Back to Basics: How to Perform the Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is a fundamental skill that is great for beginner to advanced athletes. It has almost magical properties, in that it increases strength in many domains. Part of this “what the hell effect” is related to reversing the momentum of the kettlebell. Athletes even note increases in pull-up strength as a proper swing engages back and shoulder muscles.
In this article, we will discuss the hard-style swing popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline. The Girevoy Sport style swing is a great exercise that relies on efficiency of movement, so that one can perform it for long durations. The hard-style swing relies on putting maximum effort into each rep. It emphasizes explosiveness over efficiency.
In the video below, you can see a proper, explosive kettlebell swing.
Key Kettlebell Swing Components
There are key points to remember in the kettlebell swing:
- Hinge, don’t squat: The swing is a simple exercise that is done wrong in so many popular media sources. It is not a squat movement, but a hip-hinge movement. That means that the hips go back (hinge), and the knees only bend slightly (they bend fully in a squat). Think about this position as a jump. If you try to jump forward as far as possible, the bottom position is the same position that you use at the bottom of the kettlebell swing.
- Be explosive with the hips, not the arms: The swing is a ballistic movement. If you think of a bullet fired out of a gun, it receives all of its power initially and then relies on momentum to get to its destination. The same goes for the swing. The hips provide the explosive power throwing the kettlebell up in the air and the arms are there just for the ride. Do not worry about how high the kettlebell goes. Your goal is to let it float up once the hips have used up their power.
- Protect the back: Do not let the kettlebell pull the lower back into a bad position at the bottom of the swing. Pull your shoulders back and down to engage your lats. I like to approach the kettlebell like a gorilla with my arms out. By keeping my upper back tight, I provide more protection to my lower back.
- Location on the downswing is important: Ensure the kettlebell passes between your legs on your upper thighs. As Dave Whitley says, it is like playing chicken with your man or lady parts. Wait until the last second to hinge back and let the kettlebell go between your upper thighs. If you find your forearms hitting your lower thighs, you are putting too much strain on the lower back.
- Use the right weight: If you are proficient with your swing, a heavier weight will build more explosive power. A 24kg (53lb) kettlebell for men and 16kg (35lb) kettlebell for women will work fine for most people. Stronger men can use a 32kg bell (70lb), and stronger women can use a 20kg bell (44lb). Adjust the weight according to your experience and proficiency with the kettlebell. The key is to be explosive, so don’t jump too high in weight yet.
Troubleshooting the Swing
There are some common problems that we see in beginners. The first issue is that people tend to either squat too much or don’t bend the knees at all (like a bird drinking water). I often have people kneel and then sit back on their feet. This will position the person for what they want to do with the swing. As mentioned above, it is like a jump. One does not start a jump from a full squat nor without bending the knees. It is mostly the hips going back with a slight knee bend.
A Tool for Every Athlete
The kettlebell swing is one of my go-to exercises for all athletes, beginner to advanced. It is simpler to teach than Olympic barbell movements and it provides overlapping benefits (strength, speed, and explosiveness). It also fits the middle ground of building strength and burning fat. By adjusting the weight, we can train elite deadlifters or fitness models. One of the most underrated features is how it builds the glutes. Strong glutes have aesthetic properties, but also protect the low back from injury. By doing a proper kettlebell swing, we reduce the chance of low back injuries.
For an easy program using kettlebell swings, try this hybrid conditioning program. It utilizes the kettlebell swing to build power, strength, as well as burn fat. The kettlebell swing may not be the only tool, but it provides many benefits that it is one of my go-to tools.
What else can you do with that kettlebell?