By Dr. Jordan Duncan
For West Sound SportsPlus
If someone asked me to name a single exercise that could improve their golf game, running speed, throwing distance, volleyball serve, and their ability to downhill ski, without hesitation my answer would be the kettlebell swing.
The swing trains explosive hip power, endurance, and the transfer of forces from the lower body to the upper body, all extremely vital components in athletic performance, regardless of the sport.
The kettlebell swing is a fairly technical exercise that often takes thousands of repetitions to become competent and many more to actually master. While a perfect swing may be an unattainable goal, we should strive to consistently repeat it with good form in order to reap its numerous benefits.
The Swing is a Hip-Hinge Activity
First and foremost, the swing is a hip hinge activity, not a squat.
In the hip hinge, the hips move back with minimal knee bend. In addition to the swing, the deadlift is a well known example of a hip-hinge exercise.
This is different from a squat, where the hips move down with maximal knee bend.
Prior to actually swinging a kettlebell, it is vital that you learn how to hip hinge. There are several ways to accomplish this, including:
Using a Wall
- Stand with your back to a wall, feet shoulder width apart, about eight inches away from the wall.
- While keeping your feet flat on the ground, slightly bend your knees and move your hips straight back until you touch the wall with the back of your hips.
- Move your feet a couple inches farther from the wall and repeat.
- Continue moving away from the wall until you can no longer touch the wall without your feet coming off the ground.
- The farthest distance where you can touch the wall with your hips and still keep your feet on the ground is where you should practice this hinge motion.
Using a Dowel, Broomstick, or PVC Pipe
- While standing, orient a dowel vertically along the center of your back.
- Hold it in place with one hand behind your neck and the other behind your back.
- The dowel should contact the back of your head, your mid back, and the back of your pelvis.
- While keeping the dowel in place, move your hips back and your torso forward (hinging at your hips) with a slight knee bend.
- If you lose one of the dowel contact points, you are bending your spine rather than hinging from your hips.
Practice these two drills until the hip-hinge movement pattern becomes second nature and easy to perform. From there you can learn how to swing. Remember, ‘hips back’ is the key to the hip hinge.
Basics of the kettlebell swing
Begin with the kettlebell a little over a foot’s length in front of your feet, centered in the middle of your body. Hip hinge while keeping your spine neutral, and grasp the handle of the kettlebell with both hands. If you are hinging correctly, you should feel tension in your lower back and hamstrings.
This is the setup position, a critical component to the swing according to Ross Gilbert, an SFG Level 1 Certified Kettlebell Instructor. In addition to developing tension in your lower back and hamstrings, Gilbert, who offers instruction at the Haselwood YMCA in Silverdale, says that when you are in this position you also want to pull your shoulder blades back.
Once you have attained the proper setup, swing the kettlebell backwards between your legs and take a quick breath in.
“It’s like hiking a football,” said Gilbert.
This is excellent advice, as a center doesn’t stand up when they hike the ball to the quarterback or it would result in a fumble.
Move from the hip-hinge position to standing upright, propelling the kettlebell forward with your hips. This is where hip power is developed. Allow the kettlebell to swing (float) in front of you. Quickly let the breath out. Allow the kettlebell to float to roughly shoulder height with your arms straight.
At this point, you want to be standing upright, with your torso in a neutral position, your knees straight, and your quadriceps and gluteal muscles contracted. This portion of the kettlebell swing is known as the ‘vertical plank.’ Your core should be tight and engaged in this position.
Let the kettlebell float back down, following the same path as when it traveled up. It may seem like the kettlebell is traveling forever, but when your arms contact your body, you then hip hinge and allow the bell to move back between your legs. You want the kettlebell to travel as far behind you as you can, even farther than depicted in the picture below.
Timing is crucial here, as you don’t want to hip hinge too early (prior to your arms contacting your body). This area of the movement often takes beginners a while to learn, as most have a tendency to begin their hinge as soon as the kettlebell starts to drop from the top of the swing.
Move from the hip-hinge position to standing upright, propelling the kettlebell forward with your hips. This begins the float phase again. Continue this sequence, moving back and forth between the upswing and the downswing. Again, sharply inhale at the bottom of the swing and exhale at the top of the swing.
At the end of the last rep, instead of swinging up after the downswing, move the kettlebell forward, bend your knees, and gently set it on the ground in front of you.
As stated earlier, the kettlebell swing is an exercise with a bit of a learning curve. There are a few common mistakes that many beginners make, for example:
1) They get the setup wrong.
Ideally, you want the kettlebell out in front of your body. Some people make the mistake of placing the bell directly between their feet and grasping it with their arms vertical.
In this position, they aren’t able to generate the force required to initiate the swing. In addition, people fail to generate low back and hamstring tension prior to the swing, a mistake Gilbert sees often, and instead they are forced to try and make it up during the swing.
2) They perform a squat instead of a hip hinge.
According to Gilbert, you want your wrists to contact your upper thighs as the kettlebell swings between your legs, which will only occur if you properly hip hinge at the right time (when your arms contact your body on the downswing). If you feel your forearms contacting your mid thighs, you are likely performing a squat instead of a hinge.
3) They arch their back at the top of the swing.
You want to stand upright at the top of the swing. If you are 6-feet tall, you want to be 6-feet tall at the top of the swing. You don’t want to arch your back, which would cause you to be 5-foot-9 rather than 6-feet, and may lead to unnecessary stress on your lower back. Instead, your torso should be upright with your ribcage stacked on top of your pelvis.
4) They bend their elbows on the upswing.
This is an area that I struggled with early on in my swinging career, one that Gilbert helped me overcome. As stated earlier, at the top of your swing you want your hands to end up at roughly shoulder height with your arms straight. If you rotated your body 90 degrees from this top position and moved your hands so they were shoulder width apart, you would be performing a traditional plank.
There can be a lot to think about during the swing, in terms of what you should and should not do, therefore you want to keep things as simple as you can.
Simply put, after the setup there are really two separate phases of the kettlebell swing. One is when the arms are in contact with your body, which coincides with the hip-hinge motion. You could say that the arms are ‘Velcroed’ or ‘connected’ to the body during this time. The other is when your arms aren’t in contact with your body, which coincides with the float phase and where you are standing up tall.
A simple mantra you can think to yourself during the swing is “Connect …. Stand Up Tall …. Connect …. Stand Up Tall ….”
The tips in this article should provide the beginner with a basic understanding of the swing. In order to learn the exercise well, however, it takes a lot of practice.
According to Gilbert, really focus in on proper technique and don’t be afraid to use a light kettlebell when starting out. He also recommends recording yourself performing the swing and noting areas where you need improvement.
Additionally, there are a few excellent resources available online and through social media, including the StrongFirst YouTube channel and the SokolStrong Instagram page.
Ultimately, one on one coaching and expert feedback is vital in order to master the kettlebell swing. If you want more information, you can contact Ross Gilbert through his Instagram or Facebook pages or reach him at (253) 509-4938. He offers personal training (including kettlebell) at the Haselwood Silverdale YMCA and the Tom Taylor (Gig Harbor) YMCA, as well as individual training outside of these locations.
Dr. Jordan Duncan is the owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine, a sports medicine clinic located in Silverdale, WA.
Dr. Duncan is one of a small handful of chiropractors in the state of Washington to be certified in the McKenzie Method® of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy, a reliable evidenced based method of assessment and treatment for musculoskeletal conditions of the spine and extremity joints.
In addition to treating a diverse patient population, Dr. Duncan enjoys treating athletes and has worked with numerous high school, collegiate, and professional athletes. He has served as an expert opinion for a wide variety of healthcare and fitness articles.
As a competitive athlete growing up in Kitsap County and a current runner, Dr. Duncan understands the importance of quickly returning to your sport, whether you are a long distance bike rider, high school soccer player, recreational golfer, avid CrossFitter, or enjoy another activity.