How to do a Kettlebell Swing: Techniques to Build Muscle
Deadlifts, goblet squats, presses, cleans, Turkish get-ups, and snatches are just a few of the many exercises you can perform with one simple kettlebell. If you really want to delve into the world of Russian kettlebell training, however, the one foundational movement you must master above all others is the two-hand kettlebell swing.
Its conditioning and fat-burning benefits are well-documented and easy to feel by simply spending ten minutes doing as many swings as you can. No doubt, you’ll be gasping for air and sweating profusely from the intense effort required.
A lesser-known attribute of kettlebell swings is their ability to build muscle and strength. Powerlifters like Andy Bolton have long trumpeted the swing’s ability to strengthen the muscles required for deadlifting without the wear and tear on the body that massive deadlifts of 500+ pounds tend to cause over time.
Kettlebell swing muscles worked include the hamstrings, glutes, hips, abdominal wall, and many of the smaller support muscles of the back and shoulders. In order to realize these benefits, however, you must execute the swing with proper technique.
Kettlebell Swing Mechanics
The swing is a ballistic movement, meaning you’re going to be using forceful muscular contractions to accelerate the kettlebell very quickly. High force production and brief contraction times are similar to the requirements of other athletic movements like jumping or throwing a punch.
Also bearing some similarity with Olympic weightlifting, kettlebell swings require a fairly high degree of technical proficiency compared to slower tempo weight training movements commonly performed in gyms like bench presses and curls. As such, when first learning how to kettlebell swing, hiring a certified coach is advisable if you’re lucky enough to be able to find one.
You’ll begin by standing in an athletic stance, with feet about shoulder-width or a little wider and the kettlebell resting on the floor about a foot in front of you. To self-cue proper pre-swing posture, place your index fingers in your hip creases and direct your hips backward as if you were trying to touch your butt to an imaginary wall a couple of feet behind you. If you’ve ever done Romanian deadlifts, the idea is to “load” the hamstrings with tension in a similar fashion rather than squatting down.
In this firing position, grasp the handle with both hands and tilt it back toward you. Your arms at the start of your swing should be at about the 5 o’clock position. If you’ve ever seen an American football center hunched over the ball ready to snap it to initiate play, you’re pretty much going to mimic that posture with a bit more emphasis on pushing the hips back.
You’re even going to hike the kettlebell backward through your legs, about like a center would hike the ball to the quarterback, only you’re not going to let go of it. When the kettlebell is at about the 8 o’clock position (just before it would hit you in the butt), reverse its momentum by driving your hips forward. The hip hinge, as it’s called, is an athletic skill that must be practiced until it’s second nature in order to effectively execute the kettlebell swing.
Your swing should end with a hip snap that brings you to a standing position with arms extended in front of you in the 3 o’clock position. Concentrate on pushing your feet through the floor and do not allow your kettlebell to drag you off balance, pulling you up onto your toes as you finish. Likewise, engage your lats throughout so that your shoulders remain “packed” down and back and are not pulled forward at the top.
A proper swing has a natural forward and backward rhythm with a momentary “float” on each repetition as the kettlebell reaches its apex that can only be achieved with efficient hip action. Rather than utilizing forceful hip drive to propel the kettlebell, many beginners instead make the common mistake of trying to front raise it. Perhaps this tendency stems from their incorrect belief that they need to swing extremely high. On the contrary, swinging any higher than chest height is not necessary, despite the horrific technique you may see in any number of YouTube abominations.
We’ve all heard the saying that practice makes perfect, and that’s certainly true of the kettlebell swing. Equally important is the need to practice correctly, ideally under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable coach who can point out bad technique before it becomes an ingrained habit that will be difficult to break. With the swing, as with other complex athletic movements, it’s perfect practice that truly makes perfect.
Kettlebell Swing Programming
While you can get quite creative with kettlebell swing workouts, as a beginner you can also achieve fantastic results with very simple programming. Three swing workouts a week will be plenty at first.
If conditioning is your primary goal, try completing ten swings every minute on the minute (EMOM) for ten minutes with a medium-weight kettlebell, for a total of 100. Once you’ve done your ten swings, stand behind your kettlebell and rest for the remainder of each minute. You’ll need a timer you can set to alert you on the minute.
Each week for ten weeks, try adding one swing per minute. In week two, you’ll do eleven swings per minute. In week three, you’ll do twelve per minute. And so on, until you reach twenty swings per minute, for a total of 200 in ten minutes.
At this point, you’ll have achieved a solid baseline conditioning level and should be proud of your accomplishment. You can either continue repeating this program a few times a week for maintenance or move on to more advanced programming.
If you’re a more strength-oriented trainee, choose a heavy bell (but one you can still swing with good control) and do five sets of ten swings, taking rest as needed up to three minutes between sets. If you’ve selected a challenging weight, just fifty swings will thoroughly work your entire posterior chain.
For those who want the best of both worlds—endurance and strength—consider alternating the two programs. If you swing three times a week, two weeks of workouts will look like this: A-B-A-B-A-B.
Remember the 5-8-3 clock visual for your kettlebell swing’s starting position, backswing, and apex. Ideally, find a good coach to instruct you and master the basics before moving to more complex programming.
Most importantly, have fun and happy swinging!
Chuck Miller has been immersed in the pursuit of strength and the art and science of physical transformation as a coach, athlete, and writer for over thirty years. He is the author of Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon: on strength training and bodybuilding and is a monthly columnist for HARDGAINER 2.0 Visit CORE Strength and Conditioning to learn more about his background or to book a consultation.