Few singular exercises train the body as effectively and inclusively as the kettlebell swing. And those exercises that do require considerable technical expertise to perform. Unlike more complex multi-joint movements, such as the clean or thruster, the kettlebell swing can be mastered by a complete novice in just one short session.
Yet, for its technical simplicity and surprisingly limited range of movement, the kettlebell swing is a brilliant whole-body muscular endurance and strength developer. In his book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge Pavel Tsatsouline cites a 1920s weightlifting champion as having said that the swing: ‘brings into action and develops practically every group of muscles on the back of your body and legs, and a good many others besides . . . If you have time on your schedule for only one back exercise, make it this one . . .’
Tsatsouline himself likens the swing to a physical altercation with a Russian bear because, after a good hundred reps, your muscles feel as though they’ve been torn to shreds (that’s a good thing by the way).
If you decide to become a regular swinger you’ll develop superior grip, core and pelvic thrusting strength whilst enhancing your physical functionality – for few exercises force you to fight to maintain correct posture and foot positioning.
But, you’d be forgiven for asking, how can swinging a steel ball between your legs confer so many physical benefits?
The kettlebell swing achieves these many physical payoffs through the activation of multiple large muscle groups.
For example, when swinging the primary muscle groups engaged include the gluteus maximus – the larges skeletal muscle – the muscles of the trunk – which include the transverse abdominus and rectus abdominus – and a whole host of anterior muscles – erector spinae and latissimus dorsi, to name the most prominent.
This, I think you’ll agree, is an impressive range of muscle groups. Especially considering that they are all simultaneously activated when performing one simple exercise.
Do You Dare Pit Yourself Against The 10,000 repetition Kettlebell Swing Challenge?
However, the number of muscles used explodes when we make a couple of minor modifications. One modification is to add a squat at the end of the downward phase of the swing. By doing so the quadriceps are brought into action which causes a cascade of stimulation culminating in a chest-clutching cardiovascular burn.
The second method of modifying the kettlebell swing is where we propel the bell, in an explosive, plyometric-style movement high above our head. This not only amps the intensity of the movement but it also actively engages the deltoids and upper pectorals. Amongst CrossFit enthusiasts this modification is called an ‘American’ swing, whereas the traditional movement, where the bell comes level with the chin, is called the ‘Russian’ version. For the record, this pure poppycock for the kettlebell swing, regardless if you bolt-on the extension or not, is all Russian.
The kettlebell swing is a beast as it stands. But with the modifications outlined above the exercise transforms into a monster. It’s for this reason, and a few others besides, why I advise people looking to build a home gym to start with a competition kettlebell.
When you first begin to master the swing it is advisable to focus on the traditional movement (explained in detail below).
Kettlebell Swing Training Approach
If you’re new to training with kettlebells, the swing is by far the best exercise with which to begin. It’s the first exercise that Tastsouline teaches in his book and he maintains that ‘the swing is a great way to learn your way around a kettlebell’ as it enables you to perfect essential lifting principals which prepare you for more technically challenging movements, such as the snatch.
Once you have developed the requisite technical skill and lifting confidence to perform multiple repetitions, you should incorporate the swing into your weekly training regime. There’s no hard and fast rule regarding how kettlebell exercises should be applied. I often use the kettlebell extemporaneously, bolting a set of 50 swings or snatches on the end of row or run.
However, such an extempore approach is not ideal for the beginner. Thus, I recommend a minimum of two short kettlebell sessions each week, perhaps on a Monday and Friday. When you have ‘learnt your way around the kettlebell’ increase either the duration or number of sessions.
Alternatively, you could access the Hungry4Fitness 6-Week Kettlebell Training Programme which will provide you with all the tools you need to establish a comprehensive regime. The programme is completely free and has been created for beginner and intermediate trainers.
How to Perform the Perfect Kettlebell Swing | Technique Tutorial
Muscles worked: all of them! Honestly, the kettlebell swing is such an effective whole-body exercise that no muscles escapes unscathed from this wrecking ball of a movement. But from the ashes superior physicality will emerge like a fiery phoenix!
As exercise names go the kettlebell swing couldn’t be less ambiguous if it tried. After taking the kettlebell from the floor with both hands we initiate the movement with a short backwards pull then thrust forwards through the hips propelling that gravity-loving lump of pig iron level with our shoulders.
Congratulations! You are now a certified swinger!
But wait, don’t go anywhere yet. If you’ve never swung before ensure to familiarise yourself with the detailed list of teaching points below. Though an indubitably simple exercise there’s a number of technical considerations that, well, you ought to consider.
Centre your mass over a kettlebell the weight of which is commensurate with your current strength and ability. In short, don’t go heavy – keep it light to begin with!
Bending at the knee whilst ensuring to keep the back ironing-board straight grasp the bell with both hands.
Firing through the quads squat into the standing position.
Before initiating the movement organise your feet – they should be just over shoulder width apart – fix your eyes on an indefinite point in the distance and prepare your mind for the exercise. I call this bit the calm before the storm!
With knees still slightly bent rotate slightly at the hips so as to create space to pull the bell back between your pins.
On receiving the kettlebell in your groin fire through with the gluteal muscles and, with arms straight, propel the KB forward. Instead of trying to get the KB all the way up in the first swing I find it best to elevate it in stages. Usually after the third swing I’m in full flight – so to speak.
Once the kettlebell has reached the desired height – roughly level with your chin – arrest the movement and allow gravity to do its thing. Ensure to control the kettlebell during its descent.
Again receive the KB in the groin harnessing the kinetic energy generated.
Use that energy (and a bit of your own) to complete the next repetition.
Now you are swinging!
Methods of Modification
Modifications abound! But I’ll be quick – promise. Once you mastered the standard swing – described above and displayed in the video tutorial below – try single arm swings. Also, you can swing the bell all the way up so that it is directly above your head, pausing for a mo before allowing it to drop (I call this the big dipper). And then there’s the option of fastening a resistance band to the kettlebell for added resistance. By tethering the KB to an RB resistance increases throughout the range of movement eventually peaking at maximal contraction – where it’s most effective. I’ll sum by saying: when you get your confidence with this exercise just play about with it – though best to do this outside.
Keep control throughout the exercise.
Relax during the movement – you shouldn’t strike the appearance of a soldier on parade.
Make sure that your feet are evenly spaced and planted firmly before attempting the swing.
Fix your eyes on a point roughly head height.
Ensure the arms are slightly bent throughout.
Keep your core tight whilst swinging.
Squeeze your bum cheeks together at precisely the moment when the KB reaches the top position.
Do not bend or round your back – keep it straight or slightly concaved.
Do not at any point lock the legs out.
Do not over-rotate or ‘collapse’ at the hips during the downward phase. The kettlebell should not pull you down so that your torso becomes parallel with the floor. This is a common mistake which places a lot of stress on the lumbar region of the spine.
The Russian Kettlebell Challenge: Xtreme Fitness for Hard Living Comrades
Both the Soviet Special Forces and numerous world-champion Soviet Olympic athletes used the ancient Russian Kettlebell as their secret weapon for extreme fitness. Thanks to the kettlebell's astonishing ability to turbo charge physical performance, these Soviet supermen creamed their opponents time-and-time-again, with inhuman displays of raw power and explosive strength. Now, former Spetznaz trainer, international fitness author and nationally ranked kettlebell lifter, Pavel Tsatsouline, delivers this secret Soviet weapon into your hands.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Tsatsouline, P. (2001) The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Dragon Door Publications. USA.