How to Do a Kettlebell Swing

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

kettlebell swing

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Targets: Glutes, Hamstrings, Hips, Quadriceps, Spinal Erectors, Core

Equipment Needed: Kettlebell

Level: Intermediate

In general, strength training exercises should be performed without relying on momentum to lift and lower the weight. But as with most things, there are exceptions to this rule. The kettlebell swing is one of these exceptions. Swinging a kettlebell, when done with proper form, can cause your heart rate to soar while simultaneously targeting the major muscle groups of your lower body and core. The result is a movement that offers a lot of bang for the buck—you can enjoy a quick, heart-healthy boost of cardio (this is especially effective when worked into a high-intensity interval training routine or circuit workout), while also building strength, stability, and coordination that can transfer to everyday activities.

The catch, of course, is that using momentum to lift and lower a weight increases the risk of injury—to yourself and to others—if the movement is performed without appropriate form or control. Having a good baseline-level of core strength is important before attempting the kettlebell swing. Also, it's a good idea to work with a trainer to make sure you're performing the exercise correctly. The kettlebell swing engages a large number of muscle groups simultaneously; if your sequencing is off, or if you're moving in a manner that lifts or "flings" the weight using your upper body, rather than powering the exercise with your lower body, you're setting yourself up for possible muscle strains or other problems.

The main thing to remember when performing the kettlebell swing is that you're not using your arms to lift the weight in front of you, and you're not using your quads to squat the weight, either. Rather, you're hinging your hips backward, then powerfully using your hamstrings, glutes, and hips to extend your hips and return to an upright position. This "hip hinge" movement causes the weight to swing forward and backward naturally as an effect of your glute and hip power. Your arms keep the swinging motion under control, but they're not actively participating in the lifting or lowering of the weight.

Benefits

The kettlebell swing is an excellent power- and strength-generating exercise that targets your glutes, hamstrings, hips, core, and the stabilizing muscles of your shoulders and back. While you may experience a small benefit to your quads and delts, the swing is designed to target your posterior chain—the back half of your body. Given that most people spend their time at the gym working the "show me" muscles of the anterior chain of the body, including the chest, abdominals, and quadriceps, using exercises that hit the back of the body can help correct potential muscle imbalances.

Kettlebell swings are also a low-impact exercise that can significantly raise your heart rate in a manner similar to running or sprinting on an indoor cycle. When you add these swings to a high-intensity interval training or circuit routine, you have the double-benefit of enjoying cardio and strength training at the same time. For people who are trying to maximize efficiency during workouts, the kettlebell is an excellent way to keep workouts short and effective.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Give yourself some space to perform the kettlebell swing. While you only need the kettlebell and your own body to execute the movement, the forward swing of the bell, and the momentum it creates, requires at least a couple of feet free behind you, and four or five feet in front of you (to be on the safe side). You may also want to make sure there's nothing breakable (like a mirror or TV screen) directly in front of you. While it would be unusual for you to lose your grip on the kettlebell and send it flying, it's not unheard of. The last thing you want is your kettlebell to unnecessarily smash through a pane glass window.

  1. Place the kettlebell on the ground between your feet. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart, your toes angled out slightly. Bend your knees just a little bit and check your posture—make sure your shoulders are rolled back so your ears are aligned with your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. Engage your abdominals, drawing your belly button back toward your spine.
  2. Keep your back completely straight (maintain your perfect posture) and press your hips back, tipping your torso forward as you reach your hands toward the kettlebell handle. You should create a crease at the front of your hip joint as you perform this hip-hinge movement. Make sure you don't start bending your knees to squat down to the kettlebell—if your knees start bending significantly, you'll lose the hip hinge. If you notice your knees bending, reset and work on pressing your hips back farther.
  3. Grasp the kettlebell handle firmly with both hands. Roll your shoulders back slightly to make sure they remain engaged—this helps control the momentum of the swing while preventing a forward curve of the spine. Make sure your core is still engaged and take a breath in.
  1. Exhale and in one powerful movement, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as hard as you can to fully extend your hips as you reverse the hip hinge and rise to the upright, starting position. As your hips extend, allow the kettlebell to naturally swing forward from your shoulders as high as it will naturally swing. On your first swing or two, it may not swing all the way to shoulder-height, but as you build momentum, allow the kettlebell to swing to the point where it feels weightless for a split second, usually when it's almost parallel to the ground. Your torso should remain straight, your core, upper back, and shoulders all engaged, throughout this upward swing.
  2. Allow the kettlebell to naturally start its pendulum swing back toward the floor, and as it does, press your hips back and perform the next hip hinge, so the kettlebell swings directly between your legs. Keep your neck aligned with your spine throughout the exercise. Exhale with every forward swing, inhale with every backward swing.
  1. Continue the forward-and-backward kettlebell swings for time or repetitions, remembering to keep your torso straight and to power the movement with your hips and glutes. Don't exit the move suddenly by dropping the kettlebell or forcing your momentum to stop. Maintain proper swing form, but reduce the power you use with each swing until you can comfortably and safely return the kettlebell to the floor.

Common Mistakes

The kettlebell swing is a complex exercise that engages multiple muscle groups in a very specific sequence. Due to the complexity of the movement, there are a lot of ways to perform the exercise incorrectly. This is why it's a good idea to work with a trainer or a coach the first few times you implement it to ensure you aren't making common mistakes.

Lifting With Your Arms

One of the most common kettlebell swing mistakes is the idea that your shoulders and arms are responsible for the forward swing of the kettlebell—more like a front raise—where your shoulders help lift the weight in front of you. But really, your shoulders and arms shouldn't be involved in lifting the kettlebell at all.

Your shoulders and upper back should simply be "locked in" to control the swing and to prevent you from being pulled forward as the kettlebell swings up, and to prevent your upper back from rounding toward the floor as the kettlebell swings down.

If you notice that the muscles of your shoulders—particularly the front of your shoulders—start getting tired as you perform the swing, chances are you're lifting with your arms. Reset and check to make sure the power of the exercise is coming as you squeeze your glutes and hamstrings and extend your hips. Try to actively prevent your shoulders from lifting the weight upward, relying instead on the momentum of the hip extension.

Swinging the Kettlebell Overhead

Technically, if you swing the kettlebell overhead, you're simply performing a different version of the kettlebell swing—the American kettlebell swing. The traditional swing (as described here), which ends with the kettlebell roughly parallel to the floor, is the Russian kettlebell swing. While it's perfectly possible to perform the American kettlebell swing safely, it requires a lighter load and greater mobility and stability of the shoulder joints. Because most people struggle to perform the Russian kettlebell swing correctly at first, adding the control necessary to take the kettlebell safely overhead is simply unnecessary.

You can enjoy the full benefits of the kettlebell swing with fewer risks of shoulder injury by simply stopping the forward momentum when the kettlebell is parallel to the ground.

Rounding Your Back

To help prevent low back pain or strain with the kettlebell swing, it's absolutely imperative that you keep your spine neutral and straight throughout the exercise, maintaining what amounts to perfect posture. Rounding or slumping the shoulders and upper back is a tell-tale sign that your core, upper back, and shoulder stabilizers aren't sufficiently engaged, and as the kettlebell swings downward, this forward slump could place more strain on your low back while reducing the likelihood that you're hinging forward correctly from the hips. Ultimately, this also reduces the power you can generate with your glutes and hamstrings, really just sending the whole exercise into a tailspin.

Watch yourself in a mirror, or ask a friend to watch you as you perform the exercise. If you notice a rounding of your upper back or shoulders, reset and reengage your shoulders, upper back, and core, and focus on keeping your torso completely straight as you hinge backward from the hips.

Squatting Down With Each Swing

Once again, the kettlebell swing uses a hip hinge to generate momentum, not a squat. That means it requires you to press your hips back without bending your knees much as your torso tips forward toward the floor. It's an action more similar to the Romanian deadlift than to a squat. Many people, however, aren't used to the hip hinge action, so they squat down with each downward swing, bending their knees before "popping up" to stand to swing the kettlebell forward. This reduces the power output of the glutes and hamstrings and places more focus on the quadriceps.

These issues, together, prevent the desired momentum that can be generated by the posterior chain of the body, making it more likely you'll have to use your shoulders and arms to help lift the weight to perform the swing. All-in-all, it messes up the exercise.

Watch yourself perform the exercise in a mirror, or ask someone to watch you. Aside from the initial small bend at the knees you use to get set at the beginning of the exercise, your knees really shouldn't bend much. Rather, the forward tip and the rise to standing should all come as a result of the hip hinge, powered almost entirely by your glutes, hamstrings, and hips, not your quadriceps.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

The two-handed Russian kettlebell swing is pretty much the most basic kettlebell swing there is, so there's not much you can do to modify the movement. If, however, you simply need to get used to performing a hip-hinge correctly, grab a broomstick to help you master the movement.

Stand tall and set up the same way you'd set up to perform a kettlebell swing—feet slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart, toes angled slightly outward, knees slightly bent, core engaged and shoulders rolled back. Hold the broomstick perpendicular to the ground against your spine with one hand above your head and one hand just below your tailbone. The broomstick should touch your tailbone, your upper back between your shoulders, and the back of your head. From here, perform a hip hinge by pressing your hips back as you tip forward from the hips, keeping your core engaged and your torso absolutely straight. The broomstick should maintain contact with your body at the exact same points throughout the movement. If you hunch forward, the position will change. If you bend your knees too much, the position will change.

Perform this motion in front of a mirror and take note of the way your body feels as you hinge. When you feel a nice stretch through your hamstrings, engage your glutes and hamstrings and squeeze them to "pull" your torso back to standing, still maintaining the same contact with the broomstick as you rise.

Up for a Challenge?

Try performing the single-arm kettlebell swing. The exercise is performed in the exact same manner as the two-arm swing, but you only use one arm at a time. This helps develop unilateral shoulder stability and anti-rotational core strength, both of which can improve coordination and reduce the likelihood of injury due to muscle imbalances.

As you perform the single-arm swing, hold the non-working arm out to the side to help with stability. Perform a single set with one arm before switching sides. Just remember you'll want to choose a lighter kettlebell than you would typically use with both arms.

Safety and Precautions

If you've been participating in regular strength training workouts, and you have the core and shoulder strength required to hold a plank for 60 seconds, chances are you're up for trying the kettlebell swing. The catch, of course, is that using correct form is absolutely necessary for preventing injuries. This is especially true if you already have low back or shoulder pain.

Performing the kettlebell swing incorrectly can place unnecessary strain on these joints, leading to greater pain or injury. Your best bet for performing the exercise correctly and preventing injuries is to work with a trainer or coach to ensure you're using proper form.

Also, if at any point you feel sharp or shooting pains in any of your joints, stop the exercise and consider replacing it with exercises that have similar benefits, such as medicine ball slams or combat rope swings.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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