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The Kettle Bell Swing

by Fred Dyck, Manager, YWCA Fitness on 25th

A couple of months ago, you may have noticed we added Kettle Bells to the weight room at YWCA Fitness on 25th. Now, the question becomes…what to do with them? This article will discuss the most common Kettle Bell movement we see in the gym; the Kettle Bell Swing.

Key Points to think about:

First, the Kettle Bell Swing is meant as a hip-snap movement. In fact, your hips snap forward generating the power and momentum for the kettle bell to travel upward. The kettle is not lifted by your arms. A good thought to have is to concentrate on soft arms as the bell travels up (straight but loose). Pavel Tsatsouline, the person most often credited with introducing Kettle Bells to North America, likes to refer to your arms being like ropes for the Kettle Bell Swing. The bell will swing between your groin travelling up towards shoulder height. This should be an explosive movement with power coming from your hip-snap.  You spine should remain stable through this movement.

The bell should not pass below your knees:  

The next key point to consider is the level of the swing in the lower part of the motion. As I mentioned earlier, the Kettle Bell Swing is meant as a hip-snap movement; not a squat-swing movement. For the hip-snap movement, your hands and the bell do not travel below the level of your knees.

In what would be described as a squat-swing, you will see those who swing the kettle bell where it passes too low to the ground when hiking between your legs. When observing from the side, the Kettle Bell passes below the level of the knees in this improper form. Most Kettle Bell experts indicate the squat swing pathway will place undue force on your lower spine and is considered poor technique.

The more proper hip-snap form generally promoted would see the Kettle Bell “attack the zipper” with the handle of the bell staying close to your body. In this technique, the handle and bell does not travel lower than the level of your knees. Ask one of our trainers for a demo in the gym the next time you plan to use the Kettle bells. Or one of our trainers can watch you perform the movement to help provide some feedback.

Should I swing the bell to shoulder height or above my head?

In the gym, you will see two basic versions of the Kettle Bell Swing performed and the world has given them names: the American version and the Russian version. For the American version you will see the bell finish the movement overhead whereas for the Russian version, the end position will be somewhere between your stomach and your shoulders (out in front of you). Is one version right? Is one version wrong?

Our friends in the Crossfit® community coach the American swing technique with the Kettle Bell finishing fully overhead. You can read more about this and their support for this technique at crossfit.com. Crossfit Journal Issue 25 – September 2004 speaks specifically to the Kettle Bell Swing and their choice of the American Technique.

Others report support for the Russian technique as a better starting point due to potential strain the American technique may place on the lower back. Personal Trainer C.J. Martin has written a very thorough and well thought out article about how you should choose the Russian Kettle Bell technique. I have included a link to the article below. This article speaks to how a person’s thoracic mobility will determine how high a person should swing the Kettle Bell. Specifically, if the Kettle Bell travels to a point where you must curve your lumbar spine to complete the swing, undue pressure and strain is placed on your lower back. Therefore, as a starting point, the Russian version typically will not place strain on the lower back. The article outlines a simple test to determine the height you are ready to swing the kettle bell.


The Test:

As identified in the article here is a simple test you can perform that will help determine how high the Kettle Bell can travel. Lie on your back and place your hands directly above your head with your hands simulating gripping a Kettle Bell. Have a friend or partner place his/her hand under you in the normal open curve created between your back and butt. Then, with your friend holding his hand in this spot, rotate your hands towards the floor above your head. Your arms should remain extended as if you are holding a kettle bell. If you have complete mobility in your lower back, your back position will not change. Your friend will not feel any difference in the position of the back. But, if you are like me, at some point, your back will begin to arch. Mine arches while I am not all that far away from the floor with my hands but this does indicate I am not quite ready to perform the full American Kettle Bell swing. I need to spend more time working on my thoracic mobility.

In the Picture: In the two pictures YWCA Fitness on 25th Personal Trainer Fred Smith is administering the Kettle Bell Mobility Test to myself. In the first picture, I have my hands in the starting position. In the second, I am reaching the point where my lower spine is beginning to arch thus defining how high I can swing a Kettle Bell. You can see that I have close to full mobility but not quite. And, in fact, if I swing a Kettle Bell completely overhead, I can feel the strain in my lower back. 


Further Reading:

As mentioned earlier, Pavel Tsatsouline is generally recognized as the person who introduced Kettle Bells to North America. He is a good source for information on ways to incorporate Kettle Bell movements into your routine. That’s a good place to start. The Kettle Bell Swing is not without some complicated elements. Talk to one of our personal trainers to assist you if you choose to add this movement to your workout routine and would like some advice.