The kettlebell swing is a great component to add to any strength training program, when done correctly. However, if you step foot inside any gym in America, it’s very common to see this exercise done incorrectly, leading to inefficient workouts and possibly injury. This really is a shame, because when done with proper form, kettlebell swings are an excellent tool, not only to build strength, power, and explosiveness, but also a way to get some cardio and conditioning in without having to step anywhere near a treadmill or elliptical.
I use kettlebell swings often in my own workouts, sometimes as the main portion of an at home workout, and sometimes as a “finisher” after a weight room session. Not only is it an exercise that can be used in different ways, but it’s also an extremely efficient exercise for those of us who are crunched for time. Just ten to twenty minutes of KB work can leave me feeling like I’ve been working out for at least an hour. Try just five sets of 20 heavy kettlebell swings, and you’ll see what I mean! Sweat city. Another plus side of KBs is that this is a piece of equipment that takes up very little space, but still allows for extremely effective workouts at home. This is perfect for those of us who don’t always have the ideal amount of time, but still want to get in a good strength/conditioning session. And when it comes to different exercises, there is so much you can do with a KB; swings are just the beginning.
While KB’s themselves are relatively simple as far as gym equipment goes, there is actually a very specific technique involved with the KB swing, a technique that I see butchered all the time in the gym. Screwing this up will not only make your workout less effective and efficient, but it could also lead to injury, depending on the mistakes being made. Below are the three most important components of the kettlebell swing, and ways that people often perform them incorrectly.
1. Hip Hinge: By far the most important part of your swing, the hip hinge is a basic weight lifting movement that needs to be trained with just your body weight before safely loading it with weight. Basically, the lower body movement of your swing is not a squat, but rather a “hinging” of your hips. When going into your bottom position, the initial movement should come from the hips pushing back, with the knees bending slightly only after the hips have moved. Many people want to squat down, dropping the kettlebell between their knees, when in reality the hips should push back, the kettlebell swinging between your legs (right in your crotch, really).
2. Glute/Hip Thrust: Contrary to what many gym goers believe, KB swings are not an upper body lift. The swing movement of the arms comes from power generated through the hips and glutes; the arms are not actively lifting much weight. When initiating the “up” portion of your swing, the core must be stabilized, and the glutes must be forcefully contracted to thrust the hips forward. The momentum from this movement will help the arms to swing up to about shoulder level, letting the KB become just about weightless at the top of the movement. Keeping those glutes contracted at the top of your swing will help to prevent lumbar hyper extension at the top of the swing, which will protect against low back injury. Again, many people want to squat down and then lift the KB with their arms, essentially turning this into a squat/anterior raise. One thing to think about — if your shoulders are more tired than your glutes after a set of KB swings, you’re doing it wrong.
3. Keep a Flat Back – If you’ll notice in the first picture above, I’m in a hip hinge position (not a squat), and my back is completely flat, from head to tail bone. In the second picture at the top of my swing, my back is still flat (no hyperextension of my low back — contract those glutes!). Allowing your back to curve in the lower position or arch too much in the top position is the perfect way to end up with disc injury, nerve injury, debilitating back pain, or all of the above. Doesn’t sounds like a good time to me! Keeping your back flat throughout the swing may take some practice, depending on your fitness level. Start out with a light KB, or even better, practice the movement without any weight at all. As beginners often can’t feel their spine curving, have someone photograph or video your swing before you increase the weight, so that you can make sure that your back remains flat throughout the motion.
Kettlebell swings are an excellent exercise with many benefits, but doing them with poor form will drastically change the results you get from using them. Remember that this lift is based around power, and that taking the power/momentum component out of it, you’re changing the workout entirely, decreasing the efficacy of this movement, and putting yourself at risk of very serious injury. Keep these three points in mind next time you try kettlebell swings, be mindful of your form, and most importantly, enjoy!
Readers: Do you do kettlebell swings? Do you use kettlebells as a tool in your workout toolbox? What is your favorite exercise to do with kettlebells?