Teaching…or learning…the Kettlebell Snatch

Little Note from Danny: I know I have been doing a lot of writing about kettlebells lately, but I tend to write when I have new insights about things. This doesn’t make me think that “barbells are bad!” or whatever. So, enjoy the insights. If you hate KBs, fine…but there is always keys in these articles that will clarify any goal set.

Teaching the Kettlebell Snatch “from the top down” has advantages that are only apparent when the reps get high. Honestly, when you keep the reps under ten, then rest for a set period and repeat, it appears from my vision that one can have some pretty lousy technique and not lose skin off the hand. I have learned that the proper way of helping someone improve their KB snatch is to wait until around rep 70 to comment. The challenge of doing 100 reps in a set period of five minutes demands that the candidate learn to bite the bullet and learn to keep properly snatching throughout the challenge.

In my little book that I asked the attendees at the first RKC Belfast certification, one wrote this: “With one sentence, you changed the way I snatched and I nailed the test.” I asked what the sentence was and the newly minted RKC answered:

“It was when you said: ‘You have to have the courage to drop the bell into the swing with authority each and every time.”

Remember, first and foremost:
The Swing is a Swing.
The Clean is a Swing.
The Snatch is a Swing.

The bulk of the issues with most people in the Clean and Snatch can be cured by ignoring the “Clean” and the “Snatch” and coaching the Swing portion of the moves. As if by magic, a proper Swing for the Clean or Snatch stops most wrist banging issues and most lockout issues.

But, to get to the proper Swing, we must set up a good drop in the Snatch. I have heard three terms that seem to help 99% of the population: “Pour the Pitcher,” “Swim” and “Unzip the Jacket.” Before getting into the specifics, let’s look at a key principle that Pavel explained at a recent cert: the position of the body in the “Cylinder.”

In the Olympic lifts, especially in the locked out Front Squat position just before the Jerk (or in training movements), the lats are flared out, the chest is tall and most would recognize this as the traditional “Muscle Beach” position. Although ideal for some movements, we want a slightly different position. On the other end of posture is the “Hollow Rock” of gymnastics fame. Perfect for holding an Iron Cross on the rings, this position is great, but not what we want in RKC movements. Rather, consider a position “in the middle.” Now, I love continuums, so think of the O lift posture on one end and the Hollow Rock on the other. The RKC cylinder would be in the middle.

This insight finally connected the dots for me in regards to also how to hold the hips in a neutral stance for training, too. Master RKC Brett Jones notes that the pelvis is like a bowl. If one imagines the bowl filled with water, we want to stand (and stretch and move generally) without the water pouring out forward, backward or to either side. Utilizing this notion of “Cylinder” help immensely with the hip position, too. It’s like the story of the Three Bears: one wants to stand “Just Right.”

While we are discussing posture, let’s also add an additional insight about the packed shoulder. It is difficult to teach the packed arm to experienced athletes at times. Years of compensations can make some people convinced that the shoulder is packed, when in truth, the trap is on the ear. There is a solution for this as simple as getting dressed in the morning:

Years ago, Janis Donis, the famous Javelin thrower, mentioned to me that all throwing movements need to be done with and “Open Armpit” to protect the shoulder. It illuminated my discus throwing and kept me trouble free for decades of pain free shoulders. Literally, one needs to expose the entire armpit in throwing movements and not twist or turn the shoulder down which is often the signal of an “arm throw.”

As I worked with more and more guys who had been in collision sports and trained like bodybuilders, teaching the packed shoulder became a more of a chore. Between the injuries and the Frankenstein training, there seems to be a lack of awareness of where the shoulder is on many athletes. I know, many are thinking: “isn’t it right next to my head?”

So, the million dollar drill, get ready: Grab the tag on your shirt for me, you know, the one on the back of your collar. For most guys, Welcome to the Packed Shoulder! Now, many will have to slide down the spine a bit more to get the position, but this simple movement “instantly” gives the packed shoulder. Note how the bicep is on the year, probably the most heard phrase during Waiter Walks, and how “open” the arm pit has become with this simple move. Hold the shoulder in this position and simply straighten out the arm. This is the packed shoulder, the open arm pit, and, with the body in the cylinder, it is time to drop the bell.

Let’s look at three terms or images that all lead to the same powerful swinging hip hinge. First, let’s look at “Pour the Pitcher.” Now, the issue here is this: if I drop the bell straight down, my head is the first point of contact. Hitting the head multiple times with a heavy Kettlebell is NOT optimal. Yes, please feel free to quote me on that. So, obviously, we need to push the bell forward. Launching it straight out to the position that we finish the top of the Swing is not perfect either. With a heavy bell, the athlete simply can’t counter this enough and the result will either be the athlete pulled forward or maybe even some damage to the body: this is a lot of force in a bad position! So, the first image I ever heard for the proper drop was “Pour the Pitcher.” With the thumb leading from the lockout position, simple turn the wrist and think of pouring milk on some cereal. (Just think of the cereal: don’t eat it. Cereal is for cows. Eat the cow.) Because of gravity, the bell is going to start coming down in front and I encourage people to think immediately of “the courage” to attack the hinge here.

“Swimming” is a term I heard Pavel use in San Diego. Like the crawl stroke, imagine bringing the and bell down the midline in the body like doing laps in a pool. It is an imagine that immediately made sense to me as the correct crawl stroke isn’t a straight arm nor a precisely prescribed angle; the elbow angle “depends” on a lot of factors. The same is true in the KB Snatch. I also like the term because it illuminates the idea that this is a dynamic movement, not just a simple free fall.

“Unzip the Jacket” is the phrase Master RKC Mark Reifkind used at the San Jose certification. He explained that simply one should think of the idea of unzipping a jacket. Again, there is no National Zipping Policy, so there is going to be multiple ways of accomplishing the task. As always, keep thinking about attacking into the hinge.

One of the issues that I hear over and over again with RKC candidates that FAIL the snatch test is the following kind of statement:

“Well, I did 30 reps the first time I tried the test, then built up to 54 with the 24 kilo and I was hoping that the energy and enthusiasm of the group would get me those last 46 reps.”

I believe that you should come to the RKC having done 100 reps in the Snatch. Now, that doesn’t mean every workout is with the Snatch weight bell. I often recommend that months before the RKC that the candidate take lighter bells, as light as 12 kilos for men, and do several sets of 100 in training. I think it helps to get “used” to 100 reps. Not long ago, we did a little challenge where I had to do 100 reps with the 24. At 18 reps, I smiled. Later, I was asked “Why did you smile?” Well, for me, I use this system:
20 reps with my left hand
20 reps with my right.
15 left
15 right
10 left
10 right
5 left
5 right
For a total of 100 reps and only seven hand switches. At 18, I figure that I only have two more reps to go with my weak hand and then I get to use my strong hand. In my mind, the first twenty reps get me over the hard part! The next eighty reps are going to be dessert.

But, if you don’t have the courage to actively drop the bell each and every rep, those reps are going to be hell.

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