you don't know how to swing!
(Kettlebell Swing, I mean)
by Alec Enkiri | 11/22/19
The kettlebell swing is an amazing yet misunderstood and overall very poorly utilized exercise whose full potential for bringing on the sweet, sweet gains is seldom ever reached. It's a rare sight these days to see someone perform a kettlebell swing for a purpose other than as part of some sort of "metabolic conditioning" circuit or Crossfit style workout. This is a shame because it leads to a very myopic view of the exercise. Yes, it can be beneficial in this regard and we can all thank Crossfit for pulling it out from total obscurity and into the more mainstream fitness culture, but the real benefits of the exercise do not pertain to fat loss, or conditioning, or anything of that ilk. No, the real benefits of the exercise are as a damn near unparalleled builder of hip extension power, explosiveness, and resilience.
The kettlebell swing, when seen in this untraditional light - past its current underwhelming and overly regurgitated status as just another boring conditioning tool and instead viewed in the manner where it truly shines - as a true strength & power exercise that should be performed with heavy loads for repeat sets of 10-15 reps and with a focus on slow progressive overload rather than merely as a vessel for making yourself tired or getting a pump in your glutes, becomes a whole new kind of beast. The benefits of performing the exercise in this fashion are myriad, but today I want to focus on 3 of the most important ones: explosiveness, the cultivation of the stretch reflex, and injury prevention. Before we jump into the real meat of things though, we need to cover a couple smaller points preemptively. Namely, technical considerations of the exercise and the practicality of actually achieving the aforementioned progressive overload. If you're not interested in those technical details then just skip down to the section titled "Meat and Muthafuckin Potatuz."
Typically, when you see someone perform a kettlebell swing they are overly fixated on the height that they are swinging the bell, sometimes to the point of artificially pulling the bell up well beyond the point at which the momentum imparted onto the bell by their hips had long since abated. Again, this is likely due to the now rampant popularity of Crossfit which, likely in the name of needing to create standardization for what would become a competitive exercise, forces athletes to heave the bell all the way up over their heads in order for a rep to count as successful. Now, that's not to say that everyone practices this technique as many typical gym goers and fitness enthusiasts do not heave the bell all the way up over their heads while performing their swings, however, the tendency in general is still an over fixation on height. For our purposes however, the problem with this practice is that it drastically shortchanges the amount of load that you can get onto the hip musculature. Our goal is maximal development of power in the hip extensors, but in order to get the bell up over your head (or even just to some other arbitrary height prior to that that you've decided is acceptable) you will have to drastically cut back on the amount of weight you are using during the exercise, which is ultimately going to limit power development.
The thing is, all you're really doing by artificially pulling the bell up super high is engaging the upper body (primarily the anterior deltoids) at the expense of the more powerful muscles in the lower body. This is fine if you need to do so for the purposes of competition (so pretty much only Crossfit), but for the purposes of building power, posterior chain resilience, and overall athleticism you will be much better off worrying less about the ultimate height that you swing the bell, and instead simply focusing on achieving crisp, violent, and snappy extension of the hips with every single rep. The ultimate height of the swing will then be an organic result of proper execution of powerful hip extension, and that hip extension, when using meaningful training weights, is only naturally going to take the bell so high before its momentum dissipates. All that said, swing height can and should be used as a gauge to determine proper loading. You want the bell to settle somewhere between the height of the navel and the upper abdomen, where anything lower than that is probably too heavy to be of useful quality and anything higher than that is too light to be meaningful in terms of developing power.
Definitely the highest you're ever going to see me go on a swing.
The kicker though is that once you've found the proper starting weight you won't be capable of swinging it any higher. Assuming a suitable weight is being used, the momentum imparted by the hips will die out by chest height at the very latest and at this point the weight should be heavy enough that your delts can't artificially pull the bell up any higher. If they can you either have really weak hips or really strong delts, but either way you should probably work on that! Some naysayers may try to tell you that "YOU'RE EGO LIFTING" and not swinging the weight high enough, but just nod your head and smile and say "okay, thanks" until they leave you alone, and then get right back to it. If you want to develop monstrous fucking power you need to stop worrying about arbitrary guidelines and stop swinging around candy ass weights. Quality of execution is the most important factor at play here, not swing height.
- Spine is neutral
- Hips are pushed back
- Hamstrings are fully loaded
- Weight is shifted back to counterbalance
- Hips are fully extended
- Glutes are maximally contracted
An impossible to achieve aspect of swinging, and one that really actually renders the exercise somewhat useless from a true strength & power development perspective, is achieving proper progressive overload. For one, the damn things come in the weirdest weight increments of all time. You can't just buy a set that goes from 50lbs to 300lbs in 5lbs or even 10lbs increments, and even if you could it would take up your entire fucking gym and cost you pretty much the same price as a year's rent. Seriously, of all the pieces of overpriced fitness equipment I've ever encountered (and I've encountered a freaking lot of them) kettlebells may just take the goddamn cake. The 203lbs Rogue kettlebell, as of today, retails for $246 on their web site. That's the heaviest one they offer. The next one down is the 176lbs bell for $213 and the next one down after that is the 150lbs bell for $185. So those 3 kettlebells alone would run you $644! And they wouldn't even comprise anywhere close to a comprehensive training set.
Let's say, for example, that the 150 pounder is heavy but workable for you right now, well then that jump to the 176 pounder is going to be damn near impossible unless you like getting literally thrown on your ass because that is precisely what will happen taking such a large jump when working close to the threshold on an exercise like this. Power development is a slow burn - it takes a long time to build and it's simply not feasible to expect to be able to make jumps like this and actually continue on making true progress for any reasonable length of time, especially when the bells you're heaving to and fucking fro begin to weigh substantially more than you do. Your reps will quickly lose their snappiness and turn into shit. The jumps necessary to truly train this exercise need to be small and they need to be calculated and with the equipment that is available on the market today that is simply not practical or realistic, either from a training standpoint or from an economic one.
Fortunately, you do not need to fret because I have a solution for you! If you have about 15-20 bucks to spare you can build your own comprehensive kettlebell training set. All you have to do is pick up a few pieces of plumbing pipe from any hardware store, assemble them together, and VOILA! You now have your own plate loadable, micro-adjustable kettlebell handle. I've detailed the whole process in this video on my YouTube channel (beginning at the 7:10 mark; I use shorter pipes for the handles these days, but that's the only thing I've changed), but all you have to do is make sure you buy the correct diameter pipe for your weight plates. I have a bunch of old school 1 inch plates lying around so I built my kettlebell handle to be able to hold those plates using 3/4 pipe. If you wanted to bring your handle with you to the gym you could make it using 1.5 or 1.75 inch pipe so that it would be able to hold the standard 2 inch plates at the gym, but this pipe would cost a little bit more since it's thicker.
Either way though, now you have a handle that you can do super heavy swings with (I've gone as high as 275lbs on my handle with no problem) and that you can adjust in increments as small as 1.25-2.5lbs (depending on what weight plates you have available) solving all of the issues with traditional kettlebells in one fell swoop! This is super cost efficient, takes up no space, is easily portable, and allows you to practice proper progressive overload as needed on this highly unique and beneficial exercise. I don't need you to give me all the credit for turning you on to this idea, but if you would be so kind as to close your eyes and whisper me a little "thank you" before you start your sets of swings from now, I think that will suffice.
The Meat & Muthafuckin Potatuz
Phewww, I can ramble! Alrighty though, now that we've shoved those boring technical veggies down our collective gullets, lets get to the fun part of the meal - the goddamn meat and potatoes. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, heavy kettlebell swings confer 3 super sweet benefits not found in the rinky dinky kettlebell swings you generally see performed in gyms around the world. Those benefits are:
- The development of violently explosive hip extension power
- The cultivation of the stretch reflex of the hip musculature
- Gradually building up the resilience of the hamstrings
So let's start with point number 1 and go from there!
1. Development of Hip Extension Power
Kettlebell swings, performed as I've described them, will help you to build tremendous hip extension power in a manner that is highly transferable to running, sprinting, and other horizontal jumping/movement variations. Now to be sure, there are a plethora of loaded explosive exercises that are absolutely amazing at building overall lower body power, popular and obvious choices include a whole host of variations of the Olympic lifts as well as numerous weighted jump variations, i.e. jump squats. The primary difference, however, between most of these exercises and the kettlebell swing is that the former are all inherently knee dominant exercises, whereas the swing, which is essentially an explosive and dynamic RDL or pull through movement, is inherently a hip dominant exercise.
Crisp reps - good control at the turnaround and snappy hip extension.
This is because with most popular exercises that are used for developing power the sole vector acting as a source of resistance during the movement is gravity - straight up and down like motherfuckin 6 o'clock. Naturally, this lends these movements to being dominated by the knee extensors, i.e. the quadzzz. The kettlebell swing, on the other hand, gives us a different look. Gravity is still at play (durr), however by literally heaving the bell in a consistent forward and backward semi-arcing pattern we are introducing a strong horizontal component to the exercise as well, and horizontal action is where the hip extensors (the glutes and hammies) really get their chance to shine. Now your hips must control the incredible force of a heavy object that is literally swinging their way at full momentum, absorb all of that massive force, and seamlessly reverse and expel it at full power without missing a beat.
This is a stimulus that is hard to replicate with any other exercise. The horizontal component that is present is one that is not found in most other power development exercises, and the hip extension power that this builds makes the gains from the exercise highly transferable to running, sprinting, and other movement based activities and exercises that are heavily reliant on powerful hip extension. On to benefit number 2!
2. Cultivation of the Stretch Reflex
The kettlebell swing is a fantastic means of cultivating the stretch shortening cycle in the hamstrings, which is paramount for athletic development. Swinging, due to the rapid eccentric stretch followed immediately by a maximal concentric contraction, is in fact a true plyometric activity. Think about the eccentric action that is going on here. We are deliberately heaving an object forward at full force so that it will, in essence, boomerang back towards us in the exact same manner. So now you are not just resisting the weight of the implement itself, but also the momentum of it reversing course at full speed as well. And as you move rapidly into hip flexion (with only minimal knee bend) it is primarily the hamstring muscles that are called upon to resist and stabilize these tremendous forces.
In time, a skilled athlete will learn not just to merely absorb these eccentric forces, but also to take advantage of them by utilizing the elastic energy to create a much more powerful concentric contraction than they could have otherwise - to seamlessly turn around these eccentric forces and spit them back out tenfold without a motherfucking hitch. This is due to developing and mastering the stretch reflex. Running, jumping, cutting, hitting, etc - all of these things require sound command of the stretch shortening cycle and proper utilization of the stretch reflex - absorbing tremendous amounts force and in turn expelling that force in even greater amounts. And as you become proficient at utilizing this skill (which is a prime component of nearly every single athletic activity in existence) with gradually heavier and heavier implements your lower body power development and overall movement capacity will be taken to the next level. Not only this but your hamstrings will become nearly bulletproof as well, which leads me to benefit number 3!
Gotta do your swings to balance out all those squats!
It is well known that most hamstring strains occur due to an overload of eccentric force. During sprinting for example, which is one of the most notorious hamstring injuring activities, the hamstrings are rapidly stretched and while in a maximally stretched position must "work eccentrically to decelerate the thigh and lower leg during the last half of [the] swing phase" (1). This requires overcoming tremendous amounts of eccentric force while the muscle is fully lengthened, which, if it's not adequately conditioned beforehand to handle these forces, can predispose it to injury. And this happens quite often to even the most elite of athletes. Perhaps, however, if they were to do more heavy kettlebell swings, it wouldn't happen quite so often. Now you might be saying, "Alec, if large eccentric forces are what cause hamstring strains and the heavy kettlebell swing involves overcoming tremendously large eccentric forces in the hamstring complex...wouldn't I be at risk of a hamstring strain all the same by performing these heavy swings???"
This is sound logic and it means you're on the right track! The difference here is that the kettlebell swing, unlike sprinting at maximal speed and unlike athletics (or even life) in general, is a controlled endeavor. There are no surprises; nothing jumps out at you and forces you to redirect course in the blink of an eye; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the load is precisely chosen and controlled. Much like the idea behind an immunization or gradually building up the tolerance of the body, we can start our swing training with a benign and manageable load - one that causes adaptation, but not injury. From there, using my patented MacGyver kettlebell swing implement, we can progressively increase the load, thereby increasing the intensity of the dosage as our tolerance to these extreme forces increases along with it.
Hopping as fast as possible on 1 leg requires the hips to be capable of seamlessly absorbing & reversing eccentric forces well in excess of multiple times your own body weight.
Thus, the hamstring muscles and their tendinous brothers slowly but surely become more and more adept, more and more capable of handling these extreme eccentric forces. All you have to do is dose it correctly. Get strong enough at swinging and eventually there won't be an eccentric force that takes place during normal athletics or normal movements that can possibly exceed the eccentric forces you are able to consistently handle during your ultra heavy swings. If under normal circumstances you never encounter an eccentric force that is larger than the eccentric force you've already conditioned yourself to be able to handle without any problems, then I would go out on a limb as to say that you are much less likely overall to ever suffer a notable hamstring injury. Resilience!
Three very important benefits; three benefits you won't really get elsewhere. If I haven't convinced you to incorporate heavy kettlebell swings yet, or that the real benefits of the swing are found not as an endurance tool but as a serious strength & power developer, then I don't know what to say. Either I've failed in my duty to inform people of the most badass and effective strength & conditioning protocols that exist, or you're one stubborn little bastard who loves lifting featherweights over and over and over and over. I'm inclined to lean towards the latter. And if I have convinced you, then good for you and welcome to the club! Get ready to reap the benefits of this awesome exercise that pretty much no one else is doing. You'll be a step ahead of the competition and an overall badass who, at the very least, can break out into a full sprint without having to pull up 5 seconds later like a bitch because of a pulled hammie. So, time to get swinging!
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