A little while ago, I wrote a post titled “The Top Four Exercises That Everyone Should Be Doing”. You can find that here. I still stand by that list. But one of our readers, who also happens to be a member of the Project Fitness training community, commented that he was sure the swing would be one of the four. It didn’t make it. My reasoning was that the clean and press and the deadlift had already made the list and those were both hinge movements. So training your hinge was already happening there.
Another big reason the deadlift made it over the swing is that the hip hinge pattern is still problematic for a lot of folks. You see, we sit too much as a culture and our hamstrings tighten up, our core gets weak and our butts go to sleep as a result. So just hip hinging for some people is a challenge in and of itself. But learning to pick something up off of the floor safely is an important aspect of life outside of the gym. So we find the safest variation of the deadlift for folks to work with and go with that. Admittedly, sometimes people aren’t ready for that either and have to work on glute bridging or another variation of hinging. The goal though is always to get people on their feet and learn to pick stuff up. And please understand that when I say deadlift, it doesn’t always mean with a barbell and it’s not always from the floor. Just thought I should clarify that.
Soooooo….. having said all of that, if you can hinge safely and skillfully, the swing might just be a more useful exercise than the deadlift. Why? Because, again with the caveat that you can hinge safely and skillfully, the swing can train many of the same qualities the deadlift does. But it boasts a few more benefits as well. Now I love me some deadlifts, don’t get me wrong. If you are looking for a display of overall strength, I’m not sure there is a better example than the deadlift. But it’s my belief that you only have so many of those in you each week. It’s a mildly taxing exercise after all(for those that don’t get it, that was sarcasm). But your hip hinge is an important pattern to train. That’s the beauty of swings. You can do a ton of them. As an example, my wife and I went twelve days in a row doing 1,000 swings a day. To put it mildly, this was hard. Hard but doable. We’ve also both done the 10,000 swing challenge workout by Dan John. And in 2014 and 2015, we rang in the New Year doing 2,015 and 2,016 swings respectively. Both years we did those swings in one sitting. The first year took me about 4 hours. The second was about 3 hours. I’m still recovering from that. The point of all this is to illustrate that again, you can do a ton of swings.
So this relates to the deadlift in that they are both hinge patterns. I would go so far as to say that the swing is just a deadlift, sped way up. Here’s the interesting part. I have improved my deadlift, without deadlifting, just by doing swings. The folks at Strongfirst and the RKC call this the WTH (What The Hell?) effect. I spent an 8 week cycle doing nothing but kettlebell work and within two weeks (that’s 2) of returning to the barbell, I set a belt-less (meaning no lifting belt, which is how I train now) PR or personal record. Now I could go on about this kind of stuff, observations and experiences, all day long but the name of this blog post is “The Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing.” So without further ado, here’s the list:
- When done with one hand, improves the activation of glute muscles (gets those sleepy butt muscles working better)
- When done with two hands, improves power and explosiveness (You may not care about this now, but as we age, our explosiveness is one of the things we lose.)
- Improves strength in the glutes, grip, upper back and core
- Improves posture (because of the strengthening mentioned above)
- Great conditioning/cardiovascular/work capacity tool
- Can be done almost anywhere
So with that list behind it, it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular exercise. It’s so valuable that we include it in our programming for Project Fitness more often than not. Pavel Tsatsouline, founder of Strongfirst, even wrote a book about a program centered on the Turkish Get-up and the Swing called “Simple and Sinister”. (It’s a great read and definitely a book that anyone interested in kettlebell training, or even just strength training in general, should own. You can find that here.)
Hip Bridges and Prone Bridges
So now that I have rambled on for almost five paragraphs about how great the swing is, let’s take a look at how to actually do one. Let me take you through the progression I would use with someone that doesn’t hinge well so you have a safe place to start. First things first, let’s get on the floor and perform some hip bridges.
You’ll want to pair up the hip bridges with a plank or prone bridge. The combination gets the glutes and the core awake and you need those two to come to the party when you’re doing swings or pretty much anything else movement-wise.
Okay, so once you have spent a little time with these two exercises and developed a little strength with them, it’s time to come to your feet. Next you will train a deadlift with a kettlebell. The kettelbell deadlift is a nice entry point into standing hip hinge movements. It can be done from the floor as in the video below. This movement can also be performed from box or stack of boxes. This changes the amount of range of motion needed and can be used to work with varying levels of mobility.
So now that you have practiced getting your glutes to contract hard with the hip bridge, strengthened your core and practiced the deadlift to perfect your hip hinge under a load/weight, you get to add some speed to it. For the swing the important things to remember are:
- Hike the bell back behind you.
- Don’t swing the bell too deep. Your wrists should hit you in the groin on the back swing. If your wrists are down around your knees, you will likely feel this in your back the next day.
- Your butt goes back, not down and your shins should remain close to vertical. It’s not a squat.
- After you have hiked the bell back, drive through your heels as hard as you can to propel the bell out in front to chest height.
- Keep a firm grip on the handle of the bell. For two reasons, 1) the harder you grip the handle the stronger your shoulders will be, and 2) you don’t want the bell to slip. Seriously.
- At the top of the swing, your glutes, abs and grip should all be tight and all your weight bearing joints should be in line with each other. This means head stacked over the shoulders. The shoulders should be over the hips and the hips over the knees. The knees are fully extended and over the ankles. If the bell gets really heavy though, you may experience a little lean back as your body counter balances the weight. Everything should still be in a straight line though, just not straight up and down.
1 Hand Kettlebell Swing
Now that you have mastered the swing with 2 hands on the bell, it’s time to move to the one handed swing. All of the above bullet points will still apply here as far as squeezing the glutes, core and grip etc. The biggest difference between the 2-hand vs. the 1-hand is :
- The amount of core work involved. The one hand has more core work as your trunk will want to rotate with the offset weight. You will need to counter this with the strength of your trunk.
- The amount of force vs. muscle activation. If you are looking for explosiveness, the 2-hand is probably the better way to go. If you want to really get the glutes to wake up, the 1-hand is the better option.
So you see, it’s not a matter of either or with the swing variations, it’s both. Take a look at the 1-hand swing below.
So after all of this, I hope I have, at the very least, convinced you to give this amazing exercise a try. Even though it did not make the list for my Mt. Rushmore, it’s still probably one of the best exercises that you could possibly do for yourself. If you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends. Keep an eye out for a future post detailing where you can get good bells (and other equipment for that matter) at a decent price. Have a great day.