The kettlebell has been around for many years and has made a big impact in personal training and group training for all levels of clients. With this article we’re going back to basics and looking at a bang-for-buck kettlebell movement: the swing! We’ll look at how you can implement this movement into your programs to achieve great results.
The key areas we’ll focus on:
- Purposes and benefits of the kettlebell swing
- The best ways to implement the swing in your programming
- Key considerations when applying this movement
- How to regress and progress your client with the swing
Before we dive in to this feature, take a look at a video clip of kettlebell swing movements to underscore the key points I’ll discuss in the article:
If you’ve used kettlebells, you probably already know how versatile they are, but have you forgotten about the big exercises? The ones that really work and get the most from the kettlebell?
The important difference between a kettlebell and a dumbbell is that when using a kettlebell, the mass of the weight is outside of the hand. During the dynamic movements — like the swing — this creates a longer lever. This lever allows us to use momentum and increase the load during the movement. This factor makes the kettlebell swing a unique, magic movement that can help to achieve great outcomes.
I use the swing for the following purposes in training:
- Movement preparation and muscular chain firing
- Development of the posterior chain and loading of the superficial back line
- Lower back rehabilitation
- Power endurance and strength endurance
- Metabolic training
- Aerobic and anaerobic threshold training
Obviously, we should always tailor a swing for the specific client we’re training. For example, I wouldn’t give a totally inexperienced client a 5-minute interval training set, but I would use it to get him hinging from the hip and performing a fundamental movement like the bend.
While I’ve already listed the main areas where I feel the swing should play a big part in your training, there are many different kettlebell options available, from big sagittal exercises to multiplanar movements. The versatility of the kettlebell is one of its big benefits for clients, who can more readily achieve their training goals.
What about the benefits to you as a trainer? Well, here are a few:
- Great for running small group training sessions in the gym or outside in the park. They are cheap to buy and easy to set up and run a great session for all client levels. Not only that, but working with 10 clients will make you a lot more money than one client!
- No space in the gym? Take a kettlebell and give your client a total body workout.
- Mentally engaging. We got into this industry to train people, didn’t we? Well, here’s your chance. Kettlebells are a technical tool and require an interactive trainer who wants to educate his or her clients. So there’ll be no more boring rep counting!
As discussed earlier, there are some key programming areas where the swing is a very effective movement. I’ll break these areas down to outline the best ways to implement the swing as part of a training program.
The swing is a great way to up-regulate the superficial back line and fire up the posterior chain. Doing this prior to a big deadlift session or Olympic weightlifting session would be highly advantageous if you’re looking to get good triple extension and hip drive. So the swing could be used as part of your movement preparation protocol — add it towards the end, once you’ve performed some mobility drills.
Development of the posterior chain and loading of the superficial back line.
The swing is a great sagittal plane hinge movement from the hip. Performed well, it will help develop a strong posterior chain. If I could pick only one hip-dominant movement, I would pick the swing every time! In my experience, the results in client performance from this movement are superb. We’ve all been faced with clients with a weak posterior chain and tightness through the anterior chain. The swing works with this to develop powerful triple extension and promote a great range of motion across the hip joint.
Lower back rehabilitation.
As a well-balanced posterior chain is developed, use the swing to help improve lumbar spine stability and therefore improve lower back function. As Mike Boyle notes in his article “A joint by joint approach to training,” (n.d.) the lumbar is designed for stability. Having a well-balanced posterior chain will help aid this stability. As a dynamic movement, the swing loads our posterior chain and gets our lower back musculature working to stabilize the lumbar. If we can improve our hip mobility in flexion and extension we will also help to “spare the spine,” as Stuart McGill suggests in "Selecting Back Exercises" (n.d.). Improving our hip mobility will take the stress out of the lower back. Obviously, we also need to remember that our thoracic mobility plays an important part in this.
Power endurance and strength endurance.
The kettlebell swing is undoubtedly the ultimate movement for power endurance. The momentum we get from the bell allows us to move dynamically for long periods of time. During these timed sets we work at the same tempo throughout, which is another great benefit of the swing. It allows us to keep swinging and maintain the tempo consistently for long periods of time. To do this well obviously requires a good level of conditioning and strength. Once you have developed the correct technique, then performing the swing for intervals or extended periods of time is a great way to achieve power endurance.
According to the RKC Instructor manual (Pavel, 2005):
It has been shown that the swing can dramatically improve people’s performance in non related tasks, such as sprinting and running. A number of studies were held by Voropayev (1983) from Soviet Science. He observed two groups of college students over a period of a few years and tested them with a standard battery of armed forces physical training tests: pull-ups, a standing broad jump, a 100m sprint, and a 1k run. The control group followed a typical university physical education program that emphasized the above skills. The experimental group just lifted kettlebells. In spite of the lack of practice on the tested exercises, the kettlebell group showed better scores in every one of them.
Metabolic training and anaerobic training.
As discussed above, the swing allows us to work for long periods of time and intervals while keeping a consistent tempo. This has a great affect on the cardiovascular system. Under pilot studies conducted by John Gray of the York St John’s Sports Science Department, it’s been shown to have a great affect on heart rate response. Some of Gray’s observations were as follows:
- Participants appeared to sustain high (80-90%) exercise for 4 minutes.
- Performing swing intervals is possible and it appears that it may be possible to sustain, depending on using either time or reps, a %HRR training zone and therefore develop a specific endurance component.
- Participants did not appear to reach a steady state after 5 minutes, which would indicate that they worked anaerobically throughout. Due to the length of time the force output can be maintained, this would appear advantageous for developing anaerobic endurance.
As stated by Gray (2009), “It could be suggested that there appears a cardiovascular and muscular endurance advantage to adding swings and snatch to a kettlebell training routine. From the observations of similar movements with bar and dumbbell, the development of these components might not be possible to a similar degree with traditional weight training methods due to the inability to sustain the force output for a comparative length of time.”
With these findings we can experiment with different timed sets with our clients and find out what works well for all of us. Depending on the level of condition we will be able to increase or decrease the work to rest ratio to get an effective interval session which will keep our heart rate moving around 70% to 90%.
Before you go for it and get all of your clients swinging just because you believe it will fix everything and do everything, there are some important issues to consider when applying this movement.
Before you load your client with the swing you should make sure that they can hinge from the hip. Rather than initiate hip flexion from the lumbar spine, which can result in excessive lumbar flexion and very little hip flexion, I would generally regress the hinge movement so there is less dynamic load on the client. Consider starting with a good morning, progressing to a stiff leg deadlift, and then going back to the swing. You may even find that just some basic review of the movement pattern with bodyweight works well. This is the major area to focus on when introducing your clients to the swing; if their hips are functioning well, then the rest should take care of itself.
When it comes to the correct weight for the swing, it usually works better to give a client more load so they actually have to swing. If you give them a kettlebell that is too light, you’ll often see the movement become more of a slow lift rather than a dynamic swing. If they hinge correctly from the hip and have good timing, then the weight should be a secondary concern. I often see female clients who move well working with 20kg.
Regression and Progression
Regression and progression of the swing can come in different forms.
To regress the movement, we don’t necessarily want to reduce the weight as this will probably just stop the client swinging. Either keep the quality high by reducing the repetitions or go back and ensure your client can hinge from the hip. If she does not have a good bend pattern, then you should work on the preparatory lifts to develop this movement pattern.
Progressing the exercise is easy. We can give the client a heavier kettlebell or make them swing for longer.
The other options for progression include changing to a one-arm swing or an alternating swing, or to an even more advanced exercise: a one arm kettlebell swing (sport style). This is a much more advanced version and requires good strength through the superficial back line to load and unload correctly during the movement. This swing allows us to work for longer periods of time and develop good power endurance, strength endurance and an improved aerobic capacity. This style of swing is a much more relaxed and efficient way of using the kettlebell. I wouldn’t necessarily give this to everyone, as it doesn’t always teach good general movement patterns, but is a very efficient way to use the kettlebell and will develop a client’s kettlebell-specific skills.
When asked to put this equipment feature together I was asked to come up with something new with the kettlebell. But before I did that, I thought it was important to go back to the basics and remember the exercises that really work. Enjoy the swing and use it in all its many purposes. It’s truly a brilliant movement and you’ll see great results when you apply it correctly.
- Boyle, M. (n.d.). A Joint-by-Joint Approach to Training. T-Nation. Retrieved from http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_repair/a_jointbyjoint_approach_to_training.
- Gray, J. (2009). The effects the kettlebell swing has on heart rate. (Unpublished study.) York St Johns University. North Yorkshire, UK.
- McGill, S. (n.d.). Selecting Back Exercises. Retrieved from http://www.backfitpro.com/pdf/selecting_back_exercises.pdf.
- PT Academy. Effective Movement Training Course. Retrieved from http://www.ptacademy.com.au/fitness-courses/.
- Tsatsouline, P. (2005). RKC Instructor Manual. Dragon Door Publications, Inc. & Tactical Strength, Inc.