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Maximize Your Strength and Cardiovascular Health with the Kettlebell Swing Technique

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

When effectiveness and security are top priorities for you when constructing a fitness program, you might be in search of a single exercise that possesses three key qualities: It must develop strength, challenge your cardiovascular system, and avoid imposing a lot of pressure on your joints. Sounds too good to be accurate, right?

But surprisingly, there’s one movement that meets all three criteria: the kettlebell swing, a full-body exercise that necessitates one uncomplicated piece of equipment and can be adjusted to suit your fitness level. Ahead, obtain the details on all the advantages the exercise has to offer, including the kettlebell swing muscles worked, and how to execute it with flawless technique.

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How to Execute a Kettlebell Swing

To carry out the kettlebell swing, you’ll position yourself with your feet shoulder-width apart with a kettlebell about a foot in front of you, hike it back behind your buttocks, then propel it in front of your body and up to chest height. As you complete your repetitions, you’ll continue explosively swinging the kettlebell back and forth as if it’s a pendulum, says Maggi Gao, an NASM-certified personal trainer and Russian Kettlebell Challenge-certified coach in New York City. In turn, the movement develops full-body strength and gets your heart pumping, she explains.

If that sounds excessively intricate, observe Gao demonstrate the movement and follow along with some straightforward instructions below. 

A. Position yourself with feet shoulder-width apart, hands at sides, and a kettlebell on the floor about one foot in front of toes. Bend knees slightly and pivot at hips to lower arms toward the floor. Grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands and angle it toward the body.

B. On an inhale, hike the kettlebell back and up between thighs. Then on an exhale, press feet into the floor, squeeze glutes, and thrust through hips to promptly stand up and explosively swing the kettlebell forward and up to chest height. Maintain arms extended with a slight bend in elbows throughout the movement and allow eyesight to follow the kettlebell.

C. Pivot at hips, bend knees slightly, and thrust the kettlebell back down and in between thighs.

The Vital Kettlebell Swing Benefits

Even though the kettlebell swing doesn’t involve any leaping or fully loaded barbells, the exercise comes with significant advantages for your ticker and your muscles.

Here’s what you can anticipate to acquire from the motion when executed correctly.

Enhances Explosive Power

By repeatedly lifting a heavy kettlebell behind your body and using your hips to propel the weight upward, you’ll develop explosive power – the ability to generate the greatest amount of force in the shortest time, according to Gao. In fact, a small study conducted in 2012 found that individuals who performed 12 sets of kettlebell swings, alternating between 30-second work intervals and 30-second rest periods, twice a week for six weeks, increased their explosive power by nearly 20 percent. This advantage is not only advantageous for athletes seeking to enhance their performance on the field or court, but it can also benefit the general population. “The kettlebell swing’s dynamic and explosive movement will help strengthen your lower back and hips and, consequently, improve your posture,” states Gao.

Enhances Cardiovascular Fitness

Even just a few sets of kettlebell swings can elevate your heart rate significantly, according to Gao. “You want to exert as much force as possible during the swing, and that’s beneficial for improving your cardiovascular capacity,” she explains. Research supports this claim: a study conducted in 2010 found that the kettlebell swing is an effective exercise for improving VO₂ max, which refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during strenuous exercise. The more oxygen you can utilize during intense activities, the more energy you can generate, resulting in reduced fatigue, as indicated by the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine.

Gentle on the Joints

Unlike other forms of cardio exercises, such as running or plyometric exercises that involve jumping, kettlebell swings are low-impact because both feet remain planted on the ground throughout the entire movement, says Gao. As a result, you can obtain all the cardiovascular benefits without putting excessive strain on your joints. This feature is particularly important if you’ve recently undergone joint surgery or have concerns about potential harm to your lower back or knees, Gao explains. The reason behind this is that low-impact physical activities have only a third of the injury risk associated with high-impact activities, as reported by Shape. In fact, Gao herself started training with kettlebells when she fractured her foot and wanted to improve her cardiovascular fitness without aggravating her injury.

Muscles Targeted by Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing can be accurately described as a comprehensive exercise because it engages various muscle groups. According to the American Council on Exercise, it activates the hamstrings, glutes, hip adductors, quadriceps, lats, deltoids, triceps, biceps, forearm muscles, and core. Specifically, the lower body is responsible for propelling the kettlebell up to chest level, while the shoulders and lats maintain a flat back and prevent the torso from leaning forward. Gao explains that the core muscles play a vital role in stabilizing the entire body during the swing. When you reach the top position, it’s comparable to maintaining a standing plank; your goal is to stand tall without leaning backward or forward, which emphasizes the importance of core engagement. Should your core not be properly activated, there will be increased strain on the lower back, especially when using heavier weights.

Variations of the Kettlebell Swing

If you find the kettlebell swing demonstration to be too advanced for your current fitness level, or if it isn’t challenging enough, there are alternative options. Gao suggests trying these modifications and progressions.

Modification: Goblet Clean

Should you experience difficulty transferring force generated by your hips into the kettlebell, a suitable alternative is the goblet clean. During a kettlebell swing, the objective is to utilize your hips and legs to stand up, rather than simply curling the bell. The goblet clean enables you to understand how to generate power from your lower body and raise the kettlebell in front of your chest without incorporating the swinging motion. Once you have a solid understanding of the hip drive, you can practice swinging the kettlebell behind you, gradually progressing to a full-fledged kettlebell swing.

A. Assume a shoulder-width stance with the kettlebell in between your feet. Bend your knees and hinge at the hips, lowering your arms toward the floor. Maintain your gaze forward.

B. As you inhale, press your feet firmly into the ground, contract your glutes, and drive through your hips to quickly stand up. Simultaneously, bend your elbows to 90 degrees and elevate the kettlebell in front of your face. While doing so, slightly release your grip on the top of the handle and slide your hands down to the sides.

C. Release your grip on the sides of the kettlebell handle and extend your arms towards the floor. This will return your hands to the top of the handle, while simultaneously bending your knees to return to the starting position.

Progression: Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing

For those who find the traditional kettlebell swing too easy, you can increase the challenge by using a heavier weight or performing the exercise with only one hand holding onto the handle.

Taking away one arm from the equation raises the challenge for your core, as you will have to summon these muscles to maintain stability and prevent your torso from rotating to one side while you swing the bell forwards and backwards, affirms Gao.

Common Kettlebell Swing Errors

Whether you’re tackling a traditional kettlebell swing or an advanced variation, remember to engage your core and focus on utilizing your lower body — not your back or arms — to propel the kettlebell forward, says Gao. “Many individuals, when they initially begin, don’t comprehend that it’s the hips that power the movement and your arms are like ropes attached to the kettlebell — you’re not utilizing any arm force,” she adds. If you were to rely on your upper-body strength to lift the kettlebell, you’ll unnecessarily strain your shoulders, neck, and trapezius muscles, she says.

You’ll also want to maintain a neutral spine and gaze straight ahead throughout the entire movement. “If you’re constantly looking downward, I frequently notice that your shoulders will slouch forward and your chest won’t be as open,” says Gao. “Looking down creates a [mis]alignment, so it’s vital to look directly ahead without looking upward.” In other words, as you hinge at the hips and return to a standing position, you should keep your eyes fixated on the kettlebell in front of you.

Lastly, remember to breathe deliberately. “With any explosive movement, you want to have significant breath control,” says Gao. “Exhaling as you exert force from the hips will aid in contracting your abs and enable you to move more weight. As it descends, that’s when you need to take your breath.” If your breath isn’t synchronized with the movement pattern, you won’t move as efficiently and will experience more fatigue, she explains.

How to Incorporate the Kettlebell Swing into Your Routine

Before attempting the kettlebell swing, consult with your healthcare provider if you have a cardiovascular condition, hip problems, or lower-back issues to ensure the exercise is a safe choice for you, says Gao. “Even though you don’t want to use your lower back during the kettlebell swing, if you lose focus or if you’re working with a heavier bell than usual, you may feel some strain in your lower back,” she explains.

Once you receive the green light, make sure you have mastered the forearm plank, as the exercise teaches you how to maintain a neutral spine and allows you to practice core engagement, says Gao. When you feel prepared and confident to try the kettlebell swing, attempt three sets of eight to 10 repetitions of the exercise, which serves as a solid starting point, says Gao. If you’re aiming to build strength, you can reduce those repetitions to three to five per set, using a heavier weight and taking sufficient rest between rounds, she suggests. And if you’re eager for a more vigorous cardio session, decrease the weight and aim for 10 to 20 repetitions per set, she recommends.

If you’re new to kettlebell training, begin with a lighter weight while you refine your form, as a heavier load could increase the risk of straining a muscle if you lack core control, as Shape previously reported.

Try a 6 or 8-kilogram dumbbell to begin and progress from that point. And if you possess familiarity with resistance training or dumbbells, aim for 12 kilograms. Nevertheless, if all you possess at your disposal is an extremely lightweight dumbbell, don’t believe that you cannot undertake the workout. “It’s not about the mass of the dumbbell, it’s about how you employ it,” contributes Gao. “A lightweight can also be exceedingly, exceedingly advantageous if you execute a dumbbell swing accurately.