There are a million and one kettlebell swing tutorials out there that will try and teach you how to swing a kettlebell — I know this a bold claim — but most will lack the substance to truly make you understand how and why to swing a kettlebell. This article is different.
A purpose is what you need to swing a kettlebell, that purpose might be to lose weight, to tone-up, to get fitter, or more flexible, whatever your reason is, you should know it, to be able to find the right kettlebell swing that is good for you.
There are plenty of kettlebell swing variations to chose from, and together with your purpose for swinging, you will be able to make an informed choice of which variation to chose. This is where this article is so different than most others, as most others will try to teach you their one way of swinging a kettlebell, without going into the reason and variations. Here are some of the variations:
- Double-arm kettlebell swing AKA Russian swing
- CrossFit swing AKA American swing
- Pendulum swing AKA Sport style swing
- Hardstyle swing
Those are some of the popular and better know variations, but there are literally hundreds of variations that exist, I won’t go into those. I will say that I’ll be skipping the American swing and that with the remainder of the list you can sort of break it down into:
- Double arm
- Single arm
- Hip hinge movement
- Squat movement
With the above we have enough info to create a whole arsenal of awesome kettlebell swing variations, so, let’s get stuck into how and when you should use each variation.
The attributes that provide you with results are:
- How heavy you swing
- How fast you swing
- How many unbroken reps you swing
- How much rest you have in between sets
The heavier the weight, the fewer reps you’ll most likely swing, but the muscles are put under more load. Muscles under more load is what you want if you want to get stronger, or bigger.
The lighter the weight, the more reps you’ll most likely swing, but the muscles are put under less load. Less load is what you want if you want to go longer for a cardio purpose.
You want to pick a medium weight if you want to work on power and work with low rep ranges, with adequate rest in between. That was just a quick overview of some results you can achieve with different weights or time under load, there is much more to it than that.
What are you after? Strength, power, or endurance? Strength is what you need to move heavy stuff, power is what you need to move heavy stuff quicker, endurance is what you need to last, and that can be cardio or muscle wise. For example, you could be swinging fast and run out of breath, that’s your cardio. You could be swinging long and your cardio is fine, but your muscles give up, that’s your muscular endurance. With that out of the way, let’s dig deeper and look at the muscles used.
What Muscles Are Used With The Kettlebell Swing?
Let’s look at why you want to swing a kettlebell, what exactly can it do for your body? To figure that out we need to look at muscles involved in the swing, the muscles that action the movement, prime movers, and the muscles that keep you in place, stabilizers. I will go through them step-by-step.
First, your grip on the kettlebell, this works the muscles in your forearm. To hold on to the kettlebell handle, finger flexion is required, this is achieved through contraction of the following muscles:
- Flexor digitorum superficialis
- Flexor digitorum profundus
- Flexor digit minimi brevis
Your arms should remain extended through the swing, so, you won’t be using the elbow flexors, nor extensors (think bicep curl and arm extension). You should not be using your shoulders to raise the kettlebell, so, your deltoids should not be involved in the movement.
There is a weight pulling on you from the front, so, you should maintain good posture and keep the shoulders back and down. The good posture is achieved through slightly contracting the shoulder blades together and down. This action involves:
- Rhomboideus minor
- Rhomboideus major
- Lower trapezius
- Levator scapulae
- Latissimus dorsi.
Note: Rhomboids are displayed on top of the trapezius for clarity.
Next, your spine, you’ll need to work to keep it erect. This action requires you to work all spinal erectors, also known as the erector spinae muscle group, which includes the following groups:
These muscle groups combined contain over 18 muscles.
Now we’re getting to the important part of the swing, what we covered so far was great, but not the reason why you want to pick up a kettlebell and swing it. We’ve arrived at the prime movers, the muscles that make the movement possible, well, if you’re doing the swing correctly and are not using your back or shoulders to move the weight. The gluteus maximus, also known as your buttocks or glutes. I have to dig a bit deeper as it’s important! Trainers frequently call out squeeze your glutes, but 99.9% of the time we only want you to activate the main and biggest glute of them all, the gluteus maximus. You have three glutes and they do different things, the maximus is a hip extensor, meaning it works to extend your hips, i.e. push them forward, or control the descent of the hips. The medius and minimus abduct the thigh, abduct is to take away, i.e. move the leg away from the body, or in other words, swing your foot out to the side.
We’re not done yet. The other prime mover is the hamstrings, this is a group of four muscles, of which three function to extend the hip. They are:
- Bicep femoris (long head)
I know that’s a mouth full, hamstrings sound much better. Last but not least, the final member of the hip extensors is the adductor magnus.
All of the muscles function to pull the pelvis up. The first muscle I mentioned, the gluteus maximus, it is connected to the top of the pelvis and to the femur (your leg). If the muscle contracts, it pulls the top of the pelvis up. The other prime mover muscles I mentioned, they’re connected to the bottom of the pelvis and to your femur. They pull from the bottom to get the pelvis upright. The pelvis sits on your femur, from there it hinges back and forth.
I know some of this can get quite complicated and might sound not useful at all, but it is, once you know all this, then you know what muscles to contract, and what muscles are doing the work. More importantly, you know how to stay safe and prevent the lower back pain that a lot of people complain about when doing kettlebell swings.
Let’s go a little step further, because this is an area usually neglected, i.e. most people stop once they’ve covered the prime movers.
Not me – I’ll always go that extra mile. We’ve basically gone from the hand, arm, shoulder, torso, hips, to the thigh. But we still have the lower leg, it does some work too. In particular, knee flexion and keeping the knee in place above the ankle. Keeping the knee above the ankle is important when hip hinging, if the knee comes excessively forward, then the movement starts to turn into a squat. This is a controversial topic, kettlebell swing and squat, so I won’t go there this time. Just remember hip hinge for now. Getting back to knee flexion (bending of the knee), this is actioned by the following muscles:
- Biceps femoris
Yes, those first 3 are part of the hamstrings, and we also saw these used for hip extension. The only entry from above that might ring a bell with you is the gastrocnemius and soleus, these are your calf muscles.
We now have quite a big list of muscles worked and joints moved with just one exercise, which is why the kettlebell swing is called a compound exercise. A compound exercise is an exercise that includes multi-joint movements and works several muscles or muscle groups at one time. Compound exercises are great!
Hip Hinge Swing
The kettlebell swing with hip hinge movement is the most common swing. A hip hinge can be described as bringing the hips back and down while keeping the knees above the ankles, and bringing the shoulders toward the ground while keeping the back in a neutral position. The biggest difference between the hip hinge and squat is that with the squat you will be bringing your hips toward the ground and keep your shoulders as high as possible, which is the opposite of the hip hinge. If you’ve deadlifted or performed bent-over rows in the gym before, then you’ve probably already performed the hip hinge.
Here is a clear video demonstrating the difference between the hip hinge and squat style swing in slow-motion. The left demonstrates the hip hinge, and the right the squat. You can clearly see that the hips go low on the right, while the hips remain high on the left.
How To Swing
I realize it might look like we got here in a roundabout way, but trust me, with the above information out of the way first, you’ll catch on much quicker, and most importantly, stay safe and injury free. Here are the cues I use to teach the kettlebell swing:
- Stand in a neutral position
- Deadlift the kettlebell up with two hands
- Bring the kettlebell in front of one leg
- Bump the kettlebell out and away
- Don’t worry about the distance you bump it
- At the same time direct the weight to the middle
- Let it swing back through the legs
- You’re still standing straight
- When the weight nears the legs is when you break at the hips
- Push the hips back and down
- Bend the knees but keep them above the ankles
- Let the weight come through the legs
- Weight should never go lower than the knees
- You should feel a good stretch in the hamstrings
- Push the weight back a bit to get extra depth
- The backswing is at an end when your arms hit your belly and can’t go any further
- Now we’re going to work on the upswing
- Let the weight come back out
- Start pulling the pelvis back up by squeezing the glutes
- Press the heels into the ground for good hamstring activation
- Pull the kettlebell out
- Extend the knees
- Extend the hips
- Direct the weight forward and not up
- Stand up straight
- Pull the shoulders back and down so that your posture is nice and firm
- Let the weight float
- Do not pull it up with the shoulders no matter what
- Don’t worry about height
- Generate more power on the next swing if it does not reach shoulder height
- Let weight fall back out of the floating phase
- Do nothing
- Wait till the weight is near the legs
- Break at the hips
- Hip hinge like you did before
- Let the weight come through the legs
- Direct the weight to the back
- Let the weight stop at the end of the backswing
- You have now completed a full swing
Watch a demo of the kettlebell swing described above:
I am swinging a heavy kettlebell – if you’re just starting out, you should choose a weight that’s suitable for you. Don’t go too light though. Using a weight too light is a common mistake, a weight too light just doesn’t provide the required resistance for a good swing. For females, I would suggest at least 12kg/26.4lbs, and for males at least 16kg/35.2lbs.
Don’t worry about getting the movement perfect right away, it’s not going to happen. It will take some time to perfect the swing, just pay attention to main safety and technique points:
- Use your legs and not your lower back
- Use your lower body and not your shoulders
- Weight should come through about knee height and no lower
Practice and practice until you have a good swing. The down phase of the swing is a good hip hinge with the weight pointing back, and the up phase of the swing is where you’re in the same position as the static plank, but holding a weight that’s swinging and now pointing forward. The plank is a good analogy for the floating phase, you need to activate pretty much the same muscles, and have the same posture at this stage as you would in the plank. Firm tight and packed chest that holds the shoulders nicely in the sockets, with the arms straight for now.
The Single Arm Kettlebell Swing
This swing variation has the same hip hinge movement as the Russian swing. The difference is that you’re using one arm to swing with. This allows you to make the swing harder, i.e. 16kg with one arm is harder than with two arms. But it also adds torque to the exercise, i.e. only one side has weight pulling, this will want to pull the swinging side of your torso forward and your other side needs to work harder to resist that torque. This is a good thing.
Watch a video of the single arm swing here:
You might notice that I start the swing with the weight being dead. If you have mastered the hip hinge by now, you can progress to starting the swing like this, if not, stick to deadlifting and bumping it out for now.
Once you’ve mastered the single arm swing, you can start looking at switching during the swing, this allows you to last longer and keep moving while you’re working on your cardio. Although this following video demonstrates a clean, it’s the switch that you want to pay attention to:
You can play with the rep scheme, for example, you can do 5 swings on one side, switch, and do 5 swings the other side, repeat for 10 rounds. The great thing about single arm and switching is, you’re not going to burn out your grip as easily as you would with double arm endurance swings. Eventually, you can work on your muscular endurance and stick with one arm, until you’re almost fatigued, and then switch.
Kettlebell Squat Style Swing
You now know enough about the swing and are ready to learn about the kettlebell swing squat style. The squat style is where your knees come forward, and your hips are coming low while your shoulders remain high. You’re looking ahead rather than the ground in front of you.
Watch a demo of the squat style swing here:
This is a great time to talk about whether the arms should be straight (elbows extended) or bend (elbows flexed). If you’re just starting out and still have so many other things to think about and correct, then you should use fully extended arms. This is to prevent injury in the elbow flexors due to a continuous pulling force on contracted muscles. Once you understand the trajectory of the kettlebell, i.e. the path the kettlebell travels can be more outward than upward, or vice versa and more upward than outward. This is especially the case with the squat style swing, hence the reason I cover this subject here. During the squat movement the kettlebell does not go back through the legs as much as it would with the hip hinge movement, and therefore the path the kettlebell will travel is more upward than forward. When the kettlebell goes more upward than outward, it’s perfectly fine to bend the elbows, as long as there is no forward pulling force. You want to feel where the kettlebell wants to go and leave the elbows bend to stay with the path of the pull upward.
Kettlebell Sport Style Swing AKA Fluid Style
This variation of the kettlebell swing existed before any other type of swing, this is where it all came from. Kettlebells have been a sport in Russia long before we even heard of kettlebells. This type of swing is used to improve just two things, that is, the upswing for the clean, and the upswing for the snatch. This is the reason that this type of swing does not go out, but up, and stays much closer to the body. It’s designed to last longer by removing as much resistance as possible. This is in contrast to the other types of swings where you want as much resistance as possible to provide a load on the muscles, and tax the cardiovascular system. Kettlebell sport is awesome, once you get to know a bit about kettlebells, I can highly recommend looking into this. The sport is where people snatch, jerk, clean and jerk, for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, and even one hour.
Since you’re more than likely not ready to get into the sport yet, I won’t delve much deeper into this swing other than, this swing movement is designed to go with the flow and push rather than pull.
Working Out With Swings
Now that you know more about the swing and how to perform it, you’ll want to start looking at how you can incorporate this exercise into your workouts. You can mix the kettlebell swing with plenty of other exercises, for example, 10 double arm swings, 10 squats, 5 single arm swings on one side, 5 single arm swings on the other side, 10 jumping jacks, repeat for 8 rounds. If you want a serious cardio workout, then combine your kettlebell swings with jump burpees as demonstrated in this video.
The kettlebell swing is complex and there is so much more I’d like to tell you about, injury prevention, efficiency, transitioning, programming, etc. I suggest you go online and have a look for Kettlebell Training Fundamentals and do some more research if you’re interested in getting to know more about the kettlebell swing.