Recently, we have seen a number of students coming to SFG Certifications who clean and swing with their thumbs up. I am here to put an end to this fashion.
The Proper Thumb Position for StrongFirst
Other kettlebell systems have been known to use a variety of fist positions and they often have good reasons in their own context. For instance, keeping the thumbs up at all times is an efficient way to clean when you are going for 100 reps. For StrongFirst, this grip is unacceptable. We are after power, not reps. And when you attempt to move kettlebells fast with the hammer grip, you are risking injuring your elbows on the bottom of the backswing. You could literally arm-bar yourself.
At the SFG Certification, we teach starting the clean with the thumb pointing slightly down, about seven to eight o’clock for the right arm. For doubles, we are looking for a very open “V.” A “V” opens up more space between your legs when you clean heavy doubles.
A “barbell” grip, with the handles in line and the palms facing straight down, is totally acceptable for a beginning girevik. Once you get stronger though, you might find it difficult to pass a pair of heavy kettlebells between your legs.
You may have seen Geoff Neupert, Master SFG, employ yet another grip: keeping the thumbs turned up to ten and two o’clock. Like the classic “V,”an inverted “V” gives large kettlebells more space to pass between the legs. An additional benefit, points out Geoff, is that this grip prevents some gireviks, especially big-chested ones, from rounding their upper backs and unpacking the shoulders on the bottom of a clean. The inverted “V” is an individual choice of an advanced practitioner, not an SFG standard. Because, like with a hammer grip, there is a risk of injuring your biceps.
Thumb Position and Lat Engagement
The proponents of the hammer grip like to argue that it allows them to engage their lats more. You may have noticed the connection between the wrist and the shoulder rotation—the former tends to drive the latter. This is why the hammer and the inverted “V” make it easier to screw your shoulders into their sockets. The fist turns and turns the shoulder in turn.
Jon Engum, Master SFG and a high-level martial artist, is not impressed: “I can engage my lat in a punch with a horizontal fist just as well as a vertical fist.” Neurologically, you should be able to disassociate the movement of these two joints—turning one does not have to turn the other.
Here is a drill to teach you how to do this:
Stand up and straighten out one arm in front of you, its palm facing down. Maximally rotate your shoulder (external rotation) and your wrist (supination) until your palm faces up. Note the tight “screwed in” sensation in the shoulder.
Repeat the above drill—turn your palm up and screw your shoulder into its socket. Anti-shrug your shoulder with your lat. Note the tight sensation in your armpit. Without losing this sensation and without disturbing the shoulder alignment slowly turn your palm down.
Power to your pulls!