Breaking Down the Kettlebell Swing

Given the choice, I’m probably going for the kettlebells when it comes to equipment. I’m also a big fan of TRX too. I love the versatility of both pieces of equipment when it comes to workouts – you can do SO much with just those two things. But that’s not to say I don’t have love for other modalities. I use dumbbells, barbells, sliders, bands, bodyweight etc. too. But kettlebells? I will probably always gravitate towards them. I hadn’t worked at Fusion Fitness Center for maybe just a couple months when we went to a kettlebell conference. I instantly fell in love with them and also was thinking as a brand new baby trainer “what in the world did I get myself into here?” One of my favorite movements quickly became the kettlebell swing. They have many benefits, aside from feeling like a badass swinging heavy weight around.

Benefits to incorporating KB swings into your workout

  •      Build strength, power, and aerobic capacity all at the same time
    • Not only do swings strengthen your posterior chain (back of your body), because it’s an explosive movement, you’re going to increase your power as well. Again, because it’s an explosive movement and you are working bigger muscle groups in a repetitive motion, you’re also getting some cardio benefits from swings too. That’s a lot of bang for your buck when you can get strength and conditioning out of the same exercise.
  •      Strengthens the posterior chain
    • Something most of us need to work on! Because most of us have a more sedentary lifestyle and are sitting for a big part of the day, this can lead to quad dominance and weaker hips, hamstrings, and glutes. Basically, this means if you were to compare the front of your hips and thighs to the back of them, the front is stronger in comparison. This isn’t always the case, but is more likely to occur with inactivity. Weaker hips and glutes can lead to an increased risk of low back, hip and knee pain. Again, not always the case, but it can happen. And this isn’t to fear monger, just to drive home the importance of not neglecting your backside.
  •      Strengthens your core
    • You will create tension through your entire body at the top of the swing that actually feels similar to a plank on the ground. More on that explanation later in this post.
  •      Peaches for daysssss
    • Because honestly, who doesn’t want their butt to look nice?

 

American vs Russian Swings

If you go consult google or have ever seen KB swings on TV, you may have found that there are two different variations. The American Swing and the Russian Swing.

The American Swing tends to look squattier than the Russian Swing and also involves lifting the kettlebell overhead while the Russian swing doesn’t go above shoulder height. The thought is that there is more power and range of motion in the American Swing, but to me and based on what I know, the risks greatly outweigh the benefits.

With lifting the bell overhead, it can increase the risk of injury due to the extension of the lumbar spine under a load. In my experience, there’s also a lot of people out there that don’t have the shoulder mobility to lift straight overheard leading to extending into the lower back to compensate. Definitely wouldn’t have them doing this type of swing.

The other thing that skeeves me out is that having both hands on the kettlebell and lifting it up overhead like that greatly increases the risk of shoulder injury. We’re all put together slightly differently, but most of us can’t get away with that motion for too long without it leading to injury from the upper part of your arm (your humerus) smashing into the front of your shoulder girdle. You’ve got all kinds of connective tissue and muscles in there that can get smashed over time in the process. For these reasons, I do and teach Russian Swings only, which is what you’ll see below. It’s just not worth it to me when you can get the same benefits with less risk of injury.

 

Get that hip hinge down first

        It is absolutely imperative that you get a good hip hinge going. This will allow you to swing efficiently, get the most out of the movement, and protect your back in the process. Using a PVC pipe on your back is one of the best drills I’ve found in teaching this movement. It should be in contact with the space between your shoulder blades and the top of your butt. Ideally, it should also touch the back of your head if your shoulders and posture allow you to do so while maintaining a neutral spine.

        From here, soften your knees and push your butt back while keeping your back straight. Using the PVC pipe gives you instant tactile feedback. If you’re not maintaining a nice straight back, you’ll lose contact with the PVC pipe. Practice this movement until you feel comfortable. Even if you have this down, this is great to throw in your warm up if you are going to be deadlifting or swinging.

You can access a demo of a PVC Hinge here

        After you master that movement, try it without the PVC pipe.  Get a friend, trainer, or shoot a quick video to check your form. It should look the same with and without the PVC.

        After you get that down, grab a kettlebell because you’re ready to add weight now! Situate your bell between the arches of your feet, feet about hip width apart. You’ll do that same exact hinge motion while keeping your shoulders back to pick up the kettlebell. Squeeze your butt on the way up and stand tall, locking out your hips and knees. Think of that top position like you’re holding a plank, where you’re creating tension throughout your body. Then put the weight back down just like if you had the PVC pipe still on your back. You should feel this in the backs of your thighs, your butt, hips and possibly abs too. This motion shouldn’t feel like you are lifting with your lower back. I usually recommend going a little light with these to start out because safety first. Master the movement, then add weight. If you are still having issues feeling like you are lifting with your back, stay tuned, because I’ve got a deadlift post coming at you soon!

 

Progressions to get you swinging

        The following are some drills to help you work up to a full blown swing. I highly advise that you get each step down pat before going to the next. I know, I know that you just want get swinging because it looks awesome, but be patient. This will only set you up for success.

  • KB Lat Drag
    • Set your KB at least 6 inches in front of you.
    • Get into a nice low hinge & grab the horn on the KB (the handle) with both hands, tilting it on its side.
    • Keeping your arms straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Concentrate on pulling them together and pulling them down your back at the same time
    • This movement helps engage your Latissimus dorsi aka your lats – a big sheet of muscle that runs down either side of your back and attaches at your tailbone
    •  Practicing this movement preps you to keep your lats engaged during a swing which is helpful when keeping your shoulders back and pulling the KB back down to a hinge from the top of the swing.
    • That last part will make more sense later once you get swinging.
    • KB Lat Drag Demo Here
  • KB Hike
    • Stay low, hike the KB back towards your butt FAST. Think of snapping it back QUICK just like hiking a football. Then let it swing back and land right where you started.
    • Getting this movement down helps you work on snapping the kb back quick which is what you need to start off your swing. It needs to be quick in order for you to use the momentum to your advantage. It should also be near your butt when you hike it back. If it’s too low, it won’t set you up well for an actual swing.
    • KB Hike demo here
  • KB single swing
    • Repeat the movement for the hike except now, instead of letting it go back to the ground, you’re going to SNAP up to a standing position.
    • At this top position, hips and knees should be locked out. You should have tension in your abs, butt, front and backs of your thighs. If you think about holding a plank on the floor with all of those areas contracted, it’s the same at the top of the swing.
    • It’s also super helpful to exhale when you pop your hips. This helps you brace your core as well into that locked out position.
    • From the top locked out position, you’ll go back into your hinge and then let the bell swing down to the floor just like you did at the end of practicing the KB hikes.
    • KB Single Swing demo here
  • KB continuous swings
    • Repeat the steps of the single swing, except letting it come back down to the floor after 1 swing.
    • You will hike it back; snap up to standing, popping your hips at the top to lockout; hinge back with the kb close to your butt and snap up to standing again. Repeat this pattern for your desired number of reps.
    • When finished, you will end like the single swing. Let it swing back towards your butt, and land in front of you on the floor. This should look very similar if not exactly the same as your set up to begin swinging. The set up and ending are just as important as the hip hinge.
    • KB Swing demo here

 

Tips & tricks

        Sometimes quirky things happen even though your form my look ok or maybe you’re just not “getting it.” This is usually a tricky thing to teach because the movement is so technical in order to get the most out of the movement in the safest way possible. You should feel this in your hips, butt, thighs, and abs. You may also feel it the backs of your shoulders especially as you move up to heavier weights. If you’re feeling it in your back or your form is off, this is where troubleshooting comes in.

  • Swing looks more like a squat than a hinge
    • Review and practice how the hinge feels with the PVC pipe on your back.
    • Review and practice KB deadlift form.
    • A hinge makes your hips bend more than your knees. Squats typically make your knees bend more than your hips.
    • When you hinge back, the kb should be near your butt
  • Think thumbs in your bum
    • There’s no nice way to say this, but I heard it at a kb conference and it works, so just humor me ok?
    • When you hinge back, you should be hiking that kb back towards your butt.
  • Feeling like you’re lifting the kb with your arms
    • The kb is just an extension of your arms. It’s like a swinging pendulum. You’re not actually using your arm muscles to lift the kb. It’s all based off of the momentum generated from your hips snapping up to standing. You’re just holding onto it at this point so it doesn’t go flying out of your hands.
    • Make sure your hinge form is down pat.
    • Make sure you’re popping your hips at the top and squeezing your cheeks together…no, not the cheeks on your face
    • The kb should feel like it’s floating for a second at the top of the swing. Just like that pirate ship carnival ride? You know the one that swings back and forth and you feel that moment where your butt just starts to leave the seat before you swing back the other direction? That’s what’s going on with the kb.
  • When it is time for you to hinge back and the kb swings back, it can help if you actually pull the kb down and back towards your butt. Don’t just let it fall back into that trajectory. Pull it down and back into that trajectory.
  • Feet are rocking back and forth on the floor and aren’t planted.
    • Think about gripping the floor w/ your feet.
    • Sometimes traditional cross training, running and walking shoes have more heel cushioning in them. Good for other activities! But not as practical for deadlifts, swings or squats (sometimes).
    • Wear a flat pair of shoes like a minimalist shoe or Converse.
      • Those of you who know me know that I love my Converse, all 5 pairs of them! So yeah, maybe this sounds biased, but that have like zero heel drop and that’s what you need! Plus you can get them in just about any color your want. Just sayin’.
    • If all else fails and your facility allows it, pop your shoes off and swing sans shoes. This will really help give you that tactile feedback through your feet about gripping the floor and keeping them planted. Some facilities encourage barefoot training classes for this reason. There’s SO MUCH feedback you give your body by going barefoot.
      • Of course, if you have painful foot issues like heel spurs, plantar faciitis, Achilles tendonitis, etc. you need the arch support and heel cushioning of a good training shoe. You may be able to get away with popping the shoes off for swings, but probably should wear them the rest of the workout.

 

Best of luck swinging! I hope this was helpful if you’ve found this great exercise a little tricky. Bonus points if you enjoyed the hip hop music in the video demos too 😉 Be patient and always, always, always, try your best with proper form.

Author: Kate Mackie

Hi, I'm Kate! I love food, working out, and learning new things related to health and wellness. I'm a personal trainer and holistic nurse who's goal is to share info and help others in the process. I want to see you live your best life!

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