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Kettlebell Swings: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Kettlebell swings. Done well they epitomize the perfect balance between power and grace. Done less well they look like a lot of work by a bunch of unrelated and uncooperative parts. Good swings have very little to do with the kettlebell and everything to do with the hips. Bad ones seem to only be about the kettlebell.

Now the best way to learn a good kettlebell swing is from its foundation. And that includes good mobility and stability. It’s not about the exercise. It’s about the movement the exercise is improving. At StrongFirst kettlebell instructor certifications, we spend over 3 hours just on the swing because it is the foundation upon which we build many other lifts. We value its lessons—how to drive power from the hips, distribute load across the system, stabilize your spine during movement and how to get an amazing cardio workout done in no time. If you think that being good at swings is the objective of a kettlebell swing, then you are missing the point. We can chat about that later.

Today’s blog is about perspective and self awareness. You can’t improve what you don’t acknowledge. So we’re going to first look at what can go wrong. What’s the big deal you might be asking? Who cares as long as you sweat? Well, I care. I care because while the swing may not be rocket science, the differences between good and not so good are results. Those that you want—cardiovascular fitness, strong hip drive, power transmission, abs and glutes of steel and strength endurance—versus those you don’t: no results or worse, tweaks, pulls and injury.

This video outlines the eight most common swing errors or faults I see.

In summary, they are:

  1. Bad set up: rounded back
  2. Bad set up: squat rather than a hip hinge
  3. Bad set up: too far away with all the problems that brings
  4. Sloppy finish
  5. Squatty swing
  6. Unpacked shoulders
  7. Sloppy switch
  8. Overkill Finish

See anything you recognize? If so, great! We’ve got room for improvement which means that we can boost your results.

Not sure? Here’s your homework. Video yourself from the front and side, starting from your set up to parking the kettlebell. Don’t be shy. Or embarrassed. I regularly do this in super slow motion even. Why? Because I’m not always able to know when subtle errors start to emerge. The best time to fix those are early on before I’ve reinforced dodgy patterns. What about if you’ve never touched a kettlebell before? Well, if you haven’t but are thinking about it, then these errors will give you a place where NOT to start. They’ll also give you some criteria to choose an instructor. Again, just because they swing a kettlebell doesn’t mean they are executing a good kettlebell swing. Equipped with your own video, compare it to mine. Check to see if your technique could use some tuning up. I’d be happy to help with that.

Breaking Down the Kettlebell Swing

Now that we’ve know what you should strive to avoid, we can reinforce the building blocks that make up a good, safe and results-driven swing. This isn’t meant as a full on tutorial because some things are just better learned in person and by feel. But I hope it gives you a better understanding of what a hardstyle SFG instructor will be trying to get your body to do and some practical drills on how to get there. Plus if we can improve your safety with just one technique tweak, it was worth it’s weight in gold.

Neutral Spine. Allowing anything other than a neutral spine is a recipe for disaster. From chicken necking, to rounded shoulders, to tucking in your tailbone to hyperextending your lower back…these unsafe practices will not only likely get you hurt they’ll limit your results.

Stand against a wall with your heels, glutes, mid-back and head touching (or use a stick against your head, middle back and top of your glutes). This is your neutral spine. When we say straight back, this is what we mean—you maintain the three natural curvatures of your spine—and this alignment from your pelvis to your head should stay virtually unchanged during your swing—from the set up to putting it down. The exception? It’s allowing your neck to look up slightly at the bottom of the swing. Slightly. Don’t chicken neck. Keeping your back straight (or neutral) isn’t just me being picky. It’s the difference in you getting the result from the swing while staying safe. Don’t do it, don’t let your trainer not correct you or others. Demand more for yourself.

Packed Shoulders. Letting your arms hand long and loose will yank at your rotator cuff, change the arc of the kettlebell and put the mechanical advantage of the swing on the wrong muscles – usually your back instead of your hips. Is that bad? If you need to ask, put the kettlebells down for now and talk to a qualified trainer.

Along with a neutral spine, packed shoulders are essential to controlling the arc of the kettlebell. Just like a turtle that pulls in it’s head at the threat of danger, your shoulders can retract into their sockets using your lats and other back/shoulder muscles. This is a great thing since it stops the small rotator cuff muscles from pulling with the weight of the kettlebell thereby stopping you from rounding your shoulders. Proud chest everybody. What a great exercise to help undo hours of computer work! Do not let your shoulders unpack throughout your swing—from set up to park. Learn it right from the start.

Hip Hinge. The swing is an exercise of energy projection forward not upward. A very common error is to squat the kettlebell down, rather than pull It back. If you want to squat, then squat! But kettlebell swings are a hip hinge pattern. Right tool for the right job.

As you hinge your hips, they move back and your torso folds forward, but only to a point. You should still be able to read a logo on your tshirt from a front facing mirror—or be ready to attack an opponent in any direction. We are looking for shoulders above hips, hips above knees. If that’s not happening for you, then figure out why. Use a side mirror to check every set up until you brain has learned how to nail it. A good coach will help you get into the right position, from the start so you don’t have to try to fix weird alignment issues mid flight. Note that your knees are bending but only just enough to let your hips move back. Remember—energy drive is forward. Forget what you see in most gyms around town…this is not a squat!

Hip Drive. A common error is pulling on the kettlebell with the arms or trying to bring it forward with the knees. I call that riding the camel. Not only is that an epic waste of energy, it feels about as ridiculous as it looks (visualize Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars Episode 1). No one would chose to swing that way.

Ok so you’ve hinged with a neutral spine and packed shoulders and have gotten the kettlebell off the ground (pulling hard with your lats so that your hands are nicely tucked close to your crotch). Now what? It’s time to drive your heels through the ground (figuratively) and contract your glutes forcefully until you are standing tall. TALL—not just short of tall or leaning back past it. In this top position, your kettlebell will have been projected forward by the force of your hip drive, but because your arms are attached with pack shoulders, it will have floated up to about chest height. No higher. We call this top position the lock. It’s essentially a full tension plank where your glutes are firing hard to squeeze, your abs are braced for a punch, your quads are lifting up your kneecaps and your lats are retracted while keeping your shoulders down away from your ears. Try to wiggle in this position…you can’t. That’s the beauty of a well executed kettlebell swing…it marries safety with performance to deliver results.

Reload. Many students rush the reloading of the glutes and hamstrings by unlocking (see above point). That means that pretty much as soon as the kettlebell hits the top of the swing, they immediately break their hips to pull it down. That’s a timing issue that can throw the arc off and steal your power.

What happens between the top of a swing and the bottom of the next one? I’ll break it down into three parts. Float. Gravity. Hip pull. The first few seconds at the top, we want our kettlebell to float weightlessly just before gravity takes over to pull it down. Now here think of yourself as a guide. Hold your lock (plank) as long as you can, simply letting your arms come down with the kettlebell. When your biceps approximately reach your ribs, then get your hips out of the way by pulling them back. This will ensure that the kettlebell stays high in the upper triangle of your legs giving you the best set up for your next swing. Sure you can actively pull the kettlebell down with your lats, but that’s an overspeed eccentric…different drill. Here, we’re working on the fundamentals.

Parking. Sign of laziness and carelessness? Letting your kettlebell crash on the floor at the end of your set.

My personal pet peeve is a student that crashes the kettlebell down at the end of their set. DON’T DO IT. Your set is not over until you have safely parked the kettlebell on the ground in FULL control. I’ll give you burpees or brussel sprouts or something you do not enjoy to reinforce that point. It is simply LAZY and CARELESS. DON’T BE. Do not practice bad form. If you need to crash it down at the end then do fewer repetitions. Finish each set just as you started. With integrity.

KULT Fitness is the UAE’s only specialized kettlebell and movement training studio. As a StrongFirst Team Leader, appointed by Pavel Tsatsouline himself, I am honored and fortunate to travel the globe as part of the leadership team to share my passion for kettlebell training and how it improves movement quality, strength and fitness. I was put on this earth to help others so whether I’m training SFG instructors, athletes, fitness enthusiasts or exercise newcomers, every chance I get to help you get more out of life through fitness is an opportunity I will enthusiastically pursue. If you would like to explore what kettlebell training can do for your fitness or want to improve your technique get in touch with me at martine@kultfitness.com. I’m here to help.