The kettlebell swing is a hip hinge movement. The problem is, when strength coaches and fitness buffs talk about the "hip hinge" they assume it's a common term in everyone's vocabulary.
Is it really? You'll know the answer to that when you watch someone swing (or try to swing) a kettlebell. If they squat it, then they do not, in fact, know what the heck we're talking about when we say "hip hinge."
And that's exactly where you have to start when it comes to kettlebell swings. If you're not quite "getting" the whole hip hinge thing, you're likely not doing a kettlebell swing. And doing it wrong over and over again may be the reason your lower back hurts.
If you can do it correctly, then it's an exercise that'll torch calories, help you build muscle, harden up your backside, and make you more competent with other lifts. So let's get it down. Here's the step-by-step approach to get you there.
Step 1 – Hip Hinge vs. Squat, Know the Difference
Though there are hingy squats and squatty hinges, the two are not the same. They have distinct characteristics that allow us to categorize other exercises as forms of each. Though the biomechanics of the squat and hinge are complex, the MAIN differentiating factor is the joint that each one emphasizes.
The joint plays a primary role in the execution of each pattern. So remember this:
- A squat pattern will place more emphasis on the knee joint:
- A hip hinge pattern will start at the hip and place more emphasis there, hence the naming of the pattern itself:
While there's obviously movement happening at both the hips and knees, the primary joint leading the movement itself is the distinguishing factor when grouping the patterns. But to what degree should the movement happen at these joints? Now THIS is something that requires coaching in order to fine tune these two patterns.
A test that I often use with my athletes to get them to have that light bulb moment is the hinge back wall test. In just a few seconds we can create the mental shift that's required for building a proper hip hinge movement pattern from the ground up.
Step 2 – Do the Wall and Dowel Drills
Now that we've differentiated the true hip hinge from the squat, we must focus on fine-tuning this pattern to build a solid foundation of movement competence, and that happens most efficiently with the use of cues.
Even if you have an appreciation for what the hip hinge feels like, doing it with perfect form and control can be a challenge, hence the injury rates in hinge-based exercises like the deadlift and kettlebell swing.
Most people need verbal coaching and tactile cues to achieve the proper positions and physically grasp the concept of tension, biomechanics, and movement execution. That's where this comes in. The hinge-to-wall drill helps you place an emphasis on the hips, which lead the motion. They unlock the initial aspect of the hip hinge and move backwards, as opposed to the knees unlocking and again squatting the hinge. Here's how to do it:
- Stand about a foot's length away from the wall. Place your feet in deadlift stance, around hip-width apart with minimal toeing out.
- Unlock your hips FIRST and hinge back by pushing your butt towards the wall. The hips lead the movement.
- Continue to drive your hips back towards the wall while allowing some natural flexion at the knees.
- With full control and feet solid on the ground, tap the wall with your butt and come back up into position.
- Step up away from the wall one inch at a time until you no longer tap the wall on the end range of your bodyweight hinges.
The beauty of this drill is the use of the wall as an external target that physically tells you where the movement needs to start. While receiving a tactile cue with the butt contacting the wall is great, it's not a requirement of the drill. The real focus is on the initiation of the hip dominant pattern towards the wall with the hips translating posteriorly, not the wall contact itself.
Dial It In With a Dowel
The next common pitfall you need to address is achieving and maintaining a fully neutral spinal position. That's where the dowel test comes in. The goal is to find a neutral-ish spinal position. You can do this by using a dowel on the back for an easy and reliable gauge of spinal positioning.
- Get your feet in deadlift stance.
- Position a dowel behind your back running vertically with the spine.
- Hold the dowel with the right hand in the natural curve of the neck, and the left hand in the natural curve of the lower back.
- The dowel should be in contact with 3 points on the spine: the tailbone, the mid-back, and the back of the head.
- Keeping these 3 points of contact, hinge at the hips.
The biggest advantage of the 3-point dowel contact is that it's an objective sign of your spine's positions. If ANY of the three points lose contact with their original setup positions, you'll know that unwanted compensatory movement is happening in some region of the spine.
The two most common compensations are the head coming off the dowel into flexion (leading with the mid back), and the dowel losing contact with the tailbone, which indicates lower spinal flexion or posterior pelvic tilting. Using the dowel to groove the hip hinge with the maintenance of the spinal position is a great coaching and motor learning tool.
Use Coach Dowel and Coach Wall to help you learn the hip hinge. That'll take care of a lot of your kettlebell swing problems.
Step 3 – Master the Kettlebell Deadlift
Just because you can bodyweight dowel hinge like a boss doesn't mean you should start adding velocity and acceleration and weight. There's an intermediary step, and that step is called the deadlift.
Mastering the deadlift is a prerequisite to swinging the kettlebell. Any time we add velocity to a load, we're adding a progression. So to nail the swing we have to take a step back and move the load in a more controlled fashion. I'm not talking about pulling a max loaded barbell. For our purposes, the best place to start is deadlifting a single dumbbell or kettlebell from the floor.
First, you'll put a single kettlebell directly under your body's center of mass, which is usually between the posterior aspects of the arches of the feet. Unlike the anteriorly loaded barbell, this position allows your hinge to stay posteriorly directed at the hips, which is our goal for optimizing the hip hinge pattern.
Also, by putting a single weight between your feet, you can feel what it is to keep tension and torque through the shoulders with the arms tight to the body, working as a strong and stable unit. Losing tension in the shoulders, mainly due to a lack of lat involvement, can quickly transition into the loss of tension in other regions such as the lumbar spine, where it commonly causes injury.
You want tension throughout the pillar. This will ultimately help you make a heavy weight feel light in the deadlift and swing variations that you'll get to later on.
- Position your feet in deadlift stance.
- Place the kettlebell with the handle in alignment with the back of the arch.
- Place your arms down to your sides.
- Pre-tension your shoulders, hips, and core.
- Hinge your hips back, driving behind you with tension and control.
- Grasp the kettlebell off the floor and lift it, driving the hips forward.
- From the top down, control the hinge again and place the KB down.
- Return your body to the starting position WITHOUT the KB.
Depending on the size of the kettlebell, the distance from the top of the handle to the ground will vary. In order to maintain a neutral spinal position throughout all aspects of the KB deadlift, we must "build up the floor" to ensure no compensation patterns are being trained.
In a previous article, I go through the hip hinge test to determine optimal pull height for the barbell deadlift. But this exact test can be applied seamlessly to the KB deadlift as well by building up the floor with plates or boxes for a perfect pull height.
Step 4 – Swing It!
The deadlift got you to appreciate and master the skill of tension and stability through the shoulders, hips, and core working as a functional unit. Now we're adding accelerative forces through the body. This will further test the static and dynamic stability of this functional unit. In addition, there's an increase in the range of motion at both the top and bottom aspects of the movement.
This is the why the kettlebell swing is one of the most dynamic ways to display power and elicit a heavy training response in a pain-free way. That is, if you do correctly. While the swing deserves more than just a few basic bullet-points on execution, here are the key setup and executional cues:
- Place your feet in authentic deadlift stance.
- Position the kettlebell approximately one foot in front of your toes.
- Hinge back slowly under tension maintaining neutral spinal position and stability of the pillar complex as a unit.
- Deliberately allow your arms to move forward under control and tension and grasp the handle of the kettlebell.
- Tilt the kettlebell towards your body and "hike" the bell back through your legs.
- Hinge strongly with neutral spinal position, then snap your hips back up into their neutral position while allowing the kettlebell to "float" in front of your body.
- Control the eccentric (the downward swing) with a hinge heavy movement pattern and repeat for reps.
- To wrap up your reps, allow the bell to be replaced to the starting position while your body is controlled in a neutral spine hinged-back position.
Any time we can increase the force output through the kinetic chain while minimizing external loads against a strong and stable pillar unit, that's going to be a highly beneficial movement to load and train.
Once you get this down, maintain the skill. Avoid doing anything questionable that'll cause so much fatigue that your form breaks down, even if it's programmed as part of your Tuesday night thrash session for sets of a million.