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Swing when you’re winning – Mastering the kettlebell swing

Kettlebells have been around for a long, long time. It’s unclear who can lay claim to their invention – the Russians have used them for hundreds of years and the wrestlers of ancient India used similar training devices too. Whoever invented them, there is no denying that kettlebells are one of the greatest workout tools available and of all the exercises you can do with a kettlebell, the swing is my favorite.

The kettlebell swing will:

  • Develop your all important posterior chain – glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, middle trapezius and rhomboids and also your core
  • Improve your cardiovascular fitness when performed for high reps
  • Help you burn fat at an alarmingly rapid rate!
  • Allow you to do high intensity interval training (HIIT) without any concerns over impact
  • Increase hip power which transfers well to running and jumping
  • Develop mental toughness when performed for high reps
  • Improve total body coordination and kinesthetic awareness

The kettlebell swing can be performed in a couple of different ways; to shoulder-height – the so-called Russian swing and above head-height – sometimes called the American swing. The American swing is more popular amongst CrossFitters and, because of the increased range of movement it is arguably the more demanding of the two variations. However, the potential for lumbar and shoulder hyperextension is higher in American swings than for the Russian variant so choose the version that best suits your abilities and needs.

For such a seemingly simple exercise, there is a whole lot going on when you swing a kettlebell. For starters, it is what is best described as a full-body exercise. Add a high velocity movement, the potential for severe fatigue (swings are HARD work!) and the likelihood that high reps or heavy weights are the order of the day and you have not only a very effective exercise but one that must be performed with proper technique if you are to avoid suffering unnecessary and potentially serious injuries.

Model – Natasha Daniel-Gantz | Photographer – Andreas Michael
Model – Natasha Daniel-Gantz | Photographer – Andreas Michael

Here is a step by step guide to performing the perfect swing…

  • Hold the kettlebell in both hands and stand with your feet shoulder-width or more apart. Turn your feet slightly outward. Pull your shoulders down and back and try to bend the handle toward you to fully activate your upper back muscles and therefore stabilize your shoulders.
  • Bend your knees slightly. The swing is NOT a squat so don’t turn it into one by bending your knees too much!
  • Hinge forward from your hips by shoving your butt back. Lower the weight between your knees. Your chest should be up – higher than your hips – and your lower back should be slightly but tightly arched.
  • Do not allow your head and shoulders to project much beyond your feet as this will merely throw your weight onto your toes which will, in turn, increase your likelihood of rounding your lower back.
  • With your abs tightly braced, drive your hips forward in what is often referred to as a “hip snap”. This movement is not unlike a standing long jump.
  • Use this momentum and, keeping your arms perfectly straight, swing the weight forward and up to shoulder or head-height depending if you are performing Russian or American swings. Inhale as the weight ascends to ensure you can maximize intra-abdominal pressure at the top of the swing.
  • Use your lats (the muscles on the side of your back) to bring the weight to a stop and then power it back down. Do not just let gravity pull the weight back toward the floor – give it some heat!
  • As the weight descends, exhale and hinge forward from your hips again so you are ready for your next rep. Try to establish a smooth, steady swinging and breathing rhythm. I find that around 25 to 30 swings per minute is about right.

There are numerous ways you can integrate kettlebell swings into your workouts…

  1. Multiple high rep sets using a light/moderate weight kettlebell are great for fat loss and cardiovascular conditioning
  2. Low rep sets using a heavy kettlebell provide a viable alternative for the Olympic lifts
  3. Medium rep sets are a great exercise for circuit training
  4. High rep sets (50 reps and above) are great for developing “mental toughness” , especially when you use a heavy kettlebell
  5. A set of heavy kettlebell swings before deadlifts, squats or plyometrics (jumping exercises) really potentiates (excites) your nervous system which can lead to greater performance

Swings are an awesome exercise – especially when done with perfect technique. And in addition to being a great athletic performance enhancer, they are also the best butt exercise around! 

Article by Patrick Dale