The kettlebell swing is a basic movement- one that unlocks the door to strength which can be carried across to a multitude of lifts. With that being said, there’s a good chance you’re doing it incorrectly.
Wow, did I just write a real intro to a blog post? I think I did. What’s up everybody! I hope you enjoyed your Easter with family and friends and feeling ready to crush this week as a result. I wanted to do a post today on a very basic movement- the kettlebell swing. I see people doing them all over the place now, but I feel the need to intervene. And no- this type of swinging has nothing to do with white stone in front of your home or Craigslist personals. Sorry if I’ve disappointed you…
I used to think I knew kettlebells pretty well. I could perform the swing, clean, snatch, windmills, arm-bars, etc… but right around a year ago I attended Jeff Martone’s Tactical Athlete Kettlebell Instructor Certification (Level 1). A lot of the people in attendance had zero experience with kettlebells, so I definitely had a jump on the competition- but Jeff opened my eyes to the little changes I needed to make that made all the difference in the world. So let’s break it down… after a lot of experimentation of my own I’d like to think I can help you out.
Russian Swing VS. American Swing (BASIC explanation)
The Russian swing is performed with the kettlebell swung to around shoulder or eye level. We’ll get into it more in a second, but this is performed with the hips, not with the shoulders. This post is going to focus on the two hand Russian kettlbell swing.
The American swing is performed with the kettlebell being swung all of the way overhead. You may have seen this variation performed in the Crossfit Games.
Game Changing Tips
Stand like a child resting (hands on knees with a flat back), get into a shortstop or linebacker stance, hit an athletic ready position, etc… These cues seem to work best for the set-up position. Get into this position about 6 inches to a foot behind the kettlebell.
Shoulders down and back
This cue goes hand in hand with maintaining a flat back. “Slide your scaps into your back pocket” and engage your lats to keep a neutral spine throughout the lift. This will keep you hinging at the hips and not wasting energy with a rounded back.
Pull hard and fast through your lats like a long snapper
This is NOT a squat. The idea is to stay in a vertical jump pattern, hamstrings and glutes loaded. If you are finding yourself forearm or elbow deep at the lower portion of your swing, you are too deep. I tell my clients that it’s like playing a game of chicken with your “manhood,” because when performed properly the kettlebell should be VERY close to the twig and berries.
Notice what I mean by wrist deep?
Maintaining neutral spine during the swing does not exclude the cervical spine. All too often I see people perform the swing with their head up the whole time. So during the bottom portion of the swing they are essentially looking straight up. Let’s use football as an example. What happens to a quarterback when he is sacked from behind? If you said his head snaps back- ding ding! Now on the flip side, a linebacker keeps his head low during a hit, maintaining a neutral spine, otherwise risking a traumatic neck/head injury. If it’s best to keep the neck packed in sport, why train any differently?
Breathe during the swing
Like any lift, it is very important that one breathes properly during the swing. Forcefully press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and exhale hard through your teeth during the upward portion of the swing. Inhale on the downward portion. Failure to do so will have you gassed in no time. If you’re turning redder than Todd’s beard I am going to guess that you are not breathing during the swing.
Relax your arms while maintaining a death grip at the top of your swing
Too many people keep their arms rigid during the swing. RELAX! Your arms do not need to remain completely straight throughout. The power is produced through violent hip extension, not an anterior raise of the deltoids. Basically, the arms are along for the ride. The only time that the arms would need to be rigid is during the transition from the upward to downward phase of a “power swing” (involving a forceful pull from the top to the bottom portion). While the arms are to remain relaxed, the hands need to have a death grip, keeping the kettlebell from rotating, which would cause the bottom of the kettlebell to face downward and waste a ton of energy in the process.
Don’t break too early
As you reach the lower portion of your swing, you should “break” or “hinge” at the hips to load the hamstrings. Doing so too early will waste energy and make the swing look more like a squat. Remember when I talked about playing a game of chicken with your “manhood?” Well this time it’s for real. Do not hinge until the last second. Move just-in-time to keep from getting blasted in your “you know what.” Check out our kids’ BJJ coach, Patrick, demonstrate an early break. Yes, this is what his swing really looked like on day one- however, it took a mere 5 minutes to fix.
What it should look like
With a light kettlebell (35lbs):
With a heavier kettlebell (60lbs):
So there you have it! Put it all together and start perfecting your swing. Maybe desks will start appearing in the background as you progress. And if you’re really lucky, maybe a pitbull will watch you swing! Don’t even bother moving on to more advanced exercises until you get the swing down.
New to kettlebells? Learn it right the first time and you’ll thank me later. Already performing the swing but doing it wrong? Start filming yourself and look for the corrections above. It may seem remedial, but it will pay tenfold down the strength road.
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