You stand grasping a kettle bell with both hands, core tight, toes pointed ever-so-slightly outward, knees slightly bent. 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 kettlebellswing. 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.
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.
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 kettlebellswing 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.
And when they’re used in the right way, kettle bells can yield outstanding benefits, some of which cannot be easily provided with most other fitness tools. You can do some things with a kettle bell that you just can’t do with other traditional strength training tools.
And get this: the group that trained with kettle bells saw significant reductions in pain in all areas tested (i.e. neck, shoulders, lower back). And these were adults with a median age of 44 years who had been suffering from chronic pain.
Worksite intervention using kettle bell training reduces pain in the neck/shoulders and low back and improves muscle strength of the low back among adults from occupations with a high prevalence of reported musculoskeletal pain symptoms. Now, it’s true that kettle bell training or “explosive lifting” (a term I disdain), can be dangerous if it is done improperly, as can any other form of exercise.
But that risk can be greatly managed through proper instruction, progression, and other key aspects of safe training that any good coach will implement. Suffice to say, proper training, whether it’s with a kettle bell, club bell, barbell, or a sandbag greatly reduces the risk of injury.
But some people think that all overhead strength training exercises are too risky and lead to shoulder problems (e.g. impingement). My response is that overhead exercises are risky when you don’t have the mobility (i.e. range of motion) and stability (i.e. strength) required to perform them properly, which is more common than you might think due to misuse, disuse, and abuse.
In the same breath, when it comes to training overhead exercises, I think the kettle bell represents a safer, more functional tool than barbells and dumbbells because of its offset center of mass. This allows the kettle bell lifter to “move around” the weight instead of the more restricted, linear movement pattern that a barbell or dumbbell requires.
For example, when you press a kettle bell overhead, your shoulder naturally rotates. They’re lifeless metal objects that don’t do much besides take up space.
It’s true that many kettle bell exercises involve postures and movements that deviate from conventional exercise positions (e.g. standing, sitting, or laying down with a neutral spine). Now, some people would say that an exercise like the Turkish Get-up should never be performed because it takes the spine out of neutral position under load.
To that I would say, the TGU, when performed properly, involves a neutral spine throughout the full range of motion of the exercise. Any deviation from a neutral spine (which is not a fixed position, per se, but a range) is very slight.
So, anyone who cannot perform a TGU without a neutral spine probably lacks either the knowledge on how to perform it properly or lacks the shoulder or hip mobility that’s necessary (i.e. a very common problem for our sedentary culture). And by the way, life and sport doesn’t happen in perfectly controlled positions.
And there is much value in training outside those “perfect posture” ranges and linear movement patterns. Seriously, whoever makes this claim probably doesn’t understand much about strength training or muscle building.
What they probably mean is that you won’t win any pro bodybuilding or powerlifting competitions with kettle bells. So, assuming you adhere to the main principles and best strategies for strength and muscle building, kettle bells can certainly do the job.
Now, to maximize one’s strength and hypertrophy, and approach your genetic limits (e.g. professional bodybuilding or powerlifting), heavy weightlifting will be necessary. But most people don’t even come close to their genetic potential or need to use ultra-heavy weights to achieve their strength and muscle building goals.
At least, that’s one way of looking at it, which I would argue is outdated because it’s based on body parts and muscle groups instead of movement patterns and kinetic chains (see Anatomy Trains by Myers). But when it comes to movement and performance in real life (e.g. vocations, athletics, etc.
And I’d say it’s a good thing when you can emphasize them both, which is what happens with most kettle bell exercises. And if safety is your #1 goal, then activities like walking carefully, playing mini-golf, and doing water aerobics with a personal flotation device may be preferable to swinging kettle bells.
You see, kettle bell training is really effective for a few training goals (e.g. increasing strength endurance being a prime example), and it’s pretty effective for almost everything else (e.g. fat loss, muscle building, improving conditioning, etc.). As mentioned before, you can accomplish a lot with a good kettle bell training program (e.g. strength, endurance, agility, body transformation, etc.).
No one in their right mind would think they could learn Olympic weightlifting without a coach (i.e. unless you’re a Cross fitter, but I jest…) because it’s a technical skill that requires instruction, practice, and feedback to learn and perform safely. So, you don’t start someone off with a double kettle bell snatch or the long-cycle clean and jerk, which are both highly technical exercises.
You start with a basic rock-it drill or the hard-style two-handed swing or the goblet squat, all of which almost anyone who is healthy enough to exercise can learn in minutes. So, you’ll get to the point where even an exercise like the double kettle bell snatch is manageable.
He says that kettle bells “are a tremendous tool in actually preventing injury” and that they are “extremely safe…provided you get the proper instruction.” (source) And therein lies the key. Weightlifters, runners, yogis, and all sorts of other people get hurt from training, all the time.
And smart athletes and fitness enthusiasts become masters of managing risk. Note: One of those is the risk of a fearful mindset negatively effecting your performance.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to expand upon what Scott said because I agree that kettle bells can be an effective injury prevention tool. In a study for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, back specialist, Dr. Stuart McGill and his team concluded that “quantitative analysis provides an insight into why many individuals credit kettle bell swings with restoring and enhancing back health and function, although a few find that they irritate tissues.” In other words, kettle bell training is therapeutic and restorative for some people, and problematic for others.
So, if I had to venture a guess, it would be that kettle bell training is more likely to be problematic for people who: a) have a history of medical problems (e.g. back pain) or another pre-existing condition that would predispose them to injury (i.e. that requires rehabilitation prior to vigorous physical exercise) b) don’t receive proper instruction in kettle bell training and/or don’t use proper form, programming, progressions, etc.
c) ignore common warning signs and pain signals Said another way, I think that kettle bell training is most problematic for people who are doing it wrong.
In the same vein, anyone who says that kettle bells are the best way to achieve any and all fitness goals is wrong, too. Kettle bells are just one tool in the toolbox that offer some unique advantages and disadvantages.
Note: Chris Beardsley has a superb summary of the latest kettle bell research here. One of the newer exercise tools on the market is the kettle bell, a weight in the shape of a ball with a handle on the top.
And like with all tools, if used correctly and for the right job, kettle bells will yield good results. But if used incorrectly, kettle bells could be potentially dangerous and/or ineffective.
However, if you read the research or talk to trainers, you’ll discover that they’re not supposed to be done for high repetitions with low rest periods because they’re very stressful on the joints. But with an exercise like the kettle bell swing, you can get a lot of the benefits of plyometric exercise (very high intensity) without leaving the ground (no impact).
In short, they provide some much-needed butt work. A good treadmill for your home will set you back at least $1,000 and probably more if you want a higher quality one.
As someone that’s been working out for almost 3 decades now and has a physical therapy background, I’m all about doing things safety and effectively. My point is that kettle bells, as simple as they are, require a high level of technical skill and proper instruction to perform correctly and safely.
With my strong exercise and biomechanics background, I was thoroughly impressed with the level of training from the instructors at the Dragon Door organization. This is the organization that began the kettle bell revolution more than 10 years ago in the United States.
Basically, this article discusses the importance of qualified kettle bell instruction for 2 major reasons, which I’ve already mentioned, safety and effectiveness. He is a CSS (Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist) which is a highly respected and well known fitness industry credential.
It’s a grueling, high mentally and physically demanding 3 day intense immersion in kettle bells, strength training, and teaching instruction. With that said, at the end of the 3 days, there is usually about a 70% pass rate which means 30% of the people do not come away from that weekend with the credential of ROC.
But for the “survivors” that do pass, they are skilled at performing and teaching the fundamental kettle bell exercises. I feel that the learning and skill development with this type of training really continues to evolve over time and that goes for all of us.
This is also an outstanding baseline of instruction for the key kettle bell exercises: the swing, the Turkish get up, and the goblet squat. I fully support the concept in the LA Times article that you need to be aware of the training someone has had if they are teaching you kettle bells.
With so much “noise” out there, especially in the area of fitness and weight loss, it’s a smart decision to educate yourself and ask is this person qualified to teach me ?” Remember, kettle bell training requires attention to detail and precision and strength with movement.
As Brett Jones (Master ROC) states, “there is a huge difference in swinging a kettle bell and performing a kettlebellswing.” For muscle building, fat loss, and improved strength and performance, kettle bells are an outstanding tool in the toolbox.