Learning the Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing. A perfect picture that depicts relaxation and tension, the ying and yang of movement. Some people know how to do it, some people think they know but do not, and some people just look at you with a blank stare or with fear of hurting their back. The truth is if someone says that swings hurt their back, it is how they swing that hurts their back and not the swing. Technique is mastery and must always be pursued. It is a never ending journey.
In the words of Dan John, " the swing is a fat-burning athlete builder." This movement preps people for jumping and landing, and those who have done many sets of them, know they also build conditioning. They also have been used to build strength. How so do you ask? Measurements on a force plate at a kettlebell certification showed that a couple instructors topped 500 pounds swinging a 53 pound bell. This amount of force is developed from the person reversing the back swing and accelerating into extension. This is how strength can be built and even going heavier up to a certain point with kettlebell swings will allow even more strength to be built as long as they are explosive. This explosiveness is of utmost importance. When swings start to become slow and passive, this is where potential injuries could possibly start to occur.
But enough of why this movement is so great for athletes, men, women, kids and humans in general, let me show you how to learn it. Disclaimer: This section is just a guide and is how I teach the swing. Reading this section does not make you an expert so please find an instructor certified under RKC or SFG.
The Hinge Pattern- Before asking someone to throw weight around explosively, I need to make sure that they have enough mobility and stability in the bottom position for the deadlift and swing. I might spend a lot of time or barely any time with someone at this stage. It just depends on the person and their training history. I'm not trying the rush the progress of the person because my goal is to set them up for success down the road.
Stand about a foot away from a wall, with your back turn toward it. Your feet will be around shoulder width with toes turned out slightly. During this drill you want to keep, your weight in the center of your foot. Keeping your spine long and head tall, push into your hip crease with your hands pushing your hips back toward the wall. If done correctly, your hip flexors should contract folding your hips while your ankles and knees naturally flex somewhat. With your eyes looking at the horizon, lightly touch the wall behind you without relaxing into it. To stand up, squeeze your glutes hard. Step out a couple inches further and repeat. Maintain posture and strength throughout the drill. If you fall backwards reaching for the wall, you went too far out. Once you feel comfortable with the drill, hold a light kettlebell, sandbag, or plate against your sternum. This will help increase the stretch in your hamstrings to a greater degree.
This is just one way to pattern the hinge. If someone is having a hard time getting into the position correctly, then I will apply something different. That is the beauty of coaching and being able to interact with the person.
The KB Sumo Deadlift
In keeping with the pattern just described, let us learn how deadlift. Standover the kettlebell with the handle in line with the center of your feet or slightly behind. Have your feet placed slightly wider than your shoulders with feet turn out slightly. As we begin to move, your knees must track your toes.
Breathe into your trunk while packing your shoulders. This is done by pushing your shoulders away from your ears and pulling them back. Keeping your eyes down on the horizon, sit back, keep your back flat and your weight over the center of your foot. Reach for the kettlebell handle with long arms and once gripped, try to break the handle in half. You won't, so don't worry and really crush that handle. Your armpit muscles should be contract intensely. Now in this position, you should feel maximally tensed but balanced. If you feel all the pressure in your feet, your hips are most likely too low with too much knee flexion. If you feel all the pressure in your hands, your hips are most like high. If the bottom position is correct, your hips should be in-between your knees and shoulders. Videotape yourself if unsure.
To stand up with the weight, do not just stand up. I want you to imagine the weight being bolted to the floor and you pulling yourself through the floor. If done correctly, your thighs push while your glutes are pulling through hard. You should feel a lot more compact and springy. It goes without saying, never let your spine flex during this.
To lockout the deadlift correctly, the body needs to absolutely straight, Squeeze your thighs, cramp your glutes, keep your abs braced and keep your shoulders packed.
Reverse the movement. Hinge at your hips while keeping your armpits tight by pushing the kettlebell back between your legs and let if softly touch to floor. The finished position should look just like start position. I should not be able to tell a difference. Once the deadlifts are strong and clean, we than can move onto the swing but not sooner. Think of it as earning the right to swing.
The swing is a deadlift performed explosively so making sure someone knows how to deadlift correctly is vital. There have been numerous times that I have seen someone swing poorly, and it gets back to their deadlift being wrong. So, to reiterate, make sure your deadlift is correct.
Assume the bottom of the deadlift position, that we previous just learned but stand about one foot behind the kettlebell, grasping the handle so that it tilts toward to. For the swing, your grip is different. Do not death grip the handle but hook your fingers around it.
Without changing your shoulder or hip position, "hike" the kettlebell back between your legs, aiming above your knees. Park the kettlebell safely back into the starting position. Practice hiking and parking the kettlebell until comfortable.
Once the hike pass is clean, we move onto the swing. The swing that we will be performing is the two-arm swing. Hike and park the kettlebell for a few reps until a rhythm has been found. When the forearms are pressed against the inner thighs, explosively stand up strong, driving with the hips. Do not lean back but cramp your glutes and brace your stomach. Don't use your arms on the upswing. Your arms must be loose in order to transfer the power from the hips when standing up. If done correctly, the kettlebell should not go higher than chest level. As Chief SFG Brett Jones says "The swing is about projection of energy; the snatch is about elevation of energy." Once the top of the kettlebell's flight has been achieved, let the kettlebell start to fall and guide it back between your legs using your armpits. Keep your glutes tight until your arms begin to connect with your body and only then, hinge back into the hike position. If this is done correctly, the kettlebell handle should not go beneath the knees. Park the kettlebell safely. We will then practice the breathing pattern next. Match your breathing with the effort. Meaning, inhale through the nose on the way down, and exhale hard on the way up. This will help with your explosiveness and power.
A couple of things to note. Stop your set of swings before: You slow down, you fail to cramp your glutes and brace your midsection, or you lose the breathing pattern. Abiding to this will keep you safer as you swing but will also allow a greater number of quality reps.
And there you have it, a stripped down version of how I teach the the kettlebell swing. It will not be a overnight success, and it is a journey that requires patience. Remember, nothing beats learning from a certified instructor and I highly advise that you do. I would strongly recommend looking for a SFG instructor in your area via the instructor tab on Strongfirst.com.
References: Simple and Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline and Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline