Zen and the Art of the Kettlebell Swing

Profile PicThe Kettlebell Swing is a key Kettlebell movement for developing full body activation primarily through the lower posterior chain. Like any movement if the sum of all its parts are dialed in and working efficiently and safely, its benefits for fitness, health and rehab make it one of the best and safest around. However when done incorrectly, it could be detrimental to joint health in both the short and most definitely over the long term.

The Swing is the only Kettlebell exercise that requires the bell to extend away, horizontally to its farthest point (arm length) from the body’s center of mass. The farther away from the center the more ballistic power it takes to move or accelerate the bell, thus the more return on its fitness benefits and rewards.

So what is it that makes the Kettlebell Swing such a powerful exercise for developing explosive hip hinge power output?

In order to answer that question we need to break it down into its smaller movements that make up its chain, and like any chain literal or metaphorical, it is only as strong as its weakest link…

Let’s use the KISS method.

First off, it’s not about lifting the bell, it’s about moving the bell.

Generating the ballistic energy required to move the bell, requires the loading of the body, primarily through the hamstrings. It’s important to understand that when we are talking about the body and it’s musculature we aren’t talking about its 600+ individual and very unique muscles. We are talking about it as one single muscle unit, meaning that everything, all 600+ must work together harmoniously in perfect synchronicity and timing to take that loaded hamstring energy and put it to use, in this case, moving the bell.

Think of your hamstrings as big elastic bands. Like an elastic, the more you load it (stretch it), the more energy that’s stored in it.

As Newton proved back in the day; “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

Let’s get back to that chain metaphor, we know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Keeping that in mind and keeping in mind that the body musculature is working as one single unit, what do you think might happen if we lose connectivity between say our upper and lower torsos?

You guessed it, we’ve created a weak link in the chain for energy leakage.

Bending between the upper and lower torsos versus creasing at the hips is one of the most common mistakes people make when learning the swing or in some cases when they learn it incorrectly and develop lasting bad habits and poor movement patterns.

Creasing at the hips has three very distinct and important benefits when it comes to executing the swing:

  1. We protect the back and spine by keeping it in a neutral position, unloaded and in alignment with the upper and lower torso.
  2. It allows us to load the hamstrings.
  3. It puts our body in a natural counterbalance position for the backswing so that the bell doesn’t fish tail into the butt.

Now I’m not going to teach you how to perform the swing, hopefully you have a good coach or instructor that can show you how and correct your movement patterns as you progress. If not, do yourself a solid and find one.

Let’s talk a bit about good and bad movement patterns.Jillian-Michaels

The kettlebell unlike a balanced barbell or dumbbell has a mass that is off centered, this from the get go creates a built in instability. When this instability is tamed and harnessed through proper and efficient movement patterns that protect joints and musculature while at the same time loading and activating them, life is good.

When this built in instability is given additional instability through poor alignment and movement patterns, the joints and their connections become stressed and compromised, life is bad.

Fitness is about quality of life, improved range of motion, and longevity, not just for today but for a lifetime, so when it comes to movement for life, it’s about quality not quantity, when quality (good movement patterns) are dialed in, quantity will follow, when we allow quantity to trump quality a future of surgeries and pain will surely follow.

Unfortunately in our society of instant the latter is the flavour of the day for many.

As I mentioned earlier, the arc in the kettlebell swing needs to reach its farthest horizontal distance from our center of mass, this is important for two reasons.

  1. It’s an indicator of the efficiency of the movement and the amount of energy being transferred via the loaded hamstrings.
  2. It sets up a great backswing for the next loading phase.

This brings up another one of Newton’s Laws of motion; “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.” 

Once the kettlebell is moving the only things that will stop it from moving efficiently is a restriction in its movement or a leakage of power.

Some restrictions might include, engaging the arms instead of moving them freely, resisting gravity during the drop, limiting the amount of backswing with a limited crease at the hips or squatting.

Some leakages in power might include not extending the arms fully or bent knees at the apex, not keeping the forearms connected to the torso during the power phase, unsynchronized movement patterns, not counterbalancing the weight at its farthest point by leaning back (like a water skier).

Think about the swing like a horizontal broad jump, which basically it is, you need to load the hamstrings, swing the arms, explode through with the hips, and straighten the legs and arms.

The difference is you’re not moving you, you’re using you to move the bell.

I hope some of this will help you swing safer and more efficiently with less pain and greater returns.

Happy and Safe Swing’n!

By: Coach Tim Bell

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