After seeing countless people perform the Kettlebell Swing poorly, I think it’s about time to tackle this exercise again!
The Swing is not only a great exercise for conditioning and strengthening the posterior chain (back, glutes and hamstrings), but it is the basis for advanced exercises such as the Clean and the Snatch, so it is very important to master the technique. Just because it’s one of the basics, does not mean you should skip the fundamental teachings.
The Kettlebell Swing is what’s known as a Hip Hinge (Hip Flexion and Extension, with a neutral spine). To me, this is the most important movement for people to master, not only to allow proper swing technique, but also any deadlift variation, squats, lunges; I would even argue that understanding the importance of the hip extension portion of the movement is essential to learning how to properly perform Planks, Push Ups, Pull Ups, even Military Presses (basically most exercises). What I mean is, being able to distinguish the difference between hip flexion/extension verses lumbar (lower back) flexion/extension will ultimately reduce your chance of lower back injuries, and dramatically increase your power production and strength.
The problem is that most people never know the difference and many trainers simply don’t understand the importance of teaching it. But not all hope is lost; this post will take you through 3 of the most common problems I see in relation to the Kettlebell Swing. However, points 1 and 2 can easily be applied to many other exercises.
1) You’re Squatting, not Hinging (using the knees, not the hips)
This is a very common, but easily (in general) corrected error. Typically, we use our anterior (front) muscles more, and the knees dominate many lower body movements. This technique is incorrect because the hips are much more powerful than the knees and it is from the hips that we should seek to absorb added load; if we absorb load through our knees, we are headed for trouble down the road, both in our knees and our backs! During the swing, beginners often squat down to absorb the weight of the Kettlebell, rather than sitting the hips back.
Take-Away Tip A great clue to whether you are using your knees more or your hips, is where you FEEL the exercise working most. If your Quads are burning and fatiguing quickly, then chances are you’re doing a squat-swing – which is inefficient.
Instead you should feel a stretch in the Hamstrings, and even the glutes.
2) Incomplete Hip Extension (your hips fail to follow through)
Because most of us “modern” folk sit a lot and walk very little, we have lost a lot of hip mobility and core stability. Basically we sit in hip flexion and we are slowly evolving into human-chairs This problem becomes even more apparent when you try to exercise and then wonder why you are getting a sore back. The problem is not your back, the problem lies in your hips. More specifically, they cannot fully extend (straighten) because the end range of this movement has been lost.
Normal Hip extension, should be performed primarily by the glutes, however, due to the “human-chair situation” these great muscles have become inactive and weak. In addition to dormant glutes, the muscles at the front of your hips become short and tight (or weak, or both) and often the core muscles are very weak as well. The only way your body can compensate for this incomplete extension of the hips, is by picking up the LACK with the lower back (hence the constant back ache). The back often hyper-extends to make up the difference.
In relation to the Kettlebell Swing, if you lack that end range of hip extension, then you are missing out on one of the most important parts of the swing – the HIP SNAP! You will never be able to properly propel the Weight forward, if your Hips can’t fully extend.
Not only is full hip extension vital for the KB Swing, but it is an essential part of stabilising and grounding the body during other exercises and every day activities … such as standing and walking!
Take-Away Tips: Improve Hip Extension
As part of every warm up, and throughout each day, you should try to fit in the following:
- Hip Mobility Drill
- Glute Activation Drill
- Strengthen your Hip Extension by strengthening the Hip Extensors … the Glutes
- Become more aware of what you are doing!
There are many drills out there to help achieve this, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
This is one I put together about a year ago to show a basic Hip Mobility and Glute activation drill. To be honest this is enough for most of my clients and they see great improvement in their squat depth and hip extension because of it.
This next video shows an even more advanced hip mobility drill by Kelly Starrett from MobilityWOD. I have tried this myself and, yes, it was very challenging, but IT WORKS A TREAT!
Finally, Hip Flexor Stretches are equally important and should be added into your warm up and cool down. Here are a couple of examples of methods:
Next, to strengthen your hip extensors, enter the Glute Bridge and Hip Thrust. Below is my Tutorial on the basics, but you can also check out the full article HERE.
3) Arm-Body Disconnect
This final error can be simply as a result of point number two, however, often it is a timing issue as people prematurely hinge back with the hips, before the arms have made contact with the body. The problem that arises from this premature hinge is that the weight of the Kettlebell pulls you down toward the floor, rather than swinging back through the legs towards (with the hips). The downward force causes the upper back to strain and may even turn your Swing into a Squat (depending on the weight of the Kettlebell).
To correct this:
It’s not that you let your arms bang into you on the way down, but you have to time it so you can “catch” your arms as your hips sit back – it should all happen simultaneously (and the Kettlebell should always remain at least half way up your femurs). Then on the upward phase of the swing, you must allow the hips to push the arms forward so the momentum can carry the KB forward.
If there is a gap between the arms and the body, you will load your spine, not your hips (on the downward phase of the swing) and you will likely use your arms to pull the Kettlebell at the top of the swing, because you have not been able to propel the weight properly using the hip snap. This is very inefficient use of energy.
The KB should feel weighted as it loads your hamstrings and you are snapping the hips forward; the rest of time the KB should feel WEIGHTLESS.
Take-Away Tips: Catch and release the weight at the Hips, not in mid air and not half way down the legs! Sometimes a very light Kettlebell works against you and makes you want to cheat! Get the weight right: Most women should use at least 12kg; most men, at least 16kg (for the two-handed Kettlebell Swing).
Even if you have been performing the Kettlebell Swing for a while and think you are performing it correctly, have an honest look at your form and see if any of these pointers will help.
If you’re a beginner and you find your lower back starts to ache, then focus on all 3 points to ensure you are loading and unloading the hips properly. Often it can simply be a lack of full hip extension at the root of this issue. With some hip mobility and glute activation drills, the back ache should stop
The Kettlebell Swing is an awesome exercise; learn to do it right and your body will love you for it!
Thanks for taking the time to read this rather long article.