Explosive Overhead Work with Kettlebells

There are two sides to every discussion in Religious Studies. One is “mythos,” or the “why” of things and the other is “Logos,” or the how of things. With the Kettlebell Jerk, I think it is well worth a few minutes of why, before we move to “how.”

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone interested in the throwing arts or in any of the explosive lifts (snatch, clean and jerk), I would be best served by offering words of wisdom from former world record holder in the shot, Brian Oldfield:

“You can’t think through a ballistic movement.”

Memorize those words and live them. Now, like they say in “Harry met Sally,” as those words are coming out of my mouth like a balloon in a cartoon, someone is going to ask me: “Yes, that’s true…but where is my elbow half way through the jerk.” Hopefully, somewhere between the wrist and shoulder, but I think you still missed the point. Ballistic movements need the kind of teaching progression that is light on words and heavy on repetitions.

We see the same issue in teaching the Kettlebell Clean and Kettlebell Snatch. Both moves, like the Swing, are Swings! The most common fix for KB Cleans is usually addressing the Swing issue. The person’s brain is usually in the elbow or wrist or shoulder and the issue turns into Brett Jones’s “Uglystyle.” Literally, sometimes you simply can’t think through a ballistic movement. So, when I see a beat up chest or quirky finish to any clean or snatch, I glue my eyes on the hike and the triangle. Usually, that fixes things.

The decision tree on Jerks goes something like this:

Can the person do a Swing and a Get Up on both sides?

No. Well, then don’t do Jerks!

Yes? The next question is does the person need to do Jerks (we will discuss why in just a moment)?

No. Well, then don’t do Jerks!

Yes? Well, do they know how to Double Kettlebell Clean?

No. Well, then don’t do Jerks…yet!

Yes? Proceed to learning the Jerk!

What is the value of the Jerk? Well, and it is so obvious to mention but really true: one uses heavier weights on Jerks and therefore more strength, mass and “athletic” gains are possible from doing them. I am always amazed when young lifters don’t see the connection between strength and their other training goals.

Using bigger loads puts a stress on the body that shocks many people. At the recent RKC II cert, people were amazed how sets of five of the “Long Cycle,” double snatch sized bells being done in the fashion of “Clean-Jerk-Rack-Clean-Jerk-Rack…” could make the heart beat through the throat. It is a fat loss exercise worthy of the back cover of a fitness magazine, but don’t hold your breath until you see it there.

So, the “why” of the Jerk is easy. It is the ticket to fat loss, muscle gain and improved athletic ability. The “how” takes some finesse.

I think it is a serious mistake to teach the Jerk as a way to deal with fatigue after a bunch of presses. There is a popular notion that one does Presses until you need to use a little leg to do Push Presses and, when that gets dicey, Jerk the weights up.

Remember, under fatigue, the system resorts to practice. What this method is teaching is that we are going to exhaust the athlete and have them invent something new to counter the effects of fatigue. In practice, I can do this workout. It is a standard Olympic lifting workout. But, and literally this is a big “but,” I do this combination after a fair high level of mastery with the three movements.

I believe that after mastery of the Press, the double dipped Jerk should be taught next. The problem with Presses and Jerks, as Pavel often points out, is that they are not a good mix. Grinds and Ballistics are wonderful together in training, but not always in “learning.”

First, I teach people to Jerk with their ears. In other words, I want them to hear that foot stomp. To teach this, I have the person start in a foot position with the heels touching and the toes out.

This does two things: one, it insures that the dip, the “Push” of the Push Press and Push Jerk, goes straight down. The dip is tall with the chest high and head square with the eyes horizontal. A wide stance can be done, but this little tool speeds up the learning process. Again, this is a tool not the way to do for an entire career.

After demonstrating a Jerk, 99% of the population “gets” the general idea. Honestly, there is always one percent that doesn’t get anything and we sometimes have to move on. So, literally, stop talking, field no questions from the athlete and ask them to perform a Jerk. The key is this:

Listen for the feet. Insist on slamming the feet back on the platform after extending from the dip. This is the second reason I teach “heels together” in the learning process as to do this the feet must be active, the legs must work in the proper way (without every mentioning it) and the “monkey brain” is listening for the feet rather than the ballistic process.

It’s one of those things, like squatting, that works better if you get out of the body’s way and simply do the movement.

Second, the issue of Tempo is crucial in the ballistic movements. You should never over gun a snatch, clean, swing, or jerk. As the disco song goes “enough is enough is enough.” So, I recommend the following training workout sometimes called a “Drumline:”

Two light bells
Two medium bells
Two “heavier” bells

Double Clean and Jerk the first set of bells. Rack , recover and return to the floor. Step to the next bells and repeat. Finally, go to the heavy bells and repeat. Yes, you are only doing singles with each sets of bells. Return to the light bells and repeat as long as you like…or a little longer.

This easy drill teaches one to control the speed, the tempo, of the Jerk. You don’t need to send light bells through the ceiling. You need “enough” dip, not maximum. Controlling the bells is the sign of a professional. Early in the learning process, I always insist, as Dick Notmeyer insisted for me, to hold the bells in the overhead lockout for a little longer than you need. Not an hour, but perhaps it is wise to hold the bells in a solid steel column long enough to show mastery.

A small segue: I am a huge fan of Waiter Walks for everyone everywhere. It’s a rare person that I would insist upon at least a loop or two of Waiter Walks each session in the general warm up. Double Overhead Walks, well, I am not such a big fan of doing these. Yes, the RKC IIs can do this and most strongmen and strongwomen. This is one of those movements where I would err on the side of caution. If something goes wrong in the Double Overhead Walk, it will go wrong fast and it can be dangerous. All you need is one accident on this movement to understand how dangerous it can be: if one side fails, the natural reaction is place the head under the “high” bell and, well, to quote Sancho from Don Quixote:

“Whether the stone hits the pitcher, or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.”

Use this tempo drumline workout often to build confidence and the movements. Take a few workouts to master the movement before moving into the Long Cycle. Once you do, the exercise will blossom into the most “bang for the buck” exercise in the kettlebell world.

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