“The kettlebell swing is the ultimate single exercise to improve strength, endurance, coordination, stability of the hips and core, and grip strength,” says Grant Anderson, co-owner and director of strength at Chicago Primal Gym. The move involves your whole body from start to finish, so it forces your cardiovascular and muscular systems to work together, which translates well to outdoor sports. And a set of swings is a total sufferfest, so you’re building some serious mental grit in the process.
“Many people are quad dominant,” says Noam Tamir, founder of TS Fitness in New York City. “Kettlebell swings fire up the hip-dominant muscles rather than the quads, which helps to bring balance to the body.” Translation: Your body will distribute weight and effort more equally, which is crucial if you want to prevent injury and maximize performance.
There are two types of basic kettlebell swings: the Russian version and the American version. You may have seen people doing the American swing in the gym or at a CrossFit box, where they swing the bell up and overhead, but this can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. “There isn’t much more gained from going overhead with the kettlebell, but there is a lot more risk,” says Tamir. Without proper mobility, this move can put pressure on the neck and possibly throw you out of alignment. The overhead position also makes it difficult not to go into hyperextension of the lower back, says Tamir, which could lead to injury. The Russian swing—where you stop swinging the bell upwards at eye-level and bring it back down—is your best bet: You’ll avoid injury and get the same physical payoffs.
Perfect the Basic Swing
If you’re brand new to the kettlebell, start with a 16-kilogram (35-pound) option; but if you have a little experience, use a 24-kilogram (53-pound) bell. That may sound heavy for your first swing, but going big can actually help you learn better technique and going too light can downgrade the impact of the exercise, says Anderson. “Doing swings with light bells is often counterproductive, because your upper body can easily take over the load,” he explains. This leaves your hips and hammies—the main targeted areas—out of the exercise.
Start by standing with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out and the kettlebell about a foot in front of you. Hinge your hips back so your chest and eyes are pointed toward the ground about five feet in front of you. Reach and grab the handle of the bell with an overhand grip, tilting the bell back toward you. Your shoulders are higher than your hips, and your hips higher than your knees. Sharply inhale through your nose as you hike the bell back between your legs, keeping it high above your knees. Sharply exhale through your mouth as you stand quickly, driving your feet into the ground and bracing your body in a “vertical plank,” squeezing your glutes and quads and bracing your abs. As you do, keep your arms straight and use the momentum of your hip thrust to bring the bell in front of your chest. Let the bell hang there around shoulder height for just a moment. Bring the bell back down toward hip height by hinging your hips back; repeat. Repeat in sets of five to ten reps.
Scale It Up
After you’ve learned the basic swing and progressed with heavier loads to the point where doing more than three or four swings feels very difficult, these variations will spice up your training so you continue to improve, says Tamir.
How It Helps: Focusing on a single arm forces you to practice grip strength and activates the smaller stabilizer muscles in your shoulder.
How to Do It: Set up the same way as you do for a double-arm swing, but grip the kettlebell with one hand. Line up the free hand parallel to the hand that’s gripping the kettlebell. When swinging the kettlebell backward between your legs, your free hand should mimic the movement pattern, parallel to the arm in use. Continue the hinge motion as you would if both your hands were on the bell.
Alternate KB Swings
How It Helps: This progression builds hand-eye coordination and teaches your muscles how to react quickly to changing demands.
How to Do It: Set up the same way as you do for the single-arm swing, but when the bell reaches shoulder height, transfer it to the other hand by placing the free hand over the working hand and quickly exchanging the kettlebell to the other hand during the floating phase. Continue the swing, switching hands at the top of each swing.
How It Helps: This exercise develops strength in the entire legs while working on muscle control during tighter, smaller movements.
How to Do It: Set up the same way as you do for the single-arm swing. As you hinge forward and bring the bell toward your chest, loosen your grip when the bell reaches your hips. Quickly tuck your elbow back toward your body so it touches your side and turn your palm inward so it’s facing your head. The bell should fall naturally over the top of your wrist. Return to the backswing by rotating your hand down toward the ground with the thumb facing your body and the pinkie facing away from you, keeping the kettlebell as close to your body as you can and swinging back through your legs.