When it comes to working out with kettlebells, the swing is everything. It’s one of those pieces of equipment that, when used properly—benefits abound, but if your form is off—it becomes a fail fast.
So, let’s get to learning until we’re all swing kings (and queens).
Swinging a kettlebell is an exercise that dates back to ancient Greece. In fact, there’s a 143-pound kettlebell on display in the Museum of Olympia in Athens! In the 1700s, kettlebells emerged in Russia as a weighing tool for grains and goods. But as curious humans do, they decided to pick them up and start throwing them around for entertainment, and that’s when they noticed they were building muscle as well, and that this thing made for a serious workout for the entire body.
Why Kettlebell Training?
Unlike a dumbbell, a kettlebell’s center of mass extends beyond the hand. Kettlebells can be swung, thrown, juggled, pressed, held, moved, and manipulated in so many ways. They are small and portable and can be incorporated into all aspects of athletic and fitness training, making them a really valuable piece of equipment. Ultimately, kettlebells are a highly efficient tool to lose weight, increase your cardiovascular fitness and strength in just about all your muscles, plus they help maintain joint health, mobility, and flexibility. Score!
Getting Started with Kettlebell Swings
There are two main kettlebell exercises you may have noticed while walking through the gym. The Russian Kettlebell Swing and The American Kettlebell Swing. You might not immediately see the difference because they look a lot alike…especially because many people do them wrong. But we’re here to teach you the proper form, so you know exactly how to kettlebell swing (or kb swing).
We’ll start with the Russian swing because, that’s where it all started, but also because it’s safe and effective for most people.
And before we go further, there’s something we want to make abundantly clear in order for you to achieve full kettlebell swing benefits…it’s all in the hips.
Having a realistic plan is one of the best ways to stay consistent. Intentionally carve out time in your schedule to get that recommended 30 to 60 minutes of exercise. If you don’t intentionally set that time aside, you will find it difficult to find time throughout your day. A beginner workout plan should include both cardio and strength training. Choose your cardio of choice and make a commitment to do it three to five times per week. It can be as simple as getting out for a long walk or taking a 60-minute workout class that you enjoy. On strength days, plan to spend about 45-60 minutes lifting weights for a total body workout.
The Russian Swing
- Stand with your legs about armpit-width apart.
- Grasp the kettlebell handle and place your thumbs tip to tip.
- Hinge forward with a straight spine (to protect your lower back muscles and the entire
posterior chain) placing your elbows at the hip flexor crease. Then fold, pushing your hips
back, making a “hand sandwich.”
- When you’re ready, place the kettlebell 10-12 inches out in front of you.
- Tip the kettlebell slightly back, then fire.
- Hike those hips forward and swing the bell upward to a full vertical position.
Remember, this is an explosive movement. Kettlebells are heavy, so momentum is your friend. (But keep those feet planted. Don’t blast off so hard it becomes a vertical jump…not for this variation, anyway.) Keep your hips & knees fully extended, elbows soft, shoulders square to protect the shoulder joint and make sure the bottom of kettlebell points forward.
On a tension scale of 1 to 10, you should be at a 9 at the top of the swing and relaxed to a 1 at the bottom. If it feels like you are lifting with your arms, (a common problem) and not using the force of the hip flick, it’s a good idea to switch to “t-rex” arms (demonstrated in the upcoming video). Keep your elbows tucked and you’ll have no choice but to use your hips.
Note: Keep your core muscles tight to avoid overusing your back. The kettlebell needs to stay high up in the hips. If you think you’re bending too low, place a medicine ball between your feet and stay clear of hitting it. This video shows how it all comes together.
Two-Handed Swing in Action
The American Swing
The American Swing is almost identical to the Russian swing, but the difference in these two kettlebell exercises is you will raise the bell above your head instead of shoulder height.
There are two key points to note at the top of the swing:
- Keep your arms parallel to your ears.
- Keep your neck aligned with your arms. (Many people push their chin forward, which could strain your neck and cervical spine. Think of a tall board connecting to the entire back of the body at the top of the move.)
And that’s it. Just by raising your kettlebell high above your head, rather than out in front of you, you have achieved an American Swing. (And this version also challenges your upper back muscles so you are working the entire back of the body.)
How to Amplify Your Swing
Single Arm Kettlebell Swing
- The standing position here is the same: legs shoulder-width apart, but this time we’ll only use one hand.
- Start with the kettlebell 10-12 inches out in front of you.
- Keep the non-working arm extended back.
- Grip options: point your thumb forward or backward (thumbs down is used in the below video). Whatever thumb position you choose, it will remain that way on the upswing. This creates more rotation in the shoulder. Coming out of rotation happens naturally on the upswing and is proper form.
- Your elbow and forearm will remain in contact with your pelvis during the hike back.
- The non-working arm travels with the body, just like it would if you jumped or ran. (You gain 20-30% more hip extension when your non-working arm travels with you.)
- Don’t get too wild with your form! Retract your lifting shoulder and square both of them to protect
your shoulder joints. Sometimes the weight and momentum can pull you forward during kettlebell exercises, compromising the effectiveness and safety of the move, so protect that spine (lower and upper back) especially at the bottom of the kettlebell swing by remaining mindful and in control.
One-Arm Swing in Action
- Kettlebells are a sneaky form of cardio! Add 10 swing reps into each circuit of your workout.
- The swing and deadlift are the best movements to learn first, and while kettlebells really work your upper body, you can incorporate them very easily into a lower body or full-body workout using vertical jumps, squats, pushups, and more!
- The more you use kettlebells, the more natural the movements of this great exercise tool will feel.