Kettlebell swings can be used to improve muscular endurance, increase vertical jump, and even help fix bad backs if your client does them correctly. Unfortunately, most coaches don’t properly teach clients how to swing correctly, and may actually promote injuries. I’ll show you how to properly and safely teach your clients how to swing and reap all of the exercise’s benefits without them needing to visit the physical therapist.
You may be most familiar with the two-hand kettlebell swing. The two-hand swing is typically where clients start and frequently return to out of convenience. However, I prefer the two other versions of the swing: the one-hand swing and the double swing. By the end of this article, you’ll learn why those variations are superior to the two-hand swing, how to successfully progress your client to the two-hand and one-hand swing, and perform them both without injury.
But first, I have a bone to pick with the two-hand kettlebell swing.
The problem with using both hands on a kettlebell
Kettlebells are not designed to be used with two hands. Yes, I am well aware that there are many exercises you can do with two hands on the kettlebell and they’re great, but they are a beginner-type exercise to help your client “groove” the primary movement pattern needed for more advanced variations that come later on in their training (such as the one-hand swing or snatch).
Take the goblet squat as an example. We love it because it’s perfect for beginners and teaches them the appropriate movement pattern for a squat. This is called a patterning exercise. What you probably don’t know is, the goblet squat was invented out of necessity to quickly teach a room of high school kids the correct mechanics of squatting without needing to give an hour-long lecture on the subject.
I wouldn’t advise using the kettlebell swing to pattern the kettlebell swing, so instead, here’s a proven four-step plan to have your clients swinging well quickly and safely.
Exercise 1. Wall Touch
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart, facing away from a wall. Make sure your client is about half the length of their thigh away from the wall.
- Have your client take the blades of their hands, the part they’d use to karate chop someone, and place them on the creases in their groin where the underpants sit.
- Push back your client’s hips with the blades of their hands until their butt touches the wall.
- Do not put any weight on the wall. Your client’s butt should touch the wall, but all the weight should be on their feet, not leaning against the wall.
- Perform 10 reps of this wall touch.
Once your client can do that, have them edge their feet away from the wall by about the length of their big toe and repeat the drill. You’ll notice that they probably need to bend their knees a little to actually touch the wall–that’s okay. But make sure the first body part that bends is their hips and not their knees. Have them perform another 10 reps.
Afterward, edge away from the wall a bit more. Now your client has to really work hard to push back from the hips and not squat. Hips bend first, knees bend incidentally (but they do bend). Remember, the hips need to travel down and back. Make sure they are not committing the common error of just bending at the waist.
Exercise 2. Deadlift
The next step is to add a kettlebell, but to have your client perform this same action slowly.
We used to say on the racetrack, “If you can’t do it slow, you’ll never do it fast.” It applies here, too. Your client needs to be able to keep that same hips-down-and-back position and maintain a flat back while they deadlift.
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart and place the kettlebell between your client’s feet with the handle running across your clint and in line with the knuckles of their big toes.
- Instruct them to do the exact same thing as they did with the wall touch, which was reach down and back with their hips, until they get to the kettlebell. Make sure they don’t just bend over and reach for it. Movement at the hips is crucial in order for your client to get low and grab the kettlebell handle.
- When your client takes the kettlebell, they need to take the slack out of their body. To do this, have them hold the kettlebell, pull themselves slightly toward it by deliberately trying to shorten the space between the joints to “compress” themselves.
- Reverse the motion and make sure they stand tall at the top.
- Shoulders should be down and back, making a big and proud chest.
- Tense the glutes firmly and cue imagining drawing up their kneecaps to the groin, while simultaneously pushing down into the ground as hard as they can through their feet.
Exercise 3. Dead Swing
Now it’s time to get things swinging, but only a little to begin with. While the deadlift teaches you the mechanics of the swing, it also creates a false position of sorts because you will never need to go that low when swinging.
- Set up is just like the deadlift, except the kettlebell will be one foot in front of your client.
- Client must lower himself to the kettlebell by positioning the hips down and back.
- Grab hold of the kettlebell and make sure the client has taken the slack out of their body.
- The next step is to hike the bell back hard. Force plate analysis of the swing shows that far more force should be generated on the backswing than on the upswing, so don’t be shy.
- Make sure to keep the alignment of the body and not crumple as the weight of the bell pulls your client back.
- Perform a single swing and return the bell to its starting position.
When your client has these steps down, have them perform 10 reps.
Exercise 4. Continuous swings
This is the next step after the previous exercise, because now your client just needs to continue swinging instead of stopping after each rep. You will find that sets of ten to twenty reps are about right. Anything more will likely lead to poor form and maybe a sore back.
But really, your client should learn one-hand swings.
While the two-hand swing teaches you how to brace and create midline stability in the sagittal plane, the one-hand swing adds an anti-rotation component, which prevents your spine from rotating or twisting. If your client is short on training time, the one-hand swing is more bang for their buck.
The one-hand swing works the grip harder, which in turn means your client needs to stabilize the shoulder more. In the FMS system, the one-hand swing is true evidence of a stable shoulder due to this grip-stability relationship from packing the shoulder properly.
And when we add in the control of rotary forces, what we have is an exercise that covers other FMS domains, such as the active straight leg raise (which is adequate if your client is swinging), shoulder mobility, the trunk stability push-up, and rotary stability. These four elements make up the fundamental patterns in the FMS test. If we help the client address these, or at least prove they are capable of doing them, then they are able to do a host of other athletic movements, too.
In other words, if your clients can perform a one-hand swing well, they are likely able to perform many other more complex tasks well, too.
Follow this simple progression for one-hand swings
For many people, the toughest part of learning the one-arm swing won’t be the swing action itself. That should have been adequately covered in the initial patterning work we did with the two-hand swing. Instead, what they’re going to likely struggle with is learning to pack and control the shoulder properly. Here are four exercises to help fix that.
1. Side Planks
- Client should be unloaded and lying down.
- All the work is in learning to keep the shoulder stable and linking that through the rest of the body to prevent the body from sagging to the ground.
2. Kettlebell row from bilateral stance
Joints can either be compressed or distracted; think how the shoulder can push or pull. Pushing compresses the joint, and pulling distracts (or opens) it. Where side planks work shoulder stability with a compression strategy, the one-hand swing requires stabilizing with a distraction strategy. For that we need a pulling motion. Unlike a regular rowing exercise, we’re not doing this to build the back, but to reinforce shoulder packing on the working arm.
- Hinge at the waist to get into the correct posture for rowing.
- Hold the kettlebell in one hand. Pack the shoulder and focus on pulling the elbow as far back as possible while keeping the shoulder packed at all times.
- The purpose here is not to smoke the arms and back with rows, but to make sure the trunk stays braced and the shoulder packed.
3. Suitcase deadlifts
We use the deadlift to teach the two-hand swing because the deadlift is done at a much slower pace and it allows you to really feel what you should be doing without the stress of the high speed of the swing. So why aren’t we using the suitcase deadlift to teach the one-arm swing for the same reason?
- When doing this movement, focus on drawing the shoulder blade into the opposite hip corner and shortening the body by contracting down the obliques.
- The key to this movement is that the body shouldn’t tip sideways, or lose posture in any way. If it does, then either the weight is too heavy or you need to regress a step until better control is possible.
4. One-hand swing
From here, keep all the things you’ve been working on with your client up until this point consistent: the hinge taught in the two-hand swing, neutral spine, full hip extension at the top of the swing, breathing, and the shoulder packing.
When all of this comes together, your client’s one-hand swing will be great and they will thank you for an amazingly beneficial exercise that won’t take them to their physical therapist’s office.
This blog post originally appeared on readpt.com. It has been edited slightly and reposted here on The PTDC with permission.