Fortnightly Note


Kettlebell Snatch Test Training

The kettlebell snatch test, or 5-minute snatch test as it’s more commonly known is a fundamental part of the Strongfirst and RKC certification programmes.

Put bluntly, if you want to be certified as an instructor by either of these organisations, you must pass the dreaded snatch test. I say “dreaded” because this is the one test of physical competence that many people on certification programmes worry about the most.

In his book, Enter the Kettlebell, Pavel Tsatsouline described the snatch as an exercise “for android work capacity and the pain tolerance of an immortal”. And not without reason.

Why write about how to train for and pass the kettlebell snatch test on a blog where most readers will not attempt to become certified RKC or Strongfirst instructors. 

Well, I decided to write it for two reasons.

1. I have clients and readers who are interested in gaining the certifications.

2. Like the Murph workout, the kettlebell snatch test is a challenge worth undertaking for anyone who wants a simple but achievable goal.

While there are other approaches out there for snatch test training, they all appear to have been written with a “you have to be strong before you start” approach. Maybe that’s just how I read them and maybe it’s because the strength world is populated by big guys who lean towards the strength aspect?

Mine is different in that I prioritise technique, tempo and conditioning, developing the strength to complete the kettlebell snatch test as you progress your training.

My first kettlebell snatch test lasted an intensely painful 4:59.9, with Dan John yelling at me that I didn’t have time to put the kettlebell down again. I passed, but barely.

I just got in under the wire. It hurt!

I had trained using one of the aforementioned approaches, where strength and technique were the preeminent factors I considered. As my friend James Breese pointed out afterwards, my saving grace was that I’m a lifelong endurance athlete, meaning my strength endurance and pain tolerance saw me through.

It turns out that you don’t need 5 minutes to complete the 100 snatches. They can easily be done inside 4 minutes - I’ve done it a few times now - and I’ve been told 3:20 isn’t outrageous. With the right training, it doesn’t need to be incredibly painful either. 

With that in mind, I took my knowledge of approaches in the endurance training world and set out to create a training approach that leveraged my strengths. This article is the first time I’ve shared it outside of working with my private clients.

To begin, we need to be clear on what the standards are for the snatch test. According to the Strongfirst website, the test is performed as follows...

  • Use the appropriate size of kettlebell for your age and body mass.
  • The time limit is 5 minutes.
  • When the clock starts, swing the kettlebell back between your legs and then snatch it overhead in one uninterrupted motion to a straight arm lockout.
  • Pause motionless in the locked out overhead position momentarily and then lower the kettlebell between the legs without touching the chest or shoulder.
  • Immediately snatch the kettlebell overhead again.
  • Repeat until you’ve completed 100 repetitions, or the time runs out.
  • The snatch test for over 65’s is 50 reps in 3 minutes.

 You may...

  • Change hands as many times as necessary.
  • Set the kettlebell down to rest as often as necessary.
  • Use chalk

You must...

  • Fully lock out the elbow in the upright lockout position.
  • Fully lock out the knees in the upright lockout position.
  • Pause motionless in the lockout position (kettlebell, body and feet should be still).

You must not...

  • Press the bell into the lockout position (it must get there in one smooth snatch movement).
  • Touch the chest or shoulder with the working arm or the kettlebell on the descent.
  • Place the free hand on the knee or thigh.
  • Drop the kettlebell (including when you’ve completed 100 reps; you must place it on the ground).
  • Use any supportive equipment like belts, gloves, wraps etc.

Kettlebell sizes for the snatch test...

 

 Body Mass

 Kettlebell Size

 Snatch Test

 Women U/50

 Up to 59kg/130lbs

 12kg

 100 in 5min

 Women U/50

 Over 59kg/130lbs

 16kg

 100 in 5min

 Women 50-64

 All

 12kg

 100 in 5min

 Women 65+

 All

 12kg

 50 in 3min

 Men U/50

 Up to 68kg/150lbs

 20kg

 100 in 5min

 Men U/50

 Over 68kg/150lbs up to    100kg/221lbs

 24kg

 100 in 5min

 Men U/50

 Over 100kg/221lbs

 28kg

 100 in 5min

 Men 50-64

 All

 20kg

 100 in 5min

 Men 65+

 All

 20kg

 50 in 3min

Like anything you train for, it’s necessary to know what elements you need to be successful. In my “How to Plan Your Own Training” articles, I refer to these as event demands. It’s a classic case of knowing your enemy and training to negate their strengths whilst magnifying yours.

Before you even attempt the kettlebell snatch test, you must make sure you have the technique firmly nailed down. To go charging in with less than perfect technique risks injury because YOU WILL GET TIRED. With fatigue comes regression to habitual technique. When technique is poor, we’re vulnerable.

You may start perfectly, but by the end, you’ll be doing whatever you’ve grooved as normal.

Ideally, you’ll find a qualified, experienced instructor to teach you solid kettlebell snatch technique. Yes, this will cost a bit of money but like swimming and riding a bike, once you have grooved good kettlebell snatch technique, you have it for life.

The most important technique piece for passing the kettlebell snatch test is that the entire movement is driven by loading the hips and hamstrings, using them to create the “snap” that powers the kettlebell to lockout.

I like to imagine throwing the kettlebell backwards against the elasticity of my hamstrings, so that I can use more of that rebound and less muscle power to snatch it overhead.

Many people are tempted to use the kettlebell snatch as the main part of their conditioning routine because after all, that’s what they’re going to do in the test.

Instead, I believe it’s better to use the plain old one-handed kettlebell swing as the cornerstone of your conditioning and save the snatching for technique training. 

If every snatch session with your target size kettlebell is a technique session which you terminate as soon as the form breaks down, you’ll teach yourself to perform with near flawless technique. When you get tired, that technique will still be your default.

If, on the other hand, you constantly perform snatches to the point where you can hardly walk afterwards, the pattern your nervous system will remember is the sloppy, tired form you employed in those awful last few repetitions.

As much as many kettlebell guys will hate this recommendation, you need some low-level cardiovascular conditioning too, and I will never be convinced that there is anything better than easy running to achieve this. Something like the MAF workout is great for this level of low stress conditioning.

If you can’t or shouldn’t run (either you’re still carrying significant excess body fat or you have orthopaedic injuries), then brisk walking is a good alternative.

At its core, the kettlebell snatch is a strength exercise and the kettlebell snatch test challenges your strength endurance.

This strength endurance aspect ties in nicely with the conditioning that you’ll work on using the kettlebell swings, but you still need the strength to perform the snatch with a fairly heavy kettlebell and with solid technique.

Much of this strength can be developed as part of the technique and conditioning components, but it is helpful to work on the isometric aspect of the overhead lockout position too. A great way to do this is to snatch, press or cheat press the kettlebell overhead and to take it for a walk in that locked out position.

Add to that, you need grip work. If anything destroys the ability to complete the kettlebell snatch test, it’s grip failure. Various types of loaded carry exercise will help here. These don’t have to be excessively heavy because it’s grip endurance you need, not simple one rep grip strength like you need for something like a heavy deadlift.

I’m also extremely keen on using the Turkish Get Up as a tool for healthy shoulders. And, after all, healthy shoulders are vital for any overhead work, including the kettlebell snatch.

Learning to maintain a tempo is the one piece that often seems to be overlooked.

However, as a neuromuscular element, it’s important that you train it. It’s this that was important when I went after improving my ability to perform the kettlebell snatch test. Much like I would when swimming, cycling, or running, learning a good rhythm (or cadence) is vital if you’re to complete the kettlebell snatch test well inside the time.

You don’t learn cadence by loading up with a heavy resistance and trying to “muscle it”. Instead, you use a weight that is probably “far too light” for you and focus on being able to perform the movements as fast as you can whilst achieving the correct technique.

For example, someone whose kettlebell snatch test will be with a 24kg kettlebell should start with a 16kg or even 12kg kettlebell. 

Cadence workouts can take two forms.

  • 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 Snatches every 30 seconds on 30 seconds for 5 minutes.
  • 100 Snatches continuous using your snatch test strategy for hand changes, with no breaks and aiming for your target time.

Only when you can perform the entire snatch test inside your target time with the lighter bell, should you increase by 4kg and start again.

You need to decide on a strategy that you will use on test day.

I would suggest you decide this early, so that it’s clear in your mind whenever you do a workout that puts the whole thing together (e.g., the “Cadence Snatch Test” workout). Among other things, using this strategy on workouts like this will convince you that it’s a good strategy (or make clear that it isn’t, and you should change it).

Popular strategies include...

  • 50 Left Hand, 50 Right Hand - challenges your grip
  • 10 Left Hand, 10 Right Hand, Repeated 5 times - lots of hand changes
  • 20 Left, 20 Right, 15 Left, 15 Right, 10 Left, 10 Right, 5 Left, 5 Right - most popular

Unlike so many, I’m not going to provide a week-by-week schedule for what you should do. This is for good reason; you should move ahead as fast or as slowly as your progress dictates.

If you have a good week, you might be able to skip a step (e.g., move from snatching 6 every 30 seconds this week to 8 every 30 seconds next week). On the other hand, you might need to repeat what you did this week or even take a step backwards if your body tells you to do so. Learn to listen to your body’s signals and pack your ego away somewhere safe.

With that said, here’s how I put this together.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Technique

Tempo

Technique

Strength

Technique

Tempo

Recovery

Swings

Easy Run*

Swings

Easy Run*

Swings

Easy Run*

 

Mobility on All Days

*Brisk walk if you can't run

What follows is only a selection of the exercises / workouts you could slot into the overall plan layout above. The trick to individualising the plan for yourself, is to spend twice as much time on your weaknesses as your strengths, but still to work on those strong areas.


Un unguarded strength is a double weakness.

- Oswald Chambers


Technique matters more for all performance exercise than most people think. They see someone perform a big lift or run fast and simply assume that it’s just physical ability. What they miss is that the absolute force production required to do something is often far lower with good technique than if you simply apply brute force.

Yes, those folks are strong, but they’re also very good at directing that force precisely where it’s needed and not leaking tension unnecessarily.

Drops

Most people worry about being able to generate the force necessary to propel the kettlebell into the overhead lockout position. They think that what happens on the way from the top to the bottom of the movement is just gravity and will be OK.

While gravity is important, this phase is both an opportunity to rest momentarily and to load the posterior chain so that you use more elastic energy and less muscular effort to drive the kettlebell back up.

Basically, you’re going to start in the overhead lockout position, perform the hinge pattern at the bottom into a dead stop swing.

Your goal is for the kettlebell to take the shorter (red) path, no the longer, looping (yellow) one.

This is how I do it...

  • Press, cheat press or push press the kettlebell into the overhead lockout position.
  • Allow the kettlebell to drop from lockout as near straight down as possible.
  • As it approaches the bottom, hinge at the hips the same as you do for a kettlebell swing, deadlift etc. and “throw” the kettlebell back so that you load the glutes and hamstrings as much as possible.
  • Snap from the hips to perform a swing (not a snatch).
  • Catch the kettlebell in the hinge position again and place it on the ground.
  • Change hands and repeat.

The focus here is on finding the shortest distance on the drop and learning to load the posterior chain as much as possible.

High Pulls

High pulls are the intermediate step between swings and snatches.

Perform the same movement as a normal one-handed swing, but at the top, pull the kettlebell to approximately head height, using a movement that is a little like an elbow strike.

The amazing thing about high pulls is that if you can do them well, the snatch becomes a simple matter of spearing the hand through the kettlebell and it sails into the lockout position.

2 High Pulls + 1 Snatch

In this exercise, you combine 2 high pulls with one full snatch. Perform between 3 and 5 cycles, take a rest, and repeat with the other hand.

The conditioning part of your programme is simple because kettlebell swings are as effective for kettlebell snatch test conditioning as doing full snatches would be. What’s better is that they are far easier on the hands than snatches, allowing more volume of training.

200 Swings

Set a timer to beep every 30 seconds and perform 20 rounds of 10 swings, resting until the start of the next 30 seconds. It’s that simple and remarkably hard work!

Focus on two things:

  • Loading the posterior chain, the same way as you aim to do for snatches (i.e., throw the bell backwards into the bottom of the hinge position).
  • Strong whole body “plank” with packed shoulders in the top position. 

The strength training focus for the kettlebell snatch test is primarily on three areas: grip endurance, the overhead lockout and the hinge pattern itself.

Farmer’s Carries and Suitcase Carries

The difference between these two is that in a farmer’s carry you carry a weight in each hand and in a suitcase carry, you only carry weight with one hand (like awkwardly wrestling a suitcase at the airport).

Your goal with these is being able to carry a reasonable weight (at least the same as your snatch test kettlebell) for a long time. It’s about grip endurance after all.

A great way to do this if you’re training at home is to head outside and walk as far as possible away from your house without putting the weight down. Once you’ve had to put it down, turn around and walk home. You may put the weight down as often as necessary on the return leg.

This is a bit more difficult at the gym, but you could try walking as many lengths of the gym as possible before putting the weight down and then making yourself walk the same distance again. This just lacks the implicit motivation to keep going but will work as well physically.

Should it even be called a Farmer’s Walk If there is no tractor in the picture?

This is a bit more difficult at the gym, but you could try walking as many lengths of the gym as possible before putting the weight down and then making yourself walk the same distance again. This just lacks the implicit motivation to keep going but will work as well physically.

Deadlifts

Being able to move a good heavy weight for deadlifts helps with swings and snatches because the similar patterning will make whatever kettlebell you’re using seen very light in comparison.

You could do these as traditional barbell deadlifts, sumo deadlifts or kettlebell sumo deadlifts (assuming you have a heavy enough kettlebell). All will deliver a similar effect.

Heavy Dead-Stop Swings

For this exercise, you set up as if to start a set of kettlebell swings, but with a heavier kettlebell than you’d usually use. You then sweep the kettlebell back into the hinged position, loading the hips as usual, perform one explosive rep, catch the kettlebell in the hinged position and replace it on the floor.

Your focus here is on “throwing” the kettlebell backwards on the first movement so that you really load the glutes and hamstrings. You want to get used to using as much elastic rebound as possible to drive the swing or snatch.

Turkish Get Up

I’ve written an entire guide to the Turkish Get Up. Suffice to say that it’s a remarkable way to teach yourself how to have stable shoulders under load.

Lock-Out Carries

Building strength in the overhead lockout position can be easily achieved by pressing or cheat pressing a heavy kettlebell and then keeping it overhead while you take it for a walk.

It doesn’t take a lot of reps in a workout to completely “smoke” these muscles because they’re not that big and we’re not really designed to hold a heavy weight overhead for extended periods.

I believe the secret to being able to complete the kettlebell snatch test well within the time limit, especially if you’re on the smaller side like I am, is to learn how to perform snatches at a tempo from which you never deviate.

30-Second Turnaround Snatch

As described above, select a lighter kettlebell than your snatch test weight, set a timer for 30 seconds, then perform 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 Snatches every 30 seconds on 30 seconds for 5 minutes.

How many you do each round is dictated by what you can recover from to repeat with excellent form and a fast tempo each time 30 seconds rolls around. This workout isn’t primarily about fitness and it’s definitely not about how much weight you can move, it’s about how fast you can cycle your snatches.

As a guide, if you want to be able to do your snatch test in 3:20 you need to perform each snatch cycle (top to top or bottom to bottom) within 2 seconds. For 4 minutes, it’s 2:30. If you’re going to change hands during your test, it needs to be a touch faster to hit those times because each hand change is an extra swing.

Cadence Snatch Test

For this, you’re simply performing the full 100-rep test, but with a lighter kettlebell and aiming for your target cadence, which will yield your desired time.

Only when you can achieve your target time with the lighter kettlebell, should you increase the weight you’re using.

By using the lighter kettlebell, you allow yourself to achieve success in finishing the snatch test close to your target time on numerous occasions before test day. In time, you should be able to work up to using your snatch test weight whilst maintaining the cadence you’ve practised.

Both training for and performing the kettlebell snatch test can be extremely hard on your hands. It’s not uncommon for people to tear the callouses on their hands during the test on their certification weekend.

While this is understandable - after all, it’s a test and you have to pass it - tearing your hands in training simply falls into the category of stupidity.

No workout is worth completing at the cost of torn hands. Doing so means you sacrifice the quality of subsequent workouts, if you’re able to do them at all, whilst your hands heal. The loss of a week’s training for the sake of 10 or 20 repetitions in one workout (and it is usually just 10 or 20 reps) doesn’t show you’re tough, it shows you need to learn how to do cost/benefit analysis on the fly.

Experienced lifters know how to look after their hands, and you can often tell people who do a lot of kettlebell work because they’re obsessed with callouses.

My hand after my SFG1 Snatch Test

At a minimum, I suggest doing the following:

  • Learn how to hold the kettlebell properly (crook of the fingers, not the palm, don’t over-grip it).
  • Don’t use too much chalk.
  • Regularly file your callouses flat (I use fine sandpaper).
  • Use a decent hand cream (in the evenings when all lifting is done, not just before your workout (my friend has a broken TV that attests to this).

There are as many ways to train for the kettlebell snatch test as there are instructors willing to write a programme (and not just parrot the training providers’ websites). There are many similarities, and everyone has a twist based on their strengths.

I have an endurance sports background and I’ve approached it very much from that point of view. In testing my approach, I’ve shown myself at least that it’s possible to approach training for the test using similar methods to those I’ve used for years to get people through bike races, triathlons and marathons. The basic principles are similar, and they work.

If you have no fitness goals at the moment, and you’ve a few kettlebells handy, why not have a go at training for this amazing test of work capacity? Let me know how you get on in the comments below the blog post.

Will Newton


In over twenty years of coaching, I have coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. My interest in getting the best results for athletes who compete for the love of the sport, rather than as professionals, drives me to find the most effective ways to get results. My mission is simple: Be in better shape at 70 than most people are at 20, and to help you do the same.

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