Anatomy of an exercise – the kettlebell swing

swing banner

The kettlebell swing is an excellent exercise. It incorporates one of the fundamental movement patterns – the hip hinge – it helps develop explosive strength, core and spine stability and cardiovascular fitness. Because I love me some kettlebell action I thought I would break down the swing and some of its common variations. Technique and form are super important when exercising, especially when you add load to that exercises and even more if there is a dynamic explosive element to that loaded movement. Many people do the swing wrong and put themselves at risk of injury.

Let’s list some of the evidence-based benefits of the kettlebell swing before we move on. This way, you can be confident that this article is giving you ethical advice and not just hyperbole and opinion with no real factual basis, like so many fitness articles on the web.

  1. The kettlebell swing improves both explosive power and maximal strength (1). Explosive power is strength + speed. Basically, the faster you can move a weight the faster the speed of muscle contraction. This means that kettlebell swings are great for athletes whose sport has an explosive element to it.
  2. The swing isn’t as good for improvements in aerobic conditioning as more traditional cardio exercise like running, but it does raise the heart rate up into the 75-80% of VO2max range, meaning that it WILL improve aerobic conditioning and may a good alternative for the sake of variety (2).
  3. The swing is excellent for improving spine stability and can be included into a rehab routine for improving lower back pain. This is largely due to improving endurance in the extensor chain muscles of the back and reducing lumbopelvic pressure induced pain. The main muscles involved in the kettlebell swing are the Hamstrings, Glutes and Lats (3,4,5).

Hinge or squat?

Right, first off let me just say that a squat swing (you know, the kind of exercise abortion you’re likely to see on Fitness Blender) is safe. It’s just not very effective and looks incredibly ugly. If you are new to exercise, have not yet established good movement patterns and are too weak to lift at least an 8kg kettlebell then a squat-swing will at least get you moving. For everyone else, it’s a hip hinge movement so learn how to hip hinge correctly.

It’s a pivot of the hips, the abs should be braced to stabilise the lower back, keep your chest proud and shoulder blades pulled down your back to maintain a neutral spine throughout. Your weight should be more towards your heels than your toes and you ought to feel tension in your hamstrings. Here’s what it looks like:

Practice this and be aware of proprioception (read this blog if that makes no sense to you) so you need to think about what’s going on internally, which joints are moving, which muscles are contracting, do you feel balanced, do you have any pain? What, have I lost you already? I know, giving enough of a f*** about yourself to actually pay attention to how your body responds to movement is for crazy people with perfect lives, right? No one has a perfect life but, learning to hip hinge correctly will make yours more perfecter… unlike my grammar.

Breaking down the swing

Once you have mastered the hip hinge and can safely do some deadlifts then it’s time to introduce the swing. The swing, if you think about the start and finish positions it is a deadlift into a standing plank, it’s a standing plank because your Glutes and Abs are braced to decelerate the hip extension to prevent driving the lower back into hyperextension and run the risk of compressing the lumbar vertebrae. An important consideration here, is to make sure that you are sitting your weight back just enough to pre-load the Hamstrings and eccentrically contract the Glutes before thrusting the hips forward onto extension. A common mistake is to not hinge back enough at the bottom of the swing and then to overcompensate on the extension, which almost always leads to lower back pain. So think about slamming a door shut with your arse.

The start position

There are various ways to start the swing but I am going to discuss the “deadstop” start position, the reason for this will become clear later in this article.

Swing pt1

In this position, pull your shoulder blades back and squeeze your armpits. Brace your abs, shift your hips up and back slightly to engage the Hamstrings. Then you ‘hike’ the kettlebell back.

The hike

The hike is so-called because in American Football the Centre ‘hikes’ the ball between his legs into the hands of the Quarterback. The back swing portion of the kettlebell swing is the same motion, imaging you have Tom Brady standing behind you ready to receive the ball (personally, I’ll pretend it’s Terry Bradshaw but I’m showing my age now).

swing pt2

The swing

After the hike you thrust your hips forward. Think of it like a deadlift where you press your feet ‘through’ the floor as you drive the hips forward. At the top of the swing your body is in a neutral upright position, often referred to as “lock out”. This is the standing plank I mentioned earlier. DO NOT drive your hips beyond a normal neutral upright position.

Swing pt3

The kettlebell follows an arc-like trajectory and reaches zero-gravity somewhere between your belt buckle and upper abdomen. If you are a CrossFitter you may do that horrible looking American Swing which is almost a 2 handed kettlebell snatch. If you know how to do that with good form and know why you are doing it that’s fine. Most people don’t have good form and don’t know why they are ding it and almost everyone over extends the lower back when doing it. To do the hardstyle swing shown here, you allow the kettlebell to naturally swing as high as the momentum of your hip drive allows.

common mistakes

A few common mistakes I see people making, that will massively improve the efficiency of your swings are thus:

  1. Not shifting your weight into your heels as you snap the hips forward into the swing. If your weight is in your toes you won’t be able to get the necessary snap in the hip extension because it makes it much harder to engage the Glutes. You’ll also run the risk of overbalancing.
  2. Not maintaining tension in the Lats on the up swing. Try and keep your upper arms pinned to your sides, like you are holding oranges under your armpits. This allows more control of the kettlebell trajectory and prevents it from projecting away from you on the down swing.
  3. Letting the kettlebell swing too low through the knees on the down swing (usually because your weight is too far forward). As you bring the kettlebell down, allow it to move through its natural arc but, again, aim to hike it into your under carriage, your forearms should hit the insides of your thighs. Again, shift your weight back at this point and keep everything nice and tight. Remember, we want to pre-load the Hamstrings here.

The single arm swing

There are two kinds of single arm swing. For competition, or Girevoy, kettlebell sports you will develop what is known as a pendulum swing – that might be another blog for another day. For the hardstyle swing the motion is exactly the same except you hold the kettlebell in one hand. The other hand should follow the same trajectory to help keep the motion balanced and prevent a sheering rotational force in the spine.

Me Single arm swing (CROP)

A little tip here, I like to rotate my forearm so at zero-gravity the hand is pronated (palm down) but as I swing the kettlebell down I rotate the hand so the thumb pints down like Caesar at the colosseum (thanks to Stephen Aish for that analogy).

The deadstop swing

Lastly, let me just mention the deadstop swing. This can be done either with a very heavy kettlebell or two medium weighted kettlebells. It’s excellent for huge gains in explosive strength and is great for improving the stability of the lower back. It’s a good accessory for deadlifts too.

How do you do it? Simples, you start in the same set-up position as pictured above, hike the kettlebell, snap the hips into lockout position and then bring the kettlebell back to the start position with it rested on the floor. Basically, you do one full swing at a time. Hence the title, because you start from deadstop and finish at deadstop.

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  1. Lake, J. and Lauder, M. (2012). Kettlebell Swing Training Improves Maximal and Explosive Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), pp.2228-2233.
  2. FORTNER HA, SALGADO JM, HOLMSTRUP AM, HOLMSTRUP ME. Cardiovascular and Metabolic Demads of the Kettlebell Swing using Tabata Interval versus a Traditional Resistance Protocol. International Journal of Exercise Science. 2014;7(3):179-185.
  3. Lake, J. and Lauder, M. (2012). Mechanical Demands of Kettlebell Swing Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(12), pp.3209-3216.
  4. Keilman, B., Hanney, W., Kolber, M., Pabian, P., Salamh, P., Rothschild, C. and Liu, X. (2017). The Short-Term Effect of Kettlebell Swings on Lumbopelvic Pressure Pain Thresholds. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(11), pp.3001-3009.
  5. McGill, S. and Marshall, L. (2012). Kettlebell Swing, Snatch, and Bottoms-Up Carry: Back and Hip Muscle Activation, Motion, and Low Back Loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(1), pp.16-27.

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