Just as I began my first workouts, an interesting exercise was slowly slipping from the gyms, weightrooms and spas of the world: the swing. As the era of Universal and then Nautilus machines pushed kettlebells, fixed barbells and gymnastics equipment from the floor, one of the best overall “fat burning athlete builders” also disappeared. Many European and Australian coaches continued using this in their training programs, but basically the movement went the way of Nehru Jackets (this is the 1960s).
Then something amazing happened: Pavel Tsatsouline brought kettlebells and kettlebell training back in the late 1990s. If you have seen a KB, you have Pavel to thank for it. If you know someone certified to teach KBs, they owe Pavel a letter of thanks. The swing is so popular now that monthly 10,000 swing challenges appear on social media as often as memes with sarcastic Willie Wonka.
Sadly, swings are very easy to do wrong. Let’s go through a short list here to make you swing better and not look like an idiot…or worse.
- The Swing is a hip hinge snapping into a plank. Nearly every problem comes from missing this point. When you hinge, your hips bend maximally, but your knees only bend minimally. In other words, don’t squat your swing! (The squat is both hips and knees bending maximally).
- After a swing workout, you should feel sore in your hamstrings, although I will allow your butt to be sore, too. If you feel it in your lower back, you are doing it wrong! Wrong. Generally, people who swing into a sore back are not hinging. The weight should be aimed at your zipper and you should wisely let it miss. In the hinge, reach deeply straight back with your arms like you are deep snapping to a punter.
- The top of a swing brings you to a vertical plank. Your shoulders should be packed down (no shrugging at all), your butt cheeks and quads should be squeezing, your lats should be tight and your feet should be pushing straight down. The bell doesn’t have to come very high (it is okay to “float” a bit) so with a heavy bell it might not get up to your belt height. The crown of your head should stretch straight to Zenith and you should look like you are planking on the ground (except you are standing).
- Don’t TRY to be stupid on swings. Keep your eyes locked in one place and I recommend “eyes on horizon.” Find a spot on the wall that would basically be the horizon and keep looking at it throughout the move. NEVER look down or, worse, back, no matter how famous the person telling you to do this compromising position.
- The swing is all about generating a lot of power in the strokes. So, hinge and explode (like a tackle in football), snap into the plank and throw it back at your zipper. The swing is different from its cousin, the snatch, in one simple way: in the KB snatch you are thinking of throwing the bell upwards, like in the Highland Games Weight Over Bar. In the swing, it helps to think that you are throwing the bell forward (think it, don’t do it). I actually have people occasionally throw the bell in swings just to get the sense of this violent move.
- For most of us, the two handed swing is going to be enough. Moving to one handed swings has a great valued for grip strength and cardiovascular work, but all too often, people twist and sway with the one handed movement. Yes, I would love for you to do this right, but if you can’t get competent coaching, stick with the two-hand swing.
- Swings work very well with a variety of repetition schemes. Although we start each workout with five sets of fifteen swings (followed by goblet squats, marching in place then a flexibility move), rarely do we do the same rep scheme back to back. Two variations that work well and have been well tested by me and my group with 20,000 swings:
The 50s are tough, but the nice thing about this variation is that you have just done 100 swings. Do this five times and…well, you can do the math. The 50s are tough.
We moved to this after realizing that 50 swings five times a day, five days a week for four weeks was really hard. So, this little compromise gives us an easier set followed by a harder set. It’s fifty quick reps and we like to mix in strength and flexibility movements between each round.
You can certainly do any combination you feel like doing, but we tested out lots of variations and these worked best.
- Do NOT do that swing style where the arms go above the head. Just snap the swing forward and somewhere between belt height and shoulder height (as long as the crown of the head is driving to Zenith), actively toss the bell back to the zipper. I just realized that “Zipper to Zenith” might be coaching cue to consider.
- Pick up the bell “like a professional” and finish the set in the same way. I spend time on every set getting my feet positioned and firm, hinge back, tighten the lats then find my point on the horizon to focus upon. Finishing, put the bell down maintain your back position and strive for a quiet landing on the ground. I like no sound at all, actually.
- Finally, I use the swing in warm ups, athletic prep, and general training for all populations. If you want to do them correctly, hire a RKC certified KB instructor. There are plenty of regressions and corrections that can be added to your program to clean up your movement, but no article or video is as good as hands on coaching. Obviously, I believe that about all training ideas, too.
Hopefully, the swing is here to stay. It remains dear to all of us who want a simple, effective training tool that addresses so many issues. Swing away.