Cleaning Up Kettlebell Swing Technique

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I don’t consider myself a kettlebell expert, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express once so that has to count for something.

Note from TG:  For those non-American folk who may be reading and have no idea WTF staying at a Holiday Inn Express has to do with anything let alone kettlebell training, maybe watching THIS clip will help.

For those who did get the joke:  Bwahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

In all seriousness, while I’ve never taken the RK or HKC or the Strong First course (it’s on my fitness bucket list though), or climbed Mt. Everest, I like to think that despite those minor short comings, I still know a thing or two when it comes to coaching the kettlebell swing, among other KB related exercises.

And while I’m on the topic, I always find it comical when I hear stories from my clients who travel and they tell me how, at certain gyms they’ve come across, they’re not allowed to use the kettlebells without a trainer’s supervision, as if they run the risk of poking their eye out.

Yet, upon watching said “certified” trainer (99.9% of the time not certified through Dragon Door or Strong First) demonstrate a KB workout, whether it entails swings, get-ups, cleans, or snatches, my client’s have to keep their corneas from perpetually bleeding because the trainer’s technique is just god-awful.

Like Jillian Michael’s god-awful:

All that said, because I don’t want to get all fired up and throw my laptop through the window, today I just want to hit on two often overlooked technique snafus that a lot of people make with their swings.

Number One:  making the mistake of allowing the KB to drop BELOW the knees.

I wrote a blog post on the difference between a squat swing (wrong) and a hip snap swing (right) a while ago (HERE), and I think anyone who’s curious should check that out first before going any further.

Outside of that, I stole the above gem from the one and only Neghar Fonooni, and it’s something that really made a lot of sense to me when I heard it, and high-five to myself, was something I was instinctively coaching already.

Most of us have heard the often quoted cue from Dan John about keeping the KB closer to the body and “attacking the zipper.” This works well, but I still often find that many trainees will allow the KB to drift below the knees which can wreak havoc on the lumbar spine.

This is more of an “eyeball” what-you-see-is-what-you-get observation, but if it’s something you find yourself or your clients doing, it would be a good idea to, you know, stop it.

Number Two:  allowing the KB to “get away.”

This was actually something I snaked from one of my clients who heard it from Dr. Stuart McGill who I think heard it from Han Solo. But I can’t back that up.

When we transition from the hike pass to the actual swing and end up with our arms full extended out in front of us, it’s important not to let the bell itself to “get away” and cause more shear load on the spine.

I always like to tell people they’re going to snap/push their hips through and the arms are just along for the ride.  When their arms are fulling extended, the objective is not to be holding on for dear life, they’re going to “relax” for split second, and pull the KB back down towards the swing portion.

During the “relax” portion, however, they want to be fast (and loose) at the top, but not to the point where the KB is going to jolt their spine (for lack of a better term).

The short video below (just a bit over two minutes) tries to hit on both points.  I hope it helps.  For those celebrating Labor Day Weekend – enjoy!

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  • Jason Pak

    Hey Tony,

    A good cue I like for helping people “tame the arc” is to imagine there’s a wall directly in front of them. If they extend too far – they’ll end up hitting the “wall”. That visual typically tightens up the swing pretty quickly for me.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Beautiful! Makes perfect sense. Thanks a bunch Jason.

  • Brent

    Great stuff Tony. A cue I like to use (especially for kyphotic peeps) is to NOT pack your neck on this exercise as counterintuitive as it sounds ( I think our good friend jillian demonstrates this beautifully…among other things). This does hell fire on ones already humpty dumpty back in my opinion.

    What’s your opinion on the ‘hissing’ breathing those KB peeps do Tony? I can’t get a hang of this, but obviously understand why it’s done. And of course to keep the bell close to the bod, I tell clients ‘bell to bell contact’ (assuming said client is a dude). Tends to keep the bell from floating below the knee (I’m waiting for the day this backfires on me and there is some actual bell to bell contact).

  • Kyle Schuant

    Before they can do a fast hip hinge, they need to be able to do a slow hip hinge. Bell at chest, top half of deadlift movement – slight bend in knees, chin forward, butt back, keep pushing butt back until your hamstrings scream in protest, now stand up straight, repeat. No, you’re squatting now – butt BACK, not down. Here’s a useful cue: pretend you have explosive diaorrhea, what will you do with your butt?

    For the breathing, I just tell people to expel their breath forcefully at the top. It’s the same principle as a martial arts “kiai”, when you do it, basically you plank.

    Many will round their shoulders forward at the top of the swing, if the bell goes forward then the person must lean back to stop falling over, these are the people who say, “swings hurt my lower back.”

    For many simply expelling the breath forcefully at the top will cure this. But others need to learn to “pack the shoulder”. I have them do a reverse plank – set up a barbell in the back at about thigh height, lie underneath it, pull your body up, keep it long and straight, now pull back with just your shoulders, keeping your elbows straight. If they can get that “packed shoulder” at the top of the swing, it stops their shoulders rolling forwards.

    In teaching the swing, I want to see a good hip hinge, a good plank, and a good reverse plank. Only when all three are good do I have them swing.

    Gyms typically lock up their kettlebells for two reasons. The first is member safety. Nobody just walks into a gym and tries a barbell snatch because they saw it on youtube, people do just try a kettlebell snatch. Last KB cert I did a trainer dislocated his shoulder snatching 16kg badly – he had a previous dislocation five years ago which he hadn’t rehabbed properly and he had done no strength work before; he was an unemployed trainer, you’ll be happy to know.

    The slow lifts with KB are no more nor less dangerous than the slow lifts with DB or BB, but if you’re just doing the slow lifts there’s not much reason to bother with KB, the results are the same. The quick lifts are where KB come into their own, and are all much the same risk whatever the shape of the chunk of iron you use, but people are just more likely to try the quick lifts with KB.

    The second reason gyms lock them up is that kettlebells are compact and have novelty value, so they get stolen.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Couldn’t agree more Kyle on all fronts. Just to save face on my own end, it’s not like I toss people under the bus and expect them to be able to perform a fast. dynamic hip hinge pattern on day one (although I do feel a decent swing can be coached in 5-10 minutes).

      I LOVE the cable pull-through for that point alone. It teaches the proper hip hinge pattern, albeit in am ore controlled manner.

      Also, I understand why KBs are locked up. I do get that a lot of people watch a YouTube video and think they know what they’re doing, and then inevitably end up hurting themselves. I meant my comment to be taken as tongue in cheek….;o)

      • Kyle Schuant

        I figured you knew, but not all your readers might know – it’s a process, and you need to be able to do A and B before you do C. Just today I saw a trainer with a woman, her shoulders hunched forwards as she swung, so of course her lower back bent. He knew there was a problem, but didn’t know how to fix it.

        And of course, many people do complain that their gym locks up the kettlebells. It brings to mind Planet Fitness banning the deadlift – if it’s coached well, it’s safe, if it’s not, it’s not… maybe it’s simply that they know none of their trainers know how to coach it…

  • I heard a coach say that your position at the bottom of the swing should be the same as if you were trying to stick your thumb in your butt, which is a crude but effective cue for not swinging the bell too low.

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahahahaha. Makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Jay

    Thanks for this post Tony! There is so much conflicting information on swings out there.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Glad you liked it Jay. I am in no way saying my way is the right way; but I like to think it’s close…..;o)

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  • A couple of times on a certain reality program for over-sized people has people swinging KB’s with the worst possible form. Makes you wonder who and what they are being taught and they’re supposed to be experts…

    • TonyGentilcore

      What show do you speak of?????……kidding.

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