The Kettlebell Swing

Posted: March 31, 2014 by dannytwoguns in Articles

Of any and all exercises, the Kettlebell Swing has to be one of the top three if not the most bastardized and incorrectly performed exercises there is. There are a few reasons for this that I can think of…

– You aren’t adequately prepared for the exercise in terms of foundational strength and/or ability to properly hinge. (Which by the way is completely okay)
– You “saw someone do it somewhere” and that person, sometimes a “fitness professional” actually had no idea what the hell they were doing.
– It isn’t an exercise everyone “can just do”/You don’t know how to perform it/It is a complicated exercise – It isn’t just a lift you can hop on a machine and do safely. It requires practice, skill, technique and foundational strength.
– People do it with a dumbbell. There are a lot of kettlebell exercises you can adequately and similarly perform with a dumbbell, no problem. However, the swing is not one of them.

For whatever reason, it gets done wrong, a lot. Before I go into explaining how to properly perform one, I want to preface it with this…

It is a “sexy” exercise, it is a great fat burner, great “booty builder,” great developer of explosive hip strength etc etc but it isn’t any of those if you dont know how to perform it or cant physically perform it.

If you cannot properly hinge, you will burn a lot more fat training how to do so. If you cant deadlift from the floor with a neutral spine, you will burn more fat and develop more explosive hip strength training to do just that, than doing a swing incorrectly.

It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you have a little practice to do and once you’ve reaped the benefits of that practice, you can proceed to the continued benefits the swing can provide you that learning it did.

The swing isn’t the goal. It is simply a good and high quality means to get to yours.

Onto how to perform the swing. Here is a quick rundown and then we will break it down more.

– Start with a shoulder width stance, 6-12 inches away from the kettlebell depending on your mobility.
– Hinge at the hips, with the butt back, knee unlocked and grab the kettlebell. Your back/spine should be completely straight.
– Start the swing with a “hike” back between your legs. The bell should be above your knees and close to the groin.
– Once it has been hiked back past your butt, quickly and dynamically reverse the movement by driving your hips forward and getting to standing as quickly as you can, while maintain a completely straight back.
– Heels should be firmly planted into the ground and the hips and knees should come together simultaneously.
– The weight should float to about chin/eye level and no higher, you stop the movement at that point with your core and lats. Goal is to be as tall as possible here.
– As the bell floats at the top position, allow it to descend back into the hike, keeping your back straight and the kettlebell close to the groin and never below the knees.
– Repeat.

Now we’ll go into more detail on three positions, the start, the “hike”/which also serves as the bottom position of each rep and the top of the swing.

The start of the swing…

KB Swing Start

– Neutral spine/flat back from tailbone to base of your neck – shoulders “down and back”
– Weight on your heels, “spreading the floor”
– Lats engaged by “prying the handle” of the KB
– Shoulders “packed” down and back
– Abs braced as if your were preparing to be punched
– Tension throughout your hamstrings/back of your legs

Commons mistakes in the start of the swing…
– Starting from the standing position and then doing multiple “small hikes”/”small swings” to get the full height and power of the swing.
– Having the bell start too far away on the floor and not being able to “pack” the shoulders.
– Not having a neutral spine/Having a rounding of the back.

The “hike” of the initial swing/the bottom of each swing…

What NOT to do…

Jillian Michaels

I’ve abused this picture already but it bears repeating. People see this picture and it is pretty obvious why this is a not to do. Your back is in an awful position and you are in a position to generate no power at all. It shouldn’t look like it hurts.

What to do…

KB Swing Hike

– Spine stays neutral
– Chest is proud, shoulders are down and back
– Knees are unlocked but only bend minimally
– Butt is back, hips and hamstrings “loaded” or engaged
– Kettlebell travels slightly behind your hips and stays close to the groin (it shouldn’t be down by your knees)
– Shins stay vertical/don’t deviate forward
– It is a hinge, not a squat – butt travels back on the hinge

The top of the swing…

This is a position that is often overlooked as being done incorrectly. One common one you’ll see is a lot of spinal extension or leaning back at the top, the spine extends too far back rather than being a straight line from your toes to your head. This puts too much emphasis on your back to do the lift rather than your hamstrings and glutes, which should propel the movement.

Another common mistake, which some crowds will adamantly tell you is the correct way to do the swing, is swinging the bell too high or swinging it over your head…

American Swing

There are a few reasons this is on the what NOT to do list. Firstly, it doesn’t pass the common sense test. Dynamically swinging the bell in an unstable position over your head? Just, No.

But there are more valid reasons as well…

– Look at her spine. It is completely extended and not in a stable or safe position at all.
– Her neck is too extended and her head too far forward. Bad posture and an unstable and dangerous position for the neck and shoulders. The vast majority of people don’t have the mobility in the upper body to have their arms overhead and together, let alone swinging a kettlebell there.

A couple common arguments are that it requires more power from the hips. This isn’t true because any movement above the chin/eyes isn’t momentum derived from your hips, it’s from your arms. As soon as it goes past your eyes, the trajectory of the bell has to completely change from going up and away from you to up and towards you, this doesnt come from your hips. Another is that adding in the overhead elements works more muscles and hits the shoulders more. This one is debatable but doesn’t hold water because there are far more stable and safer ways to train your upper body than during a dynamic/explosive lower body lift.

In the end, just no. But what should the top of the swing look like?

KB Swing Top

– Back is neutral – no excess spine extension or leaning backwards
– Glutes/butt squeezed hard – “crack the walnut”
– Abs braced as if you were preparing to be punched.
– Quads/front of the legs flexed and tight
– Arms are straight and the bottom of the bell points away from you
– Arms DO NOT go overhead – bell travels to chin/eye height
– The kettlebell “floats”

Those are the basics of how to perform the kettlebell swing. Again, it may not be the best exercise for you at the moment but it is simply a means to your goal, not the goal.


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