Three Common Errors in the Kettlebell Swing... And how to clean them up.
The kettlebell swing is a fantastic exercise for improving power (the ability to be strong at high speed) and conditioning. It also is a terrific exercise for fat loss.
Legendary strength coach Dan John called the kettlebell swing a “fat-burning athlete builder”. I have found it to be just that, as well as a movement that has helped my knees become more resilient and generally “happier”!
Sadly, it gets a reputation as a “dangerous” exercise for one’s back… when done well, this could not be farther from the truth.
So what is the kettlebell swing when done well? Really, it is just a deadlift done at high speed. For a review of that movement, check out our previous post on the deadlift.
Here are two views of the swing done safely:
Front view of the swing
From the front view, you can see that the chest stays forward throughout the movement and the handle of the kettlebell passes at a level above the knees.
The side view of the swing
The side view of the swing is really where we get to see what’s going on. A neutral spine is maintained throughout, and the kettlebell appears to “float” at the top of the swing. This is simply an issue of safety and injury prevention. If the trunk loses a neutral position, the spine and associated structures are left at risk for injury.
Below, you can see that the general shape of the body from ear to hip stays constant throughout the movement.
When we execute the swing in this manner, we’re actually strengthening the stabilizing structures in the spine. This, in fact, will protect your back from injury!
The hips do the work, the core transfers the work to the shoulder, the shoulder and mostly straight arms transfer the force to the kettlebell and the kettlebell floats up to the top. At this point, the body is basically a vertical plank.
Here are a few common errors we see in the swing
We think it’s great that there are so many people interested in using the swing to improve their fitness. Unfortunately, the movement does take some practice and guidance to learn well.
1. Squatting the swing
In the “squat swing”, the knees bend too much and the torso stays too upright. The drawback to this style of swing is that the hips miss out on a good deal of the work, while the front of the thighs (the quads) are the primary driver of the force.
Although this version of the swing might not be unsafe, per se, it does not develop the glutes and hamstrings the way we want from a performance or aesthetic perspective!
Often, the quickest way to fix this is to do something to prevent the knees from moving forward during the swing, or to turn one’s focus away from lifting the kettlebell and towards reaching the hips back.
2. Letting the shoulders dip below the hips
Most of the time we see this fault in the swing, its highly flexible people failing maintain enough tension, or people choosing a very light weight (thank goodness) that allows them to use parts of their bodies other than their hips to do the work of the swing.
Here’s an example:
In this case, you’ll clearly see that the chest sinks down, the spine rounds at the back of the swing and the handle of the kettlebell drops below the level of the knees. Done at a heavy weight, this swing mistake results in strain on the spine that would worry any coach or health care practitioner.
The fix here is to keep the eyes fixed on the horizon, chest forward and kettlebell closer to the body while passing between the legs. Refer to the image above for a good idea of the angle of the torso at the back of the swing.
3. Too much extension of the spine during the swing
In an effort to get the kettlebell up higher, we often see learners “throw” their hips forward, and “pull” the kettlebell towards the sky.
As we see in this video, there is not a “vertical plank” at the top of the swing. The spine is extended past neutral, the knees aren’t locked out, and the force generated by the body moves front to back, rather than into the ground.
This potentially unsafe version of the swing often results from too much focus on the kettlebell itself, rather than “finding” the standing plank at the top. We work to fix this by helping the learner understand what the vertical plank feels like. If one can demonstrate a solid vertical plank, we help them to visualize directing the force generated by the hips straight down into the ground instead of focusing on the kettlebell.
Specifically, practicing a plank and/or doing heavy farmer’s walks help to clean this up. If the learner can demonstrate proficiency in these, but loses awareness of their body position during the swing, we’ll take them to a wall. While at the wall, we’ll have them hold a kettlebell and stand with as much of the back side of the body as possible against it.
These drills and cues help us to become more aware of our body position at the top of the swing.
Wrapping it up
The kettlebell swing is a fantastic exercise that develops the glutes, hamstrings and core. It can be used to burn fat, and to build incredible work capacity and endurance. When done well, it helps strengthen and stabilize the knees and spine. Avoiding the three common mistakes above will help you get the most out of the movement!
We’d love to help out, so feel free to send me an email with some pics or a video!
They’ve given me the title Personal Training Director, but I really just love to help acac members and give my team the tools they need to do the same. I graduated with a B.S. in Human Physiology and Biology from the University of Oregon and M.A. in teaching from Willamette University. I have over 15 years experience personal training and have also taught anatomy, physiology and biology. I love spending time outdoors with my family and growing, cooking, serving and eating great food. Learn more about me and read more of my blogs on our website.