Why I Dislike the American Kettlebell Swing

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To any overly patriotic or political zealots out there who may have misread, note the title does not say “Why I dislike America.”

To everyone else, notice too that the title doesn’t say “I hate the American kettlebell swing.”

Hate is such a strong word anyways; more appropriately reserved for things like Hitler, ebola, global warming, Gwyneth Paltrow playing the role of a health & fitness authority, poodles, and skinny jeans.

Oh, and side walk solicitors.1

No, I dislike it. Or maybe, “mildly need to resist the urge to jump through a glass door whenever I see it done.”

But not hate.

I’ll explain why below.

What’s a Kettlebell?

It first may be prudent to get some particulars out of the way. Like, for instance, explaining what a kettlebell is in the first place?

Well, that’s what’s Wikipedia is for:

The kettlebell or girya is a cast-iron or cast steel weight used to perform ballistic exercises that combine cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training. They are also the primary equipment used in the weight lifting sport of girevoy sport. Russian kettlebells are traditionally measured in weight by pood, which (rounded to metric units) is defined as 16 kilograms (35 lb).

In other words: it’s one of those “cannonball with a handle” looking thingamajigs that you see all those people at your gym pushing, pulling, hoisting, and tossing every which way in an effort to 1) perform a legitimate exercise such as a swing, get-up, snatch, clean & press, Farmer carry, amongst many, many others 2) perform an exercise that makes absolutely no sense for its intended design and/or use.

Like this:

Although, giving credit where it’s due, this is kind of badass. Albeit from a cost-benefit standpoint I see little upside.

And 3) to look cool. <— Research backs this up.

Kettlebells are a very useful piece of equipment, a piece of equipment I use often with my own athletes and clients, but I do find some people take an elitist attitude towards them to the point where things like barbells and dumbbells are considered obsolete or inferior (which I feel is an absurd stance to take).

It’s a minority take, but a take nonetheless.

The Kettlebell Swing

Splitting the conversation further is the swing; one of, if not the most popular exercise performed with a kettlebell.

FMS and Strong First instructor, Brett Jones, showcasing the Russian Style (and I’d argue, correct) swing.

I’ve written several articles in the past expounding my take/approach to the swing and I’m not going to belabor my point(s) here. If interested you can peruse THIS, THIS, and THIS article. We can high-five later.

I’d also encourage you to seek out information from the likes of Dan John, Dr. Mark Cheng, Jen Sinkler, Neghar Fonooni, Gray Cook, and Iron Body Studios (Artemis Scantalides and Eric Gahan):

 

All the coaches/peeps mentioned above advocate the “Russian” style swing as opposed to the “American” style. To which I say, “Samsies.”

What’s the Difference?

Russian Style = less ROM, more vodka.

American Style = more ROM, because, why not? And, America!

 

There are adamant supporters in both camps, and both make solid cases for why their style is the style everyone should be using.

And, as far as internet pissing contests are concerned, it’s an “argument” that ranks right up there with the low bar squatters vs. high bar squatters, steady state cardio vs. HIIT cardio, meat eaters vs. vegetarians, and you better bet your ass this calls for a Rocky vs. Drago reference.

I have to say, though, the “American” advocates have a far less stellar rationale (it’s just my opinion of course) for their style.

Let’s discuss shall we?

My Case Against the American Style Swing

I posted the following question on Twitter yesterday:

Little Help: can anyone provide benefits/advantages for the “American” KB swing?

I received this well-thought out response (which made me chuckle):

“Looks more hardcore in METCON.”

However the bulk of responses fell in the line with:

“To practice the movement for CrossFit competition. Sport specific practice, in essence.”

“It is measurable in the context of the bell has to be fully extended overhead to be a rep is the only thing I can think of.”

It’s hard for me to counterpoint that train of thought. I get it, I respect it, and I can appreciate any “specificity” that’s involved. You don’t get better at swimming by riding a bike just like you don’t get better at American style swings by not doing American style swings (for competition).

CrossFit competitions are one thing (and even then, why?). Where I feel things get dicey are for those CrossFitters who don’t compete and when personal trainers/coaches start using the American style with their regular clientele who, again, don’t compete and more importantly, have poor movement quality…all because they watched the wrong YouTube video, or Jillian Michaels DVD.

Mind you, there are plenty (not a lot) of people who can perform an American style swing and not make my corneas bleed.

It’s a learned skill just like any other exercise – with a right way and wrong way to do it (I think) – and I’m sure it’s not too hard to find passable images on Google.

However, lets not kid ourselves…most people who do it end up looking like this:

Or this:

Maybe it’s the cynical coach in me speaking, but all I see is forward head posture, excessive lumbar extension (both primarily compensation patterns for limited shoulder flexion mobility; or the ability to get your arms over your head, and lack of lumbo-pelvic-hip control; or limited anterior core strength/stiffness), and a local physical therapist salivating.

And who knows: maybe the pics taken above were rep # 117 of a WOD, where technique is bound to take a hit. Either way, my back hurts looking at it.

I am not at all against people training overhead.

I just feel the vast majority of people need to earn the right to do it.

(Check THIS out for more details on that front).

Many people just don’t have ample enough shoulder flexion and/or lumbo-pelvic control to get their arms overhead without blatant compensations and (potentially) serious ramifications down the road – much less be competent enough to add load and repetitions (unfortunately, usually both).

Someone was kind enough to link to THIS article on Twitter written by CrossFit serving as a rebuttal to everyone else’s rebuttal that, for 90% of people 90% of the time, the American swing, and I’m paraphrasing here, fucking stupid.2.

See! An example of a better, “passable” American swing where the hips get through into more terminal extension. Understandably the criteria for a CF competition isn’t to get the hips through, it’s just whether or not the arms get overhead.

From the article itself:

“On first being introduced to the kettlebell swing our immediate response was, “Why not go overhead?” Generally, we endeavor, somewhat reflexively, to lengthen the line of travel of any movement. Why? There are two reasons.

The first is somewhat intuitive. We don’t do half rep pull-ups, we don’t do half rep squats, and we don’t do half rep push-ups. If there is a natural range of motion to any movement we like to complete it. To do otherwise seems unnatural. We would argue that partial reps are neurologically incomplete.”

I’ve already pointed out my disdain for assuming everyone can train overhead. It’s just not true, and I applaud any CF box or affiliate who take the time to properly screen their clients beforehand to better ascertain who can and cannot perform movements overhead…safely.

Shout-outs to Coolidge Corner CrossFit and CrossFit Resilience (two boxes I know screen their clients).

I almost shit a kettlebell when I read that second paragraph.

First off, every gym does half rep everything. Walk into any gym, anywhere, and you’re bound to see people “cheating” their lifts. Some lifts warrant partial reps – block pulls, Anderson squats, board presses, etc. There’s a ton of efficacy for partial ROM lifts, typically to address a technique flaw or weakness in one of the “big 3.”

But I’m sorry, CrossFit isn’t anything special, needs to be held to the same litmus test, and recognize that people cheat their lifts just as much there as in any other gym (commercial, collegiate, private, or otherwise).

All of that comes down to coaching anyways.

Secondly, You don’t do partial rep pull-ups?

Um, what the hell are kipping pull-ups then? They’re certainly not full- ROM. Puh-lease.

 

Here’s another doozy from the same article:

“From physics we know that the higher we lift something, and the more it weighs, the more “work” we are performing. Work is in fact equal to the weight lifted multiplied by the height we lift the object. Work performed divided by the time to completion is equal to the average “power” expressed in the effort.

When we swing the kettlebell to overhead, the American swing, we nearly double the range of motion compared to the Russian swing and thereby double the work done each stroke.”

Who says you have to increase ROM (and do more work) to make an exercise better? It’s the American way I suppose. We work more, take less vacation, and are otherwise stressed to the gills because we’re a-holes like that.

More is better, right?

With the swing – as with more conventional exercises like the bench press, squat, and deadlift – it’s not (always) about how much more work you can do (by increasing ROM) to make it better or harder or more effective. With the latter examples it’s about doing LESS work to improve efficiency and to take better advantage of one’s unique anatomy and leverages.

This is why many coaches advocate a low-bar position when squatting or why we tinker with deadlifting style to get the hips closer (laterally speaking) to the bar. Some do better with conventional deadlifts while others do better with Sumo. It depends.

Lastly, with regards to the American swing being more “powerful” compared to the Russian style I’ll defer to THIS excellent post by Mike Young on why that’s not the case.

I’ve also seen it argued that the American swing produces more force due to the increase in ROM. Sorry, but force output is more about forward motion, not up (the bell actually slows down the higher you go).

Not to mention – from a personal standpoint – I feel there’s more room for error with the American style swing. Taking compensation patterns and physical limitations out of the discussion, the increased ROM often lends itself to the bell traveling well below the knees for most people, which can lead to much more “stress” to the lumbar spine – something I’d like to avoid altogether.

Although the KB snatch is very similar, so I guess the real culprit is one’s ability to “clear” the hips and get overhead.

Additionally, I’ve heard stories of people losing the bell overhead, where it ends up flipping over and the bell falls.

In the End

This is not an attack on CrossFit or any coach who uses this particular style – relax. Far be it from me to tell any coach what he or she should be doing with their clients. If they want to coach their swings American style, have at it. They have their reasons.

It’s also not about pandering to which style is right or wrong. However I do feel the Russian style is more optimal and a better fit for most people. Why fix what isn’t broken?

All of this is my opinion – one it’s hopefully coming across in a respectful, “huh, that makes sense” kind of way – and as with anything in this industry the right answer as to whether or not the American style swing is a good fit for you is…it depends.

It depends if you compete in CrossFit. If so, I get it. I guess.

It also depends on whether or not you have the requisite shoulder flexion and anterior core stability to go overhead. Most people don’t.

It also depends on the cost-benefit. I argue there’s little upside to performing it. It does make your METCON finisher look more hardcore. Yay?

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  1. You know what I’m talking about: Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, Society for Gonorrhea Free Amazonian Rainforest Monkeys, whateverthefuck.

    Listen, I appreciate your cause and I respect the fact you’re trying to build awareness to an issue you’re passionate about. I also “get” that you have to deal with a lot of angry people throughout the day tossing you evil looks and basically treating you like a non-human. But when I say “sorry, not interested” in a tone that’s pretty neutral…you following me, pestering me, grabbing my shoulder, or say something condescending like “oh, you don’t care about children?” wouldn’t be my first choice of how to respond if I were in your shoes, nor is it going to suddenly change my mind to stand there for 10 minutes and listen to the same spiel I said “not interested” to roughly 9,508 times in the past year.

  2. Not for everyone. Like I said, there are people who can perform it well. Those people are just few and far between in my experience.

  • There is a secondary issue with this type of swing. Which is the trajectory of the bell on the decent.

    With a ‘russian swing’ the bell curves around the central axis (right about the center of gravity) which allows the athlete to load their hips to decelerate the bell. To bring the bell up and into the hips. this forms a very natural hinge pattern.
    With the ‘american swing’ the bell tends to fall straight down. Which makes it nearly impossible to use angular momentum to load the hips. So invariably you end up with a violent deceleration. The only way to decelerate the bell is to squat down slightly (similar to a wall ball). Forcing the athlete to start the swing in an incorrect (squat swing) body position.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Bang on, and beautifully stated. Thank you John.

      • Shit.. you addressed this in the article and I missed it. I generally try to only comment when I’m adding something (honest)

        • TonyGentilcore

          Nah, I like what you said better……

    • Shane Mclean

      Great point John.

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  • I am all on board with being respectful – but sometimes you have to call BS.

    “From physics we know that the higher we lift something, and the more it weighs, the more “work” we are performing..”

    WHAT!!! That author needs to maybe go back and do some high school physics.

    In a straight line work is weight X distance, not height. If you were lifting the object from the floor to overhead (e.g. olympic lift) in a vertical path then yes, going the extra distance does equate to more work. But the swing is a rotation around an axis, so force is directed perpendicular to the rotation axis. The result is a force that starts to go upwards and then backwards at the midpoint of the swing, and the ensuing momentum resulting in provably less work done. That is why it is damn near impossible for people to get terminal hip extension – as that would encourage the kettle bell further along its path backwards.

    And then John Brooks comment comes into play with the force path now heading down (and backwards until the momentum is arrested by the extended spine)…

    • TonyGentilcore

      Exactly. This is why I linked the the article from Mike Young. He articulates this point better than I ever could. You as well.

      THANK YOU!!

    • Christian Gotcher

      Could you clarify this?

      I’m with Tony on the overall picture- I don’t think the American Swing is appropriate or necessary for most lifter. However, I’d like to understand what you’re saying here and it’s not making sense to me. Specifically this line:

      “…The ensuing momentum resulting in provably less work done.”

      Are you suggesting that a lifter who completes an American Swing with the same-weight kettlebell is doing *less* total work than someone who stops the motion at the eye level? Since work only applies in the direction opposite the resistance, and the resistance here is gravity, the only distance that matters in the assessment of work is the final height, correct?

      • Sure Christian 🙂

        First – no, I am not saying that an American Swing is less TOTAL work than a regular swing. There is definitely more work being done to create the extra momentum to take the bell above eye height.

        What I do mean is that the amount of work being done by the person once the kettle bell goes above horizontal is reducing, and is not equal to the amount of work that would be done to lift the same weight in a pure vertical lift…

        This is the point I was trying to dispute in the article being referenced by Tony. They were basically saying that “because physics”, weight lifted from the ground to a height above the ground is alway the same amount of work no matter if you lift it straight up or swing it… But the truth is more complex, and in a swing path, although the total mathematical work done in both movements will end up being the same (the equations will come back the same), the work done by the lifter will be different.

        I am not an engineer, so I won’t pretend to be able to answer this well, but my point is that for them to say that all movements of a weight from point A to point B require the same work by the person lifting is a fallacy; leverage, momentum, and gravity all play varying roles in the equation.

        (On the flip-side, and just to confuse things, when you do multiple swings, the american swing may end up with less work done by the lifter because they have MORE gravity stored as energy in their limbs during the downswing, that they can redeploy for the next swing, particularly if they let the bell go back quite far under their legs…. Not sure about this one, but I’d love to see some engineers actually calculate the differences!!)

  • Can’t say I much care for the kettle-bell swing myself. Although I do agree with you that the Russian-Style movement is much better than American.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Perfectly fine. Not everyone NEEDS to do the swing anyways.

      Glad you’re on team Russian (in this instance).

  • Simon Hikaka

    You’ve not talked about the swing used in kettlebell or girevoy sport. Single arm swings play an important part in conditioning for GS but the swing is used to enhance timing and power…shoulder height is the maximum height used but most often much lower. In girevoy sport (snatch)…which is single arm…you do change the trajectory of the bell from arc into a more vertical bell path. We do this in order to preserve grip as a competition set is 10 min long. It also makes fixation overhead much easier as the bell is travelling more vertical. The drop is similarly more vertical, using a cork screw action and the bell is caught at chest height at 45° angle with the thumb pointing backwards. The legs and hips also work differently from a two handed swing as you have knee and hip flexion and extension on the backswing and again on the forward swing. The forward is swing is like the second pull in an olympic barbell lift, you follow the bell until it is just in front of the knees then you stand up…changing the arc to a more vertical trajectory. I’ve digressed enough from the topic at hand and won’t go into the rotation you have as well. All I’m really trying to say is that in GS we screen for the overhead lock out position…most people can’t achieve this when they first start training GS and it is often months before they have the requisite static and then dynamic mobility/flexibility to achieve this safely. I can’t see the benefit of the American swing for anything useful?

    • kylee

      I was thinking the same thing. I don’t understand why one would bother with American style. I personally started with Russian style with very heavy bells for conditioning and started taking some KB sport classes which I found to be fun because I had a great coach. The two styles differ but I think both are useful for different things. But the American style… why not just clean and jerk or snatch. Why is it even a thing… I did try a crossfit 6 week class once and one of the reasons I thought it was dumb was this kettlebell style amongst other things like Kipp ing pull ups and the fact that I was a better olympic lifter than the “coach”.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Simon I did mention the snatch towards the end of the article, albeit briefly.

      That’s another argument against the American Swing too. It’s basically a snatch.

      But the bigger picture to consider is the statement I made “you need to earn the right to go overhead.”

      Most people aren’t capable of doing so – whether it’s a swing, snatch, or overhead press – without major compensations.

      Thanks for chiming in. Very insightful stuff!

  • John P

    Great post, Tony. It seems like that crossfit article confounded “work” with ROM. If you want to increase the “work”, increase the weight, limit the ROM, and spare your shoulders! Or if ROM means that much to you, do a kettlebell snatch. Also, if we’re going to prioritize a concept from physics, the “jerk” is clearly the best 😉 It’s the time rate of change of acceleration https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerk_(physics)

    • TonyGentilcore

      All valid points John – thanks for chiming in. And, maybe it was an old(er) article on their end? Not sure how long ago it was printed.

  • Andrew St Jean

    The kettlebell swing hasn’t been included in the Crossfit Games since the 2011 regional event, so that kind of diminishes the “train for your sport argument”. Although, if you are competitor, you never know if they will start to include it again despite the difficulties in judging it, so I can see the point in programming them occasionally. I think it’s mostly just nostalgia from the early Crossfit days and its appearance in a few early and popular benchmark workouts for why it still hangs around.

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  • Shane Mclean

    I don’t have to walk a tightrope because it’s not my blog and you know your audience better than I do but American swings are crap and have no place at all except for Crossfit. The people who invent things usually know how to you them best aka Russia.

    • TonyGentilcore

      How do you really feel?

      • Shane Mclean

        Congrats on having a couple of articles this week in The PTDC. I always love sarcasm, keep it coming mate.

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  • Vince

    Thanks Tony ! It was a pretty good article to read in the morning.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Only “pretty good.” Not “life changing” or “Pulitzer Prize worthy?”……..;o)

  • Joshua Tate

    It would seem that the ROM in hip flexion/extension is generally shorter in the American swing, especially if it turns into more of a squat swing at the bottom. One also misses the benefit of lat and general core stiffness required to control the top of the swing and initiate a powerful downswing. Really, even the pic of the passable American swing looks pretty bad.

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  • Colin

    Fully agree Tony. I would raise two points which seem to me to refute most of the arguments for the American swing:

    1. The swing is supposed to be a POSTERIOR CHAIN exercise period – with the upper body simply coming along for the ride.

    2. If you can swing a K’bell overhead it’s TOO LIGHT – go heavier!

    Feel free to challenge my thinking…

    Regards to all
    Colin

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