Written by Travis Mattern from Fitness Education Online
Which way do you swing? That’s an important question right? But it is maybe not quite the question you think it is, because I’m talking about the kettlebell swing. Get your mind out of the gutter, what were you thinking?
If you’ve been around gyms, CrossFit boxes, bootcamps and fitpros on the gram you’ll see people doing the kettlebell swing. What you’ll notice is that there are a couple of key ways to complete the swing; the Russian Swing or the American Swing. Seems pretty straight forward by the name, where each originated. But, kettlebells have been used by the Russian Special Forces, Strongmen and Athletes since at least the 1700s! Whereas, kettlebells hit popularity in North America in the 90’s thanks to the great Pavel Tsatsouline.
So what’s the difference?
In a nutshell, the big difference is how high you will be swinging the kettlebell. The Russian Kettlebell swing will stop at about chest height, whereas the American Swing will stop with the arms locked out overhead.
So what are two different options? Well, let’s first understand the purpose of the kettlebell swing. There are many different reasons someone might be adding swings to their workout routine, these might include:
- Developing explosive power from the hips
- Muscle recruitment of the core and posterior chain
As you can see, there are plenty of good reasons to complete a kettlebell swing. So, the next question is, what are the reasons to complete the American Kettlebell swing?
- Greater range of motion (ROM)
- Better standard of where the movement is complete
- Greater ROM = harder work
Realistically, that’s the best I could come up with and each of these reasons are essentially derived from CrossFit. The general CrossFit theory is that a Russian Swing is considered a ‘half rep’, why not complete it overhead? If you increase ROM we’re working harder and finally, the finish point of arms overhead by the ears is a nice standard to count reps. This theory however falls apart, because if you never do ‘partial’ repetitions deadlifting would be obsolete because you should only ever be cleaning.
So, if you’re not a cross fitter, should you be doing the American Swing?
No and here’s why:
- For a lot of people (me included), we’re just not mobile enough to complete the movement safely. For me to be able to hold my hands essentially together and put them overhead beside my ears, without compensating somewhere down the chain, it is (currently) near impossible for me (I say currently, because I hope one day I’ll be able to improve my mobility to be able to do it). But, I know I’m not alone with this restriction. Then, add in a 16kg weight, it just isn’t worth it (I’ll give some alternatives later).
- It takes it away from what it is supposed to be, an explosive hip hinge movement and makes people bring into play their shoulders more to ‘pull’ the bell up overhead. Again, doing this with an 8kg bell may not be an issue for many people, but try it with a 32kg bell (or don’t).
- Essentially, to do the movement correctly you’ll have to use a light weight, which will challenge the shoulders, but not the big muscle groups of the hips, glutes and hamstrings.
So, if you’re not American Swinging what can you do instead? Well to me, there are essentially two much better alternatives to swinging the bell overhead.
- The first would be to do heavier Russian Swings. Remember the general goal of the swing is to develop power, what better way to do this than being able to move more weight explosively. For me, one of the best cues to help someone become more explosive and powerful is by giving them a much heavier bell (provided their technique is sound), because there is NO way they can rely on their arms to swing the bell.
- The second exercise is the kettlebell snatch. This serves the purpose of completing a swing to fully overhead, but with a much lower risk of injury. Part of the reason for this is that it is a single arm movement. This allows for your body to move and rotate as both hands aren’t locking in together holding the bell. For novices the snatch is a pretty complicated and scary movement, which can be uncomfortable if you’ve not learnt how to complete it correctly. My advice is practice the single arm swing and single arm high pull to help pattern the snatch. Then study, get a coach, reach a book, do a course, or all of them to break down and learn the movement.
So to sign off, which way do you swing and why? Are you a CrossFit competitor or have you just been taught by someone who has learnt kettlebells through that environment.
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