This question on the proper height for a Kettlebell Swing was posted on my Facebook wall today. Its a questions that comes up often online and at the Agatsu gym in Montreal. I address it at length during my Kettlebell Instructor Certification seminars and thought rather than posting a quick Facebook response I should share my thoughts once and for all in this blog.
The “Overhead Kettlebell Swing” sometimes called the “American Swing” is as far as I know only practiced by one group around the world. It has been adopted by Crossfitters to suit their needs during competition. For every swing they need a way to judge a rep or a no count. By swinging the Kettlebell overhead the judge can stand to the side of the competitor and count a rep if the arms are up and back enough to expose the ears. Having a standard for competition makes total sense and of course is needed. There are however several untended consequences to this particular standard that they have adopted and each may make you re-think the overhead swing.
Before I can address the idea of which swing I prefer everyone should understand that your goals should dictate how you train. If you want to become a better soccer player well maybe spending time doing preacher curls isn’t a great idea. On the contrary if you are interested in becoming a champion bodybuilder then those same preacher curls will be very “functional” for your goals. If someone has dreams of going to the Crossfit Games then ignore everything I am about to say and grip it and rip it overhead. If however your training goals include any of the following, please read on: learning efficient movement patters, developing power from the ground up, developing a high level of skill in Kettlebell lifting, using Kettlebells to supplement your other training, lifting safely and effectively.
Oh! You are still here…how nice for both of us. Please read on.
Whats the purpose of a Kettlebell swing?
Kettlebell Swings are an assistance exercise. They help teach the movement pattern basics for the Clean and the Snatch. They help educate us on how to connect lower and upper body and if performed in a high tension manner they are excellent for loading the posterior chain. They are not as far as I know contested in any sporting event other than Crossfit. I am not sure why Crossfit uses the Swing for competition, its a bit like using the Snatch Pull from Olympic Weightlifting for competitions. Its a supplemental and not something I would choose for a competition lift. Crossfitter’s would be better off using the Kettlebell Snatch. Ideally suited for volume they could move a sub-maximal weight fast and for high reps. Its easy to clearly rule a rep and no count following the standards of Kettlebell Sport. That technique is also very efficient for moving a Kettlebell to an overhead position something the Overhead Swing is not. (More on this in a second)
Swings, are building blocks. We use them to learn the mechanics for more complex movements and therefor how we perform these building blocks is very important. The choices we make at the early stages of any practice will dictate how far we will go in any endeavor. Remember that everything you do is practice. That’s right, everything you do is practice. All those reps you perform in your workouts are teaching your body how to move. This is a VERY important lesson that is often overlooked by people racing to what they think is the top. Consider how a typical Olympic weightlifter trains. They build up to a max, de-load and then end with some great technical reps on a lighter weight. If on the way to their max they failed, their coach will evaluate them and question;did they fail because of poor mechanics, tired, scared, etc and should they do another or go down in weight? No good coach lets their lifter complete 10 or 20 bad reps at a weight they can’t manage because what they are doing is practicing how to get it wrong. How does this relate to the Overhead Swing. Hang on, this is where it gets technical.
Power from the Top Down
When we swing a Kettlebell we want to generate power from the ground up. This is one of the great things about Kettlebell training. It closely resembles other forms of training that teach us this very important skill of using our entire body to overcome the resistance of the weight. Power from the ground up is taught in martial arts, gymnastics, weight lifting and just about every movement discipline you can think of. Amateurs move things from the top down, not skilled athletes. To generate power from the ground up with a Kettlebell we pull the weight into the back swing and as we push into the ground we extend our torso and hips. One of the key goals is to keep contact between the arms and the body as long as possible so the movement of the body will transfer to the weight and move it without us having to rely on pulling with our arms. Read that last part again and then go look at some Youtube videos of people performing the Overhead Swing. Crossfitters love to film themselves working out, its a kind of workout porn. These videos are easy to find and I seriously suggest a field trip to Youtube. Have a look and search for ones where guys and girls are lifting heavy bells. Go on, I ‘ll wait here……….maybe make a coffee while I wait…. swing a Kettlebell.
…. Ok you are back. Great…. did you find workout porn? Hmmm yeah maybe a bad thing to type into Google. Ok I assume you found some clips. What did you see? Most likely some ape like swings with bent arms pull the bells overhead. Clearly using the shoulders and traps to get the weight up. That’s right, you saw power from the top down. Everything else in Crossfit tries to teach power from the ground up, but in this case this approach to a classical Kettlebell exercise has been modified and the result is often power from the top down. I say “often” because there are some people who perform a very nice version of the Overhead Swing. Their arms are straight, their back well protected but as someone who has taught in boxes around the world I can tell you that they are a minority. One of my students Mike Latch owns Valley Crossfit and incredible gym in the US and his people can swing bells any you want them to. They however are the only example I can think of and even the ones who swing overhead well still suffer the following mechanical problem.
That’s right, no one likes to talk about it and its a bit embarrassing but it happens. Pre-mature separation is when we swing the bell in a manner that has our arms leaving our bodies before the acceleration pull. The acceleration pull is the moment where we begin to pull the Kettlebell into a Clean or a Snatch. If you pull to early you are leaking power and not using your body efficiently to move the weight. Efficiency is the name of the game no matter what game you are playing. The more efficient you are the more complex your movements can become. As you add greater complexity you add greater challenges and by extension greater rewards and growth. Why settle for less?
Ok so far we have looked at the following issues with the Overhead Swing: Power from the Top Down and Pre-mature Seperation. The next thing on our list should be typical spinal wave created by the movement.
High Pull Gone Ugly
Most of the Overhead Swings I see these days are basically ugly high pulls. People grab the bells and perform something close to a high pull and then push overhead. This is typically done with an odd and often injury causing wave motion with their backs. When Kettlebell Swings are done to shoulder height (or lower to the acceleration pull in the case of One Arm Swings as prep for Snatches) the mechanics are incredibly safe for our backs. With high tension swings we set up as though we are lifting a maximal load but really its quite sub-maximal and as such the risk of injury is extremely low. For those who adopt the overhead position and in particular people who are new to fitness they tend to move their bodies in a “soft serve” (think ice cream)motion trying to find some way to get the weight overhead. Add into this equation working out for time and loads exceeding their capacity and well you make chiropractors and massage therapists around the world very happy and rich.
What started out as a quick Facebook response has become quite a long blog so I’ll end here. I could go on about why I believe people should keep their Kettlebell Swings to shoulder height or below but I think enough critical stuff was covered that should give you food for thought.
If I was going to compete at the Crossfit Games what would I do? Swing overhead with the rest of them because that’s what the sport demands. I am not a Crossfit competitor so my training goals are not the same as someone who is. Many of my students compete in Crossfit and some are better at dealing with the technical differences than others. What’s important to me is that all of them understand and consider the ramifications of the choices they make in their training. Awareness is key. We need to look at how we are moving, how we can improve and what steps we can take to get us to our goals. If you want to know which swing is best for you, ask yourself the following:
“What do I want out of my training?”
NOW GO TRAIN!