Kettlebell Swing: Why is it Vital?

As I warmup here on this cold Friday morning, I figure I should do a write-up on the most important exercise (in my opinion) I perform during my warmup before I lift. Everyday I workout, I make sure I perform these before the actual program begins. Drumroll please….the kettlebell swing, as you can see from the title.

“Wait, what? I don’t even know what a kettlebell is.” Well, it’s time to learn because this one missing link could be the difference in plateaus and strength gains in the weight room.

So why is the KB swing an important exercise to have in our arsenal?

First, it is a ballistic exercise. Andrew Read, Master RKC, likes to describe a ballistic movement as a bullet, where these is one movement to acceleration then it is coasting after being fired (1). This shows that the swing is an explosive total body exercise for burning off fat, building muscle and a pair of balls. There are multiple workouts out there that not only challenge physical strength, but mental strength as well. That’s something to discuss later though!

Second, swings are a lot more lower back friendly that other posterior chain exercises. The shear force placed on spinal vertebrae is much great on movements like the deadlift (2). Studies estimate that approximately 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some time in the lives (3). Our goal is not to become another statistic with a nagging back pain, which not only halts gym progress, but everyday lift experiences as well.

Finally, from personal experience, I feel like there is no other movement that provides the benefits the swing does, from a warmup perspective. Swings get the heartbeat up, forcing body temperature to increase, forcing us to break a sweat. They also require crazy muscle activation, especially from the abdominals and glutes. Try it for yourself, shoot for 10-15 swings and tell me you’re ass and core isn’t on fire. I’ll call BS everytime. Another reason I’m a big fan of the swing is it allows me to practice my hip hinge as well as breathing patterns. The hip hinge translates over to the deadlift, which is easily the most important posterior chain exercise for athletes. Of course, the effective tension and breathing takes time to master, it just takes a lot of practice

So now that we know why we swing, the next thing to learn is how do we swing?

I like to break the swing down into three phases, the acceleration phase, plank phase, and descent phase.

  • Acceleration Phase

Learning how to be quick with the kettlebell is going to be crucial. The faster we move the weight, the more powerful we become. The more powerful we get, the more weight we can move, thus gaining strength. Simple right?

However, speed is great and all, but control of the kettlebell is just as important. Being able to swing the bell to chest height while maintaining stability of the core and glute activation is difficult, I know from experience. As we get better at it (through practice!) the easier and more fluid the movement becomes.

Some of the cues I like to give to my clients are…
– Squeeze the stomach as hard as you can, pretending you’re about to get punched by a boxer.
– Pop the hips through and squeeze the butt.
– The arms must stay nice and long throughout the movement.

Plank Phase

In my opinion, the transition from the acceleration phase to the plank phase is what makes you, or breaks you during the swing. The plank phase’s name speaks for itself. Essentially, it is a standing plank when the bell gets to chest height. Total body tension during a plank is absolutely vital, which makes it vital in the swing as well. People claim they are able to hold a plank for 5 minutes, however, their form is most likely to be absolute garbage. But that’s a topic for another day!

Some of the cues I give to my clients are…
– Tighten up every muscle in the body. If I were to push you, you wouldn’t budge.
– Exhale hard, but short at the top position. You should sound like a cobra (tsssss…) This prevents us from completely exhaling and losing the brace our core produces.
– Don’t let the bell get higher than the chest. Beginners like to fall into an anterior pelvic tilt, which forces the muscles of the lumbar spine (lower back) to work overtime. Let’s try to avoid this!!!

Deceleration Phase

The deceleration phase is where control becomes a factor. Once we “plank” at the top position, we want to of “pulling” the bell down rather than the bell leading the motion. A key idea to remember is, you control the kettlebell, it doesn’t control you.

This phase is also what differentiates the swing as a hip hinge pattern rather than a squat. Most people tend to squat down with the bell in the bottom position. We want to avoid this because the kettlebell has to travel a longer distance. Short and quick are two works that should be in your mind throughout the exercise.

Some of the cues I give my clients are…
– “Attack the zipper”, this will keep the bell nice and tight to the body.
– Spread the groin, the bell is going to swing to this area of the body and this also prevents the knees from caving in.
– Continue to keep the core night and tight from the beginning until the end of the movement.

Well, there you have it on technique. Of course, this is a lot of information being thrown at you at once. For someone who has never executed the movement before, it’s going to take time. You don’t just learn this overnight. As we progress, expect to see your strength and endurance levels shoot through the roof!

How do we go about working the swing into our program? I would start light and really focus on being explosive with the pattern. Anywhere between 2 and 6 sets of 8-15 reps would be a good starting point in my opinion. As we get better at the exercise, there are various workouts and challenges we could attempt that are centered around the KB swing. Recently, Dan John posted a workout on T-Nation (www.t-nation.com) called the “10,000 Swing Kettlebell Workout”. It’s 20 workouts, so if you do the math, that’s 500 swings per workouts. If you’re experience with the kettlebell, ambitious, and looking for a challenge, give this workout a shot! (Here’s the workout http://www.t-nation.com/workouts/10000-swing-kettlebell-workout)

Now go out there and get to swingin’!

References:

1. http://breakingmuscle.com/kettlebells/the-kettlebell-swing-why-its-the-perfect-exercise

2. Same as reference 1

3. Vallfors B. Acute, Subacute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Clinical Symptoms, Absenteeism and Working Environment. Scan J Rehab Med Suppl 1985; 11: 1-98.

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