Are American Kettlebell Swings Bad For You

Carole Stephens
• Sunday, 24 October, 2021
• 19 min read

It’s an explosive and natural expression of hip extension, a key portion of your vertical leap and your sprinter’s stride, too. You stand grasping a kettle bell with both hands, core tight, toes pointed ever-so-slightly outward, knees slightly bent.

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From there, you push your butt back slightly and hinge at the waist, letting momentum take the kettle bell behind your thighs. Momentum carries the kettle bell upwards and in front of you, and your arms drive forward, typically until they’re parallel to the ground, in the process.

It’s a simple move that safely targets the muscles most guys need to work (glutes and hamstrings), keeping the emphasis on those muscles when you chain multiple reps together. In practice, the American swing frequently takes the emphasis off your mammies and glutes, and average gym-goers over-involve muscles that aren't meant for the job, such as the shoulders and lower back.

In general, you always want to choose exercises that minimize risk and maximize the benefits that’ll push you to your goals. You should evaluate all exercises this way (and not be afraid to question your group fitness trainer either -- it’s their job to answer you).

American swing fans have two key arguments that fail to account for the way the general population actually moves. It’s a demonstration of true shoulder flexion at the top of each rep, that your mid- and upper-back muscles will fire.

In this way, it’s a total body exercise, and superior and more “complete” than the Russian kettle bell swing. So that means, by default, they’re destined to perform the American swing incorrectly (and I've seen “fit” folks wreck this move, too).

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Targeting muscles is important, even if “all-workouts-should-be-total-body” nation doesn't understand that, because it's a key method of correcting weaknesses in both your mechanics and your physique. Quick test: Lie with your belly on the ground, arms and legs long in front of you.

The basic swing lets you move a fairly heavy weight, since it relies on two of your body’s most powerful muscle groups, the legs and glutes, to generate the majority of the force. If those muscle groups can’t power the bell to the dumb American standard, the shoulders and lower back do the brunt of the extra work -- except they’re not meant to move the same load as the glutes and mammies.

So the shoulder muscles and smaller upper-body stabilizers take over that large load. The American swing crowd might contend that this isn’t all that different from a snatch anyway, hamstrings and glutes firing.

Thing is, both the barbell and single-arm snatch versions let you drive weights overhead while rotating and spreading your shoulders more freely to create joint space for your rotator cuff tendons. That can’t happen when both hands are grasping a kettle bell handle with a close grip.

They rely on high rep loads, and, eventually, fatigue piles on. Station-to-station randomness makes things worse: if the American swing’s your first move, your mind and your shoulder blades aren’t fatigued.

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You could go “lighter” on the weight with the American swing, both in a class setting and in your own workouts, focusing on form. Except then, your hamstrings and glutes, the targets of the classic swing, simply don’t get to move as much weight.

Unless you compete in CrossFit (where the American swing sometimes shows up in competition), the wildest part about the stupidity of the Americankettlebell swing is that there’s a much simpler way to achieve the super-aggressive hip extension and explosive glute contraction that it is supposed to bring. There’s a smarter, less injury-inducing way to push your glutes and hamstrings to “pop” more than they do on your average Russian swing.

Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is the fitness director of Men's Health and a certified trainer with more than 10 years of training experience. This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses.

Many people, mostly Cross fitters, are true fans of the Overhead Kettle bell Swing but I find the risks of this exercise far outweigh the rewards. For beginners overhead exercises can cause real problems because basic stabilization strength has not yet been developed.

More advanced lifters can also have issues with overhead exercises due to a lack of shoulder mobility leading to compensations further down the kinetic chain. As a dead lift based exercise that works predominately into the buttocks, hamstrings and core muscles I don’t see the benefit of jeopardizing the shoulders by lifting overhead.

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Most people nowadays due to more sedentary lifestyles suffer with mobility issues concerning the shoulders or thoracic spine. When you swing a kettle bell overhead tight shoulders or a limited upper back will lead to a compensation of movement further down the body.

Repeated overhead swings will continually arch and aggravate the lower back as you compensate for the lack of movement in the upper body. For most of the people I coach I want to get in more reps in less time to promote cardio benefits, so the Overhead Kettle bell Swing is less efficient for this.

As I mentioned above the AmericanKettlebell Swing requires a greater force production from the hips to drive the kettle bell overhead. In order to power the kettle bell overhead you will need to use less weight than the conventional swing to avoid bad technique and compensations in movement.

First beginners need to master the basic hip hinge movement, then how to isometrically hold the back flat during dynamic movement, and finally how to avoid overextension at the lower back all while coordinating timing with the arms and the kettle bell. A lack of power from the hips will also see an excessive lower back extension and many participants will lean backwards just to get the kettle bell into the top position.

Repeatedly swinging overhead with the hands together put the shoulders at risk, aggravates the lower back, reduces the amount of work and promotes bad form in beginners. With any kettle bell exercise you need to consider the true benefits of the movement, what are the risks and what are the rewards.

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Repeatedly swinging overhead with the hands together puts the shoulders at risk, aggravates the lower back, reduces the amount of work and promotes bad form in beginners. The biggest difference between the American and Russian Swing (AKA Conventional Kettle bell Swing) is the height the kettle bell ends at, explosiveness required and the involvement of the shoulders.

There is also the fact that you simply shouldn’t do an American Swing with a very heavy weight. Take the fact that everything else in CrossFit when it comes to barbell work is pretty much pulling, it’s quite easy for athletes to mistakenly apply that concept to the swing.

When it comes to programming, if you want to work the shoulders in a workout, then throw some Americanizing in, of course people will say “but there are better ways to work the shoulders”, this is true, but it’s not always about what’s better, we’d have some really boring programs if it was, and clients would get bored quite quickly. I can also see the American Swing as progression to the KB snatch or regression for those injured.

“On first being introduced to the kettle bell swing our immediate response was, ‘Why not go overhead?’ Generally, we endeavor, somewhat reflexively, to lengthen the line of travel of any movement. From physics, we know that the higher we lift something, and the more it weighs, the more ‘work’ we are performing.

Work performed divided by the time to completion is equal to the average ‘power’ expressed in the effort. Intensity, more than any other measurable factor, correlates to physiological response.

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Could it be that CrossFit simply needed a movement standard, i.e. above the head is easier to judge than shoulder height? I also don’t think the comment only referred to the American Swing but to general kettle bell exercises employed within CrossFit boxes.

Footnote: if you ’re really against the American Swing, a great alternative is the Kettle bell Snatch. If you enjoyed this article, check out the following article which delves into the explanation of using the back to lift weight incorrectly, and how to explain to your students what lifting with the back is.

Overhead requires a significant amount of shoulder mobility and trunk stability. If you are unclear on this, I would suggest investing in your knowledge and getting Gray Cook’s book Movement.” This is also the point at which the FMS requirements get a little less crystal-clear.

As soon as the L-spine hyper-extends (which will allow the arms to appear to get overhead), the pelvic floor shuts down and the trunk cylinder (normally referred to as the “core”) loses its ability to stabilize. Performance drops, injury likelihood increases, and competencies begin to pile up to accomplish the movement.

Things are not dark yet, but the world has apparently entered a sort of twilight state, limbo if you will. In fact, some experts would argue that a new Cold War between the American and Russian Swing could very well be more hazardous than the first.

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(Source: theworkingbodytherapy.com)

“This Cold War, its epicenter on Russia’s borders; undertaken amid inflammatory American, Russian and Ukrainian media misinformation; and unfolding without the stabilizing practices that prevented disasters during the preceding Cold War, may be even more perilous.” The power of the swing is generated from the hips while the spine is held perfectly stable and neutral.

At the apex of the swing, the kettle bell is at chest level, and the athlete’s glutes are contracted, quads are engaged, the stomach is rock solid and braced for impact, and lats are actively pulling the shoulders away from the ears. The Russian Swing is a great modality to teach athletes how to break at the abs, lats and glutes while using their bodies in a more efficient manner.

The kettle bell slows quite a bit once it passes the chest on the upswing due to this disadvantage. If you have enough hip drive to get the kettle bell all the way to the overhead American position then you should increase the weight.

Everyone doesn’t have access to heavy or multiple kettle bells and not all fitness enthusiasts want to train for explosive hip drive. If you are a trainer or a client of a boot camp style training session, the American Swing is an excellent way to increase your work capacity.

If you only have access to a light kettle bell, bringing the swing all the way to the overhead position increases the amount of hip drive required to get the kettle bell overhead which, in turn, increases the work capacity of the exercise. If you do suffer with any of the above conditions then poor technique can seriously aggravate your lower back and so it is not worth the risk for you.

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If you experience lower back pain while performing the basic hip hinge then you need to either work more on your technique or seek hands-on advice from a professional. If you are performing the kettle bell swing correctly then you should feel your buttocks, hamstrings and core muscles working hard.

If you have mastered the hip hinge, are swinging the kettle bell, but experiencing back pain then here are 7 reasons things may be going wrong: Controlling your pelvis is very important when performing any type of dead lift movement pattern including the kettle bell swing.

Tight quads and weak inactive ab muscles can cause the pelvis to tilt forwards resulting in an arch at the lower back. An excessive arch in the lower back (Lords) can pinch the nerves in the lumbar spine and disturb the intricacies of the vertebrae.

How to fix it: stretch out your quads frequently by lying on your belly and pulling your heel to your buttocks, at the same time pushing your groin into the floor. Secondly, brace your abs tight to prevent your pelvis from tilting forwards, think about pulling your tall between your legs.

A common problem with so many exercises is an excessive backwards lean often resulting from bad proprioception and weakness in the core muscles. Many people lean backwards during the swing because they lack the explosive strength from the hip drive to raise the kettle bell.

swing american kettlebell why dislike kid
(Source: tonygentilcore.com)

Excessive back extension is very common when performing the Americankettlebell swing and one reason I do not recommend it. How to fix it: contract your abs and buttocks tight at the top of the swing and bring your tail between your legs.

If you suffer from tight hamstrings then the movement at your pelvis will be restricted resulting with compensations at the lower back. The lower back should stay flat by isometrically contracting the muscles to maintain a neutral spine position throughout the swing.

You may experience lower and middle back pain after your kettlebellswings if you are making this swing mistake. If you suffer from middle back pain after your kettlebellswings then you may be squatting rather than dead lifting the kettle bell.

If you are trying to squat and swing at the same time then you will be overusing your arms and relying on your back muscles to maintain the kettle bell position out in front of you. When swinging correctly the power comes from the hips driving forwards and backwards and the arms merely control the kettle bell.

A warm bath and massage can help stimulate blood flow and improve healing times but ultimately it will be a waiting game. Wait until you are fully healed before regressing the movement to the single arm dead lift and taking note of the 7 points mentioned above.

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The kettle bell swing is a highly beneficial exercise but it is very unforgiving and easy to get your technique wrong at first. Kettlebellswings are excellent for strengthening the lower back, but they do need to be performed correctly using a good quality hip hinge movement.

What I want to point out in this blog is why I’ve also found it has helped so many of my clients who once suffered with lower back pain. Czech Republic’s Dr Vladimir Wanda is renowned for drawing our attention to the rise in “gluteal amnesia”.

This common problem is a typical side effect of too much sitting and basically means that the backside muscles have got so used to not working that they have permanently fallen asleep. To quickly get an understanding of how the gluteal muscles help your core, try leaning backwards from a standing position.

However, leading sports therapist to the Navy SEALs and NFL teams, Gray Cook comments: “ You can go to parallel in the squat without fully activating the glutes, however a Kettle bell Swing done with correct form will quickly light them up”.

Exercise physiologist Bret Contreras’ has also found that the Kettle bell Swing far exceeds the glute activation of a squat. This is perfect to open the muscles at the front of the hips, helping posture and taking the strain off the lower back.

kettlebell swing american overhead around recommend reasons why don gyms mostly crossfit
(Source: kettlebellsworkouts.com)

Prof. Stuart McGill has found that learning to brace the core is more effective for spinal health and longevity than the classic “hollowing” or pulling navel to spine. To make sure you are getting the most from your Kettle bell Swing for a strong lower back you can watch the video tutorial below.

I've listened to many of your interviews and incorporated much of what you and Tim have recommended into my weekly workouts, specifically the kettle bell swing. But just recently, Tim interviewed Charles Poliquin, and he highly recommended NOT doing kettlebellswings saying it was bad for the back.

The most striking flaws coming to my mind is not to brace on the top (hyper extension), not to pull the shoulder blades back, not letting the bell coming back to your braced body (hinging far to early), to let the body twist in one hand swings, too much squatting. Studies need to be looked at individually as most would have to be conducted on inexperienced practitioners to get a decent sample size, plus the time frame parameters of an average study would also most likely not allow for one to meet an SF swing standard if not already familiar with it, again the study would need to be presented to be discussed rather than just referenced. As for the argument that “weightlifting must go vertical against gravity” (paraphrasing his original statement) the force plate studies conducted on KB ballistics show a very high output of force in this plane, after all the subjects were standing on a force plate.

Just because the bell is moving more away from the center of mass does not change the force vector, it remains vertical. Given the scientific evidence presented by very credible researchers in this community, not to mention the vast amount of combined years of experience ALL producing similar results and conclusions I wouldn't give validity to his brief statements without analyzing the studies he's using to form his opinion.

Kettle bell Simple & Sinister” has been endorsed by #1 spine biomechanic in the world Prof. Stuart McGill and leading PT expert Gray Cook. Among SFG instructors you will find chiropractors, MDs, and PTs who not only coach the swing for performance but use it in rehabilitation.

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Cyrus, you wrote, “I’m hoping there is a 'right' way of doing the kettle bell swing...” If you are doing kettlebellswings as we teach them here at Strongest, and you are reaping the benefits, and you're not getting injured, carry on with what you're doing! The kettle bell swing is a powerhouse when it relates to burning fat, building muscles, and improving your cardiovascular system.

Burn a bunch of calories Studies#1 The American Council on Exercise (ACE), researchers found that a kettle bell workout can burn up to 20 calories a minute (1). This means that a 20-minute kettle bell workout could burn up to 400 calories.

The participants would use a 16 kg (35lbs) kettle bell to complete the workout. They were told to go at their own pace and take as much rest as they needed.

The subjects completed an average of 265 swings in the 12-minute workout. Using a metabolic cart, researchers found that the participants burned an average of 160 calories in the 12 minutes, an average of 22 swings per minute (2).

The heavier you are, the more calories you will burn (assuming all other variables are equal). Obviously, the heavier the kettle bell, the more calories you will burn (assuming all other variables are equal).

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The subjects completed an average of 22 swings per minute. It is fair to say that not everyone will burn an average of 20 calories per minute, like in the Ace study.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will only burn 160 calories in 12-minutes, like in this study. There are too many variables that determine how many calories a person could burn for any given activity.

Age Weight Gender Activity level Your lean body mass (more LBM equals more calories burned) Your metabolic rate Full body workout The Kettle bell swing works your core, back, shoulders, hamstring, quads, glutes, forearms, and chest.

Move that shit as fast as you can (while keeping control) for 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 5 reps. The Kettle bell swing used in high-intensity workouts such as HIIT AND Tabatha will increase your anaerobic (without oxygen) capacity.

Aerobic capacity is the ability of your body to transport and use the oxygen you breathe. If you ever have felt out of breath after just 3 or 4 minutes of jogging, then you need to increase your aerobic capacity.

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Your heart and lungs will curse the day you were born, but you ’ll improve your aerobic capacity. A lot of people use their arms too much to perform the swing.

Kettle bell swing workout # 2 Kettlebellswings from hell The last time I completed this challenge, I lost 8 pounds in the first seven days.

The prescribed kettle bell weight for this challenge is: For women-16 kilos or 35 pounds. If you are feeling brave, you can perform this workout a few more times.

Just make sure you rest an adequate amount of time between workouts. The kettle bell swing is a serious way to pack on muscle, increase your strength and cardiovascular endurance, while burning a shit ton of calories.

They are an excellent way to get your workout on and kick some ass in the least amount of time possible and without having to leave the comfort of your home. You can buy a kettle bell anywhere, from sporting goods stores, Amazon, and even Walmart.

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If you are unsure of which brand to buy, We own two CAP kettle bells. I have done multiple 10,000 kettlebellswings challenges, and these kettle bells have withstood all the abuse.

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1 kettlebellsworkouts.com - https://kettlebellsworkouts.com/kettlebell-deadlift/
2 101exercise.com - https://101exercise.com/leg-exercises/kettlebell-deadlift
3 www.healthline.com - https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/deadlift-muscles-worked
4 hashimashi.com - https://hashimashi.com/kettlebell-deadlift/
5 www.strongfirst.com - https://www.strongfirst.com/community/threads/which-is-more-effective-for-deadlifts-kettlebell-or-barbell.9472/