If you’re looking for one single exercise that can improve your overall strength, power, and cardiorespiratory fitness, then the kettlebell (KB) swing is it. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not!
This mighty hip-hinge movement is nearly a total-body exercise that demands strength, power, and stamina to perform it correctly. Kettlebells aren’t just for swings, either. This increasingly popular piece of equipment can be used for a wide array of muscle-building exercises.
This guide will cover everything you need to know about kettlebell swings (including how to do them properly), how to perform other kettlebell exercises, and how to incorporate KB swings into your next workout.
Do Kettlebell Swings Really Work?
From an outsider’s perspective, the kettlebell swing might seem simple and, dare I say, easy move. It looks like they’re just swinging a kettlebell…how hard can that be? What looks like an arm exercise is an explosive power move driven by the hips. It’s a great exercise for improving strength, power, and cardio conditioning, but don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at how KB swings produce these results.
From top to bottom, kettlebell swings use the following muscles: the trapezius, rear deltoids, rhomboids, lats, spinal erectors, core, quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
It’s clear that KB swings use many major muscle groups, but how does that translate to overall fitness results? In one 2012 study by Lake and Lauder, researchers found that bi-weekly kettlebell swing training improves both 1 rep max strength (in half squats) and explosive strength (as measured by vertical jump height). The researchers concluded that KB swings are a viable option to be used by strength and conditioning coaches looking for alternative strength and power exercises.
Hulsey et. al. performed a separate study in 2012 examining the metabolic effects of kettlebell training by comparing KB swings and running on a treadmill. Although running on a treadmill yielded higher oxygen consumption and calorie expenditure, KB swings did increase the heart rate and “elicit enough of a physiological response to improve cardiorespiratory fitness.”
Further research is needed to define the frequency and duration required to see improvements in cardio fitness. Overall, KB swings appear to be an effective move for improving strength, power, and cardiorespiratory health.
💪🏻 Take your kettlebell training to the next level with the "Random Fit" podcast. Join Master Instructors, Wendy Batts, and Ken Miller as they cover the fundamentals of kettlebell training.
What are the Benefits of Kettlebell Swings?
Kettlebell swings are a popular choice among fitness enthusiasts and trainers alike, but like all great exercises, they can only produce real outcomes when implemented appropriately. Understanding the benefits of this powerful move can help you better program KB swings into your workout program for best results.
1. Full-Body Engagement
Because KB swings engage muscles in both the upper body and the lower body, it is considered a full-body move. Here’s a look at how your muscles work throughout the movement:
The core stays engaged throughout the movement to ensure good posture. Upon initiation, the lats pull the kettlebell back, getting it into position for a swing. In this hinged position, the glutes and hamstrings are stretched, and the spinal erectors are activated to keep the spine neutral. Then, the glutes and hamstrings serve as the prime movers as they drive the hips forward to “launch” the kettlebell forward as it swings upward toward the sky.
At the top of the movement, the quads and glutes stay engaged as the legs straighten to full hip extension, and the lats and core stabilize the upper body to keep the kettlebell from floating too high in the sky. The traps, rhomboids, and deltoids work together to stabilize the shoulder joint during the movement, and they also work eccentrically as the kettlebell swings back down from the top position.
2. Cardiovascular and Metabolic Benefits
KB swings are considered a high-intensity, power exercise. As such, they are intended to be performed in short, explosive spurts for best results. When used in this manner, KB swings can spike the heart rate just as much as running on a treadmill (Hulsey et. al. 2012)! While research does show that KB swings have cardio and metabolic benefits and burn a significant number of calories, there is no clear research regarding the frequency and volume needed in order to see meaningful changes.
3. Posterior Chain Strengthening
The posterior chain describes the backside of your body, with an emphasis on the back, glutes, and hamstrings. While some gymgoers may focus on the aesthetics of these muscles, they serve a very important functional role. The posterior chain is responsible for hip flexion, knee flexion, and calf extension – all crucial for running, jumping, and performing other explosive athletic moves.
The kettlebell swing is primarily a hip-hinge movement, with the glutes and hamstrings powering the movement. Since kettlebell swings elicit improvements in both posterior chain strength and power, it’s no wonder this move has become so popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Mastering Correct Kettlebell Form
Form isn’t just critical for injury prevention; good form ensures that every muscle fires at the right time and with the correct intensity to execute the move well. Maximum results can only be obtained when performing an exercise with good form, and the KB swing is no different.
Key elements of correct form in the kettlebell swing:
- Kettlebell swings are a hip hinge movement, not a squat to front raise movement. There will be little bend in the knee as the hips sit back to initiate the movement.
- Your back should stay totally straight the entire time. Keep your abs engaged and avoid pressing the hips forward at the top of the movement (over-extending in the back).
- Only let the kettlebell swing to eye-level or shoulder height at the top of the movement.
- To keep strong and safe posture during this movement, it helps to begin with good posture. From the moment you hinge to grasp the kettlebell handle, keep your back flat and abs tight (think long spine with your chin tucked).
💪🏻 Want to go even more in depth with kettlebells? Take a look at this video: Why You Should Swing a Kettlebell.
How Many Reps and Sets?
Beginners: Start with 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps
Intermediate/Advanced: Aim for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Start with a weight that’s just heavy enough to discourage a “squat and front raise” movement (i.e., one with which you couldn’t easily perform front raises). This will help you avoid this common mistake and help you to learn to use the glutes to drive the movement. When you find that you can do two extra reps with good form for two sets, it’s probably time to increase your weight.
Try increasing the weight in small increments (2-5 pounds) as you get the hang of it, but don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with the weight for strength development once you become more intermediate or advanced.
Risks and Injury Prevention
Like any exercise, the KB swing comes with inherent risks. Fortunately, these risks can be avoided by following some simple precautions and paying attention to form.
Common mistakes to avoid
● Letting the back bend forward as you “hike” the kettlebell. Instead, keep the back completely flat with the abs engaged throughout the movement. Because KB swings are a hip hinge movement, it’s critical that exercisers master the hip hinge before attempting this move.
● Over-arching the back at the top of the movement. Some people press the hips too far forward, causing the back to over-extend, which causes extra pressure on the spine. Instead, drive the hips forward only to a standing position to protect the back while getting maximal glute contraction.
● Reaching the kettlebell too far between the legs. Over-reaching can cause some problems for the back, so aim to swing the wrist to the inner thighs and no further.
● Doing the “squat to front raise.” This can cause excessive strain in the shoulder joint. Rather, perform a hip hinge (sitting the hips back with just a slight bend in the knee) and explode the hips forward to provide the momentum needed to swing the kettlebell. The arms should feel light as the KB swings upward!
When selecting the right weight to use, consider your current fitness level as a guide. Beginners may start with a 15–20-pound KB and increase from there. You’ll know you have the right weight if you can perform the move with good form for the number of reps and sets suggested with some reps still left “in the tank”. This ensures that you will stay safe during the exercise and avoid over-doing it, which can lead to injury.
variations of kettlebell swings
Did you know that there are several variations of kettlebell swings? From the standard, to heavy, to single arm, we’ll cover what they are and why to use them.
1. Standard Kettlebell Swing
Also known as the Russian Kettlebell Swing, this version stops the swing at shoulder height rather than allowing the kettlebell to swing overhead (like in the American KB swing). This version is safer for your shoulders and a great place to start.
Here’s how to perform it:
- Stand with feet slightly wider than hip width with the kettlebell on the ground about 6 inches in front of you.
- Hinge at the hips, keeping the back flat, bending down to grasp the handles of the kettlebell.
- Engage the core and inhale as you “hike” the kettlebell back to begin the movement.
- Drive the hips forward as fast as you can, using the glutes for power. The kettlebell should naturally swing upwards at this point.
- Keep the core tight as you stop the kettlebell at around shoulder height or eye-level and hike it down again between the legs, hinging at the hips as you do so.
- At this point you can either repeat the swing or set the kettlebell back down in front of you to complete the rep or set.
2. Heavy Kettlebell Swings
Heavy kettlebell swings are the same move as the standard KB swing, with the goal of enhancing strength and muscle development with the stimulus of a heavy weight. This is an appropriate variation for intermediate to advanced lifters only since it will require excellent form and core control to avoid injury. Use progressive overload (slowly adding weight over time as your form allows) to elicit strength gains over time.
3. Single-Arm Kettlebell Swings
Single-arm KB swings provide an excellent core and balance challenge. Instead of grasping the KB handle with both hands, use only one hand to perform the move while keeping the other hand at your side. This move can be surprisingly demanding on the core as you fight to keep your trunk from rotating.
This swing is largely the same in setup and execution, with the main difference being the arm motion in the swing. Since you only have one hand holding the kettlebell, hike the KB back aiming the thumb toward your rear end (or “thumb to bum” as I once learned it).
As the KB swings upward, rotate the thumb up until the palm is facing the ground. Here's a video demonstration: "How to do a Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing"
Other Kettlebell Exercises to Try
Kettlebell Front Squat
Kettlebell Overhead Press
Kettlebell Clean to Press
Kettlebell Crush Curl with Squat
Double Kettlebell Snatch
Full-Body Kettlebell Workout Routine
○ Jumping Jacks: 2 sets of 30 seconds
○ Arm Circles: 2 sets of 10 reps forward and backward
○ Bodyweight Squats: 2 sets of 10 reps
○ Arm Swings: 2 sets of 10 reps each side
● Kettlebell Swings
○ Standard Kettlebell Swings: 3 sets of 15 reps
■ Stand with feet slightly wider than hip width with the kettlebell on the ground about 6 inches in front of you.
■ Hinge at the hips, keeping the back flat, bending down to grasp the handles of the kettlebell.
■ Engage the core and inhale as you “hike” the kettlebell back to begin the movement. Explosively thrust your hips forward, swinging the kettlebell up to chest level.
■ Control the swing on the way down and repeat for the desired reps.
● Kettlebell Goblet Squats
○ 3 sets of 12 reps
○ How to do a Kettlebell Goblet Squat
■ Hold the kettlebell close to your chest with both hands, feet shoulder-width apart.
■ Lower into a squat position, keeping your chest up and back straight.
■ Push through your heels to return to the starting position.
● Kettlebell Single Arm Rows
○ 3 sets of 10 reps each side
■ Place one hand and knee on a bench, holding the kettlebell with the other hand.
■ Row the kettlebell up to your side, keeping your core engaged and back flat.
■ Lower the kettlebell and repeat on the other side.
● Kettlebell Floor Press
○ 3 sets of 12 reps
■ Lie on your back with knees bent, holding the kettlebell in each hand.
■ Press the kettlebells up towards the ceiling, extending your arms fully.
■ Lower the kettlebells back down with control.
● Kettlebell Reverse Lunges
○ 3 sets of 10 reps each leg
■ Hold the kettlebell in each hand, standing tall with feet together.
■ Step back with one leg, lowering into a lunge position.
■ Push through the front heel to return to the starting position and repeat on the other leg.
● Kettlebell Russian Twists
○ 3 sets of 15 reps each side
■ Sit on the floor with knees bent, holding the kettlebell with both hands.
■ Lean back slightly and twist your torso to one side, tapping the kettlebell on the floor.
■ Twist to the other side and repeat.
● Kettlebell Figure 8's
○ 3 sets of 12 reps each direction
■ Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent.
■ Pass the kettlebell between your legs in a figure 8 motion, switching directions with each rep.
● Cool Down
○ Standing Forward Fold: Hold for 30 seconds
○ Chest Opener Stretch: Hold for 30 seconds
○ Quadriceps Stretch: Hold for 30 seconds each leg
○ Child's Pose: Hold for 30 seconds
The kettlebell swing is a great exercise to incorporate into your fitness routine to improve strength, power, cardiovascular fitness, and promote weight loss. The different variations of the KB swing offer unique challenges and benefits to keep you moving toward your fitness goals while keeping things interesting.
As with any exercise, good form is crucial when it comes to seeing the results you want while preventing injury. To glean the benefits of this powerful move, include it in your workout this week!
Want to plug into more helpful insight into fitness and health? Head to the NASM blog for the latest takes on everything from workouts to wellness.
What to Read Next…
Hulsey, C.R. Soto, D.T., Koch, A.J, and Mayhew, J.L. (2012). Comparison of kettlebell swings and treadmill running at equivalent rating of perceived exertion values. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(5), 1203-1207.
Lake, J. P., & Lauder, M. A. (2012). Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(8), 2228–2233. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2012/08000/kettlebell_swing_training_improves_maximal_and.28.aspx