With the continuing growth of Crossfit programs and the popularity of high intensity cardio you would be hard pressed to find someone in the fitness world who doesn’t know what a kettlebell swing is. Despite this common knowledge I often see people performing this incredible exercise incorrectly. I absolutely love kettlebell swings so it would be my pleasure to detail the dos, don’ts, and benefits of this fantastic movement so you can start incorporating it into your training regimen or for that of your athlete’s.
Let’s start with proper swing technique. To initiate the movement, you can either:
Stand straight up and down with the kettlebell in front of you
Proceed to hinge at the hips (I'll explain this later)
Push the hips back
Thrust hips and kettlebell forward
Repeat for desired number of reps
Or you can:
Start with the kettlebell slightly away from you on the ground (see picture below)
Lift the kettlebell off the ground while pulling to swing it to you.
When the kettlebell can no longer swing any further behind you your next step is to powerfully thrust your hips forward to propel the kettlebell up.…. Now that we have generated thrust, and the kettlebell is making its way back down to below your hips, all you have to do is..
Repeat the thrusting hip extension to continue this swing pattern for the desired number of reps.
The former starting position is far less complex but does require several reps to build momentum, while the latter starting position is slightly more complex but allows you to start as if you were already mid set so it makes full use of every swing, and if you have trouble with correct technique this position can help you develop the proper movement pattern.
The “don’t” of starting a kettlebell swing is really just one problem, when you look like you’re squatting instead of hinging. If you look at the picture below the difference between squatting (left) and hinging (right) really becomes apparent. At the very least we can see at face value that there is what looks like a whole 60 degrees of range of motion behind the kettlebell that the squatting fault causes us to miss out on, while the hinging technique utilizes it. This is important because once we stand straight up and the kettlebell passes our hips in the upward phase then the movement is technically over since we can no longer use our lower body. So capitalizing on as much motion as we can in the lower phase really helps to maximize this exercises benefits. Plus, most likely you can now see that the latter starting method I spoke of earlier really helps to prevent that squat fault.
So I spoke about the start, you may be thinking that’s all there is to it and you want to stop reading because you are so psyched to get out there and violently extend those hips. Well hold on, the upward phase of this movement is at least just as important, I would actually even argue it is even more so.
AND HERE COMES THE LONG DESCRIPTION...
As you swing out of the start position and begin to stand up with the kettlebell out in front of you, you are most likely going to commit a grave kettlebell swing injustice. That injustice is the use of your shoulders *gasp. Many people like to finish a kettlebell swing by contracting the muscles of the deltoid and performing a front shoulder raise, this is a big no-no because this exercise is exclusively for your lower body. So looking at the images above you can see a slight difference in how the kettlebell is nearing the top. The left shows excessive use of the shoulders that you can see by how the kettlebell is hanging below his hands as if he was doing a front raise, this occurs because the kettlebell has lost its upward momentum yet he is still trying to lift it higher. In the image on the right the kettlebell looks weightless as if it’s floating up. This occurs because he is using his arms merely as hooks to hold the weight and now that the kettlebell has lost most of its upward momentum, his hooks begin to swing the weight back down and the tail end flicks up with whatever remaining momentum it had left. Now, you may think, “Okay, well what’s the problem if I’m still powerfully extending/thrusting my hips then why can’t I try and get some shoulder work in”? Good question. The problem is that the weight is essentially “heavier” as it nears the top, and your shoulders are far weaker than the muscles surrounding your hips. Thus the combined effect of these two factors would lead you to using a far lighter weight than what you can handle and is necessary to really develop that power from your hips and lower body. And now transitioning to the benefits, this power development is what we are striving for when set up for kettlebell swings.
SO, if power development is the goal with this exercise, you may be wondering what that means and how that applies to you whether you’re a D1 athlete, bodybuilder, weekend warrior, etc. Power is basically defined as generating a large amount of force as quickly as possible. So developing power output is obviously very beneficial for athletes due to the high demand for quick changes in direction and transitions to sprinting, jumping etc. However, there are a number of exercises we already use like squats and deadlifts that already work well, why do we need kettlebell swings for our athletes? Kettlebell swings are among a short list of movements that are classified as horizontally loaded, compared to vertically loaded movements like squats and deadlifts these are unique and rarely implemented. Vertically loaded movements are effective and usually the staples of any training program, which is great, however research is starting to tell us that for more experienced athletes the benefits from these movements start to stall. Now enter horizontally loaded movements like kettlebell swings, barbell hip thrusts, and sled pushes. These movements have been seen to result in a greater transfer to sports performance and greatly improve maximal and explosive strength. Any strength athlete should be drooling at this prospect because we can’t squat and deadlift ourselves to the point of breaking just to see the slightest increase in strength. We need to open up our toolbox and incorporate as many beneficial movements as makes sense for our goals and build a foundation based around strength and power. Bodybuilders and high intensity cardio lovers do not fret this exercise is for you as well. Research has shown high levels of hamstring and gluteal muscle activation with kettlebell swings so if that backside is a lagging muscle group for you that just won’t grow, I implore you to give some swings a try either as a warm up or if you are like me and grow to love them so much you can incorporate some heavier weights and start them out as a primary exercise for your leg days right along with deadlifts and squats. Kettlebell swings also make a fantastic movement as a part of a high intensity interval workout and can demonstrate higher cardiovascular and metabolic adaptations when compared to regular resistance training.
(END OF LONG DESCRIPTION)
NOW, TO RECAP...
Starting with the kettlebell out in front of you on the ground (first picture) and then swinging it between your legs (picture with green check above) may help prevent improper technique and make the most of every swing
Explosively thrust your hips forward and squeeze your glutes to start the swing (like really throw your hips forward into that kettlebell)
Avoid squatting with the weight in the bottom and raising the weight with your shoulders at the top (the squat to front raise fault, a big no-no)
If you find yourself totally unable to stop using your shoulders give what I call the T-Rex technique a try. Instead of the swing occurring at the shoulder joint it will now occur at the elbow. The start is the same but as you thrust the weight up lock from shoulder to elbow in place at your sides so the pendulum action is now at your elbows and when the kettlebell reaches the top you look like a T-Rex!
This exercise is great for developing lower body power, strength and muscle mass as well as being a useful tool to throw in some variety for cardiovascular exercise, so it can be used by anyone and I highly encourage everyone to add it into their training!
AUTHOR: Andrew Barsuhn, MS, CSCS, CISSN
All pictures are credited to my good friend and California based personal trainer Josh Clay; please check him and me out on Instagram @joshualeeclay and @candybarstrong for more! For supporting research behind this article, please contact me directly.