The kettlebell. There always seems to be a bunch of these lying around the gym, sittin’ pretty, even during peak hours. Personally, I’ve always avoided them as I haven’t the slightest clue what to do with them. Kettlebell swings have always eluded me as the movement feels awkward and weird, and I never know if I’m doing them right. The only time I ever see people performing swings is during a fitness class, so if trained instructors regularly incorporate them into their routines, there must be something to them! And it’s true - swings are a compound movement that targets a ton of muscles that also gets your heart pumping.
As someone who makes it to the gym during the post 9-5 rush, frustrations run high as I come to see most (if not all) of the machines I need are taken, with someone conspicuously waiting around for their turn. Yet, there lie the entire range of kettlebells collecting dust.
So, curiosity got me, and I started looking into how to properly perform a kettlebell swing as they’re always available and promise to deliver a full-body workout. Here’s a beginner’s list of questions and answers that I asked myself while diving into the world of kettlebells!
What is the difference between American and Russian Kettlebell Swings?
You can perform two variations of kettlebell swings, the American swing, and the Russian swing. Both of which follow the same motion but differ in the end position. When performing the Russian swing, the kettlebell will end at chest level, where the American swing will bring it all the way into the overhead position. Russian kettlebell swings are by far the most common form, and it is recommended that you master Russian before attempting the American!
That being said, the two versions service different goals. While both exercises are a power-based, compound, “hip-hinge” movement, there are major performance differences. If you want to build your strength, Russian swings are your friend. They feature a smaller range of motion (chest vs. overhead) that allows you to work with a much higher weight. A higher weight, of course, means you’re working towards greater muscle mass.
If you’re more focused on endurance training, this is where American swings come into play. American swings use a much lighter weight to complete the movement, as the bell travels all the way overhead, arms extended until you form a straight line. This movement is trickier and requires a great deal of shoulder mobility to perform correctly without increasing your risk of injury. For this reason, among a few others, the American kettlebell swing is a little controversial on whether it should be performed at all (check out this article by Men’s Health for an understanding as to why).
How to do a kettlebell swing
Above all else, form is key. It is all too easy to mess up your swing! The most common mistake I’ve read about the Russian swing is excessive knee bending – squatting at the start/end of the swing. The source of the power behind this movement is your hips, arms should stay straight (not locked), and you should have minimal knee bending. When it comes to the American swing, you’ve got to watch out for overextending your back at the top of the swing. Check out this great video from Crossfit SRC for a breakdown of how to perform each swing variation!
As Russian swings seem to be the most popular (and recommended), I will be referring to Russian kettlebell swings for the rest of this post.
What muscles do kettlebell swings work?
If you’re looking to begin or finish your workout (or really, anytime in between) with a full-body, compound move, then kettlebell swings are IT. They target and tone your shoulders, chest, glutes, quads, hips, hamstrings, lats, and core.
Check out this handy image from KettleLand for reference:
They also deliver a ton of benefits other than building/toning muscle.
- Improves cardio/aerobic capacity
- Improves your balance
- Loosens tight hips
- Can minimize back pain through the strengthening of your core
- Are a low impact move that burns calories
- Improves overall athleticism
The primary muscles targeted with swings are the glutes and hamstrings, as they deliver the power behind the swing!
Can you do kettlebell swings every day?
After looking into all the good they do for your body, this was my next thought! Googling this turns up many “100 kettlebell swings a day” challenges, and my opinion on this type of challenge is that it isn’t the most beneficial for your body. Your muscles need time to rest! There’s a reason why many workout splits incorporate different muscle groups from one day to the next – they need to recover to order to rebuild and grow!
With that being said, kettlebell swings can be performed every day – however, to maximize the benefits, it’s better to do them 2-3 times a week with a heavier weight. If you choose to perform them more often, you might want to use a lighter weight, keep the volume down, and ensure your body gets enough rest between sessions. Whether you “should” do them every day will also depend on your current fitness level, diet, and how much sleep you got the night before. The moral of the story here is to listen to your body. Speaking of when you should perform the swing, my personal preference is to use them as a finisher to end my weight lifting days on a high note.
What weight should you use?
There is a rule of thumb when it comes to picking the right kettlebell weight, especially if you’re starting out! Typically it’s said that women might try a bell weighing between 18-26 lbs (8-12 kg), and men might try 35 lbs. Another method would be to aim for a weight that you can swing for about 45 seconds to a minute before getting winded. It may take some trial swings to find out what feels suitable for your fitness level.
If your goal is to build muscle, you want to ensure you are challenging yourself. Just be mindful that using a weight that’s too heavy may compromise your form.
What is a kettlebell “flow?”
During my research, I came across the term “kettlebell flow,” which is essentially a kettlebell workout involving multiple exercises. It gets its fancy name from the nature of the movements/exercises being performed consecutively without rest between sets, in a nice fluid motion. Flows can look pretty intimidating at first, but they’re worth it.
Check out this 7 Movement Full Body Kettlebell Flow from Eric Leija to get a visual/idea for your next workout!
Flows are a great way to build endurance and tone your muscles. Not to mention, you can get a full-body workout in a busy and crowded gym without ever leaving your spot! And, they’re harder than they look. Kettlebell training can burn up to 20 calories per minute!
In fact, ACE Fitness sponsored a kettlebell research study that put participants through an 8-week kettlebell program and found that their core strength improved as much as 70% and aerobic capacity by 13.8%, all in addition to strength gains and dynamic balance!
Who knew the kettlebell could be such a challenging but convenient all-in-one workout? While flows may be something I try in the comfort of my own home before I bust them out at the gym, kettle swings are an easy move (once you get the hang of them) that deliver a full-body workout that can be performed almost anywhere - why not pump some out while you’re waiting in line for a machine?