Throughout my time in the performance field, the athletes I have had the pleasure to work with know how much I value the prescription of the kettlebell swing and its progressions and regressions to enhance athlete development. It’s a fantastic movement for grooving the hip hinge pattern, as well as its shorter learning curve and lower risk for injury than many exercises used to train similar qualities. It’s a great exercise to develop lower body power and explosiveness.
The swing is a dynamic exercise that can be used to train a multitude of qualities, including strength, power, and overall work capacity, and there is plenty of research that supports this. In our program, we have not made kettlebell swings our primary conditioning method or even a replacement for traditional compound or Olympic lifts, but it is certainly a worthwhile supplementary movement.
How to Swing a Kettlebell
To teach athletes how to properly swing a kettlebell, we typically use a 4-stage progression where we move athletes from point A to point Z using the swing. Each layer teaches the mechanics of the full swing while adding a layer of complexity to the movement to show progress and ease the learning curve. There is no set timeframe that must be spent on each layer. Some athletes can work through each layer in just a few training sessions, while others may stay at a level for a few weeks before moving on or, if needed taking a step back.
I prefer to begin our reaching hip hinge progression with the band pull-through because it teaches the athlete to reinforce core stability and hip function during the swinging movement. It also allows novice athletes to feel exactly what they should be feeling while training that motion in an environment with a slower tempo to reduce the chances of injury. Dr. Stuart McGill has written in the past that increased lumbar shear and compression injuries can occur when swinging movements are not properly performed (1). Your spine and hip position at the bottom of your pull-throughs should look the same as the bottom of your kettlebell swing.
Dead-stop Kettlebell Swings
The dead-stop kettlebell swing ties in elements from both the band pull-through and the continuous swing. It allows athletes to understand the setup, execution, and recovery of the kettlebell swing but allows the athlete to feel comfortable because of the reset that comes with each rep. During this time between reps, the athletes can process what went right and what went wrong during the previous rep. It also allows coaches to deliver valuable cues leading into the next repetition. The dead-stop swing starts with the hike, which challenges balance depending on the size of the kettlebell swing along with torso stability. The hiked position will be the same position achieved during the band pull-through in the previous step.
Once the glutes and hamstrings are loaded, the swing begins with a powerful hip drive finishing in a tall, erect position with the entire foot remaining on the ground. Weight will be balanced across the foot but predominantly on the heels to counterbalance the weight of the kettlebell moving forward fast. Moving up to heavier kettlebells will require more weight back on the heels. Once the kettlebell arrives at eye level from only the momentum of the lower body, it’s time to prepare for recovery. On the way down, wait for the kettlebell to almost hit you before you hinge and allow the bell to return to the top position of the hike before returning it to the floor. That is one rep.
The Continuous Kettlebell Swing
To execute the continuous swing, you will start with the same position and execution of the dead-stop swing. Except that the bell will not return to the ground until the prescribed number of reps or time has been completed. After the hip drive and recovery phase from the first rep, the athlete will immediately go into the next hip drive. Like each stop so far in this progression, we want to keep the torso rigid and braced throughout the exercise. This should eliminate bending or folding while at the bottom of the swing, along with the tendency to arch or lean back at the top of the swing. As more reps are completed and fatigue sets in, it’s important to ensure movement of the bell is only coming from the lower body and not the arms. During this exercise, the upper body is simply guiding the path of the bell.
One of the best parts of the swing is its flexibility in loading. In a perfect world, our facility would be outfitted with a full range of kettlebell sizes to be able to train a variety of strength levels and group sizes. Unfortunately, because of budget or space, this typically isn’t the scenario. Typically, once an athlete has maxed out our kettlebells comfortably with a set of 10, we will move them on to banded swings. These will increase the amount of force required from the lower body to move the kettlebell and the eccentric load placed on the posterior chain maximizing the stretch reflex. All elements from the previous layers will remain the same, and some foundational elements can even be returned. For example, for the first time an athlete performs a band resisted kettlebell swing, it may be helpful to begin in the dead-stop phase to assess each rep and receive coaching during the resets.
Benefits of Kettlebell Swings
The kettlebell swing is a great tool to be used for training that doesn’t require much space or equipment to reap the benefits, which are vast. The movement is also a good tool for building lower body strength and explosiveness; however, like many exercises, if it’s taught incorrectly or performed poorly, it can lead to injury. Use the progression above to learn the movement and improve your performance.
McGill SM, Marshall LW. Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):16-27.
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