There are many exercises that can be performed using a kettlebell (girya). One of the basic ones and most used is the kettlebell swing. Every fitness tool has a movement most intended for and in the case of the kettlebell it’s the swing. The swing is used in recreational exercising for endurance enhancement and fat loss through HIIT protocols, while in sports conditioning we use it for explosiveness, endurance, and other capabilities in order to achieve better results in that sport. First we’ll list benefits of kettlebell exercising and a short summary of studies researching them.
Benefits of kettlebells
Recreational exercising as well as sports conditioning benefits mostly from hip extension because it produces the most power. Purpose of the kettlebell swing is to create the greatest possible tension which leads to the greatest possible power and, accordingly, strength. It is obvious how much it influences everyday activities, but also sports like tennis, football etc. We will list some of the benefits here.
- „What the hell effect“. By performing exercises with a kettlebell you will not only work on strength but also endurance, coordination, flexibility, rhythm, and mobility – indirectly influencing a larger scope of abilities. For example, the purpose of the swing is developing explosive strength, but if you perform it as HIIT protocols (High Intensity Interval Training) like “tabatas” you work on muscle endurance as well. If you use bigger weights and less repetitions per set (3-5), you develop maximal and explosive strength, and if you use smaller or medium weights and more repetitions per set (up to 100 even), you develop endurance.
- Kettlebell swing mostly works the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, back, and trunk) which are crucial for every sports movement. Unlike some exercises which isolate a certain part of the posterior chain, the swing utilizes all muscles in it and transfers well into actions on the sports field, making the swing a perfectly functional movement.
- The swing especially works trunk and core muscles which are the base of all movements and muscles used while moving.
- According to Stuart McGill, if you perform a large number of repetitions, your back muscles become more durable, which leads to less back pain – and also works for back pain prevention.
- Kettlebell swing engages the glutes (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus) which is very important because a large number of recreational exercisers (and athletes as well) do not know how to activate the glutes, leading to injuries due to erector spinae compensation while lifting. It’s called ‘gluteal amnesia’. Weak glutes are also connected to shortened and tense hip flexors (iliopsoas – iliacus and psoas major). This is when hip flexors cause anterior pelvic tilt, leading to lower back pain. Kettlebell swing enhances flexor flexibility and reduces the anterior pelvic tilt – and reducing pain.
- To prevent lower back injuries it is better to brace the abdominal wall (to make it tighter) than hollow it (pull the navel towards the spine).
- Kettlebells are easy to transport and store.
- A very large number of exercises can be performed with the kettlebell.
- Kettlebells allow for both bilateral and unilateral movements.
- Their use is easier to learn than Olympic weightlifting.
- There is less chance to get hurt using kettlebells when compared to plyometric training, and they have similar benefits. Kettelebells can also be used in training more often than plyometrics.
- You will benefit from the fact that you must absorb the eccentric part of the movement which also produces great power, engaging the posterior chain.
- Power output is very large even though you cannot produce as much power as with working with more weights. However, the swing is an explosive exercise – in sports, explosive hips are often more important than producing great power.
There is a large number of research on benefits of kettlebell training, conducted by Eastern scientists (mostly from former USSR) and newer, Western ones. Brett Contreras made an excellent overview of Western researchers and I believe they prove scientifically what has already been proven practically a long time ago.
|Authors||Research and results|
|Manocchia, 2010||Transfers well into traditional weight training and bodyweight exercises, and is an excellent alternative to traditional weightlifting|
|Falatic, 2011||Enhances aerobic capacity|
|Lake & Lauder, 2012||Enhances maximal and explosive strength|
|Porcari, 2010||Enhances aerobic capacity|
|Manocchia, 2010||Enhances power, strength, and endurance|
|Fung & Shore, 2010||Enhances aerobic and anaerobic capacity|
|Brunette & Mcira, 2010||Applicable in clinical rehabilitation of injured athletes|
|Castellano, 2009||Enhances health and fitness|
|Porcari, 2010||Has a positive effect on cardiac and respiratory endurance and body composition|
|Lanier, 2010||Enhances oxygen uptake (VO2max)
|Porcari, 2010||Can burn up t0 20.2 calories per minute|
|Jay et al, 2010||Enhances muscle and skeletal power and reduces neck/shoulder/lower back pain. Enhances extensor muscle strength.|
Eastern researchers also came up with excellent results. They show that kettlebell training is not a new thing but has been in effective use for a long time.
|Authors||Research and results|
|Voropayev, 1986||Students training with kettlebells achieved better results in standardized military tests even though they had done no specific exercises from the testing itself (which the other observed group did)|
|Vinogradov and Lukyanov (1986)||Enhances general strength, grip strength, muscle endurance, work capacity, and balance. We can also see the connection between KBL total (total weight lifted with kettlebells) and powerlifting total (back squat, bench press, deadlift – PL total).|
|Luchkin (1947),Laputin (1973)||They improve coordination, balance, and agility.|
|Zikov (1986)||Improved general fitness.|
|Griban (1990)||Improved general fitness.|
|Raskazov (1993)||Shoulder girdle muscle hypertrophy.|
|Shevtsova (1993)||Lowered heart rate and blood pressure.|
|Voropayev (1997)||Enhances muscle mass and reduces fat tissue.|
|Gomonov (1998)||They allow for fast rise in power, endurance, equal development of all muscle groups, and they help in correcting imbalance.|
|Vorobyev (1964)||He advises weightlifters to include kettlebell training into their periodization.|
|Rodionov (1967)||Recommends introducing kettlebell exercises for legs.|
|Burkov and Nikityuk (1985)||They recommend using kettlebells in army training and emphasize their benefits when compared to traditional bodybuilding training. They say that the kettlebell training is “one of most efficient ways to develop power” and that it “represents a new era in developing human potential of power”.|
What is the kettlebell swing?
Kettlebell swing is a ballistic exercise done using a kettlebell. It is also a basic movement learned when starting training with kettlebells and is later follower by exercises such as the clean or the snatch. If it is perfected on time, you can achieve excellent effects by doing different protocols which lead to enhanced physical capabilities. Usually the basic swing is performed (Russian swing). There are more types of swing you can use (American swing, one-arm swing, swing with alternating hand switch etc.).
If we wish to apply more science in swing analysis, this is what we would get:
According to the website www.exrx.net the forces used in kettlebell swing are “pull” of the hips, extension of the knees, plantar flexion of ankle joints, flexion and abduction of shoulders, upward rotation of scapula and clavicle, rotation and static extension of thoracic and lumbar spine. Scapula and clavicle protract in the upper position and elevate in the lower part. The movement itself is the hip hinge – flexion and extension of the hip while the spine remains neutral. Their analysis seems very good to me even though some coaches might not agree with it. This data is important for coaches but athletes and recreational exercisers don’t need to burden themselves with it.
Pavel Tsatsouline divides kettlebell exercises into ballistic (swing) and heavy presses or grinds. First ones develop explosiveness and endurance if a greater number of repetitions is performed, and the second ones work on so-called slow power.
Steve Cotter also gave a good division of kettlebell exercises and their purpose:
1. Classic and competitive – basic competition exercises (clean and jerk, and snatch),
2. Fitness – all other movements with a purpose of enhancing coordination and general conditioning,
3. Juggling, along with common throws.
There are two ways to perform a swing: “hard style“ (promoted by StrongFirst and RKC) and “soft style“(girevoy sport) or in other words hip-hinge style and squat style. Brett Contreras explained it well in his article: hip-hinge style generates more horizontal force than squat style due to more aggressive action in the hip joint, and horizontal force output has a large influence on speed and explosiveness. On the other hand Geoff Neupert says that two-kettlebell swing or clean or snatch happen in the squat rather than the hip hinge.
The goal of “hard style“ kettlebell training is to make it as hard as possible – to produce more force, maximal acceleration, and maximal tension, unlike “soft style” which is based on efficiency and performing as many reps as possible with as less tiredness as possible. In this text we will explain “hard style” because that is how I train my athletes and it is my opinion that it is easier to learn and safer to execute. Also, my goal is to get them to produce more power because it will enhance their capabilities. Simply put, my goal is for them to do few reps – every rep needs to be as hard as if it was the last one.
I would leave the “soft style“ (girevoy sport) to more advanced exercisers and competitors of the sport because they know the methodology so they can teach others. We will explain briefly the “Russian” or “low” swing and how to execute it properly. A properly done kettlebell swing activates glutes and protects the back. Stuart McGill and many other experts believe that back pain occurs due to gluteal amnesia – the glutes don’t activate enough when we do certain exercises. Glute inhibition also happens when we sit for long periods of time or have minor injuries (toe injury etc.), the reason being glutes are big muscles and our prehistorical reflex shuts them down in order to protect our bodies. More on that can be found in the book Strong Curves by Brett Contreras.
Kettlebell swing movement is both easy and difficult. With time, if you do it often enough, you will feel improvement not only in your technique but also in the ability to engage certain muscles. We will describe the entire movement:
- Hold the kettlebell with both hands. Knees are slightly bent, back is tight, head is in neutral position, and the weight is shifted on the heels.
- Pull the kettlebell back between the legs. The weight stays on your heels, and your lower leg is vertical to the floor.
- You should feel the kettlebell pulling you backwards, tightening your hamstrings. Ig you allow your knees to go forward, you will not be able to activate your hips properly.
- Kettlebell needs to pass through the space between knees and hips. Arms go between the legs as if you were passing a ball in American football.
- Swing your hips forward strongly contracting the glutes – movement similar to the vertical jump, as if you want to jump but instead direct the force into the ground through your feet.
- Swing height is somewhere between hips and eyes.
- When the kettlebell reaches the highest point, push it down as if there was no gravity. You need to be active the whole time and in charge of the movement.
- At the end of the movement, the head needs to be upright and the body fully extended – hips and knees extended, body forming a straight line. The finishing position is as straight as the plank position.
- In the finishing position, pull your shoulders into your sockets (retract them).
- Brett Contreras emphasizes that the correct kettlebell swing is the one done from the feet through the knees and hips, all the way through abdominal area and armpits, ending in the arms and hands.
Steve Cotter explained the hardstyle swing:
- Hip movement: forceful extension
- Head/eye: locked/horizontal
- Limited hamstring function
- Breathing: exhale at the end of the movement along with trunk extension
- Grip: maximal tension
- Arms: horizontally locked, supporting the load (kettlebell)
Methodology and exercises to learn the swing
There are many exercises you can utilize to teach your clients how to correctly do the kettlebell swing. There is also a sequence how to do it. All of that you can se in my members area
- Swing explanation
- Technique demonstration
- Starting position – stick
- Starting position – wall
- Starting position – stick in pairs
- Box sit
- Hip flexor engaging
- Starting position in pairs holding the kettlebell
- Starting position in pairs with pulling
- Finishing position – plank and power plank
- Finishing position from sitting on knees
- Standing long jump
- Imitation of the swing without the kettlebell
- Shoulder retraction on the floor – reverse plank
- Shoulder retraction while standing, with partner
- Shoulder retraction in finishing position of the plank
- Kettlebell deadlift
- Shoulder retraction in pullups
- Towel swing
- Starting position from the floor
When correcting errors, you should always use words everyone understands. First correct big errors, and only then smaller ones. Some of the phrases you can use: “squeeze the butt”, “do not go into squat”, “chest out”, “spread the ground”. Do not correct multiple errors at the same time.
Some of the most common errors can be corrected through proper methodology. You can register and see it in my mebers area
- The client is doing the squat instead of the hip hinge, using knees more than hips. This way they are not generating enough force and are performing something called a “squat swing”. This way they use the anterior chain more, which leads to knee and back pain. Also, hips are a lot stronger than the knees.
- Incomplete hip extension. If we reach full extension, glutes are dominant and generate a lot of force, protecting the lower back from injury. “Hip snap” is the most important part of the kettlebell swing. Incomplete extension of knees and hips, inadequate glute and quad engagement in the last phase of the movement are a big error and will not lead to benefits of the swing.
- Letting the arms fly forward at the finishing position. Shoulders need to retract, otherwise the body is not compact.
- Hunched back during the movement, especially when returning the kettlebell backwards. This occurs when the hip hinge is done too soon.
- Going on your toes at the end of the movement. This way you cannot generate enough force.
- Irregular or wrong breathing. A powerful exhale should be made at the end of the movement.
- Doing the movement too slow.
- Kettlebell’s bottom facing down instead of up. This means that the hands are not extended.
- Wrong starting position.
- Wrong finishing position.
Kettlebell swing types
There are many types and variations of the swing, those utilized in technique progression and those advanced used in certain training protocols.
- Low swing (Russian swing)
- American swing
- One – arm swing
- H2H swing
- H2H swing under
- One – arm swing high pull
- Bell swing
- Towel swing
- Walking forward swing
- Walking backward swing
- Walking lateral swing
- Walking alternate forward swing
- Swing and hold
- Swing and goblet squat
- Russian swing and squat
- Double kettlebell swing
- American swing turnover moving
- One – arm swing and hold
- One – arm rope swing
- Swing and touching chest
- Swing and tap
- Kettlebell swing for martial arts by Steve Maxwell
- Elastic band (leg) swing
- Elastic band (rack) swing
- One arm swing with two kettlebells
- Swing and jump)
- Swing and jump onto box
- Swing and leg kick
- One legged swing
- Bending swing
You can see this variations in Kettlebell Tutorial video in my members area.
After you learn the kettlebell swing properly, next step is to do different training protocols. Before every protocol you need to do a warmup, which can look like this:
- Around the body 2×10 each side
- Pass through legs 2×5 each direction
- Pass through legs with pause 2×5 each arm
- Halo 2×10 reps each side
- Good morning 3×10
- Goblet squat 2×10
- Zombie deadlift
- Lunges 2×5 each leg
- Cossack stretch
- Walking with kettlebell extension
- Extending the kettlebell in the bottom position of a squat
There are many different training protocols. 30 protocols I prepared for you (from less demanding to advanced) which you can see in my members area.
Instructions for kettlebell training
In the end, there are a few more advices and instructions for training which will allow for a more comfortable, efficient, and good quality session.
Which weight to choose?
It depends on your physical condition – whether you’re a beginner or an advanced exerciser. If your conditioning is good, after you learn the technique you will be able to handle greater weight, and if not, you will need to work on your abilities before you move on to a heavier kettlebell. Some general directives are 16 kg for female athletes and 24 or 32 kg for male athletes. Younger male athletes work with 16 kg and younger female athletes with 12 kg. However, it differs depending on the exercise. You can freely use 24 kg for the kettlebell swing, but you will not be able to press or snatch that weight. That is why you need kettlebells of different weight. Also, things change when you perform exercises with two kettlebells. Originally, kettlebells are measured in poods (old Russian unit of measure, 1 pood = 16 kg), so kettlebells were ranked as 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 32, 48 kg, but now you can get them in all weight units. Before, you had to practice longer before you could move on to the next kettlebell. This is all important in case you see a training plan saying you need a kettlebell of 2 poods – this means 32 kg.
Where to train?
You should train in a large enough space to throw a kettlebell if you encounter a problem while training. The flooring should be firm, hard and stable, because if it is too soft or slippery you will not get the proper benefits of training.
Clothes and footwear?
You should use flat foot shoes or lifting shoes. Sneakers that are too high or have airbags provide very limited stability, your foot will move and the force generation will not be great enough. Many kettlebell exercisers perform the movements barefoot but that is not always possible for everyone. When choosing clothes, avoid loose and wide items because they get in the way, especially while performing explosive movements
They are one of the common problems, rarely occurring doing swings but mostly doing snatches. There are many instructions on how to take care of blistered hands, how to remove blisters and prevent them from occurring. Once you’ve blistered your hands, stop the activity. Do not rip the blister apart but instead cover it to protect it from infection. Wash gently with Betadine (or something similar). If the blister is already ripped, clean the area and put something antibacterial on it along with a band aid. You can also cover it with gauze. There are plenty more advice out there on how to treat blisters.
Gradually work your way up in weight, mind the technique and breathing, and be careful about people around you. Also, when you work on endurance (large number of repetitions) you need to be more careful – this type of training is tiring which causes focus loss. Always warm up properly. If certain movements cause discomfort or pain, change the exercise or stop the training and find the cause of the problem. Only when you solve it, continue training. Kettlebell exercises need to be included in your training and weekly schedule in a correct manner.
- Tsatsouline, P. (2001). The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Dragon Door Publications, Inc.
- Tsatsouline, P. (2002). From Russia with Tough Love. Dragon Door Publications, Inc.
- Tsatsouline, P. (2006). Enter The Kettlebell – Strength Secret of The Soviet Supermen. Dragon Door Publications, Inc.
- Mike Mahler. Kettlebell Training For Martial Arts.
- Mike Mahler. High Octane Cardio
- Mike Mahler. Building Size And Strength With Kettlebell
- Steve Cotter. The Complete Guide to Kettlebell Lifting.
- Steve Cotter. Encyclopedia of Kettlebell Lifting 1 & 2.
- Steve Maxwell. 300 Kettlebell Challenge Instructional DVD
- Steve Maxwell. The Spartacus Workout
- Shwan Mozen (2004), Agatsu Kettlebell Training
- Steve Maxwell. Kettlebell Certification Level 1
- Steve Maxwell. Kettlebell Certification Level 2
- Brett Contreras. Articles about kettlebell swing