A Kettlebell Coaching Session

Yesterday I did a one-on-one kettlebell training session with a client.

And before I get any crap about 1-on-1’s, I’ll be writing a business post about that in the very near future. So try hold your sarcasm back for another week or two 🙂

Today’s post – while not uber exciting – while hopefully give you guys a bit of insight as to how I coach, and some of the progressions I use to improve clients’ kettlebell technique.

My client was new and had come in with the desire to learn some basic kettlebell techniques. She’s actually from Bloomington, and wants to join a Crossfit there once she’s a bit more comfortable with the lifts.

I applaud her, though, for making the effort to come and learn first. She realizes that just like any form of strength training, poor technique or performance can get you injured.

After a quick assessment of any current and/or previous injuries/surgeries, we did a bit of foam rolling and dynamic flex to loosen her up, and then we got right into the session.

The KB Swing

The swing is the cornerstone for all the basic kettlebell lifts. The biggest issue you see with women (and many men) who try to swing is too much quad-dominance, or the tibiae/knees drifting forward.

To gauge her ability to maintain neutral spine and hip hinge/load her glutes and hamstrings, we started with a piece of PVC pipe in her hands and stood her about 6 inches away from the wall. Performing a basic RDL motion, I had her “push back” until she touched the wall.

When she could do this easily, we moved her out a bit away from the wall. This really forces your clients to push back, and doesn’t allow them to hang on their quads. If their knees start drifting forward there’s no way their touching the wall!

Next, we put a light kettlebell in front of her, and assumed a more normal “swing” stance – feet wider than shoulder width apart, and toed out. We set the kettlebell a few inches in front of her, so she would have to push her hips back to reach forward and grab the ‘bell.

We repeated this 8-10 times, and then I wanted to watch her actually swing.

My client claimed she head learned to swing from various books from Pavel, but it’s always different learning in person versus from a book. I had her swing 10 times, and she had a few major issues we needed to address:

  1. Quad dominance/knee drift forward,
  2. A wide “arc” – not taking the ‘bell high enough towards the crotch and not keeping tight at the top, and
  3. Not getting enough hip extension at the top.

For the quad dominance, I simply reminded her to sit back. Her knees drifted more as she fatigued, so I would place my hand in front of her knees as a kinesthetic cue to sit back. This made an immediate impact and she started to load the glutes/hams much more.

For taming the arc, I used the Dan John cue of “attack the zipper” (I friggin’ love that one!). There’s no nice way to put it – you need to swing the ‘bell like you’re going to hit yourself in the crotch.

Except you don’t 🙂

Finally, to improve hip extension all I had to cue her to do was finish “tall” and think “hips” at the top. Immediately she got full hip extension and had a lot more pop on her swings.

Within 20 minutes we had seen a huge shift in her performance and technique, so I wanted to dabble with some other exercises.

KB Snatches

My client mentioned that she had tried snatches before, but that she had beaten up her forearms quite a bit in the process. If you’ve ever snatched before you know when you’re learning, you’re going to get beat up a bit, so I fully expected this.

To get her snatching, we switched from 2-hand swings to 1-hand swings. We started light and focused on maintaining hip drive, and working the ‘bell from a position of neutral at the finish, to a thumb down position by the hips. We did 2-3 sets of 10 each arm, and then switched to high swings (eye level).

These looked fantastic, so the next step was to actually snatch. Before we did this, I demonstrated to her what proper alignment looks/feels like when receiving the ‘bell.  The wrist should be neutral and in-line with the forearm (Note: this will be an upcoming video post). Once comfortable, I had her do a set of offset waiter’s walks to get more comfortable holding the ‘bell overhead.

Like many other trainees, she also had a tendency to “shrug” her shoulders, so we put a heavy emphasis on not only neutral alignment through the wrist and elbow, but keeping the shoulder packed and down.

Once I was comfortable with her receiving position, it was time to actually snatch. There were two things I did here that I feel helped:

  • We did sets of 12 – 2 high swings, 1 snatch – 4 times each. This allows them to get a rhythm going with the swing and doesn’t beat them up as much if they do “miss” on the catch.
  • Most trainees wait too long to receive the ‘bell, versus actively meeting the ‘bell on the catch. I use the terms “pull and punch”- pull the shoulder back and punch through to meet the ‘bell. I also told her to be aggresive! Don’t wait for the ‘bell to own you – you own the ‘bell.

I’m not kidding when I say this, but I bet within 5-10 minutes we had her snatching pretty darn well. She obviously needs more time and reps, but I was very pleased with her technique improvements in this short amount of time.

With 20 minutes left on the clock, she mentioned that her Crossfit affiliate does quite a few cleans, so I figured we should spend some time training them as well.

KB Cleans

I honestly feel the KB clean may be the hardest lift to coach and perform properly. The timing and feel is just a lot different than the swing/snatch.

The biggest issue you’ll see with cleans are the following:

  • Allowing the ‘bell to drift to far in front, and
  • Over-swinging.

The over-swinging is easy – you need to give them a target and say “if it gets higher than this, you’re going to get beat up.” I honestly feel like the lower you can finish and start to initiate your catch, the easier it will be (within reason).

With regards to letting the ‘bell drift, part of this is over-swinging, but another component is failure to keep the lats tight.  I cued her by having her arms by her side and “pulling” back into my hand to show her how to engage her lats.

Once we did these two things, we saw an immediate improvement in her clean. Not quite as well as her snatch, but still much better.

Summary

As you can see, we accomplished a ton in one hour. We cleaned up her swings, got her snatching fairly proficiently, and even ironed out some of the major kinks in her clean. All-in-all, I would say this was a fairly productive day!

For homework, I told her to try and do some swings daily. With only 15 and 20 pound kettlebells at home, I mentioned that her goal should be to perform 50-100 swings per day, and then dabble with some of the other lifts as well. The sooner she gets really comfortable swinging, the faster the other lifts will progress as well.

So that’s how I ran this particular session. What would you guys have done?

Any other tips/tricks you’ve used to improve performance?

If so, I’d love to get your feedback below. Thanks!

Stay strong

MR

(Lead Photo Courtesy of Wilson B)

15 Comments

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  1. I wish you were my coach!

    As someone who takes the instructions rather than gives them, I find coaching cues are hit and miss. Some just confuse me and I end up worse than before the cue. The skill is finding one that works, and they generally stick once found.

    Look forward to seeing the videos!

  2. I just completed the HKC. Learned a lot of good drills there. One of my favorite for helping people hinge at the hips during swings was the “chop and hop.” Put your arms straight above your head with your thumbs folded in. “Chop” yourself at the hips with your hands but try to get your hips out of the way before your hands hit your hips. This really helps to hinge at the hips. Keep your back flat and knees soft. On the way up, pretend like you are going to jump into the sky but keep your feet planted with your weight on your heels. I had my clients do this before swings and they were sore from loading their hamstrings the way they should. Good stuff.

  3. When I was working at my neighbourhood gym, this girl wanted to learn the swing, so I taught her to do so.

    I used all the drills in the ETK manual – sumo deadlift, box-squat-to-jump and the towel swing – to make sure she was doing the proper hip-hinge.

    I noticed that she had this tendency to hyperextend her lower back at the top part of the swing, so I told her to try and stay tight, as if she was drawing her whole torso into a tight, strong slab, shoulders “in her pockets”.

    To help eliminate this, I told her to remember to do 3 things at the top of the lift – “pinch a coin” with the glutes, squeeze the kneecaps to create more hip power and maintain a tight core at the top position.

    Oh, and the attacking of the zipper worked really well with her, too.

    Great post! I’ll be using your snatch and clean drills if any clients do want to learn the movements.

  4. Mike,
    great post.

    One of the things I love to read is how other top coaches are cueing and coaching their clients because I always pick up great tips I can use right away. In my experience just switching cues may help the client “get” the correction on the form.

    Keep putting out great content Mike.

    Luka

  5. Good post Mike,

    By the sounds of it the only different sequence & cue that I use to you is in the snatch. Where you said you go from single arm high swing to snatch, personally I teach the high pull, then into the snatch. I also like the build up rhythm so I teach high pull (chin), higher pull (temple), then snatch, and continue for reps.
    Neutral cervical spine is the other one I find always needs reminding, so I take a minute to teach them to ‘pack the neck’.

  6. Mike, try teaching the dead clean first, once they have that down I move to the “swing” version. Then put them in front of a wall and dare them to hit it! That forces them to keep it in close.

    • Dave – Great tip!

      If you ever want to throw up a guest blog on learning the clean, I’d be more than willing to post it!

      MR

  7. Mike great advice just two points.
    The transition from swing to snatch can be quite big for some beginners I have found that introducing the high pull can really help. So the progression might be swing to single arm swing to high pull add in the punch and we have a snatch.

    On the clean similar point to above you could use a yoga mat to hold in front of the client and progressively get closer to prevent over swing. Think of cleaning in a Phone box or for the Americans Phone boot.

  8. Good stuff Mike as usual.

    For the swings I often work up to full chest height swing. Meaning that I start with the person just standing tall with their shoulders back and lats tight and have them just groove their hips back and forth a bit to feel how the KB moves with their body. The I gradually have them increase the degree of motion and start working the KB higher: waist, navel, solar plexus, chest. Of course keeping in mind all the cueing points you mentioned above. It takes some time for people to get the kinesthetic awareness to move the KB with their hips, so I like to allow time for them to work up to a full blown swing in the course of an initial coaching session.

    Another critical thing I have found is to get a KB that is appropriately heavy. Especially with beginning women, they want to grab a 4kg KB because they have been conditioned their whole lives to fear heavy weight. I have to explain to them that if they can forward raise the KB with their arms alone it is too light to get their hips working correctly. I go no lighter than 12kg with beginning women and usually go after 16kg.

  9. Mike,

    Again, brilliant stuff, this is EXACTLY why I click on your emails every time they come and look forward to your blog posts! Brilliant coaching cues and instruction with perfect progressions for her in particular! Reading the post I realize the tendency some clients have to “fear the bell” compels me to over-coach them many times and I think you explained and cued everything perfectly! I agree the clean seems harder to teach because the “pull-punch” is much more straightforward from a learning perspective than the timing to clean the the rack position; I also use the 2-swing/1 snatch cadence because of the rhythmic nature of the sequence.

    Now out of curiosity, Im very interested about the mention on an upcoming private training and business blog 😉 I am someone who has found my niche as a local private 1-on-1 strength and conditioning facility. From a purely business standpoint I know I leave a lot on the table but I genuinely love getting the opportunity to build such incredible coaching relationships in this setting. Id love to hear your views on the subject!

    Ari

  10. Excellent coaching with your client here Mike. Swing IS indeed the foundation though depending on client, I will initiate with the KB DL performed in “RDL-style” but from a dead position before heading into the Swing.
    And, I agree regarding the clean. I have found it to be more with clients of all levels than the snatch. The snatch can actually be taught with a very light KB. The reason is that “speed snatches” are a good intro drill. The ‘speed snatch’ with light KB (low as 12kg for men) allows for optimal mechanics to be grooved so as not to abuse the forearm significantly.
    However, with the clean, the lighter path is NOT applicable. This is why I prefer to teach the clean with a heavier KB from TOP down. Wrist position in rack is obviously key to clean and I have client use both hands to get KB into rack and HOLD that position with straight wrist to develop some kinesthetic sense (re: muscle memory). From there I have client lower KB to dead hang position by subtly pushing hips back (obviously not full hip hinge here!). This sequence is repeated in sets of 3-5reps/side. This is bridge to ‘dead clean’ (as Dave R has already astutely advised).
    Keep up great work!

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