By Coach Emily O’Connor
Doesn’t that hurt your wrist?!
You mean, it’s kind of like a swing, but you finish with the bell overhead?!
Catch the kettlebell… over your head?!
Oh yes, the infamous kettlebell snatch. It’s an impressive feat and a necessary one, if you want to compete in the twice-annual Tactical Strength Competition (TSC) held by gyms across the world whose coaches are affiliated with Strong First. But how does one go about learning this exercise? First, I HIGHLY recommend that you don’t take my approach: “Watch one video, grab your test-sized kettlebell, and give it a go in your living room (no warm up, necessary).”
Not the best way to be successful, right? The snatch is a highly technical movement and reading about it, listening to tips and tricks, and watching videos can all help. But, I would highly recommend finding an SFG (StrongFirst Girya) who is certified and can help you trouble shoot your individual snatch.
If you’re local to La Crosse, Unity has three SFG1 instructors, Jordan, Mandy, and myself. But, if you’re not, you can search by location here or contact us for online training options!
However, if you are going at it alone, or if your coach wants you to do some more reading, here’s a step-by-step guide to your first kettlebell snatch. A final note, this article will reference hardstyle kettlebell training and standards. If you’re searching for further information, use “StrongFirst” or “hardstyle” in all searches, so as to not mistakenly find a competition style informational video.
Evaluate where you’re at, why do you want to do it.
First, you need to figure out why you want to kettlebell snatch.
Do you want a natural progression to your current kettlebell training?
Do you want it to compete in an event like the TSC?
Do you want to try something new and different?
Do you want it just to feel like a badass and do cool stuff?
All of these are AWESOME reasons, and I encourage you to go after it. However, knowing the answers also provides clarity to other variables. Training experience, a potential deadline of a looming competition, or, if you’re using it to reach a goal, ensuring it’s the BEST possible choice of exercise to get you there. All of these are important factors to consider before you learn the kettlebell snatch.
Clear your shoulder mobility.
There are a few movement tests that you might want to have checked before you begin any exercise program. Ensuring that you’re moving within your capabilities, while working to bring up the weak links, is important to reduction of injury and longevity of your training program. If you’re working outside of your current capacity, you’re very likely to be injured at some point. It’s just a matter of time.
For the kettlebell snatch, overhead mobility (and stability) is crucial. You must be able to bring your arm directly overhead without compromising a properly braced core. In the picture, this is the image on the left. The image on the right is an example of what a “disconnected” and improperly braced core may look like without adequate shoulder mobility.
Clearing this is simple. Stand straight up with your heels as close to the wall as possible and back flat on the wall, from the hips to the shoulder blades. The back of the head should also be touching. Form a “thumbs up” sign, raise one hand, keeping the elbow straight, and try to bring your thumb to the wall, without losing contact of your spine on the wall. Can you touch the wall? Repeat on the other side? Maybe you can touch the wall with one hand, but not the other? Can you touch the wall with both hands at the same time?
If you cannot touch the wall, while maintaining contact of the spine on the wall, you likely need to work on shoulder mobility. Consult a physical therapist, especially if there’s pain, or work with a coach to improve that mobility before you move forward with ANY overhead movements. However, even if don’t pass this shoulder mobility test, we can still work on other things to get you a few steps closer to that kettlebell snatch.
Moving from the Kettlebell Swing to the Single Arm Swing
If you want to snatch, but you’ve never done a kettlebell swing, you’re skipping quite a few steps. We need to nail that two-arm swing, as well as the single-arm swing, before you can think about moving toward the snatch. A powerful swing allows you to generate the maximum amount of power from your hips.
A single-arm swing teaches you to control the kettlebell in a single hand and to resist rotation of the torso as the bell swings between your legs. Maintaining scapular control is crucial as we transition from the upper body controlling the weight in front of the body to controlling the weight in a rack or overhead position.
These movements are just as complex as the snatch, but in order to control the length of the article, I’m going to link a few videos for you to watch that break each of these exercises down. Whether you’re a newbie to kettlebells or have been swinging for years, no one’s ever too advanced to ignore a technique brush-up.
Here’s a video breaking down the kettlebell swing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHxcTn1UeAc&t=62s
Here’s a video breaking down the single-arm kettlebell swing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHn5GQGJLfc
Next up, the Kettlebell Clean
You have a powerful single-arm swing; the kettlebell clean is the next step. At this step, you’ll learn how to keep the bell close, as well as the crucial “punch” for the catch of the kettlebell in the rack position. A snatch is caught with a similar hand and wrist position, while overhead, so this is a crucial step.
The clean harnesses the power of the swing, while practicing other elements of control that you’ll need to perform the kettlebell snatch. The clean allows you to practice coordinating the movement of the bell with the movement of your wrist and arm. This helps prevent smacking your wrist and leaving some pretty nasty bruising. Wrist guards can help, especially in the learning stages, so you may need to invest in a pair.
One tip I like to use here is to think “Row and punch.” To keep the bell close, we want to swing into a row toward the body and then punch the hand through to catch. This is similar to the high pull and punch that will make up our snatch.
Here’s a video breaking down the kettlebell clean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYh7Kf_lEMY
Start Moving Up; Nailing the Kettlebell High Pull
So, we’ve gotten the power from the hips. We’ve practiced keeping the bell close and “punching” in the kettlebell clean. Now, it’s time to start moving up, literally. By this point, you’ll want to have your shoulder mobility test close to cleared, if not be able to fully pass the test.
We can break the snatch down to essentially two parts: a kettlebell high pull and the punch. While there are many steps within each, mastering both allows you to master the snatch. I like to think of the high pull as a vertical kettlebell swing, of sorts. I use the same power from my hips as a swing or clean, while controlling the bell close to the body and in an upward trajectory. The key here is to pull “up” and not “back”. Eventually, we want that bell to end directly overhead, not behind the body, so nailing this trajectory is important.
Starting to look a little like a kettlebell snatch, don’t you think?
Here’s a video breaking down the kettlebell high pull: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyXGycl1ZrQ&t=11s
Clean and Press Up, Snatch from the Top Down
Moving forward is no good unless you have your shoulder mobility cleared, as well as be able to control and be stable in that overhead position. So, if you don’t I would recommend following up with that physical therapist or put in more time working to clear it. Be patient. It might take a lot of time, depending on your unique situation. It’s not always something that you can improve overnight.
But, you’ve been good about your homework, and your shoulder mobility and stability are cleared. Now, we can clean and press the kettlebell into an overhead position and practice controlling the descent of the kettlebell. Each of these reps will return to the ground; don’t string them together quite yet.
Start with a light bell and bring it into an overhead position with a clean and press. Initiate the down by bending the elbow and keeping the kettlebell close to the body. This is key. Casting the bell out in front uses energy and places unnecessary stress on the spine and shoulder, as well as increases injury risk. Think about unzipping your coat (or shirt) as you control the bell into the hike of the swing and return it to the ground. Clean and press into the next rep.
Snatch from the Bottom Up, Eccentric Press and Clean to the Ground
You’ve nailed the top down, now it’s time to reverse it. We’re snatching from the bottom up and then controlling the descent through an eccentric press and clean to set the bell back on the ground. Here, we want to remember the two-part, high pull and punch, that I referenced earlier. The snatch, in simplest form, is a REALLY high, high-pull and a punch. Nailing the timing of the transition is crucial to a successful catch.
It will take time. But start light, as with every step. You can expect to drop a bell size or two each time you move up the ladder of this progression. This allows for less punishing mistakes. Accidentally smacking your wrist with a 16kg bell hurts a heck of a lot more than an 8kb bell, let me assure you! Spare your wrists and start light and/or invest in wrist guards as you’re learning.
You’ve Reached the Full Kettlebell Snatch
It’s time to string them together! Take the top down and bottom up, and perform reps! Start with singles; make sure the bell starts and stops on the ground with each rep. Then, as you become confident, you can string multiple reps together.
Start light and think about all the cues that you’ve learned up to this point. Each one, from the double arm swing power and control to unzipping the coat on the descent is absolutely crucial! Without them, it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to perform seamless kettlebell snatches.
Here’s a video breaking down the full kettlebell snatch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZO3DzqaKfs
There is an intelligent progress to every exercise and the kettlebell snatch is no exception. Moving through each of these stages is crucial to learning a proper kettlebell snatch. There are drills and techniques to practice at every stage that go well beyond the scope of this article. As I said in the beginning, the snatch is a highly technical exercise and I encourage everyone to undertake the pursuit to learn it. But I equally recommend that you find a StrongFirst Certified coach to work with – in person or online – throughout your journey. While there is a trial-and-error period, and learning how best to “punch” the bell so that you don’t smack your wrist rep after rep, embracing the challenge and pushing the boundaries of what you’re capable of will teach you more than you could’ve ever imagine.
Emily O’Connor, NSCA-CPT, Pn1, SFG1