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Mastering the Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing is an invaluable exercise for making progress towards almost any athletic or fitness goal, from fat loss to strength and athleticism. The deadlift is the foundation for the swing, but the swing turns this into a dynamic movement with an athletic transition between tension and relaxation. If the deadlift is vodka, a kettlebell swing is a spicy Bloody Mary … with bacon.

Critcal decision making: Sometimes you need straight up vodka, sometimes a bacon loaded Bloody Mary…

Critcal decision making: Sometimes you need straight up vodka, sometimes a bacon loaded Bloody Mary…

Kettlebells train the body as a whole unit, the upper body, lower body & core together, building functional strength, recruiting major fast twitch muscle (i.e. resistance training) most responsible for muscle development & strength, while simultaneously improving cardiovascular fitness levels and stripping off fat.

The excellent fat loss power of Kettlebell swings is explained by the extremely high metabolic cost of dynamically moving the weight, combined with maximizing EPOCH (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) thereby keeping your metabolism raised and burning calories long after you have stopped exercising.

Think you’re too advanced to benefit from the swing, or it doesn’t help with your strength goals? 1,000-pound deadlifter Andy Bolton disagrees:

“The [Kettlebell] Swing is a great developer of the posterior chain and will teach you how to develop some awesome SNAP in your hips. For lifters, this makes them a useful assistance movement for the squat and deadlift.”

Anyone who I’ve coached will attest to 2 things: I can’t keep track of reps for shit while I’m coaching a movement, and second, I put a big emphasis on correcting the imbalances and mobility issues that arise from the “sitting culture” we live in. Kettlebell swings have great value towards that as well, helping you regain proper open and upright posture, restoring mobility in the hips, and strengthening the chronically weak posterior chain so prevalent as the negative effects from all the time we spend seated.

Weightlifting champion David Willoughby stated that the kettlebell swing “brings into action and develops practically every group of muscles on the back of the body and legs and a good many others besides … If you have time on your schedule for only one back exercise, make it this one.”

For those with lower back issues, properly performing the swing may be one of the few lower back strengthening exercises you can safely do. In 2012 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Dr. Stuart McGill found:

“unique loading patterns discovered during the kettlebell swing including the posterior shear of the L4 vertebra on L5, which is opposite in polarity to a traditional lift” such as deadlifts, good mornings, etc. He concluded, “quantitative analysis provides an insight into why many individuals credit kettlebell swings with restoring and enhancing back health and function.”

In one training program built around kettlebell swings, involving a group of 20 coaches and athletes, the results across the board where:

  • Everyone got leaner, dropping a waist size or two, in 20 workouts.
  • Every coach or athlete made visual muscular improvements in their physiques, adding lean body mass.
  • Every trainee increased his grip strength and greatly increased work capacity and athletic conditioning. They could all train longer and harder when they went back to their normal training programs.
  • After the program, every trainee saw a noted improvement in his core lifts. PR’s fell like dominos. Full-body strength and power shot through the roof.
  • Abs were more visible. Glute strength was tremendously better. The abs and glutes “discovered” how to work again, leading to athletic improvements in sport and in the weight room.

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Learning The Kettlebell Swing

The swing is a hip hinge, basically the bottom position in a standing long jump. Look for maximum hip bend and minimal knee bend. It is not a squat.

  1. Set up like for the deadlift except the kettlebell will be just in front of you – about the length of one of your feet away.
  2. Grab the kettlebell with both arms, positioning the hips down and back, and take the slack out of your body. Your knees should be slightly bent, your back flat (or slightly arched), your head up with eyes focused on the horizon, lats (back muscles) tight, and the weight on your heels.
  3. Hike the bell back between your legs. Renowned Coach Dan John words it as “vigorously hike the bell at your zipper.” Hinge at the hips deeply and let the forearms slide through the thighs. Your weight remains on the heels and the shins are vertical. You should feel that the Kettlebell is pulling you backward and loading your hamstrings. If you let your knees protrude forward you will never get the leverage to bring your hips in on the action.
  4. Snap the hips forward by contracting your glutes explosively into a vertical plank position. The motion is similar to a vertical jump, or an explosive deadlift. Visualize jumping up and at the same time projecting the Kettlebell straight ahead with the power of your hips.
  5. There is no start or finish to a correct swing. The vertical plank is a moment to grab the kettlebell and toss it back to the zipper. The hinge causes a rebound and we pop back to the plank.
  6. Do not let the kettlebell float too high. Grab it and toss it back down and back. The kettlebell should not be brought overhead.

Notes:

HEAVY kettlebell swings do an amazing job of targeting your glutes and hamstrings

HEAVY kettlebell swings do an amazing job of targeting your glutes and hamstrings

  • Consciously squeeze your glutes to drive your hips forward.
  • Make sure your back is tight. Visualize squeezing oranges in your armpits.
  • Arms should be fully extended, snapped directly in front of the body.
  • The swing should be aggressive, explosive, and attacked with a high tempo.
  • After you hinge, forcefully explode your hips forward like you’re performing a football tackle. Pretend as if you’re throwing the weight in front of you. (Just think it. Don’t actually release it!) As you hinge back, toss the weight toward your groin (every time I write that phrase I cringe a little, but it’s the best advice).
  • Synchronize your breathing with the movement. If you fail to find a rhythm you will not be able to keep up for long
  • As with all resistance training, after you’ve finished stretching your hamstrings and hips

What Kind of Weight?

When it comes to swings, after mastering the form, you should be using the heaviest kettlebell you can safely handle appropriate to the rep ranges you’re working in.

Brett Contreras, CSCS, “The Glute Guy,” investigated this, measuring ground reaction forces and electromyographic (EMG) activity, using electrodes on the test subject’s glutes, quads, and hamstrings (sounds a little kinky but it’s science) to record maximum voluntary isometric contractions. He concluded:

“Heavier loads during kettlebell swings activate the glutes and hamstrings to greater degrees and therefore place the muscles under greater tension, thereby creating greater hypertrophic stimuli … I’ve found that advanced women can hold great kettlebell swing form with 48 kgs, and advanced men can hold great form with 92 kgs. That should give you a long-term goal.”

Fixing Problems with The Swing

Sadly, for such a seemingly simple basic movement, the swing is easy to screw up. And with the rising popularity of the kettlebell, this is more apparent than ever before.

I think everyone’s seen the cringe-worthy Jillian Michaels clips of her teaching swings, but beyond that ridiculous irresponsible ignorance, I see too many trainers with bad form pass on their technique to clients. Here are some of the most common mistakes, along with fixes:

You squat

This is usually the most common. The tendency is often to “sit” when the bell goes between their knees. But the swing is not a squat, it’s a hip hinge.

The difference is that during a squat, your hips and knees maximally bend. During a hip hinge, your hips maximally bend and your knees minimally bend. Hinging at your hips until your torso is almost parallel to the floor allows you to engage your hamstrings, large muscles that let you powerfully swing the kettlebell back up to top. Bending your knees won’t let you do that.

Some hinging pointers: Guide the kettlebell toward your groin as it falls (I know that sounds scary, but trust me). As it nears your zipper, bend at your hips and reach your arms back like you’re deep snapping to a punter. This keeps your back in a neutral position and effectively engages your hamstrings.

If the concept is still difficult to understand, don’t be hard on yourself, this concept usually takes a bit to get when you’re first introduced to it. Try this movement to program your body to perform this valuable movement pattern. I’m not positive, but I think Tom Green invented this; it’s called the “Bum Touch:”

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart facing away from a wall. Make sure you are about half the length of your thigh away from the wall.
  • Take the blades of your hands – the part you’d karate chop someone with – and place them on the creases in your groin where your underpants sit.
  • Push back your hips with the blades of your hands until your butt touches the wall.
  • Now, this next bit is important – do not put any weight on the wall. Your butt should touch the wall but all the weight should be on your feet – not leaning against the wall.
  • Return to the starting position. Make sure the first thing that moves as you straighten up are the hips.
  • Perform ten reps of this wall touch.
  • Once you can do that, edge your feet away from the wall by about the length of your big toe and repeat the drill. You’ll notice you probably need to bend your knees a little to actually touch the wall – that’s okay. But make sure the first body part that bends is your hips and not your knees.
  • Perform another ten reps.
  • Edge away from the wall a bit more – probably about half the length of your big toe by now and repeat. You’ll have to really work hard to push back from the hips and not squat into it. Hips bend first, knees bend incidentally but they do bend. The hips need to travel down and back
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This is an actual photo of me from around a decade ago. Seriously. I was a walking stick figure.

The next step is to add a kettlebell but perform this same action slowly. You need to be able to keep that same hips-down-and-back position and maintain a flat back while you deadlift.

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart again and place the kettlebell between your feet with the handle running across you and in line with the knuckles of your big toes.
  • Do the exact same thing you did with the wall touch, reaching down and back with the hips until you get to the kettlebell. Don’t just bend over and reach for it. Make the movement at the hips get you to the point where your hands can grab the kettlebell handle.
  • When you take hold of the kettlebell, you need to take the slack out of your body. To do this hold the kettlebell and pull yourself slightly towards it, deliberately trying to shorten the space between the joints and compress yourself.
  • Reverse the motion making sure to stand tall at the top. Shoulders should be down with a flexed back (squeezing oranges in your armpits), making a big chest (as if you’re a teenager at the beach trying to impress girls with your blossoming pectorals). Tense the glutes firmly, imagine drawing up the kneecaps to the groin while simultaneously pushing down into the ground as hard as you can through the feet.

From here, start working on single reps of kettlebell swings, finally progressing to continuous swings, following the directions in the beginning of this article.

Your lower back hurts.

Your back should not hurt after doing kettlebell swings. After a swing workout, your hamstrings should be sore. But if you’re lower back is bothering you instead, the problem is probably your hinge. Check out the advice right above to perfect your hip hinge.

You Don’t Extend.

Think of the swing as two distinct movements: the hip hinge and the vertical plank. You’ve learned how to hinge, but the plank at the top of your swing is equally important. You want to be a straight line from your head to your feet. Pull your shoulders away from your ears, squeeze your glutes and quads, brace your abs, and push your feet through the floor. It should look like you’re performing a plank on the ground, but you’re standing verticle.

Your Posture Collapses.

When you look up or look down, you throw your form out of alignment. Just as with the squat, keep your eyes focused at eye level in the distance, and maintain that throughout the entire move.

Your arms go above your head.

At the top of your swing, the kettlebell should end somewhere between belt and shoulder height. You’ll know it’s high enough when you feel the bell “float” or go weightless for a second. The heavier the kettlebell, the lower the peak of your swing will be.

Training Programs:

The 1000 Rep Swing Workout

Renowned Coach,
Dan John, designed a challenging workout program built around Kettlebell swings that just about guarantees amazing results. You can find a detailed description at: http://www.t-nation.com/workouts/10000-swing-kettlebell-workout

The basic format of the workout is an undulating rep scheme to reach 500 total reps per workout, done as so:

  • 10 Swings
  • 1 rep in a basic strength move
  • 15 Swings
  • 2 reps in a basic strength move
  • 25 Swings
  • 3 reps in a basic strength move
  • 50 Swings.
  • Rest 3+ minutes here while doing mobility movements or light stretching. Between the other sets rest 30-60 seconds as needed.
  • Repeat four more times for a total of five times

The strength moves should really just be press, dip, pull up and squat (variations). Men will usually use a 24kg kettlebell (53 pounds). Women generally will use 16kg (35 pounds). This is a stand-alone program. If you feel you’re able to do a second workout on the same day, then you’re either not going heavy enough or not training with maximal effort.

This workout is performed 4-5 days per week, in 2 days on, 1 day off format, for a total of 20 workouts and … you guessed it, 10,000 total swings.

Intervals

To work swings in an interval style of training, try one of these formats:

Swing for Repetitions

  • Six sets of 15 to 20 repetitions
  • Eight sets of 12 to 16 repetitions
  • 10 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions

Swing for Time

  • 0:35 swing time/:20 rest x six to eight sets
  • 0:25 swing time/:25 rest x eight to 10 sets
  • 0:20 swing time/:15 rest x 12 to 14 sets

Swing for Repetitions and Time

  • Six swings every 0:30 for 10 to 12 rounds
  • 10 swings every 0:45 for 8 to 10 rounds
  • 14 swings every 1:00 for 6 to 8 rounds

The Ladder

Another option I like to use is a basic progressive ladder. Set up with 3 or 4 progressively heavier kettlebells. Working from lightest to heaviest, perform 10 reps of each. Drop straight to the bottom right after reaching the top rung of the ladder. For example:

  • 30 lbs x10,
  • 40 lbs x 10,
  • 50 lbs x 10,
  • 30 lbs x 10,
  • 40 lbs x 10,
  • 50 lbs x 10.

You can rest a bit longer between each weight ladder. Stick to the same rep count with each weight.

How do you not trust a guy who wrestles an elephant??? The mighty Goerner

How do you not trust a guy who wrestles an elephant??? The mighty Goerner

Kettlebell authority Pavel Tsatsaouline recommends this, calling it lesyenka, or ‘the ladder,’ and notes that “constant loading and unloading is easier on your head and spurs greater gains. You can think of the ladder as a miniature power cycle compressed from weeks to minutes. Russian scientists such as Prof. Matveyev concluded that periodic gain and loss of sporting form is a law of physiology and it dictates a cyclical organization of the training process. The ladder, a highly effective power tool with serious science hiding behind the plain façade, brings periodization down to the smallest units of training—and delivers.”

This training style is also similar to what Hermann Goerner from Germany, one of the all-time strength greats and a great fan of kettlebells, used to do:

“He would usually start by working out through what in Germany we call “Die Kette”—The Chain—but this is no ordinary chain…” writes Edgar Mueller in Goerner the Mighty. “The kettleweights were placed in a row on the floor of the gymnasium, and working “Die Kette” (or The Chain) meant that Herman would start out by taking the first kettleweight in the right hand and swinging it to arm’s length … He would then repeat it with the next kettleweight, using this time the left hand. The whole length of The Chain would be worked in this manner …working fast all the while and not pausing to “natter” during his training session.”

Kettlebells have too much value to not be included in your “toolbox.” They are an extremely effective tool to build strength and lean muscle, improve mobility, posture, and flexibility, build a strong and stable core, and accelerate fat loss and body recomposition.


Sources:

  • Mcgill, Stuart M., and Leigh W. Marshall. “Kettlebell Swing, Snatch, and Bottoms-Up Carry: Back and Hip Muscle Activation, Motion, and Low Back Loads.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 26.1 (2012): 16-27.
  • Tsatsouline, Pavel. The Russian Kettlebell Challenge: Xtreme Fitness for Hard Living Comrades. St. Paul, MN: Dragon Door Publications, 2001. Print.
  • John, Dan. “The 10,000 Swing Kettlebell Workout.” T Nation. N.p., 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • John, Dan. “Does Your Kettlebell Swing Suck?” Men’s Health Magazine, 14 Apr. 2014.
  • Kelso, Tom. “A Systematic Approach to Improving Your Kettlebell Swing.” Breaking Muscle. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • Read, Andrew. “How To Do The Perfect Kettlebell Swing.” Breaking Muscle. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • Contreras, Bret. “Kettlebell Swings: Go Heavier for Greater Glute and Hamstring Activation.” Bret Contreras. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 June 2014.

Jonathan

Jonathan Mielec is the Owner of Form From Function LLC, and the author of the blog at formfromfunction.com, as well as an ISSA Certified Master Trainer, NPC Physique Competitor, and Powerlifter.