean & press is a complex exercise, so you may still have some questions. Below are some of the most common ones about kettlebell clean & press form and training.
Why do my forearms hurt when starting with kettlebells?
To a certain extent, some forearm pressure and pain is expected when you’re starting to work with kettlebells. Think about it like you’re playing volleyball. The impact might give a lot of pressure or even be painful sometimes. Trust your intuition to tell the difference between “ouch, this kettlebell flopped down harder than it should have” and “oof, I’m holding the bell correctly but it’s putting a lot of pressure on my forearm because it’s heavy.”
Just like with volleyball, you will likely have to go through some growing pains until your body builds up more muscle and improves technique enough to not get beat up with the weights as you rack them and perform the movement. Trust your body and listen to its signs — and never lift through sharp or shooting pains.
Do kettlebell clean & presses make you better at barbell clean & presses?
Not exactly. They can definitely help increase total body strength and help you get more powerful as an athlete. However, if you are looking to improve your barbell lifts, you need to do the barbell lifts. The bar paths, speed, timing, and positional strength demands are very different between kettlebells and barbells.
How do I stop the weights from crashing on my shoulders in the kettlebell clean?
If the kettlebell is crashing on your forearm, you may not be keeping it close enough in the clean as you pull it up the body. You also might need to use a slightly heavier weight. It might sound strange, but sometimes being more decisive in your movements with kettlebells helps it flop onto your body less. For some, it helps to raise the weight by a couple of kilos to accomplish this.
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