The 3 Cleans: The Relationship Between Form and Function

Not near as exciting as The Three Musketeers and not near as entertaining as The Three Amigos, but there are three kettlebell cleans.

But, first, allow me to digress.

“Form ever follows function.”—Louis Sullivan

Or, said another way, the design of something comes before the use of it.

“Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one….”—Frank Lloyd Wright

Or, the design and use of something should be intertwined.

Architecture—really?

Yes, really. The idea that a form (in our case the kettlebell clean) determines or is intertwined with the why or use of something is important in understanding the three cleans.

The three cleans are:

  • The kettlebell clean as a standalone exercise
  • The kettlebell clean as part of a kettlebell clean and press
  • The kettlebell clean as part of a kettlebell front squat

Why are architecture, form, and function important?

The type of kettlebell clean (form) sets the structure for the goal exercise (function).

1. The Kettlebell Clean as a Standalone Exercise

The kettlebell clean is a powerful exercise for either power or conditioning. In the original Russian Kettlebell Challenge book, Pavel wrote about a study where a set of 10 kettlebell cleans with double 32kg bells left experienced lifters’ heart rates elevated for quite some time.

The kettlebell clean teaches you how to tame the arc of the kettlebell and direct your energy in an efficient manner to a strong rack position. This strong rack position is achieved while directing the energy of the movement into the ground so there is no impact to you while performing the clean.

It can be performed as a “dead clean,” where the kettlebell is brought to the rack straight from the ground without a pre-swing. It can be performed as a “hang clean,” where the kettlebell is brought to the rack from a hanging position. It can also be performed for continuous repetitions or as part of a complex.

Repetition clean rack position or double kettlebell clean and press rack position. (Ladies take note: this can be your rack position for all exercises)
Repetition clean rack position or double kettlebell clean and press rack position. (Ladies take note: this can be your rack position for all exercises)

2. The Kettlebell Clean and Press

As part of the kettlebell clean and press, the clean is used to set up the press. In this case, the finish/rack position should facilitate the loading of tension in the body and the lats for the press, and the form/structure of the rack position should facilitate the press by establishing the vertical column of the body for the press. That includes the vertical forearm in the rack position.

The form follows the function. The rack position of the clean facilitates the press.

The vertical column of the press from the ground up and the center of mass of the kettlebell determining the vertical.
The vertical column of the press from the ground up and the center of mass of the kettlebell determining the vertical.

3. The Kettlebell Front Squat

As part of the kettlebell front squat, the clean is used to set up the front squat. In this case, the rack position allows for the centering of the center of mass of the kettlebells and the body. It is a tighter rack position where the upper arms may even fold toward the midline, to the point of sometime interlacing the fingers. (Women should use caution in this case to avoid too much pressure or impact on the chest.)

The form follows the function. The rack position facilitates the squat.

Ready to front squat.
Ready to front squat.

Watch this video to see all the cleans in action:

Conclusion on the 3 Cleans

So, while the hip action and mechanics of the kettlebell clean are the same, it is the rack position that directs us to the function or use of the clean. During the kettlebell clean and press, the rack position sets up a strong press. During the front squat, the rack position sets up the squat (though keep in mind you may need to adjust your stance between your clean and your squat). During repetition kettlebell cleans, the taming of the arc and direction of energy are the focus.

Three cleans where the form follows the function.

P.S. Okay, yes, there are four cleans, but that didn’t fit my Three Amigos reference.

The vertical column of the press.
The vertical column of the press.
Photos courtesy of Kettlebells from the Center—Dynami, a DVD and manual I produced with Gray Cook a few years back.
Brett Jones
Chief SFG
Brett Jones is StrongFirst’s Chief SFG Instructor. He is also a Certified Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist based in Pittsburgh, PA. Mr. Jones holds a Bachelor of Science in Sports Medicine from High Point University, a Master of Science in Rehabilitative Sciences from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

With over twenty years of experience, Brett has been sought out to consult with professional teams and athletes, as well as present throughout the United States and internationally.

As an athletic trainer who has transitioned into the fitness industry, Brett has taught kettlebell techniques and principles since 2003. He has taught for Functional Movement Systems (FMS) since 2006, and has created multiple DVDs and manuals with world-renowned physical therapist Gray Cook, including the widely-praised “Secrets of…” series.

Brett continues to evolve his approach to training and teaching, and is passionate about improving the quality of education for the fitness industry. He is available for consultations and distance coaching by e-mailing him at appliedstrength@gmail.com.

Follow him on Twitter at @BrettEJones.
Brett Jones on EmailBrett Jones on Twitter

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