Swing Better, Do Everything Better
Very few training methods are either inherently good or bad, but the quality of their execution can make them so. The kettlebell swing is one of those things. Do it wrong and you could get yourself into trouble. Do it right and it's a highly effective training tool, whether you're a powerlifter, an athlete, or a figure competitor.
The kettlebell swing is really just a loaded hip-hinge. It's a basic, fundamental movement. If you can do a swing well, you've also got the movement foundation to do a lot of other things well.
Know the Purpose
The real purpose of a kettlebell swing? To train hip extension. That's it. That may seem simple, but there's a lot of nuance to that, and a lot of ways for it to go wrong. We don't just want to approximate something that looks roughly like hip extension. Most people, without good instruction, are actually biased to get them wrong.
This is what often happens with swings: The purpose is misunderstood, the criteria for meeting that purpose are unacknowledged and uncontrolled, and what kinda-sorta looks like a swing is ineffective and ultimately harmful.
Extension is a zero-sum game. If your lumbar spine is extended at lockout, then you're not going to get full hip extension at the same time. Instead, you're training lumbar extension with some help from your hips.
The quality of this movement pattern (the hip hinge) matters more than how many reps you're doing or how heavy the weight is. It's crucial to pay attention to what's important, not just what's easy to measure.
It's a hinge, not a squat. A squat is training simultaneous flexion and extension at your knees, ankles and hips at once. This is known as triple-flexion, triple-extension. It's roughly the same movement you're seeing in an Olympic lift like a barbell snatch.
But the swing is a hip hinge movement. This is entirely different than a squat. In a hinge, most of the movement is isolated to the hips, with much less flexion-extension happening at the ankles and knees. Your shins stay close to vertical, your torso drops forward and closer to perpendicular to the ground, and your butt pushes further back behind you.
Don't rush the setup; it's crucial for a good swing. Here's the process:
- Start with the kettlebell slightly in front of you on the ground.
- Stand tall, scoop your pelvis slightly under and exhale your ribs down. Think of closing the gap between the front of your pelvis and your lower ribs.
- Keep your weight balanced between three points: The balls of each foot and your heels. Keep your heels rooted solidly to the ground throughout the movement. If you lose your heels, you lose your hips and your lower back takes over.
- Once you feel your abs lock in, try to keep them that way. Think of moving and breathing with "hard" abs.
Lowering to the Kettlebell
- As you lower to the 'bell, push your hips back to the wall behind you while hinging at the hips. You'll feel your hamstrings load tension and stretch as you move into this position.
- Your spinal position shouldn't change as your hips move. Keep your abs locked on so that you don't arch your lower back or flare your ribs out, and avoid rounding your back like a scared cat. Stay balanced in the middle. This step takes practice.
- Your knees will flex somewhat as you push your hips back, but not to the same degree that they would in a squat. The exact amount of bend will depend on your individual skeletal structure and joint ratios.
- As your hips push back, grab the kettlebell handle. Pull your shoulders down away from your ears (again, without flaring your ribs) and squeeze your shoulder blades together slightly.
Hiking the Kettlebell
- From here, you'll start the swing. Begin by hiking the kettlebell behind you, like you'd hike a football.
- Pay attention to your neck at this point, and don't look upward too far and put an excessive arch in your neck. Focus your eyes a few feet in front of you.
- Keep the 'bell high as it hikes back behind you. Your wrists will stay just about at the level of your groin. Don't swoop the 'bell low and drop your hands below your knees.
The Forward Swing
- Just as the kettlebell swings as far back as it's going to go, reverse it by standing up forcefully while maintaining good spinal position and hard abs. Snap your hips forward while keeping your shins near vertical.
- Don't lift the 'bell with your arms. The forward swing comes from your hip snap and the active contraction of your glutes at the top.
- The kettlebell should never travel above shoulder height. Ideally, it stops at around chest-height. Moving it higher than your shoulders changes the emphasis from a hip hinge to an awkward shoulder and lower-back movement. Don't forget your purpose for doing these. You're not just making yourself tired or throwing a weight up and down.
- There will be a moment of "float" at the peak of the swing where the 'bell will feel nearly weightless. Allow this moment of float and let the weight fall back down on its own.
- At this point, your abs should be braced, your pelvis scooped under, and your glutes locked out.
- Keep your knees slightly soft at the top to discourage spinal extension.
- Time your exhalation to match the peak of the swing. Right at the top you should be fully exhaled with a neutral spine, hard abs and your lower ribs pulled down.
- Inhale on the backswing. Keep your ribs pulled down with hard abs, and feel your mid-back expand as you inhale, without shrugging your shoulders upward. Inhale through your nose with your teeth slightly apart and your tongue pressed to the roof of your mouth.
- As the kettlebell drops to about belly button level you'll start your backswing.
- Keep the handle of the 'bell above your knees.
- Think of two triangles formed by the lines from your shoulders to your hands, and from your knees to your groin. You're making the points of those triangles stay close to one another at the end of the backswing.
- Maintain the rest of your checkpoints: heels rooted through the ground, shins vertical and abs braced.
Getting Started: Silverback Deadlifts
The silverback deadlift is a useful tool to learn the hip hinge. The setup is the same as the swing, but the kettlebell is placed between your heels. Rather than doing a full swing, you're practicing the initial lowering phase and then standing up straight like a deadlift. If you're doing more than one rep, touch the 'bell to the ground in the same place between reps.
Common Errors in the Swing
Sometimes people will lack full hip extension with braced abs and locked-out glutes at the top of the movement. You can check for this by tapping the back of your fist into someone's abs and/or glutes right at the peak of the swing. Those muscles should be contracted strongly, not relaxed.
Viewed from the side, your body should look vertical, much the same as it does when you're setting up in your stance at the very beginning. When you see this flaw and know that the person is capable of moving well and getting a solid lockout, it's often the result of fatigue.
When someone is "swooping" they're transferring the work to their quads instead of their hips. This is done by shifting the knees forward and swooping the 'bell low below the knees and driving through the toes at the peak of the movement so that force is generated mostly from knee extension rather than hip extension. There's often a lot of lumbar compensation and weak abdominal bracing in this type of movement.
A squatty swing looks like it sounds. Rather than a hip hinge, the movement shifts more into the knees and ankles, which both flex more as the knees pop forward, and the torso stays more upright. It looks more up-and-down than front-to-back.
This changes the outcome and shifts force away from the hips and into the quads and knees. It also brings an increased risk of using your lower back to generate force, since it's harder to get the kettlebell to chest height when you're relying on your quads and a vertical movement of the weight.
Lifting with the Arms
Remember, the kettlebell swing is a hip-driven movement. We're not here to half-assedly train your arms or shoulders. Keep your arms relaxed and just let them come along for the ride. If you feel like you're doing shrugs, you're doing something wrong.
Hyperextended Lumbar Spine
Most of us are predisposed to hold excessive tension and extension (arching) in our lower backs. Same for pelvic and ribcage position. We often baseline with our pelvis extended (tipped forward), and the lower ribs on the front of our body flared outward.
This also comes with limited ab function since there's a sort of chicken-egg relationship between spine, rib and pelvic extension and ab strength. Extension in these areas makes it difficult for your oblique and transverse abs to function and fire effectively, and weak abs can't control your spine, pelvis and thorax.
Accounting for this and not exacerbating it is one of the biggest challenges with kettlebell swings. Almost everyone will instinctively do them wrong without the right training. You already know all the checkpoints for getting this right, so the key is attention. Train with a purpose, and if you start to lose a good movement pattern, stop what you're doing.
Swinging the Kettlebell Too Low
At each backswing, the handle of the kettlebell should pass above the knees, not below. Remember the dual triangle cue and touch the tips of the triangles with each rep. You can also stand over a short box (around 12 inches) and swing over the box to practice avoiding this.
Rounded Upper Back
This is when your upper back is rounded like a question mark. To help counter this, pack your shoulders by putting them down into their sockets and slightly squeezing together. Keep your eyes directed a few feet in front of you and not straight down. Sometimes just shifting eye position makes a big difference.
Not Loading the Hamstrings
This can usually be fixed with a tweak in the hinge. Have someone hold a clipboard about a foot behind you and try to hit it with the kettlebell on the back swing. This cues you to reach back more with your hips and load your hams.
You can also imagine reaching your butt back to touch the wall behind you. You can even stand about a foot in front of a wall (depending on how tall you are) while you're practicing your hip-hinge without a weight and reach your hips back until your butt hits the wall.
Weak Glute Activation
Sometimes people will have trouble getting their glutes to fire at the peak of the swing. This is often because this piece of the movement isn't well-automated yet and there's too much going on to focus on it. The solution is to isolate this component and practice it under lower complexity and stress. After some time here, you can re-integrate it back into the swing.
Glute bridge variations work well for this, as long as you can first get into sagittal-plane neutral. Remember, you can't fully extend your hips with a hyperextended spine, so the first step in getting good hip movement is repositioning the spine, pelvis, and ribs.
For the bridge, lie on your back and place something like a rolled up towel or empty water bottle between your knees. Squeeze the towel together, scoop your pelvis under, hook your heels into the floor as if you're pulling your heels toward your butt (without actually moving your feet), drive through your heels and lift your hips. Squeeze your glutes as you reach the top and make sure your abs are tense and your ribs stay down. You should feel tension in your glutes and hamstrings, but not in your lower back or quads.
This may seem like a lot of detailed info for a simple movement. This is why you so often see swings done with appalling technique – many of these details go ignored and uncontrolled, and piece by piece the movement falls apart. Don't let that happen.
If you understand your purpose in doing swings, understand the criteria that allow you to meet that purpose, and then consciously practice with those criteria in mind, you'll build strong, safe, and resilient movement.