Most of you know that I am a big kettlebell guy. In my opinion, it’s the single best training tool one can have in their arsenal. The dynamic nature of bell gives the operator an enormous scope of possibility when choosing exercises. But the gold is found in the swing. The kettlebell swing is the single most useful exercise in one’s tool box, and it goes well beyond developing explosion, great cardio, or molding the perfect backside.
If taught and performed correctly, the swing is a full-body exercise. The glutes and hips are the drivers, but due to the abrupt motion of a beautiful swing, the thighs, abs, lats, feet, calves, hands and forearms are forced into action to keep the structure uniform. It’s one of those exercises that most of our science friends have a tough time measuring total work performed, because the amount of muscular contraction throughout the body (from head to toe) is nearly impossible to calculate. There would need to be hundreds of measuring points to accurately quantify what’s going on in the totality of the body.
I use, prescribe, and program swings in every routine I write. I want my kids to have the ability to develop high amounts of tension in the shortest amount of time, which the swing does with precision. I want to give them the ability to return to a nearly relaxed state in less than a breath. I want to mimic many of the benefits of plyometrics, without accumulating the wear and tear of repeated impacts. I want to create a metabolic training effect that keeps calorie burn sky high long after the sets have concluded. But what no one knows is that a big reason I program the kettlebell swing is that it is likely the most effective energetic cultivation tool you can use. Get comfortable, because this is going to get interesting.
The Role of the Lower Dantian
I have written several times here about some of the more abstract and complex laws of Chinese Medicine. For the western-minded person, this can get a little difficult to understand, but for a person seasoned in this style of medicine, or to the hardcore martial artist, these concepts are the pathway for both health and physical performance, and are very much the norm.
In one such article, I detail extensively the idea of cultivating or building the lower dantian. This critical energy center of the body is the epicenter to all things physical, and is the anchor to your level of rootedness. It accesses and helps govern multiple systems including digestion, hormone production (particularly testosterone), kidney function, and the stress response. It contains the majority of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
When the lower dantian is full and robust, digestion improves, helping the body extrapolate nutrients from the food eaten. In men, particularly, we see a balancing of testosterone, aiding not only increased recovery, but also enhanced sexual function. The kidneys, the grand cleansers of the body, reap massive rewards. Lastly, stress response is directly affected when we have a strong lower dantian. It’s truly a one stop shop for health, and perhaps just as profound, for performance.
The early Daoists understood this. Many followers of Daoism are also kung fu practitioners. Any of you who have studied the arts, particularly Chinese kung fu, know that the first place a fighter begins his or her work is with lower dantian cultivation. This is where they draw their physical power from, where they increase the body’s jing (or essence), and fortify the physical tissues used in combat. A good part of the reason you see a physically smaller man or woman display almost superhuman levels of explosiveness and power is because of a cultivated lower dantian. It’s not unusual for a kung fu disciple to spend years building and maintaining the lower dantian through specific exercises, meditation and martial practices.
The Kettlebell Swing and Qi
A few of the most-used cultivation practices are Beating and Drumming the Qi, Dantian Breathing, and Swaying. I use all three in some capacity in my own training. Each of these have the practitioner building the lower dantian through intention and focus on the area. Meditating on your breath and building a ball of light in the belly, or using physical movements along with this intention can help build a healthy thriving lower dantian.
The kettlebell swing mimics, unintentionally, some of the physical movements in a few of the above-mentioned practices. The idea that the power comes from the hips, the driving of the legs, and the rootedness necessary for powerful swings all run a direct parallel with dantian cultivation exercises.
If you are swinging correctly and with power, your abdominal wall must armor to keep the lower back from getting irritated. I teach the swing with a “plank-like” hollow position to not only protect the back, but also create a barrier, or wall, for the hips to run into. This barrier (coupled with contracting the quads) terminates the motion of the hips, no matter how hard the glutes fire. Many martial artists and kundalini practitioners do “qi packing” exercises where abdominal contractions are paired with specific breathing to increase energetic concentration of the lower belly. All of these things build, cultivate, and nurture a thriving lower dantian.
To be honest, I stumbled upon this and linked the two (cultivation exercises and swings) by accident. I work hard on both separately, and during a training session months ago, it occurred to me that what I was doing in my swing was eerily similar to my cultivation practices. What if I could blend the two? What if I could piggyback work and create an effective alternative to both practices? An all-in-one, perfect exercise, made that much more perfect.
Intention Drives Effectiveness
What anyone stepping into energetic practices needs to understand out the gate is that your intention drives the success of the exercises. If your mind is wandering, and you are busy thinking about work or your sweetheart during these times, the effectiveness is almost completely neutered. But if you can focus on what you are doing and drive your intention to where it belongs, the potential efficacy is limitless. So let’s take a look at how we, with the scripted thinking, can turn the kettlebell swing into one of the most powerful qi building exercises known.
Think of an old-fashioned water pump. When people needed to draw water from the ground, they would grab the handle and begin to crank. With every pump of the handle, water is pulled up until it begins to pour out of the spout. This is the core idea of this style of swing.
If you focus on the swing as a kind of pump for qi, it becomes an energetic cultivation exercise.
The soles of the feet have major inlets where energy or qi can be drawn into the body. Especially if you swing barefoot, you can imagine your feet being the suction spot of the foot to draw the qi into the body (up the yin channels of the legs). The hinging motion of the swing acts as the crank arm in the water pump analogy. With every hinge, you are drawing qi from the earth to race up the legs. Once the hips engage to extend and create power for the swing itself, the qi dumps into the belly. The contraction of the abdomen (again, because of solid technique) begins to pack the newly harvested qi from the ground. Rep after rep, energy races into the body and is stored in the lower dantian. With your mind conceptualizing this happening, and the intention that what you have gathered is now stored, you have a powerhouse exercise that reaches well past the usual assumed benefits.
An Exercise to Build Energy
Depending on who you talk to, many would say that large physical exertions like weight training actually drain the body of some of these vital energies. They are right, in many instances. But this way of approaching the swing can reverse many of these assumptions. Instead of working in the red as a result of large efforts, we can begin to bank extra qi while we train.
The best part of this is that anyone can do it. It doesn’t take a massive retooling of technique, and it doesn’t bastardize a preferred system. It allows disciples of kettlebell training to rest easy that we aren’t perverting our precious movements. The only thing you need to do is pair your technique with a new thing to concentrate on.
Give it a try. 10 sets of 10 swings with this very intention and see what it does for your training, and for the rest of your being.
You don’t have to hold still to meditate: