The American Kettlebell Swing, Part II: Readiness Self Assessment

So now that you know how to properly hip hinge, let’s carry on with the next part of our kettlebell swing discussion.  If you missed last week’s post covering the technique of both swings, you can read about it here!  Now, just because you can properly hinge for a swing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are ready to go overhead with your swings just yet.  I know, this wasn’t the answer that you were probably hoping for, but I say this first and foremost because I want you to be safe and sound in your movement.  You see, most athletes lack the proper mobility necessary to achieve the overhead range of motion required by the American swing.  They oftentimes have restrictions through their thoracic spine and shoulder girdle that keep them from raising their arms straight overhead with that nicely braced and locked out position through the torso and hips that we talked about earlier.  In order to compensate for this lack of mobility they will then significantly overarch through the thoracic and lumbar spine as seen in the picture below:


Also, the increased ROM with the American swing causes the bell to travel well below the knees for most people, turning it into a squatting motion. This can lead to increased stress on the lower back because the glutes and hamstrings aren’t able to be loaded significantly enough to produce powerful extension. So where do you think it’s going to come from? That’s right…you guessed it…from your lower back!  Which is obviously something that we want to avoid altogether.

So, in order to know if you are ready for overhead swings, you need to ask yourself these four things:

  1. Do you know how to properly hinge at the hips?
  2. Have you mastered the Russian swing first?
  3. Can you achieve the finishing position of an American swing without jutting the head forward and overextending through your thoracic and lumbar spine to make up for a lack of shoulder flexion and thoracic mobility?
  4. Do you have the core stability to literally brace for impact, keeping the ribs over your hips and a nice neutral spine intact?

If you aren’t sure whether you have adequate mobility to perform American swings, here are two quick little assessment you can do to help you determine just that and you will want to take a video of yourself doing it:

Assessment 1

Step 1 – Lay down on your back with your chin slightly tucked, the natural curve in your lower back intact, and your legs straight.

Step 2 – Interlock your thumbs with your knuckles lined up – mimicking the position of your hands on the handle of the kettlebell.

Step 3 – Brace through your core and glutes and slowly begin to raise your hands up into the air to chest level and continuing overhead until your knuckles touch the ground above your head.

Step 4 – Notice where your hands are and if at any point the space between your back and the floor increases as you raise your hands towards the overhead position.  The height to which you should swing the kettlebell until you improve your thoracic and shoulder mobility, and/or core stability, is the point where you are still able to maintain a neutral lumbar spine.  Also, if you experience pain in your shoulders at any point as you raise your hands over, then you should keep the height of your swing within a range where you feel no pain in the shoulders.


Assessment 2

Step 1 – Stand nice and tall with the rib cage stacked over your hips, neutral lumber spine, and butt untucked.

Step 2 – Brace through your core, squeeze your glutes and quads, and slowly begin to raise your arms to the overhead position.

Step 3 – Notice if you cannot get your arms fully overhead without any pain or restriction in the shoulders, and/or you cannot raise your shoulders overhead without overarching through the lumbar spine, flaring the rib cage, and jutting the head forward.  If any of these things occur, then most likely the American swing is not an appropriate fit for you right now.

So which swing is better?

In case you haven’t noticed by now, I feel very strongly that the Russian kettlebell swing variation is superior to the American version. I am a movement purist at heart.  I will always stand by the fact that the QUALITY of a movement should ALWAYS supersede the quantity of a movement even if it means slowing down as well as for the sake of a higher or lower score.

The Russian kettlebell swing is not only the original and most widely practiced version of the swing across the globe, it’s also a much safer and better training method than the American version. While some would like to argue that the American version of the kettlebell swing moves the kettlebell through a greater range of motion (creating more work and supposedly being better for you), I propose just the opposite.  The American swing places the most unstable joint in the body (the shoulder joint) in a compromised position at the top of the swing. At the top of the swing you are bearing a rather heavy load overhead with a close grip position of the hands. This makes for a “not so happy place” for the shoulders, paving the way for shoulder impingement and possibly other shoulder injuries.

So all in all, while the American swing is usually the “go to” kettlebell swing for many CrossFit gyms and competitions, I don’t really feel like it is the best variation to be used for training purposes outside of training specifically for CrossFit competitions.  And even then, I still think it’s a poor standard to abide by even if it’s for competition’s sake because so many of the standards in CrossFit just don’t make sense anyway??  If you are someone that frequently competes, then I would suggest swinging to a height possibly somewhere in between the height for a Russian swing and American swing that makes the most sense FOR YOU and any mobility/stability restrictions staring you in the face.  I also suggest that you work on your limitations and mechanics, so that in the weeks leading up to competition or competition season you can perform the exercise knowing that you are doing so with proper form and technique.

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