Kettlebells are, as I’m sure you know, spherical weights with a large single handle and they look a little like cannon balls-shaped dumbbells. They’ve been around for hundreds of years and originate from Russia but have recently (re)gained popularity as they are a great all round training implement.
While there are literally hundreds of exercises that can be performed using a kettlebell, one of the most effective and popular is the two-handed swing. Ironically, this is also the exercise that is likely to cause most harm if performed incorrectly. Seemingly simple, the kettlebell swing can place an inordinate amount of stress on your lower back if you do not adhere to some basic postural principles and maintain a solid core.
Kettlebell Swing Anatomy
While there are numerous variations of the kettlebell swing, the muscles that are affected when performing these any of these variants are more or less the same. In simple terms, the kettlebell swing works everything on the back of your body from the base of your skull to your heels plus a few choice muscles located on the front of your body. More specifically, the kettlebell works the following muscles, listed from the top down…
- Upper trapezius
- Middle trapezius
- Latissimus dorsi
- Erector spinae
- Rectus abdominus
- Gluteus maximus
- Forearm flexors
I’m sure there are a few I’ve forgotten but you get the idea – swings can be considered a total body exercise.
The main area of interest in the kettlebell swing is the so-called posterior chain of erector spinae, gluteus maximus and hamstrings, often referred to as your “power zone”. Virtually every athletic endeavour is reliant on a powerful contraction of this group of muscles to generate an explosive hip extension. Your jumping, throwing, lifting and kicking ability will all improve if your posterior chain is well developed.
Even if you have no intention of launching yourself down a long jump take off board or exploding out of the starting blocks and running a 100 meter sprint, a powerful posterior chain is beneficial.
Spending long periods sat down and skipping your squats and deadlifts can leave you with weakness in this vital area. Weak glutes and hamstrings can lead to your lower back having to “take up the slack” when you bend down to lift heavy objects off the floor. This increases your risk of lower back injury. Also, if you have ever admired the derrière of an athlete and fancy building a b**t to be proud of, the kettlebell swing could be just the exercise you are looking for!
Kettlebell Swing Equipment
Needless to say, you need a kettlebell to perform this exercise but, if you don’t have access to one, you could use a single dumbbell or a medicine ball or other weight placed inside a strong bag. In terms of loading, I suggest you start fairly light and building up your weights gradually over the coming weeks and months. Increase volume before you increase weight.
The internet is rife with “experts” who promote 38kg/83.6lb or heavier kettlebell swings but unless your technique is rock solid, such a heavy load moving at a high velocity is a recipe for disaster. I suggest around 8-10kg for women and 14-16kg for men. There are numerous adjustable kettlebells available which mean you can gradually increase the weight you use a little at a time but these are only good for swings and not much else.
As your grip is an essential part of the kettlebell swing, make sure your hands are dry by using a sweat towel or, better still, lifting chalk before each set. The repetitive action of swinging a kettlebell can cause calluses so if you want to avoid this you may want to consider wearing training gloves.
For footwear, a low heeled, firm soled shoe is best. The momentum of the kettlebell will pull you forwards onto your toes and allowing this to happen can place your back in a disadvantageous position. Flat shoes can help prevent this. If you are training at home or your gym allows it, barefoot is a better option than spongy running shoes.
As this is a hip hinge exercise, make sure your shorts leave plenty of room for manoeuvre. Just like squats and deadlifts, kettlebell swings can put a lot of stress on the rear seams of your lower body wear so if you don’t want to suffer an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction make sure your shorts are up to the task! The technique ->