Kettlebell Swing Workshop
The kettlebell swing is perhaps the highest value kettlebell exercise ever in terms of its simplicity and sheer effectiveness. This exercise has incredible benefits when used correctly such as rapid weight loss, cardiovascular conditioning and power development to name a few. It is a versatile exercise that can be thrown in the middle of a circuit, placed at the end of a weights session as a quick cardio fat blaster or used entirely as a workout in itself! The exercise also transfers well to sports and martial arts due to its potential for generating power through a key component in the exercise (namely the ‘Hip Hinge’). The swing is considered the foundation of kettlebell ballistic movement, so it’s important to master this exercise to help progress with other kettlebell moves.
One of the major issues with learning this exercise is that people try to run before they can walk. Sadly, they pick up bad technique and/or develop poor swinging habits over time. It is essential to get the move correct since, getting the vital hip hinge movement wrong will strip away many of the exercises incredible benefits. It can also sadly result in injury since instead of utilising the posterior chain and core muscles, people ‘cheat’ by using their arms and their backs! There is a simple formula for progression when learning this move. Leave the ego at the door, start light, work on your technique, get it right, go heavier, reap the benefits! Invest in this exercise, take your time to develop the technique and get it right, you will undoubtedly add a vital tool to your training arsenal.
- Gluteals (Gluteus Minimus/Medius/Maximus)
- Erector Spine
- Tranversus Abdominis
- Rectus Abdominis
- Transverse Abdominis
- Quadratus Lumborum
- Pelvic floor muscles
- Hip flexors
- Internal/external obliques
The most common errors with technique in the kettlebell swing are excessive knee bend or squatting and not driving the hips forward to power the move. Another common mistake is overcompensating with the arms so the exercise essentially becomes more of a front raise. The key to correcting technique with the swing is to master the Hip hinge.
Things to consider:
- The swing is NOT a squat!
- The swing is a PULL or HIP HINGE.
- The hip hinge is a fundamental human movement that plays an important part in kettlebell ballistic exercises.
- With a squat, the knees and the hips flex to a similar degree on the way down. With a pull or swing, the hips do most of the flexion. You bend at the hips on the descent and thrust the hips forward on the ascent.
- The spine must ALWAYS stay neutral throughout the exercise.
In preparation for the kettlebell swing consider what Pavel Tsatsouline calls the Hip Hinge Drill (below).
Hip Hinge Drill:
- Stand with your feet apart (shoulder level or slightly wider).
- Turn toes slightly outwards (less than 45 degrees).
- Elevate toes and balls of feet on weights to stop your knees going forward.
- Open your chest, place the outside of your hands into hip creases (iliac crests).
- Shift weight on to your heels and push hands hard into hip hinges to push pelvis back.
- Feel your muscles in the hips contracting as you hinge.
- Track your toes with your knees.
- Push your ass out as far as you can. BACKWARDS! NOT DOWNWARDS!
- Look at the horizon for the duration of the exercise. Keep your head up.
- Hinge as far forward without rounding your back. (Use a mirror or record yourself to keep an eye on this).
- Stand up, contracting your glutes to power the move.
- Keep an eye on your knees, force your shins to stay vertical.
- Core tight, glutes tight at the peak of the move.
Explanation of Exercise
The Kettlebell Swing here is based on the ‘Hardstyle’ kettlebell training advocated by Pavel Tsatsouline, RKC and Strongfirst. There are of course other variations of the swing, including Giveroy Sport and Crossfit’s ‘American’ version of the swing, but these will not be discussed here.
How to undertake a Kettlebell Swing
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the kettlebell on the floor between your legs slightly forward of your toes (this is the ‘parked’ position. Have your toes pointed out slightly.
- Keep your chest protruding forward (a ‘proud’ chest as Pavel says) and a neutral spine (keep your back straight).
- Flexing forward at the hips, grab the kettlebell handle with both hands. Arms in front of your body and with your palms facing behind in an overhand grip. This is the ‘Silverback’ position (named after the Gorilla!)
- Bend very slightly at the knees and swing the kettlebell two inches forward before passing it back between your legs to create momentum.
- Keep the arms loose. Your arms shouldn’t do the work. Let the weight swing back down between your legs as you bend your hips.
- Look straight ahead throughout the exercise. Keeping a neutral spine with an arch in your lower back, drive your hips back until the kettlebell is between and behind your legs.
- Maintain the slight bend in your knees until your forearms make contact with your inner thighs.
- As the kettlebell reaches the furthest point it can backwards, explosively thrust the hips forward by contracting your glutes.
- Using the propulsive force from the hips and core, drive the kettlebell up through your legs in line with the chest/shoulder height. Don’t try to lift the bell using your arms or back. Keep your glutes and core engaged throughout.
- It may take a few swings to reach shoulder height so gradually build-up to this position.
- At the peak of each rep, whilst in standing position, squeeze your glutes (Pavel terms this ‘crushing a walnut’) and brace your core to decelerate the kettlebells motion.
- Allow the kettlebell to ‘float’ in midair for a split second. Then in a controlled manner, allow the kettlebell’s weight and gravity to naturally allow the weight to descend and swing back between the legs.
- At last second, at the point when your forearms are about to make contact with your legs, suddenly hinge the hips and drive the kettlebell into the backwards component of the swing once more.
- One rep of a swing is once the kettlebell has returned to the bottom of the swing (furthest point backwards between your legs). To perform a second swing cycle thrust the hips forward again and repeat from the hip drive forwards.
- Perform all of the required reps for the exercise without putting down the kettlebell. (12 reps = 12 swings, then put the kettlebell down).
- To end the exercise wait until the kettlebell has reached the end of the swing cycle, slightly thrust the hips and lower the kettlebell to the ‘park’ position just in front of your toes.
- With regards to breathing, on the upwards swing forcefully exhale on the way up, and sharply exhale on the way down. Furthermore use grunts or shouts with breathing at the peak of the movement once standing.
- The bottom of the exercise is the ’Silverback’ stance.
- Use smaller swings for a few reps and practice parking the kettlebell.
- Once you find your rhythm – explosively straighten from the hips once you are ready to begin swinging proper.
- Don’t think of the kettlebell on the way up. Drive with the hips, the power must come from the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes). Let the kettlebell freely pendulum.
- Keep the bell close to your body until the hip drive begins, and then use the hip power to swing the bell to shoulder level.
- On the upswing, be aware that the arms and the shoulders only transfer the hips power. They DO NOT lift the kettlebell. (Arms must be straight and loose to do the job).
- The kettlebell should swing up to the level around your shoulders or stomach.
- Keep the back out of the exercise.
- The top of the swing is a plank, don’t lean back at the top of the swing – let your glutes and core decelerate the kettlebell. Brace your abs at the top of the movement to decelerate the bell and prevent hyperextension on the back.
- At the top of the move ensure that your heels are firmly planted on the ground.
- Look at the horizon for the duration of the drill. Keep your head up but relaxed without overstraining your neck.
- With regards to breathing, on the upwards swing forcefully exhale on the way up, and inhale on the way down.
- Use grunts or shouts with breathing at the peak of the movement once standing.
- When grunting on the standing ‘plank’ component, tighten your gluteal muscles (crush the walnut) and brace the abs.
- At the apex of the movement let the kettlebell ‘float’ for a millisecond before guiding back between your legs.
- Only release your glutes when the forearms hit your stomach.
- Hinge your hips at the VERY last second.
- EXPLOSIVE individual reps – Not fast.
Body Position throughout the exercise
- Shoulders: Keep your shoulders retracted and relaxed with . Avoid shrugging whilst holding the kettlebell and ending up with your shoulders around your ears.
- Chest – Keep an open ‘proud’ chest throughout.
- Glutes: On the forward propulsion component of the swing, activate the glutes by driving your hips through to a neutral position (until you are upright). Keep your forearms attached to your hips until you reach neutral then, as your arms come up, squeeze your glutes to prevent overextending your lower back.
- Head: Your head position should be neutral. The gap between your chin and your chest shouldn’t change. Head is looking forwards all the time towards the horizon, not up or down.
- Elbows: Use “soft” elbows throughout the swing. Keep your arms relaxed to take the tension out of your arm muscles and, instead, use the momentum of the kettlebell.
- Knees: Your knees shouldn’t bend excessively during the swing. Make a mental note on the hip hinge motion. This is a posterior chain movement (the muscles on the back of your body) as opposed to the anterior chain muscles (such as quads). There should be no forward knee movement on the upswing. Knees should be facing forward with the feet slightly turned outwards. Knees should be only slightly flexed during the swing motion.
- Back: The back is neutral throughout. Only the neck is slightly extended or neutral on the bottom of the swing.
- Feet: The heels, toes, and balls of the feet are planted and the knees track the toes.
- Arms: Arms are generally straight throughout – they should not support the movement but aid as a lever to swing the kettlebell. If you have elbow or forearm problems you can consider keeping the forearms closer to the body to alleviate any discomfort.
- Body alignment: The body forms a straight line at the top of the swing: the hips and knees extend fully, the spine is neutral. Neutral spine (straight back) throughout the movement.
- Core: The abs and glutes should contract at the top of the swing. Keep the core activated throughout the movement until the kettlebell is rested on the ground.
- Kettlebell position: The kettlebell handle passes above the knees during the backswing. The kettlebell floats momentarily at the top of the swing.
- Breathing: Sharply inhale through your nose on the way down, exhale with a grunt or shout on the way up. Synchronise the breathing with the movement of the swing – I.e. breathe out at the top of the swing.
Alternative, Modification or Progression
Progression - Kettlebell One-Handed Swing
The first progression of the kettlebell swing is the one-handed kettlebell swing. This exercise challenges the anti-rotational muscles of the core to a high degree and places increased demand on the stabilising muscles of your shoulder as well as your grip strength.
Progression - Kettlebell Switch Hands Swing
The next kettlebell swing progression is the alternate hand single kettlebell swing. As well as challenging core strength and the posterior chain, this move challenges motor skills and hand-eye coordination as you switch hands with each swing of the kettlebell.
Progression - Kettlebell Snatch
The next logical progression with the kettlebell swing is to the Kettlebell snatch. This move is essentially three exercises combined, the swing, the high pull and the overhead press.