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.
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). 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. Driving the shoulders into true overhead position isn’t as natural as you may think.
When forced to hit a true arms-directly-overhead position, many people compensate with movement in other areas, often arching their upper or (worse!) 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. Really think and focus on the American kettle bell swing, be super-controlled and mindful of your whole body, and you have your best shot.
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.
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 American kettle bell 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.
This seems to be a big question these days from beginners and from people who aren’t familiar with this type of training. My perspective comes from 30 years of weight training experience.
I’ve treated numerous people through the years from athletes to the general population, who were rehabilitating from injury. I read research papers, read science heavy books and articles, and stay on top of the latest and greatest data and research in the field of exercise science and nutrition.
I go to workshops, seminars, and meetings to constantly learn as much as I can, so I can share what I know to make a difference. I felt it was really important for you to know my ‘ backstory’ here so you can understand the different perspectives I have on this topic.
Kettle bells are extremely safe to do, providing you get the proper instruction. Kettle bell training is a unique and dynamic movement based training that requires coordination, motor control, strength, mobility, stability, and other physiological and performance components.
The thing you wouldn’t want to do is to try this on your own with no qualified instruction or making the mistake of getting an unqualified instructor. Shed any doubt you have about kettle bells not being safe by making it a high priority to get the right instruction.
Kettle bell training is a sensational training method for total body strength and power, cardiovascular fitness, joint health, improved flexibility, fat loss, improved performance, and much, much more. When starting out, I recommend and teach the 3 most fundamental exercises, which are the kettle bell swing, the Turkish get up, and the goblet squat.
Each of us move differently and depending on previous injuries, flexibility, strength, movement patterns, and other things, these 3 exercises could be challenging for some. And, I would add, when you’ve been assessed on whether you have good quality movement to perform these exercises.
The wrong way is to view a short video online by someone that may not have been properly trained in what they are doing and attempt to execute an exercise from that. It’s worth your time and money to invest in yourself and get the right instruction for safe training and the potential for outstanding results.
Specifically, the kettle bell swing has been shown to be a proven exercise to improve, not only spinal strength, but spinal strength endurance, which is key in preventing the incidence of low back pain. It’s the single most important exercise for a strong, healthy back for most people.
I’m not sure there is better exercise for total shoulder strength, mobility, stability, and health than the Turkish get up. Grab a kettle bell in your first week of training and start doing snatches like you’ve seen other more seasoned kettle bell enthusiasts perform with ease, and you’re playing with fire, there is no doubt you’re going to get hurt.
The same applies to grabbing a barbell in your first week of training and start snatching it like you’re in the CrossFit Games, you’re going to get hurt. This fact doesn’t change whether you take a dumbbell, tax, sandbag, fit ball or anything else, you need to respect the tool, treat it with care and progress from step one.
Progression is a journey of taking your kettle bell training step by step, a journey preferably done with a certified kettle bell trainer from any style or company —don’t get dragged into “this style is better”, learn them all— and usually starts with the conventional double-arm swing, progresses to single arm swing, cleans, presses, Turkish get-ups and snatches. The way a coach progresses you all depends on your learning capabilities and goals, here’s how I normally would progress someone with online coaching from nothing to a professional kettle bell enthusiast, taking into consideration that the student has no issues and is in good physical shape.
*I throw the “Assisted single-arm clean” in very early, as I like my students to get familiar with the corkscrew motion, dealing with the proper weight distribution of the kettle bell to avoid pressure on the forearm, which is not dealt with early-on hinders progression at the stage of racking, cleaning and pressing. Yes if you start doing weird things that you should not be doing or your body is just not ready for, otherwise, no they’re not bad for your shoulders, they’re amazing for shaping your shoulders, creating better range of motion, making them stronger and resilient to injury.
The people that ask these questions either have participated in a kettle bell class with a cowboy trainer teaching or heard their friend complain about their back who just started swinging the bell while watching the Julian Michael's version on YouTube. I would lie if I said I never seen anyone get injured during kettle bell training, I’ve never seen serious injury from a kettle bell, I have seen people out for a week because they did not listen to the weight suggested to them, they did not listen when the coach said, take a step back, regress and learn the hip hinge first.
And that’s understandable, being that a physician is more interested in the elderly patient’s blood work, blood pressure, heart function, medications, imaging results, etc. • Believe it or not, some trainers think this exercise is risky because it involves swinging up a weight and rocking the lumbar area back and forth.
• Many trainers actually don’t even do the kettle bell swing themselves, and hence have no idea just how effective this movement is. You might be thinking that trainers don’t promote the kettle bell swing for the elderly because this population simply cannot do it.
If an older person walked into the gym and is being guided through various exercises, they are capable of doing kettlebellswings at least to some extent. • Stand with feet wide apart, one KB in both hands, arms hanging straight.
• Someone whose shoulder is in such bad shape that even swinging up five pounds in both hands causes considerable pain. “The KB swing is an effective conditioning exercise and core strength developer.
“This is because the postural muscles of the low back/core respond very well to endurance training (higher reps), and also keeping the weight light and increasing reps will reinforce safe lifting form, before proceeding to a heavier load. “Also be sure to do plenty of mobility movements before and after the kettlebellswings to keep the joints loose and warm.”
They regularly visit the gym and have been doing strength training for a long time. They can start with a light weight as Cotter recommends and work up, doing anywhere from eight to 15 repetitions per set.
Gradually work up to heavier weights, but make your incremental increases by no greater than five pounds. For reconditioned elderly people who are new to strength training, practice the MOTION of the kettle bell exercise first.
The motion, minus the KB, can be taxing to the frail elderly after just eight reps. • Works the entire body; involves multiple joints at the same time.
For 30+ years Steve Cotter has promoted body-mind fitness around the world through martial arts, gong, mobility, flexibility and kettle bell training. Lorna Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise.
Top image: Shutterstock/The Faces Reviewed by Steve Cotter, IFF Trainer