If you’ve been around exercise for any length of time you’ll have heard the hype surrounding kettlebells by now. Over the last few years even the mainstream gyms – usually the slowest to adopt any new training equipment that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg – have started buying kettlebells. But put your fears aside – kettlebells have been around for hundreds of years. far long, in fact, than any of the other equipment found in your gym such as barbells, treadmills, and TRX.
Like with all exercises that are effective kettlebells have struggled to compete against the many myths that surround their use. I see recommendations frequently from people as to how best to use them and frankly many are just jumping on what they hope will be a profitable band wagon, with little real experience or knowledge to offer.
If there was one exercise that exemplifies kettlebell training it is the swing. All the other major exercises can be done to varying degrees of success with other pieces of equipment, however, it is the swing that can only be done with a kettlebell. Let’s look at the facts regarding kettlebell swings:
They are a fantastic exercise to build posterior chain strength. That is, they develop the hips, hamstrings, and lower back as well, if not better, than other exercises, including those that use a higher load. If taught properly to hike pass the bell there is a “virtual” load placed on the muscles eccentrically that can be as much as four times the weight of the bell. In other words, that 24kg bell you’re swinging may feel like it weighs 96kg to your glutes.
The swing involves these muscles in the posterior chain – rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, both gluteus medius and maximus, rectus femoris, and biceps femoris. If you’re not an anatomy whizz that means it involves all the muscles of your core, your upper back and the biggest muscles in your legs.
One of the really cool things about the swing is that even with moderate loads they have recorded 50% MVC (maximum Voluntary Contraction, or the maximum amount the muscles could contract) in the muscles of the back and 80% in the glutes. Because you are able to perform many swings during a training session you are able to effectively flush an often troublesome area with blood and allow it to heal or recover.
A correctly taught swing isn’t a squat. It’s what is called a hip hinge. A hip hinge is the action you would perform if you wanted to jump as far forward as you can, as opposed to a vertical jump which will see you need a more squat like starting position. This is where people often go wrong utilising a squat motion for their swing instead of the correct hip hinge.
The value of the hip hinge is that far more force can be projected horizontally. In a hip hinge swing you can see forces of 340-400N projected horizontally versus only 165-185N for the squat swing. For many athletes, such as runners, whose sport involves horizontal force projection that makes swings a far better choice for training than even an exercise like deadlifts. While deadlifts are a fantastic exercise for raw strength they can lead to a lack of explosiveness in athletes due to the grinding nature often used in the lift. Secondly, the high loads can be problematic for endurance athletes who likely don’t have the core strength or stiff backs of seasoned lifters. With the swing they can get a better training effect with less stress on the back.
For grapplers, the swing provides a fantastic tool that also builds grip while building the power needed for an explosive penetration step for takedowns. The addition of incidental grip training is useful both for hand fighting as well as being part of a system that helps shoulders stay healthy.
Kettlebell swings are a great option for those wishing to get some heart rate/ energy systems training yet are unable to perform better variations such as running. An ACE study on kettlebell swings puts it at 1200 calories burned per hour. That’s based off a much shorter study, and no one is going to be able to swing for an hour non-stop, but the energy used is on par with running, and given all the other benefits if you had a choice of a short run or a choice of doing some swings you will be likely better off choosing the swings.
If you want to learn how to achieve all these benefits of kettlebell swings then book now for our Introduction to Kettlebells Workshop. We’ll also cover essential drills to keep the body healthy and supple regardless of sport, as well as three other core kettlebell moves.