Good Swings Are Fast Swings

I’m going to pick on the American swing again, but this time because I want to discuss why and how we choose our tools and the weights associated with them. Is heavier actually better?

Despite what Conan says, the best thing in life isn’t to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women. The best thing in life is when something fits.

Maybe it’s the OCD in me but I get great pleasure from putting the square peg in the square hole and seeing it slide into place just so. I get the same pleasure from working with a client and changing one small aspect of their plan and seeing a much greater response – all because it just fits right.

In the personal training world it seems that most trainers feel like they need to entertain rather than improve their clients. They seem to take delight in using as many pieces of functional equipment as they can – tires, TRX, kettlebells, and anything else they can come up with.

But do those tools really fit?

Let’s look at the kettlebell swing (because when I write about that it never causes any controversy). What do we know and like about the swing?

The first thing is that we know it’s a great hip hinge exercise. We know that Stuart McGill says that it can be helpful in healing and strengthening backs. We know that it helps with grip strength, vertical jump, and flexibility too.

So then let’s look at two ways to swing and ask ourselves whether we’ve really got the exercise to fit what we need or if we’re trying to make it fit, like a laborer smashing the square peg into the round hole with a mallet. Hey, Whac-A-Mole is fun, but I’m not sure that it’s going to help make your posterior chain stronger.

Let’s start with heavy swings. Awesome, right? Grab a heavy bell and get stuck in. But let’s look at a few things that might help us to understand that maybe, in our hurry to use a favored tool, we’ve lost sight of what is smart and what really fits.

The first thing we need to remember is that the swing is a ballistic exercise. A ballistic exercise is a bullet, not a missile. The bullet is fired once, has one single moment of acceleration, and is then decelerating from there. A missile is constantly being pushed by its jet engine. So a swing needs to be like a jump in terms of how we do it – one moment of acceleration or force production and then you’re in the air, waiting to come down and jump again.

A heavy swing can’t be done that way. The moment you lose that pop from your swing, the float at the top of the movement where you can stand and admire your work, is the moment you stopped doing productive swings.

If you’re going to do a slower movement that is heavy you should be using a barbell and doing a deadlift. Look at this video we did a while ago talking about the force velocity curve and how to maximize the way you swing in terms of all round development. You need a bell you can really accelerate hard and for most this is nowhere near as heavy as they think it is.

If you’re going to move something slowly, you may as well deadlift and really move some weight. There’s nothing impressive about deadlifting kettlebells unless you’re a six year old.

This leads me to my next point, which is once again the American swing. One of the problems with this type of swing right now is that there is no force plate data for it. However, we do have data from what we’ll call an RKC swing. Lake and Lauder have generated research on this as has Brandon Hetzler, and they’ve found that when you go too heavy you lose speed. Brandon found that the sweet spot for force production – the skill of being able to quickly generate power – was lost when the bell was heavier than a third of the user’s bodyweight. For most men that will mean using a 24kg bell.

Now, in the American swing the bell has been swung and the action is finished. There’s no way to get it higher once the hips are all the way forward without pulling on it with your arms. But that’s not going to help you produce more force in the lower body. Even without data to back it up I can watch and see that the bell speed is lower, meaning power production is too.

american swing, russian kettlebells, kettlebell swing, russian swing, kbellsAnd this is, I think, where a lot of people become confused. If you picked the American swing because it’s harder to move the weight further, then you picked it for the right reason. However, if you picked a swing variation in order to increase athletic development and force production, then I think you’ve chosen incorrectly. What you want is a lighter bell that you can really explode out of the hole with like Shannon does in the video above.

Make sure that you’ve got the right tool for the job, that the exercise fits what you need it to do. If you’ve done heavy and slow, like a deadlift, you need light and fast. Read this for more ideas on picking the right exercise.

Photo 1 courtesy of Shutterstock.