Over in the ever entertaining world of facebook I’ve been watching people debate, argue or simply ask about the correct height that you should swing your kettlebell to.
In this post, I hope to answer this question and provide enough info to stop the nonsense chatter that and opinionated misinformation that is currently flooding the interweb.
So, how high should the swing go?
The answer, the ONLY answer is this:
Yup, thats it.
It depends on:
Your training outcome for that workout
Your overall training goal
The weight of the kettlebell
Your physical capability
Your Training Outcome for the Workout
So, you’re swinging the Kettlebell, why? No really, why?
Is it because its cool to do? You saw it on telly? The magazine you just read said the dude in Superman uses swings in his training? Is it because it smokes your posterior chain while providing a cardio benefit? Is it assistance work for your Deadlift? Are you using as CNS activation prior to a heavy lift? Is it part of a metabolic circuit? Is it to improve your performance in Kettlebell Sport Is it because it is one of the few lifts that allows you to train a horizontal hip action in a standing position?
This is important, because it will determine how you use the swing and consequently the finish height.
Your Overall Training Goal
You have one right? Complete this sentence:
I train because…………………………………………………………
How you answer this will determine the place of the kettlebell swing in your program.
The weight of the bell
How heavy is your kettle? The heavier it is, the less it will travel. Simple physics. One of my Girls, Maria recently performed sets of 3 reps with a PAIR of 32kg bells, the total weight of the bells was a full 10kg more than her bodyweight, they didn’t go much higher than her hips. How high can you swing a weight that is 118% of your bodyweight?
Your Current Physical Condition
How’s your back? How long have you been training? Are you an experienced kettlebell lifter? Are your hip flexors tight? Are your glutes firing? Do you pull with the shoulders? Is you mid back engaged?
So you can see, the question is fairly in depth, it isn’t a case of you MUST do this or else!
So what do I recommend as a coach?
First off, lets look at what the swing (or “Squing”, eh Alan!) is.
The swing is NOT a lift.
There I said it.
The swing is a THROW
That’s right, it’s a ballistic action, if you let go of the bell at any point in the action it will fly away from you, if you let it go as it travels up past your waist, it should continue to travel upwards, any lower and it flies forwards.
This is what should happen if you let go of the bell at the top of the swing
The swing relies on the stretch loading of the posterior chain to propel it forwards and up. That means that the backswing should be emphasised MORE than the upswing. As the bell travels through the legs, the body hinges at the hips which stretches out the rear side of the body as the bell begins to load it. The centripetal force during the swing and the centrifugal force at the terminal point of the back swing mean that the force that the posterior chain must arrest and reverse is far greater than the number written on the bell. This is where the magic lies with kettlebell work for general fitness or athletic performance, it’s the ballistic loading, the activation of the stretch reflex and the stimulation of the fascia.
The faster that bell swings back through the legs, the more of a stretch response you’ll get to fire it back upwards.
The hip drives the bell. As the bell finished it’s back swing and reverses direction, the body starts to unfold. The hip straightens out due to the contractions in the hamstring, back and glute, as this happens the arm should stay in contact with the torso. This means that the hip extension is transferring force mechanically into the arm and therefore the bell. Once the hip is fully extended, even hyper extended (the hip, not the spine!), the momentum of the bell will continue onwards in an arc centred on the shoulder joint. The shoulder must be secure, ie, the scapula is controlled. Excessive tension here can be as problematic is excess relaxation as the bell continues up. To much tension in the upper and mid back and the scapula will become immobilised and the shoulder joint function is reduced, too little tension and the bell can pull the shoulder out and cause rotator cuff strain. This scapula control should be a major consideration in determining when a client is capable of increasing reps and/or force production (via increased weight, faster reps or higher swings).
So lets assume, we have a good hip hinge, we have nailed the arm-torso connection and are driving our hip forwards to propel the bell out, initially using the hip as the axis up until full hip extension is reached in which case the shoulder becomes the axis.
Now we can look at how best to apply this to our wants and needs.
I want to look gorgeous! Good for you, just swing lots and stop eating shit and you’ll be fine.
I want to run faster! Sweet, concentrate on driving the bell backwards for moderate rep counts. Try having a mate stand in front of and actually pushing the bell down!
I’m a cyclist! The the swing could be your best friend, focus on high reps done with high quality and you’ll actually unwind that horrible cycling posture you walk around in!
I aim to build a better Deadlift! Nice one, swing heavy bells for moderate reps to get that lower back really strong, keep them explosive to really activate the posterior chain.
I will be competing in Kettlebell Sports! Coolio, swing a LOT, keep it loose and relaxed and do high reps to develop that base of conditioning and also the grip endurance.
But Dave! How high should it go?
Image stolen from Thierry Sanchez’s blog. Click the image and watch the video he embedded, hilarious!
Ah yes, the point of the article, I almost forgot!
How high does a swing travel to be a swing?
Again, this comes down to a question of priorities. In essence the swing is an exercise to train hip extension, simple as that. So once the hip is extended, the work is done.
In a previous post I spoke about the Bow and Arrow analogy I use to describe the swing. In it I say that in order to shoot an arrow, you draw it backwards, tensioning the bow and string. When you release the string, the bow snaps forwards propelling the arrow forwards. Once that bow is fully extended after you release the string and arrow, it adds no further force to the equation, so the arrow is travelling purely according to momentum from the instant it breaks contact with the swing.
The Kettle is the arrow and your posterior chain is the bowstring. As soon as the hip is fully extended, momentum will carry that bell onwards. The height it goes to is totally dependant on the force produced, more force, the higher the swing.
In order to quantify the swing as a rep, to give it three green light, we must set an end point. That’s assuming you need to quantify it, maybe you are performing a test of some sort.
In that case, the easiest quantifiable point is when the arms become parallel to the floor with the kettle straight out from the arms (centripetal force still in tact). If you’re working heavy, say doing double swings, then a lower swing is appropriate, say waist height.
Going higher than this parallel point is unnecessary.
Erm Dave, there’s that American Swing thingumy.
Yeah, coming to that!
First of all, the swing is dual purpose. Think of the way a Powerlifter treats a deadlift compared to an Olympic Weightlifter. To a powerlifter, the deadlift is an ends in itself, it is the big lift. For a weightlifter, it’s merely assistance work to their main lifts.
Swings are the same. For the vast majority the swing is a tool in itself. But for others it is a tool for grooving in the bottom section of the clean and the snatch. If you wish to improve your snatch, there’s no need to swing higher than the waist, in fact the arm need never break contact with the body during the swing at all. You should also always use single handed swings.
For general fitness, swing to the parallel position and mix it up between single and two hand versions.
If you plan on swinging high, know why you’re doing it. If you must swing high, don’t go over eyebrow height, especially with a two handed swing.
That means I’ve just ruled out the American swing from your training program.
To swing a bell to that height requires a LOT of force otherwise you’ll just end up pulling it with the shoulders. Why not just grab a bigger bell and swing properly to a lower height. Don’t have a lighter bell? Well take a tip from the Hard Style crew, as you hit chest height, powerfully contract those lats to arrest the upward motion and fire the bell back with force. This will increase the speed of the bell, which will increase both centrifugal and centripetal fore and bang, it’s mass at the turn around point behind you will go up almost exponentially!
correct swing technique loading the posterior chain and activating the stretch reflex
A lot of people let technique suffer in order to get the bell travelling overhead, most will switch to a squat style of swing. This is common enough in run of the mill gym and bootcamp classes, but is incorrect usage of the swing. If you want to use a squat action, then do squats. Why do people lose the hip hinge and turn to squatting for high swings?
To make it easier.
Rather than throwing the bell, they push with the leg (hip hinging is a pull, squatting is a push) and lift with the shoulders leading to a much more vertical path for the bell and subsequently less effort. Kinda defeats the purpose doesn’t it, you use a lift that requires a lot of effort and essentially cheat it while training poor movement patterns.
Next is the finish position. How’s your overhead flexibility?
Stand up. Link your hands together. Lock your knees, tense the glutes and brace the abs.
Now raise your arms overhead.
If your biceps are besides or even behind your ears, congratulations, you have good range of motion. If your arms are forwards of your head or you have to arch the lower back and really elevate the chest to get here. You suck. If your head is jutting out forwards. You Suck.