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Learning the Kettlebell Swing

 

The kettlebell swing is a fantastic exercise. It teaches the hip hinge that is essential for deadlifts. It is a great way to build up your posterior chain. It can be used as a strength/power exercise, or as a conditioning exercise to burn fat and get lean.

However, like any compound lift, it is important that you have your form dialed in before starting. There are a lot of ways to stray off course with the kettlebell swing.

Read on for more.

Why kettlebells

Kettlebells aren’t the be-all and end-all of fitness, but they are a great tool to use in the gym. They won’t ever replace barbells and dumbbells completely, but it is good to have different tools at your disposal. Kettlebells allow for more comfortable movement patterns in some cases (like with the kettlebell swing) because of how the weight is constructed (hanging below the handle, compared to beside it with dumbbells and barbells).

You can also decrease the weight you are lifting (relative to a bar) while maintaining the same tension. This could be good for avoiding or recovering from injuries:

With kettlebells, you can decrease the training load by up to 75% and still make significant progress in strength, power, and body composition goals. While some may argue that kettlebells put you at a mechanical disadvantage (which is what forces you to use less weight), it really all boils down to tension.

The Central Nervous System (CNS) doesn’t know the difference between 300 pounds on your shoulders and 120-pound kettlebells in each hand. The CNS does understand tension though, and if kettlebell training offers any benefit, it’s learning how to develop and use full-body tension.

The kettlebell swing

Before getting into any sort of detail, here is a video clip of really good form:

Looks a lot different than most of the kettlebell swings you have seen in the gym I bet. Most kettlebell swings you will see resemble a squat more than a deadlift, which essentially changes the exercise. The swing is meant to load the hamstrings and posterior chain through a significant range of motion, and the knees play only a small role in terms of flexion/extension throughout the movement. If your knees are bending a lot, you aren’t executing the kettlebell swing properly.

The swing is a lot better for people with back pain/injuries relative to more classic posterior exercises (deadlifts, for example).

American or Russian kettlebell swing?

There are many ways to “use” the kettlebell swing – one arm (a great way to teach shoulder stability), two-arm, Russian, American, and so on.

The Russian swing is safer for the majority of the population. The main difference between it and the American swing is the height to which you raise the kettlebell during the swinging portion of the lift.

Russian: 

American: 

The American swing requires more thoracic (mid-spine) mobility – something that most people lack. And if this is lacking, the lower back will compensate by going into extension – which is never a good thing. It isn’t easy to see this fault yourself if you are using the American kettlebell swing variation – get a friend to watch your form or to film it, and then compare it to what a proper swing should look like to see if you are missing any mobility in the movement.

Head/neck position is also really important for the kettlebell swing. There should be a straight line from the back of your head down to your behind – to ensure you don’t break form during the lift, look at something on the floor a few feet in front of you. Don’t look forward.

How to implement the kettlebell swing?

Here are some important cues to remember when setting up for this exercise:

The setup:

  • Feet shoulder width, toes pointing forward, shins vertical, and shoulders back
  • Hinge your hips back, and bend your knees just enough so you can grab the kettlebell
  • Take any slack out of your body – that is, create tension by loading your hamstrings
  • Keeping your toes forward, allow your knees to drive out to the side (this is a great tip and one that really loads up the hamstrings)
  • Deadlift the kettlebell into position (so you are holding it in front of your body)

The swing

  • Keep your gaze locked forward on the ground (chin tucked in if you forget)
  • Drive your hips back, keep your grip on the kettlebell really strong (shoulders back)
  • Your upper body should come to almost parallel to the ground (more deadlift than squat, remember)
  • Extend your knees (slight bend) and hips (big bend) at the same time
  • Your arms shouldn’t be doing much work outside of actually holding the weight – your legs power your arms

The descent

Let the weight pull your hips back (keep your core engaged and hamstrings tense, but you shouldn’t feel this in your low back at all)

In terms of where to put this in your workout, it really depends on what weight you are using and what your goals are. If you go really heavy, this should be done early in the workout. If you use a lighter weight, the swing could be used as a conditioning finisher at the end of your workout.

You can go for reps, rounds, or time. And this is an exercise you can go pretty heavy on – your hamstrings are big muscles and they are capable of moving a lot of weight. Start light if you are a beginner to the kettlebell swing, though, as chances are your form won’t be dialed in – it’s better to make some mistakes and learn with a lighter weight.

Quick fixes for the kettlebell swing

If you are doing the kettlebell swing properly, your hamstrings and upper back will be fatigued – you shouldn’t feel this in your low back at all

You need to have pretty good hip mobility, the ability to engage your glutes (many people don’t – their glutes simply turn off from sitting too much), good shoulder mobility, and solid stability throughout the trunk.

Foam rolling for 5-10 minutes a day will clear up most minor deficiencies in these areas. This is a very useful stretch to improve hip extension, too:

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