Rethinking Kettlebell Ballistics

Back when kettlebells first became popular there were three things that drew me to them. Firstly, they allowed you to perform a lot of movements with only a few pieces of equipment – something that appealed greatly to my minimalistic nature. Secondly, they can be a great tool for rehab, strength, and conditioning (although to a lesser degree). And finally, many of the exercises were hip centric movements which would do wonders to help get rid of the lazy glutes many suffer from and help build full body power.

Along the way there has been a lot of knowledge gained about kettlebells. That’s been largely thanks to a few leaders in both the RKC and SFG communities who have looked to exercise science to improve things, rather than rely on the hype surrounding kettlebells, as well as the works of guys like Dr. Stuart McGill and Andrew Lock who are pushing their uses forward in both rehab and strength.

If we could just side step for a moment to speak about the squat – the reasons will be clear later on. If you think about the different types of squat – bodyweight, goblet, kettlebell front squat, barbell front squat, back squat, and overhead squat – and the shapes your body makes do perform them you’ll notice a difference. Your trunk will be in a different position for each, your stance will be narrower or wider, and your toes may even point in different directions. And that’s how we all make the various squat forms fit us based on our own mobility and limb lengths. There is no universal squat shape that will allow you to accomplish all of these variations without modification.

And this brings me to kettlebell ballistics. The swing is the first exercise many learn because it forms the basis of other exercises such as the clean, snatch, and high pull. It’s also proven to be a helpful tool for fat loss, hip strength, grip development, as well as what I’m going to call incidental conditioning.

The way the swing is generally taught at RKC and SFG events is no issue. That is a tried and trusted path to follow that gives proven results. However, when it comes to teaching the clean and snatch science has perhaps shown us a smarter way forward that few are willing to take note of.

When teaching the swing the students are taught to project the bell forward as if punching the kettlebell at an opponent. The RKC/ SFG crowd often talk about the American Swing as wasted energy, saying that if they want to project the bell upward they’ll snatch to distinguish between the horizontal and vertical force differences of the two exercises.

And that all makes a lot of sense. The near vertical shin angle taught during the development of the swing is most beneficial for horizontal force projection, as in a standing broad jump. I say “near vertical” shin angle because there is still an amount of knee extension involved in the completion of the swing and that slight knee forward angle allows for this to be executed with more force. Like our squat we’re going to have a few different versions of the bottom position of kettlebell ballistics so that we can get the most out of them.

Now this is where it starts to get tricky. Bret Contreras wrote an excellent article on deadlifts versus swings on T-Nation back in 2012. To save you the time I’ll just give you the summarised version:

A hip hinge style loading phase for the swing creates ~370N of horizontal force when using a 32kg bell, compared with ~176N for a squat style pattern.

That is a pretty clear reason as to why you should be using a hip hinge/ vertical shin style pattern for the swing – because when you want the bell to be projected horizontally, as in a swing, you get double the force output. But what about if you want the bell to be projected vertically? What happens then?

A squat style pattern gets you more vertical force than a hinge does (by roughly 200N). In other words, if you want to direct force upwards, as in a snatch or clean, then the way you look in the bottom position is going to be different than it is when you swing.

But kettlebell ballistics aren’t as cut and dry as jumping is. Jumping can be broken down into maximum distance either horizontally or vertically. Kettlebell ballistics will always have a component of horizontal force projection because of the arc the bell is forced to travel. While the hinge pattern is needed to develop the swing, and it’s in people’s best interests to improve their ability with it to counter act all the deficits from sitting, it isn’t going to be the text book hinge we should see when doing cleans and snatches.

Instead what should be seen is the slight knee forward position in the bottom and the more vertical the lift the more the knee should be allowed forward to help in the use of heavier bells. Looking at the angles of the arm will help to determine which is the most vertical of the lifts. The swing is clearly the most horizontal of the three and can be performed with the textbook vertical shin. The clean is at the other end of the spectrum as the bell stays closest to the body out of the three lifts, as the upper arm never even leaves the ribs throughout. And that puts the snatch somewhere between the two in terms of how much horizontal force there is versus vertical force, despite the snatch being the most vertical looking of the three.

But how much knee forward is acceptable? Remember that all three have elements of horizontal force projection in them, as unlike using a barbell it is impossible to get a kettlebells to travel a clean vertical path. (Incidentally, this is why I don’t teach single dead cleans or snatches as it allows the student to do this, forces them into a far more squat style stance, and makes it much harder later on to get them to do it right when expecting multiple reps. It’s also why I reserve teaching of the dead swing until after they’ve mastered the regular swing so they don’t form that bad habit initially, as most won’t be able to resist the trap of allowing their knees to drift forward on succeeding single reps as it will be more comfortable for them).

Looking at the video (and I apologise for the poor quality but that’s how slow motion videos come out often under halogen lights) you’ll see a difference between the knee position for the swing and the snatch. But this isn’t a heavy bell – that’s only a 16kg and the model usually snatches a 20kg. If we put that up to the 22kg or 24kg, which are “heavy” for her then you’ll see far more knee shift during the snatch as she’ll need extra vertical force to power the bell to where it is.

Despite the bottom half of swings, cleans, and snatches looking the same there should be some differences to a trained eye when working heavy. Because of the vertical forces needed to power the bell to a different place for cleans and snatches you should accept that some deviation in form is acceptable. The idea that the clean and the snatch are swings is correct. Sort of. The truth is that while they look very similar the powering action of them is going to be different compared to their root swing.