Internet forums are funny things. They remind me of the zoo. Often they’re fascinating to watch and you can get a rare insight into some hidden facet on a subject, as if you’d just found out cheetahs use roller skates. Other times it’s like being at the monkey cage and watching them fling poo at each other.
Recently one of the little gems I found was a fairly serious powerlifter (600+lb competition deadlift) saying how he used kettlebell swings at the end of his workout. Nothing heavy and not trying to use them as assistance work, but instead using them to loosen up his back after heavy deadlifting. It was also in an Internet forum that I found the research paper for this article I wrote on swings improving vertical jump. I spoke with the original researcher, in particular asking him about the research from another genius, Brandon Hetzler, which I then used for this article on swings increasing strength and speed.
All this got me to thinking there sure seems to be a lot of information starting to gather out there for this one simple exercise. The RKC has long been a champion of the swing, and Master RKC Mark Reifkind has produced many great articles on the swing as well as a DVD (Mastering the Hardstyle Swing). In my own training, with my time and energy severely limited from the hours I’m spending on Ironman training, I’ve been looking to simplify my training and I’ve also turned to the swing, following the recommendations outlined in this article.
In other words – the swing is a great exercise, so let’s get it right and make sure we can really benefit from it. The following is a four-step primer for how to perform the perfect swing.
1. Wall 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.
- 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, as I explain with Senior RKC Shaun Cairns in this video.
Important reminder: Make sure the first thing that moves as you straighten up are the hips, too. For a visual reference see how Shaun drives forward from his hips and, as in the initial backwards motion, the knees just come along for the ride.
The next step is to add a kettlebell, but perform this same action slowly. We used to say on the racetrack, “If you can’t do it slow, you’ll never do it fast.” It applies here, too. 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 and back, making a big chest (as if you are proud to be working with kettlebells, and you should be). 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.
3. Power Swing
Now it’s time to get things swinging. But only a little to begin with. While the deadlift teaches you the mechanics of the swing it also creates in a way a false position, as you will never need to go that low when swinging.
- For the pendulum swing, 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.
- Once you have lowered yourself to the bell, positioning the hips down and back, grab hold of the kettlebell and again take the slack out of your body. Watch this video for an explanation by RKC Team Leader Andrea Chang.
- Now simply hike the bell back hard – force plate analysis of the swing shows far more force should be generated on the backswing than on the upswing so don’t be shy. Make sure to keep the alignment of the body and not crumple as the weight of the bell pulls you back.
- Perform a single swing and return the bell to its starting position.
- Perform ten single reps.
4. Continuous Swings
The only thing you need to do now is to continue swinging instead of stopping after each rep. You will find that sets of ten to twenty reps are about right. Anything more will likely lead to poor form and maybe a sore back.
Take your time during the learning phase and spend plenty of time on single rep power swings before even worrying about moving on to continuous swings. The more time you spend grooving the bottom position and developing a stable trunk on the downswing, the better off you are. There really should only be two movements in the swing – your hips move down and back, and then up and forward, finishing at lockout. The lockout should be exactly the same as during the deadlift – glutes tight, abs on, legs tight and kneecaps drawn up, shoulders down and back, and with a big chest and tall spine.
As always in learning movements, get the quality right before you worry about quantity. Ten good swings will do something for you. A hundred poor ones won’t do anything other than potentially injure you. Suggested starting weights for men would be a 16 kg/35 lb. bell and for women a 12 kg/26 lb. bell.
Learn the six basics RKC exercises: