First things first. That cannonball-with-a-handle weight you’ve seen around the gym is a kettlebell, not a kettleball. With that common misconception out of the way, let’s clear up another, because it’s not just the name of this old school-turned-trendy exercise tool that trips people up. The preeminent kettlebell exercise—the two-handed swing—has been know to leave gym-goers of all ages and ability levels scratching their heads, wondering, “You mean I don’t use my arms to swing this thing?”
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Yes, you hold the ‘bell with your hands, and yes, your hands are at the ends of your arms. But when it comes to properly swinging the kettlebell, what you’re really using is your legs. When performed correctly, kettlebell swings build total-body strength, power, and balance, while improving cardiovascular stamina, all with one piece of equipment.
If that sounds too good to be true, maybe it’s because you’ve never swung a kettlebell with pinpoint precision. Until now, that is. With this step-by-step guide, you’ll learn to use your legs (and hips, glutes, and core) to perform the perfect kettlebell swing.
It’s All in the Hips
As it turns out, dancing the salsa and swinging a kettlebell have a lot in common. OK, maybe “a lot” is pushing it. But they do share a coaching cue that makes every movement possible: It’s all in the hips.
When it comes to the kettlebell swing, the hip action we’re referring to is a hinging motion. You know, like a hinge on a door. Think of your legs as the wall, solid and immovable. Your hips act as the hinge, enabling movement, and the torso is the door, traveling through a predetermined range of motion—dictated by both the wall (your legs) and hinge (your hips). The swing begins to take shape when the kettlebell is added into the mix.
With loose arms and a light grip, the kettlebell is swung from inside the quads up to the chest, just before eye level—in the Russian version anyway (more on this later). The movement itself is a bit of an optical illusion. To the untrained eye, the swing appears to be a feat of upper-body strength: Simply squat and then stand up while pulling with the arms.
Be warned; this is not the case. Performing the perfect kettlebell swing places all the emphasis on the posterior chain—the major muscles on the backside of the body from the heels to the base of the neck, primarily the hamstrings, glutes, and low back. Think of the posterior chain as the body’s powerhouse. These muscles are big movers. And unlike the little movers (calves, biceps, triceps, and deltoids), the big movers are capable of moving big weight and burning massive amounts of calories.
Swings, Strength, and Stamina
A total-body workout, with one piece of equipment? Yeah, right! We’ve heard that snake oil-laden sales pitch before. Not buying it?
Luckily, there’s nothing to buy. Well, except for a kettlebell. But the good news is it’s a piece of fitness equipment that actually lives up to the hype. Still not convinced? Consider this: A study seeking to analyze the effectiveness of kettlebell exercise concluded that “kettlebells provide a much higher-intensity workout than standard weight-training routines and offer superior results in a short amount of time.”
The same study went on to say that the benefits of kettlebell training extend beyond strength and stamina by helping people “burn calories, lose weight, and enhance their functional performance capabilities.”
How to Swing It Russian Style
1. Stand tall, still gripping the ‘bell. Keep arms long and loose while squeezing shoulders blades together and engaging your core. Soften knees, shift bodyweight into heels, and lower butt back and down toward the wall behind you.
2. Driving through heels, explode through hips to send weight swinging upward from quads. Aim for chest height, with arms extended. Achieving this finish position requires you to snap your hips through, contracting your core while squeezing glutes.
3. As the kettlebell begins to descend, let the weight do the work as you ready your body for the next rep. Shift weight back into heels while hinging at the hips and loading both the hamstrings and glutes. Receive the weight, allowing the kettlebell to ride back between legs.
4. As it makes the transition from backward to forward, drive through the heels and hips to repeat.
The Kettlebell Cold War
There’s nothing like an arms race to create animosity among nations (or in this case, coaches and their respective exercise communities). In this conflict, the arms aren’t nuclear, but the fallout sure can be. This spat pits the Russian swing against the American swing in a battle for kettlebell supremacy.
The Russian swing is the one described above, which we’re in the process of mastering. The movement originates at the groin and finishes at eye level. The American swing, on the other hand, mirrors the motion of the Russian swing until the apex of the movement. Instead of stopping at eye level, the American swing finishes with the arms and kettlebell overhead. If you’re familiar with CrossFit, then you know this particular program is a proponent of the American swing.
Our expert Chris Finn, certified personal trainer at Life Time at Sky and StrongFirst level-two kettlebell instructor, never recommends the American swing due to the risk of injury to your shoulders. That said, the decision on where to pledge your allegiance should be based on personal ability level and safety. Practice the Russian swing until perfection. Then, and only then, does defecting become a possibility.
Avoid Common Swing Mistakes
Like most things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use a kettlebell. Paying close attention to a proper swing will ensure a successful—not to mention injury-free—workout. Don’t make these common mistakes.
1. Bending knees too much.
It’s called a kettlebell swing, not a kettlebell squat. With that in mind, always drive and explode from the legs and hips. Dropping to a squat turns it into an up-and-down movement rather than an explosive thrust.
If your back hurts, something is out of whack. Chances are you’re not bracing your core as you swing. Start and finish the swing by loading, firing, and hinging at the hips. Be sure to keep core tight throughout so you don’t strain your lower back.
3. Swinging too low.
You’re not aiming to scrape the bell across the floor. In fact, the bell should tap you in the butt if you’re doing it right. Don’t let the weight pull your hands between your knees. If it looks casual, you’re not doing it right.
Originally published August 12, 2014, updated July 2017