Kettlebell Swings Explained: This Is What You Need to Know
Contributing Authors: Brittany Weiss, CJ Martin & Sarah Loogman
Did you know there is a single exercise that will increase your full body strength and explosiveness while building your aerobic capacity and functional fitness, too?
It almost sounds too good to be true… but it’s not.
In fact, the benefits of kettlebell swings are so outstanding that we decided to ask our experts for their take on the movement as well as their best tips, techniques, and tricks for getting the most out of it.
You should also know:
There is a right way and a wrong way to do swing a kettlebell. Be sure to read this article closely to learn how to do them safely.
But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.
What Are Kettlebell Swings?
Kettlebell swings are a full body movement that puts focus on building the posterior chain.
While other movements have one particular focus, the great thing about the kettlebell swing is that it creates power and explosiveness throughout the entire body. The kettlebell swing is a hinge – the hamstrings and glutes are loaded and the legs and hips are used to drive the kettlebell up, rather than thinking about it being an arm raise.
The Benefits Of The Kettlebell Swing
Kettlebell swings increases power and build muscle endurance.
They help build core stability, dynamic balance, and your aerobic capacity. They can be used for high-rep volume, low-rep volume, and interval training. They are also one of the few exercises that you can use for targeting many different muscle groups in your body which is why it is so beneficial.
Are Kettlebell Swings Good For You?
Of course they are!
Your movement pattern during a kettlebell swing is how you move a lot in your everyday life. Some examples would be bending over and picking something up off the ground, picking your kids up off the floor, sitting down and standing back up, etc.
In those movements, you initiate with the hip, load the glutes and hamstrings, keep the core engaged and then you stand and squeeze. They help you function better in real life situations. They make you stronger and get your heart rate up, so you are getting the best of both worlds.
Kettlebell Swing Form
If you are new to the kettlebell swing, make sure to choose a light enough weight to build proper mechanics. You don’t want to start too heavy and cause yourself to put your body through incorrect technique.
As you go to start the kettlebell swings you want to keep the following in mind.
Foot stance – Slightly outside of hip width but not more than shoulder width apart. You want to be in a stance that is going to help you be the most explosive.
Grabbing the kettlebell – Think HINGING! You should initiate the movement with the hips back. With a slight bend of the knees and your back flat, you will then reach down for the bell (keeping quarter squat in mind.)
Starting the swing – Think about hiking a football. You will drive the kettlebell through the legs, keeping it close to the groin, shoulders pinned back, and your core engaged.
SWINGIN’ – With your glutes and hamstrings turned on and your core engaged, you will then use the power from your legs and hips to drive the kettlebell up, finishing with the knees and hips locked out. Keep your shoulders relaxed and make sure to not add an extra shrug that tends to happen when you first start to get it to move.
The flow – Once the kettlebell gets to the sweet spot, you want it to absorb the weight as it starts to make its way back down to its initial starting position (hike the football). Arms should stay locked out the whole entire time!
The Error We Frequently See With the Swing
The key point of error in the kettlebell swing happens when the exercise is performed as a squat movement through the forces of external rotation.
As the bell travels back between the thighs, an athlete making this error will turn the knees outward by flexing the glutes and quads and externally rotating within the hip capsule. The athlete may appear to “sit” at the end range of the backswing. This common error results in the hips being inhibited from a pelvic tilt, or hinging pattern.
The reason this is alarming is that in this “locked” position, the hips can no longer create the desired range of motion and the lumbar spine will then act as a fulcrum to the loading of the kettlebell. Although the muscles of the lower back are capable of flexion and extension, it is not their primary function which is why swings done in this manner often cause excessive muscle swelling of the low back or worse yet, acute or chronic damage to the spine.
The Solution for Proper Hinging
The solution to this low back pain epidemic is to teach proper patterns of hinging and internal rotation.
To properly hinge, the pelvis must be “free” to tilt. Allowing the pelvis to tilt lets an athlete use the proper musculature of the movement pattern to carry the majority of the work.
In the case of a hinging pattern, such as the kettlebell swing, the hamstrings function to extend the hips in the safest and most efficient manner possible. The pelvis, in this way, is much better suited to absorb the eccentric loading of a kettlebell swing than is the lower back.
If the pelvis becomes the acting fulcrum to the swing, the muscles of the lumbar spine can instead do what they were designed to do – provide static, or isometric, stability.
Practicing Internal Rotation Torque
To properly hinge and promote engagement of the hamstrings, an athlete must understand internal rotation torque.
Internal, or medial, rotation of the femurs into the hips is what allows the hips to hinge freely and still create powerful forces of flexion. This pattern of rotation can be practiced and learned by standing with feet directly below the body and without allowing the feet to actually move, thinking of squeezing the floor together with your feet or creating a screw like motion with the toes moving towards the center of the body.
On the other hand, the external forces of a squat can be activated with the opposite action of “twisting” the toes outward or “spreading the floor,” again, without any actual change in the position of the feet. External and internal forces are both essential to optimal human function, but will be dependent on the type of movement.
As a hinging pattern, the kettlebell swing must be exercised as internal rotation to move best and safely. The external forces of a squat inhibit the athlete from achieving the proper range of motion and for that reason; the low back will be the primary flexor/extensor for the swing.
The internal rotation used in a hinge will allow the athlete to freely move the hips and therefore use the hamstrings and glutes to achieve rapid hip extension.
How To Do a Kettlebell Swing (Russian vs. American)
Quite a few folks following our programming have been wondering whether kettlebell swings should be performed as American Swings, Russian Swings or a hybrid. IT DEPENDS.
Let’s take a look at the traditional American and Russian swings first, and then talk about how to determine which of those is best for you, or if there is a hybrid option that might work better.
The Russian Kettlebell Swing
The Russian swing starts with the kettlebell just below the groin (above the knees) and is swung to chest level – approximately a 90-degree angle to the torso. The movement is short, brisk and compact. It is a hip-hinge movement, with roughly 20-degrees (or less) of flexion at the knee.
The power of the swing is generated from the hips while the spine is held perfectly stable and neutral. At the apex of the swing, the bell is at chest level, and the athlete’s glutes are contracted, quads are engaged (pulling the knees up), belly is rock solid and braced for impact, and lats are actively pulling the shoulders away from the ears.
Additionally, the Russian swing should be performed with rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing – filling the abdomen on the downswing and forcefully expelling through the teeth, while bracing the belly, at the top of the swing.
The American Kettlebell Swing
The American swing should differ from the traditional Russian swing only in the finish position.
The mechanics of the swing itself should be identical – the bell should pass just below the groin, there should be no more than 20 degrees of knee flexion, the hips should generate the power, the glutes should contract hard, the quads should engage to pull the knees up, and the belly should be rock solid.
The difference is simply that the athlete will allow the force produced on the kettlebell to carry it all the way overhead so that the bottom of the kettlebell is directly over the ears, shoulders, hips and ankles.
Athletes should not be increasing the amount of knee flexion (turning the movement into a squat), nor should they be lifting the kettlebell with their deltoids to assist it into the overhead position.
The force is still generated solely by the hip drive, and if optimal force is produced by the hips the athlete will likely have to decelerate the kettlebell as it approaches its apex.
The Russian Swing Must Come First!
The first thing to understand is that the Russian swing must be the foundational movement.
The American swing is a progression the builds from the foundation of the Russian swing. If you cannot perform Russian swings well, you will not perform American swings well.
Attempting to jump straight to American swings without a solid understanding of the Russian swing often creates poor habits, like squatting through the movement or pulling up on the kettlebell with the traps and deltoids.
So, we must start by mastering the short, concise, powerful Russian swing before attempting to move on to the American swing…or a hybrid.
But Can I Go Overhead?
The answer to the question of whether you can or should be going overhead with your kettlebell swings is not one that can be answered from afar.
That answer depends entirely on whether you have three things:
The thoracic mobility to achieve the finishing position without overextending at the lumbar spine.
The midline stability and coordination to achieve the finishing position without overextending at the lumbar spine.
The discipline to achieve the finishing position without overextending at the lumbar spine.
The Hybrid Kettlebell Swing (Russican?)
That point between Russian and American just before you start to lose your stable midline and neutral spine position is your unique version of the hybrid swing.
In our group sessions at Invictus, we will often suggest that most of our athletes swing the kettlebell to eyebrow height.
This hybrid swing allows us to provide a common standard that can be met by the vast majority of our athletes. If the coach can see the athlete’s eyes under the bell, they’ve met the standard.
It’s a compromise position that we have taken in group coaching, but for athletes training for competition, we want to see them swinging the kettlebell as high as they can without sacrificing good movement, a neutral spine and stable midline.
You all might have a slightly different swing height for TRAINING.
If you’re training for health and fitness, determine which swing better fits your training goals on the given day, with the understanding that whichever method you choose must be performed with perfect mechanics.
For athletes out there looking to compete in the sport of CrossFit, we suggest swinging to the height that makes the most sense for you and your possible mobility restrictions until just a few weeks prior to the competition season.
It will not take long to make the adjustment to American swings, and you will have enjoyed many months of training good mechanics. You will also buy yourself many months to work on your mobility so that when the competition season comes around you can repeat our little test and hit the full range on an American swing with perfect mechanics.
Kettlebell Swing Muscles Worked
A kettlebell swing is one of the few movements where we feel a little bit of everything. It’s very simple to add this athletic movement into your daily routine, which is why we like to incorporate this movement into all the different workouts that we do.
The kettlebell swing touches on the glutes, hamstrings, hips, lats, core, shoulders, pec, and grip.
Are Kettlebell Swings Good Cardio?
How are they not cardio!?
You are swinging an object over and over again which will automatically spike the heart rate to begin with. A kettlebell swing engages nearly every muscle in the body.
Due to its explosiveness it is highly encouraged for cardio. Do 100 for time and then let’s talk!
Daily Kettlebell Swing Workouts
Here are some kettlebell swing workouts that you can throw into your everyday routine.
Workout 1- Tabata fun; 20s on/10s off for 8 sets with kettlebell swings.
Workout 2- 6 sets: 10 kettlebell swings. Rest as needed between sets.
Workout 3- 3 sets: 60s two-handed swing directly followed by 30s right handed swing/30s left handed swing. Rest 60s between sets.
Workout 4- For time: 21-15-9 kettlebell swings and burpees.
Workout 5- As many rounds as possible in 10 minutes: 15 kettlebell swings, 12 push-ups, 9 sit-ups.
Workout 6- 5 rounds for time: 15 kettlebell swings, 10 goblet squats.
How Many Calories Do You Burn Doing 100 Kettlebell Swings?
Many variables come into play trying to figure out how many calories you burn doing a certain amount of swings.
What weight are you using?
What’s your intensity/velocity?
How long are you working for?
What type of swing are you doing?
What’s your training style?
The list goes on and on.
SO many questions come to mind when someone asks how many calories they are burning doing this specific workout. If you’re working, you’re burning calories no matter what. Put the work in and the results will show.
What Can I Do Instead Of Kettlebell Swings
The cool thing about kettlebell swings is that there are so many ways to customize the movement so that it works for you!
Our favorite are goat bag swings because they are a simple technique to improve your swing or teach the hip hinge, so they are great for beginners.
The goat bag movement is basically a slow motion kettlebell swing except that you hold the kettlebell to your body instead of let it swing between the legs. Everything else is the same and it really lets the athlete get to know the hip hinge and its benefits.
Slowing down the movement of the swing lets the athlete make sure they are in the proper position throughout then they can speed it up when they are comfortable with the movement.
There’s no excuse if you don’t have a kettlebell or you are unable to do the dynamic portion of the swing. There are so many ways that you can build the same muscles as if you were actually doing the swing.
How do you feel about kettlebell swings? Leave a comment below!