The Kettlebell Swing, Part I: To Hip Hinge or Squat?

I had an athlete approach me after class earlier this week to ask about whether the correct execution of the kettlebell swing involved hip hinging or squatting.  So, I thought I would take the opportunity to answer it for many of you who may be wondering the same thing.

As a fitness professional that moonlights as a CrossFit coach, I very often see the tendency to forgo proper form and technique for the sake of being able to do more reps in less time, or to “cheat the system” because of preexisting poor movement quality.  Many exercises turn into these pseudo hybrid/combo movements that athletes take on in order to be more “efficient” during their workouts, but in reality they’re only creating and ingraining very inefficient and bad movement patterns that will eventually pave the way for injury and setback somewhere down the line.  The version of the kettlebell swing that you will see in many CrossFit classes, as well as some other mainstream fitness classes, falls right in line as one of these unfortunate pseudo movements.

Regardless of what you have been told before (and NO I don’t care if it is done this way during competition…more on that later), the kettlebell swing is not supposed to be this weird squatting + front raise + high pull thingy…yes, I called it a thingy!  A proper kettlebell swing is done as a hip hinging movement that loads the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) in order to create powerful hip extension, while keeping the lumbar spine in a neutral position.  And while a squatting version of the KB swing is commonplace in the CrossFit setting for both the Russian and American swing, it doesn’t mean that this is the correct method for execution.  Again, a lot of people doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do.

For this portion on my series regarding both versions of the swing, we will cover the mechanics of each swing and how each one relates to the other.  In part 2, we’ll talk about how to determine which of these two swings is best suited for you, or if there is a hybrid option that might work better.  And then we’ll wrap up this series by talking about why I don’t particularly think swings are a good idea for both you prenatal and postnatal mamas, and some better and safer options for you at this stage in the game.  So…let’s get to it! 

The Russian Kettlebell Swing

 

Here’s the basic gist on how to execute a proper Russian kettlebell swing:

1.  Set up in a position to “hike” the bell behind you:

  • Hips back with tension in the glutes and hamstrings.  You should feel a “tugging” or “catching” of the hamstrings when loaded.
  • Head in line with spine and chin tucked slightly.
  • Shoulders packed, meaning down and away from ears to activate the lats.
  • Bell in front of you without overreaching your arms.

2.  Hike the bell and load the hips:

  • Continue maintaining tension in the glutes and hamstrings.
  • Keep pressure in the mid-foot through the heels.
  • Keep the arms long and pull the bell back and up toward your box/junk…yes, I went there!

3.  Drive the heels down and then snap the hips forward aggressively:

  • Focus on using the hips to “pull” the bell through your legs and up.
  • Arms should stay relatively loose, meaning you are bringing the weight forward with your hips, not pulling it up with the arms.
  • Squeeze the glutes hard at the top to produce full hip extension.
  • Lock the knees out and squeeze the quads.

4.  Finish at the top of the swing in an aggressive “standing plank” position:

  • The glutes, quads, and abs should be fully engaged and braced for impact.
  • Rib cage should be stacked directly over the pelvis.
  • Lower back should still remain in a neutral position.
  • At the top of the swing, the bell should be in line with approximately your eye level..
  • The bottom of the kettlebell should be facing directly towards the wall in front of you.  If the bottom is facing down at the top of the swing, you are pulling too much with your arms.

5.  A proper breathing sequence for the kettlebell swing is of utmost importance:

  • Breathing correctly increases speed and force production throughout the swing. Proper breathing also engages the midsection to produce core stability and protect the athlete from potential injury.
  • The swing is so fast and explosive that without a correct breathing pattern, you will lose a tremendous amount of power.
  • During the downward phase of the swing, inhale through the nose and fill your rib cage with air. Think about expanding through the rib cage and also breathing down into the lower back.
  • During the upward phase of the swing, powerfully exhale through the mouth as if blowing out a candle.

 

The American Kettlebell Swing

 

Somewhere along the line, the powers that be at CrossFit decided that (as with every other fundamental movement found in most gym settings) the kettlebell swing needed to be done differently than how it’s SUPPOSED to be done…and so the American kettlebell swing was born.

The only difference between the Russian swing versus the American swing should be in the finishing position. Otherwise, the basic mechanics of the swing itself should be identical to that of the Russian swing:

 

  • It should begin by loading the hips with a HIP HINGING motion.
  • The athlete should not be attempting to generate power through the hips by increasing the amount of knee flexion (read: turning it into a squat).
  • The kettlebell should pass through the legs and just below the groin and behind the butt.  Remember, we want the hips to be generating the power for this movement. So, the knees should stay relatively quiet, meaning there shouldn’t be any more than about 20 degrees of knee flexion, give or take, and the knees should not be pressed out to the sides (as is the case with the dipping portion of overhead lifts like the push press).
  • As you ascend into the top of the American swing, the glutes, core, and quads should be contracting hard to create stability for the pelvis and spine. The rib cage should be stacked directly over the pelvis, and the lumbar spine should remain in a neutral position.
  • The force produced by your hips to bring the kettlebell forward should also be the force used to carry the bell all the way up to the overhead position.
  • The athlete should NOT be lifting or high pulling the kettlebell to achieve the overhead position.

 

 

 

You Must Learn To Walk First Before You Can Run!

 

I get a LOT of push back from athletes (especially the male gender…sorry guys…) when I try to teach that you NEED to and SHOULD first learn the fundamentals of an exercise or movement before progressing on to more advanced variations.  Everybody wants to be the cool kid in class, so they immediately disregard the fact that in order to do these movements well you MUST first build a solid foundation.  They instead choose the mentality of “Well, I’ll just muscle/fake my way through it” because anything otherwise wouldn’t be considered the “standard”, and therefore it’s not good enough or “tough” enough.  And to that I say…SCREW THAT!!!  What’s not good enough is not taking the time to learn and master the fundamental building blocks of every exercise, so that you can prevent injury and move and feel well both in and outside of the gym for years to come.

Okay, rant aside, what does this have to do with the Russian kettlebell swing?  The Russian swing must be a foundational movement and precursor to the American swing.  The American swing is a progression to move onto ONCE you have mastered the mechanics of the Russian swing.  In other words, if you cannot perform Russian kettlebell swing proficiently, then you have no business moving onto the American swing.  Attempting to jump straight into the American swing without a solid understanding of the Russian swing is like attempting to deadlift or squat twice your own body weight without ever previously having picked up a bar.  Most people in their right mind would’t do that, so why should it be any different with kettlebell swings?   Learning to run before you can walk creates poor movement habits, dysfunction, pain, and injury.  So, you owe it to yourself to start by learning and mastering the short, concise, yet more powerful Russian swing before moving on to the American swing.

 

That’s it for this segment.  Stay tuned for Part 2!!

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