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:
- Bad set up: rounded back
- Bad set up: squat rather than a hip hinge
- Bad set up: too far away with all the problems that brings
- Sloppy finish
- Squatty swing
- Unpacked shoulders
- Sloppy switch
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here to help.
Being ok at everything means being good at nothing
I want laser eye surgery.
I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I really do…to repair some corneal scarring from original lasik done 12 years ago. When I do get it (one of these days), I won’t be going to a heart surgeon.
And if I had a heart condition, I definitely wouldn’t schedule a visit with an eye surgeon.
Why? Well, duh. Doctors are specialist.
They know their area of medicine (hopefully) really well, but as far as medicine outside of their scope? Not so much if at all.
Another thing I’m not embarrassed to admit…personal trainers are the same way.
Sure, we know a lot about exercise science (hopefully). But that foundational knowledge is a far cry from becoming an expert in every type of exercise out there. With so many forms of exercise and exercise specialties, it’s really hard to have a great grasp on them all. And that’s not even considering the ever increasing, get rich quick gadgets and fads out there. Being personally good at something does not give you a blanket license to teach it to others.
I know what I am good at. I happen to be trained in it and it’s how I earn my living. But come to me for Olympic lifting and you’ll be disappointed. Yes I know what it is. Yes I’ve trained myself. Yes I’ve read articles and watched videos. But I will candidly tell you that there are better instructors with specialized knowledge out there. That’s who I would go see. The same goes for running, advanced Yoga or spinning.
They are just not my things.
What is my thing is being honest and ethical. Knowing where to draw the line between having enough knowledge for my own use and fulfilling the higher standard of care needed to train others. Not the same thing in my book.
I don’t admire trainers who blatantly try to pull the “oh I’m a fitness trainer, and therefore, know everything there is to know about exercise” card. They will happily take your money and can give you programs that make you FEEL that you are progressing without getting anywhere at all. The semblance of work does not equal moving towards goals. Any stupid trainer can make you sweat and/or sore.
I regularly check out local parks and gyms to investigate what is being taught and how. Luckily in Dubai, there are some really good trainers. But unfortunately, they are far outweighed by the hordes of uninterested, stagnant or arrogant ones. Guys and girls wearing PERSONAL TRAINER or INSTRUCTOR Tshirts standing idle while their clients execute unsafe movements and/or unsafe speeds and/or bad form. Worse, when the trainer is guilty of “designing” (or copying from the internet) the crap exercise in the first place. These people give professional, experienced and ethical personal trainers a bad name and dilute the critical role we could play in the greater wellness continuum.
No wonder many health care professionals think we are idiots.
But what’s even scarier is that some of these trainers don’t even know that they don’t know. They’ve not invested time improving their skills other than perhaps to collect some random certificates, and often, only because their original certifications required them to do so. Twenty years of experience? Really? Or is it the same 1 year of experience 20 times over. And that results in them training many clients outside of their scope of expertise. I hate to lift the lid off the industry’s dirty little secrets but much of the reading, studying, researching and learning that you’d expect your trainer to keep up with just does not get done. And no, reading Oxygen, Shape or Men’s Fitness does not count as a continuing education.
It happens a lot more than you think. And it’s quite irritating. For you and for me.
For students, they aren’t going to receive the training that they deserve. They will learn improper movements, create bad habits and even risk injury. They may get turned off of exercise forever.
For trainers, it’s being full of BS. It’s also increasing the chances that your clients will get injured during a session (which I HATE) and it’s creating wrong movement patterns in clients that will have to be corrected by other trainers in the future, if we ever get the chance! What ever happened to people saying “I don’t know” or “I’m interested in that too. Let me find an expert.”
“This is how I learned it”
Now I’ve had all sorts of students come through my door looking to get fit with kettlebell training. On one side of the spectrum we have the complete newbies. On the other are individuals who trained with other SFG/RKC instructors across the globe. And then we have the middle…those familiar with kettlebells but having followed different learning paths—learning other styles or applications of kettlebell lifting, attending bootcamp sessions, training with their own personal trainer, attending YouTube University, reading a book or watching celebrity DVDs.
While I am grateful for all catalysts that inspired them to try kettlebell training in the first place—they are an amazingly efficient and effective tool for improving fitness at any age and for most every goal, I do get my knickers in a twist when someone enters my space and proceeds to ignore my cues and coaching, while arguing that “this is how I do it,” “how I have always done it,” “how so and so taught me how to do it.”
Trust me when I say that I’ve seen my share of these:
As an experienced kettlebell specialist and coach, I have two choices. First vocalizing the thoughts in my head “That’s not a kettlebell swing. It’s trying to kiss your own butt and likely slamming your face in the ground on the way down.” Followed by “Now if you want to continue training with kettlebells your way, have at it. Why come to me?” Second, and the one that I often need to calmly count to at least 5 before I talk, is “I get that you learned a different way. But in my studio, these are the principles we teach, the techniques we practice, and attitude we foster to keep you safe and get you results. Let me show you.”
This is a perfect example of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Find a better trainer
The moral of the story?
If you’re interested in Olympic weight lifting, find someone that has studied weight lifting and can spot you safely and confidently.
If you’re interested in running, find a running coach that can evaluate your gait, screen your for compensatory movement patterns before you start pounding the pavement reinforcing them, thereby increasing your chances of injury. Do you just want to run for a few months or make it a lifestyle activity?
If you’re interested in the results kettlebells deliver, seek out a kettlebell certified trainer with experience and a track record. Check that their certification came from a reputable school, with rigorous technique and teaching standards. Ideally, talk to existing students. Remember that looking hot or being nice aren’t actual qualifications.
Ask questions, share your thoughts and goals, be honest about what you expect, do the work and hold both you and your trainer accountable. It is after all a two way relationship.
Oh, and if you are looking for personalized or group training using kettlebells and bodyweight movements, I know just the trainer for you!
Happy New Year!
- By the way, I can’t leave you with just one sample of a less than safe swing so stay tuned for next week when I review some common things I see from newbies and those in the “middle”. I’ll add a link here to Common Swing Faults when I post it.
Before finding my way towards Pavel Tsatsouline, the RKC now SFG and hardstyle (HS) kettlebell training, I went to ‘YouTube School’ to learn what I later found out was a soft or more fluid style of lifting kettlebells. Let me be clear – I did NOT train for Kettlebell Sport or Girvoy Sport (GS). I merely used competition bells with relaxed style as I learned three standard GS lifts: Clean, Press and Push Press. Lucky for me I didn’t get to the Jerk or Snatch or I’d probably have a lot of bad habits to unlearn.
Damn, Those Are Some Big
After several months of practice (good or bad, I couldn’t tell), hand numbness persisted after training and I couldn’t build any tolerance to these large steel kettlebells resting on my forearms. Then I remembered — the terribly neglected, still bubble-wrapped 20lbs cast iron kettlebell that made the transatlantic trip from Canada in 2004, hiding in an unopened box labeled “Sweaters and Leather” (don’t ask). On my little forearm, the weight sat only a few centimeters higher, but that was enough. No numbness and within a few weeks, no discomfort. Weird because many people find that the larger surface of competition kettlebells to be easier on the forearm. Not for me.
Be Open to Being NEW: Kettlebell Sport
So this weekend, some 7 years later, I went back to the big bell, competition style kettlebell to learn the basics of Girvoy sport with an open heart and mind. Why? Because it’s kettlebell training with a different context — sport. Luckily, I’m smarter now. I didn’t consult YouTube. I attended the Flux101 Pentathlon training course delivered by expert coach Sean Temple, founder of Flux Fluid Motion, who himself studies with Valery Fedorenko. When you want to be the best…you study from the best.
Kettlebell Sport vs Hardstyle Kettlebell Training
Day one focused on developing solid Kettlebell Sport (GS) basics. Confession: this was NOT easy for me after so many years of Hardstyle (HS) kettlebell practice. Everything was different! Learning to lean back for the GS rack versus standing tall and tight for the HS rack. Using the LEAST amount of energy possible in GS versus HS’s production of maximum power. Anatomical breathing in GS versus biomechanical breathing in HS. Coaxing a softer or fluid lockout of legs and arms in GS (to get more repetitions) as opposed to forcefully locking out glutes, abs, and arms for spinal stability (and to obviously get a heavier weight up) in HS. Focusing on maximizing repetitions in GS versus shorter sets with higher weights in HS, i.e. endurance versus strength. Prioritizing repetitions in GS over strength in HS. But just like everything else in life, just because it’s different doesn’t make it good or bad. Just different! Both styles have very different purposes. Each style can benefit from training the other.
Brain and Body Speaking Different Languages?
At times, I felt like my body was betraying my brain…not giving me the movement I was demanding from it, firing way too many muscles, delivering more force than necessary or desired and hence, fatiguing prematurely. But at others, things seemed to all come together pretty well considering I’d only had one day of real training. It’s a testament to Sean’s skill as a coach and, ahem, to the very solid endurance work that we do at KULT. Sean repeatedly apologized to StrongFirst and Pavel for mucking around with my tension.
Protocols and Pentathlon
Day 1 ended with “Protocols.” What are those? Try 9 sets of 2 minutes work + 2 minutes work + 2 minutes rest. Other than the last 3 sets, those first two 2-minute work sets were per arm, continuous, not putting the thing down. I’ll for sure be stealing some of those ideas for my own sessions.
Day 2 was all about review and our slightly modified Pentathlon. We modified to a 6-minute rest period so we’d have enough kettlebells and rep counters but nonetheless. Five 6-minute rounds (each with a different exercise) looking to reach a maximum repetition count without putting the kettlebell down. Unlimited hand switches, thank goodness. We had 6 minutes rest after each work round while our partner did their set. The exercises? Cleans. Long-Cycle Press. Jerk. Half Snatch. Push Press. Yup, my shoulders are toasted. I washed my hair that afternoon figuring that within 24 hours, I’d not be able to raise my arms overhead. Good move.
Am I Converted to the Soft Side?
So overall, what does a hardstyling chick like me think of Girvoy sport training? It was really fun and a fantastic arm workout! With a good musical beat, it’s even a little meditative (well perhaps not so much with a heavier weight). And from an overall fitness perspective? Great endurance builder, especially when working up to a heavier weight and excellent for building some mental grit. But two things I think it lacks are strong spinal stabilization through core engagement and gluteal work, so important to lower back health and performance in general. I’m also still on the fence with the whole rack position, especially for people with lack of thoracic mobility and a history of lower back issues. But remember that GS training for sport is just that – training to make you better AT THAT SPORT. And of course training for both sports and fitness should include corrective work to address those and other issues. No one says you can’t or shouldn’t add other elements that are missing for your particular purpose, especially if you don’t ever plan on competing.
My experience over the weekend has cemented a lot of things in my mind. First, am I giving up my hardstyle for GS? Not a chance. Next, will I invest time working on my GS technique? Absolutely. Will I ever compete in GS? Jury is still out on that one but it’s not an outright no. Did I enjoy being the NEW student? No because I do not like NOT being good at something. Yes because it keeps me real and able to relate to my own new students learning to swing or train the hardstyle way.
Snatch Test Anyone?
Finally, and with absolute certainty – I’d take a hardstyle 5-minute snatch test ANYDAY, twice a day over the evil 5-minute warm-up of continuous one hand GS swings (3 minutes with a light KB + 2 minutes with a heavier one). ON EACH HAND! I don’t care how fluid GS is supposed to be. That’s awful.
Thanks to my amazing friend, role model, inspiration and all around lovely person Nadine Du Toit, founder of GloryGirls Fitness and DubaiBells for bringing Sean and Flux101 to Dubai and for sharing a passion for kettlebell training. Between KULT, Dubai Bells and OP Integrated Lifestyle Centre, we are fueling the UAE Kettlebell Movement!
For anyone looking to learn hardstyle kettelbell training technique and how it can help you reshape your body and get strong in the process, KULT Fitness is Dubai’s only specialized kettlebell studio located in Business Bay. We offer new student individual training introduction packages as well as group training for those having completed their kettlebell fundamentals.