By Holly Querin
Kettlebell swings primarily work your posterior chain. The posterior chain consists of your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. To begin a kettlebell swing, the kettlebell should start on the ground in front of you so that it forms the point of a triangle with your two feet, which should be turned slightly out. When grabbing onto the handle of the kettlebell, your back should be straight, your shoulders should be back and down, and your core should be braced, just like you’re setting up for a heavy deadlift. From there, you’ll swing the kettlebell between your legs, close to your groin. Once the kettlebell is between your legs, you’ll engage your glutes and hamstrings as explosively as you can to snap your hips into a fully-extended standing position. The momentum of this movement will be what carries your arms and the kettlebell up to your eye level, which is where the movement ends for a Russian kettlebell swing. While you will of course be engaging your arms (especially your forearms) to hold the kettlebell, the Russian kettlebell swing is not primarily an arm workout. In fact, you can try to think of your arms as ropes holding the kettlebell. This will help you focus on making the explosive hip snap your main focus rather than trying to pull up with your arms. If you are feeling like you are having to pull the kettlebell up to eye-level using your arms, it might be because you are swinging the kettlebell too low to the ground. The kettlebell should be staying very close to your groin. In fact, you should be able to put a medicine ball on the ground behind you while doing a kettlebell swing and not hit it during the swing. This will help you keep the hip hinge activated and avoid getting too squatty.
If you are experiencing back pain during a kettlebell swing, you are likely rounding your back. Your back should be straight throughout the entirety of the movement. This includes when you are picking up the kettlebell swing to begin the movement. As I mentioned before, it can help to think of the kettlebell swing setup as similar to a deadlift setup, even though the kettlebell will not be nearly as heavy. You wouldn’t start a deadlift with a rounded back, so don’t start a kettlebell swing with a rounded back either!
Kettlebell swings do not come up in the programming all that frequently, so why is the kettlebell swing a useful movement to get the hang of? The major benefit of working on kettlebell swings is that they help you develop your hip hinge and hip extension. The hip hinge and extension are integral parts of deadlifts, snatches, and cleans, and it allows you to tap into the power of your hip muscles. In the hip hinge, you should push your butt back towards the wall and bend your torso forward at the hip. The hip hinge is the setup for the hip extension, which involves opening up the hip joint to increase the angle between your pelvis and thighs. In simple terms, it’s moving into a fully standing position. It is a key component of almost every lift that we do in the gym – the clean, the snatch, the squat, and the deadlift. The need for hip extension is rather straightforward in the deadlift: Deadlifting requires moving from hip flexion (where the angle of your hip is decreased) into hip extension. The deadlift is a relatively simple movement, and the need to stand up completely and extend the hips is pretty obvious (up until WOD-brain creeps in and the deadlifts get a smaller and smaller range of motion, but we all know nobody here would do that, right??). WOD-brain aside, nobody would think that they could simply skip over the full extension in a deadlift in order to lift heavier.
However, since cleans and snatches involve more arms than the deadlift and squat, people DO tend to skip the full hip extension and try to pull up with their arms instead. This is a pretty understandable mistake to make, but there’s also no faster way to hit a weight plateau than skipping the hip extension and trying to overuse the arms. The reason why comes down to our anatomy. The hip connects the femurs to the pelvis and is the meeting point of several muscles – the glutes, the hamstrings, the adductors, and the iliopsoas (the muscle group that connects the spine to the femur). These muscles are very powerful, and tapping into them correctly will allow you to move far more weight than trying to pull with your arms, which consist of relatively small muscles in comparison.
Therefore, in both the clean and the snatch, the elbows should bend only AFTER you have reached a full, explosive hip extension. You can remember this with the handy phrase “elbows bend, power ends.” Once you reach the point of bending your elbows, you are putting a stopper on how much power you can access from all the muscles that connect to your hips. However, if you do reach a full hip extension before you start to bend your elbows, the power generated by your hips will move up your body and into your arms as they guide the barbell as it floats up. Once you’ve reached triple extension, where your hips, knees, and ankles are all full extended and your shoulders are shrugged up, you focus your energy on pulling aggressively under the bar and into the catch position for either the clean or the snatch. If you think I’ve lost my mind for referring to the barbell as “floating” in either of these movements, I’d highly recommend checking out slow-motion videos of cleans and snatches from some of the elite Olympic weightlifters. The ATGweightlifting TikTok is particularly good, for those with TikTok.
This post hones in on only one aspect of the clean and the snatch – the hip extension – and there’s a lot more to each of those lifts, but that brings us back to precisely why kettlebell swings are so helpful for improving our lifts. Cleans and snatches can be intimidating because they seem like they have so many different parts to them. Kettlebell swings, on the other hand, are a relatively simple and repetitive movement. And since the explosive hip extension that creates the momentum for the kettlebell to float up is the same hip extension that you should be using during a clean and a snatch, practicing kettlebell swings can help you practice extending your hips fully, quickly, and powerfully so that you know what that feels like when transitioning into the more complicated lifts. And, of course, the kettlebell swing will also help you develop the posterior chain strength needed for all the other mentioned lifts. Another way to get the most out of your KBS is to practice setting up and bracing your core as if you were trying for a new deadlift PR every time you do a kettlebell swing, even if you’re using a kettlebell that you could easily pick up with one hand. Practicing good bracing will help this become second nature so that when you’re getting fatigued during a WOD and you’re ready to get the workout over with, you’ll still be in the habit of bracing every time you lift the bar.
The usefulness of working on the kettlebell swings goes beyond the gym. Just as the hip extension lays the groundwork for so many lifts, it also lays the groundwork for so many of the movements that we do in everyday life, such as sitting and standing from a chair, lifting heavy objects, jumping, and running. Particularly as we age, maintaining the strength and mobility of the muscles that meet at the hips will help maintain our quality of life and ability to keep doing the things we love.