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How Not to Swing a Kettlebell by Trainer Ken

Last time I blogged about kettlebells, I blogged about the Turkish getup, a favorite exercise of mine, as any of my clients can tell you. I mentioned that the unique quality of the kettlebell is that it “rewards ballistic power and maximum control”. The Turkish getup is the ultimate “maximum control” exercise, requiring precise foot placement, arm angle and integrity of movement, which is why it’s both difficult and rewarding. Today I’d like to talk about the “ballistic power” part and talk about it in terms of the simple hip hinge, which is the key component of the king of ballistic kettlebell exercises—the kettlebell swing. This is a very beneficial exercise, developing full body explosive power, core stability, and maximal strength in the hamstrings, hips and glutes. However, it is also a very misunderstood exercise. Let’s start with a virtual field trip to see how and why.

Go to any group exercise class down at your local big box gym where, say, 12 people with one instructor are doing kettlebell swings. The instructor may be doing it right, but chances are at least 8 of the 12 class participants are doing it wrong. After all, that one instructor cannot possibly give individual attention to everyone even if he or she is very skilled. It’s also likely that the ones doing it wrong are all doing it wrong in about the same way. They are treating the upward portion of the swing as the “power stroke.” Each rep they do starts with the bell dead-hanging vertically from their hands in front of them, then they are doing a two handed shoulder raise with locked arms up to horizontal (or higher), sometimes incorporating a forearm curl, a squat or, terrifyingly, a jerk of the lower back into extension (arch) to get that bell up. Then they let the kettlebell fall down between or worse in front of their legs and start the process again. That is an express ticket to injury, even with a teeny tiny kettlebell, and looks awful and awkward even to untrained eyes. Seeing it done that way and/or doing it that way and paying price is the main reason many people don’t or won’t do the kettlebell swing.

Here’s the takeaway, and if there’s one thing you remember from this post, it’s this. The reality of the kettlebell swing is that it is done with the HIPS, not the upper body. And it is the BACKWARD movement of the hips that is key. Let me repeat, the BACKWARD stroke is what initiates and powers the swing, NOT the forward or upward stroke. That’s because a kettlebell is a “live” implement. Because of its construction, it stores momentum and releases it of its own accord. It behaves more like a pendulum or one of those perpetual motion machines some people have on their office desks than a conventional weight. You are always using (or being used by) momentum when you handle a kettlebell. And so, all movements with the kettlebell, from the most casual act of picking it up off the rack (if you’re doing so safely) to the most complex exercises and flows, involve generating, managing and using momentum via deploying swing, backswing and other ballistic arcs. Another surprising plus is that once you become adept at using that live ballistic motion, it’s actually easier to use heavy weight than light for many kettlebell moves.

Bearing all that in mind, here’s the setup on how to do a real kettlebell swing. Take a kettlebell. Put it on the floor between your feet, handle set cross wise to the way you’re facing. Now take a step backward so that your two feet at shoulder width and the kettlebell in front of you form the three points of an equilateral triangle. Now, with soft knees that flex slightly but do NOT squat, you hinge deeply at the hips, that is flex at the waist while keeping your thoracic spine straight and neutral and pushing your butt back (not up or down) activating your glutes to do so, and grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands. This is the initial hip hinge, and should feel like hip checking the person behind you (a cue I always use for the down/back stroke of all hip hinge moves because it’s easily understood especially here in hockey country). Grip the bell firmly, but specifically apply slight torque at the pinky sides of both your fingers, as if you’re trying to bend the handle backward. This activates your lats, keeps your shoulders down, your upper back engaged and your spine neutral even in this low hip hinged position. If you set up the feet and bell triangle correctly, with your feet far enough back from the bell, you should need to tilt the kettlebell slightly back toward yourself so the bell handle forms a straight line with your arms, resting on one edge of its round bottom.

Now you’re ready to start the swing. To swing, the kettlebell must hit two high points of arc, one on the backswing and one on the forward swing, in that order. Your first action, starting the backswing, is a like the motion of a football long snapper hiking the ball back two handed through their legs to the player standing behind them. Push your hips even further back using your hamstrings and glutes. Let your hands carry the bell back between your legs with your arms straight. Your forearms may hit the insides of your legs when you do and in fact your upper arms should make contact with the sides of your body all along their length. The bell itself should reach well back between your legs. I’ve known trainers who put a clipboard behind their client’s legs and had the client try to hit that clipboard with each back swing. The bell should hit its high point of backswing arc behind and below you and between your legs, then drop and accelerate forward with gravity, exerting recoil on your hips, which you will now put to use. As the bell drops and accelerates, you begin thrusting your hips forward, returning them to neutral from their hinged back position. If your straight arms are in contact with your body as they should be, your hips will literally, physically push your arms forward and help launch the kettlebell into flight. Set your core throughout this process as if you’re tightening your stomach like a boxer expecting a body punch. Keep powering your lats to keep your shoulders down, back and away from your ears. Those two actions will help your spine stay neutral. During the course of this move you are never squatting and you are never arching or bending (extending or flexing) your back. The kettlebell is flying up in front of you now but its upward motion is all recoil from momentum NOT active lifting by your upper body. This recoil will likely be strong enough to bring the kettlebell up past waist level to what I call the terminal position.

The terminal position, with the kettlebell at its forward high point of arc, is a strong rooted standing position with straight legs, a tight core, a straight back, no hip flexion or extension, and with the kettlebell out in front of your torso at a bit less than arms length. The inertia of the kettlebell, plus the momentum of the hip hinge release, should send the kettlebell to about mid chest height or (at most) just below eye level. The kettlebell should feel essentially weightless at this point and pause in the air of its own accord as gravity catches up to it. Your arms need NOT stay locked or even fully straight, remember the ideal distance is a bit LESS than arms length in front of you and allowing some elbow flexion will save unnecessary strain on your elbows. Once that kettlebell is in flight at that terminal position you’ve completed your first kettlebell swing!

Once the bell reaches terminal position out in front of your torso, it will descend of its own accord. You simply harness that descent by re-initiating the backswing phase, hinging the hips and directing the bell back between and behind your legs to return to its back swing high point. Congratulations, you’re on to your next swing. If you want to stop swinging, when the kettlebell hits that back swing high point between your legs, instead of letting it fly to the forward high point, you get ready to “land” the kettlebell by bending the knees right after the kettlebell has passed below on its way forward. That saps its forward and upward momentum, so it will fall fairly easily and softly to the ground. You should control that fall, allowing it to land on its edge at that initial setup position with the hips hinged, the arms straight and the handle angled back. This is called a “dead stop,” and sets of swings with dead stops between every rep are an excellent exercise in their own right and a great learning tool to gain confidence while learning the swing.

Look for a video coming soon to accompany this post, and in January, I will be teaching a small group class for those interested in learning the many details and technical aspects of the kettlebell such as those few I’ve geeked out about here.


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