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Stuff I haven't changed my mind on: The Swing is King

In the early 2000's there was huge amount of chatter about how we should prioritise the posterior chain in training. The barbell big three (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) were being pushed as the cure for all things.

This was also around the time that the Kettlebell was starting to get popular.

And while the idea of prioritising the muscles on the back of the body (posterior chain) is a good thing, putting such an emphasis on the "Big 3" certainly is not. At least for a large proportion of the population.

So for posterior chain work, the Kettlebell just fits.

On anyone’s first day in Wg-Fit they will be handed a kettlebell and taught to Deadlift it, to Romanian Deadlift it, and then to Swing it. In that order.

I recorded this video of the sequence I've taught in Wg-Fit for years to get people swinging with very little technical instruction needed, the sequence helps them feel out their movement. This is was a wet day in my back yard a while ago:

The first two drills are to learn and dial in the hip hinge, and then the swing is the actual work.

So just why did I fall in love with the Kettlebell swing all those years ago and why do I still regard it as such a high value exercise?

Let me tell you.

Our bodies, or rather our nervous system will do whatever it sees fit to acheive a movement. So exercises that give a muscle or muscles no option but to contract are fantastic ways to work around this and actually get the response we’re looking for.

A Romanian Deadlift is the number 1 hamstring strength drill bar none. You hinge over putting length into the hammies which then pul against that stretch and lift the weight.

Imaged nicked from T-Nation:

A kettlebell swing then is less load but it is much much faster with a much greater range of motion.

That bell swings through the legs with momentum, if force is mass x acceleration, then a 12 kg kettlebell moving at speed is generating several times it’s mere 12kg mass. I’ve heard various numbers thrown about as to exactly how much, the one I favour for no reason other than it sound reasonable is 4x.

Image from the Kettlebell Manuals available in the Wg-Fit shop

So at the terminal point of the backswing, that 12kg kettlebell is potentially exerting 48kg of force on your posterior chain. A 24 kg kettlebell (as in the image above) is nearly 100kg!

Are these numbers right? I honestly don’t know. I do know that the numbers will be affected by the lever lengths involved (length of arms, height of lifter and so on) and the style of swing used.

So we take the “4x” with a pinch of salt.

But what we can say with confidence is that the hamstrings are being taken into a stretch dynamically, with speed and with force. Not to end range, but definitely into length.

And that will fire up these muscles in double quick time.

In effect we’re tricking the hamstrings to fire reflexively, and if we’re interested in athleticism, we want reflexive firing!

Not only that, but for the new trainee or the person returning from injury, it is very simple to reduce the load and range of motion, therefore bringing down the forces involved to very slowly rebuild the hip hinge with all the associated muscles involved in that hinge. And while doing so we are getting a holistic training effect taking into account the grip, the heart and lungs and spatial awareness as the head moves through space.

I personally started learning the kettlebell swing in my living room using the limited resources available to me. I was laid up from regular training as I’d suffered a significant back injury. So I used my experience and gently taught myself the swing. I’d found one of the few people selling Kettlebells in Ireland at that time and bought a 16kg out of curiosity. But being laid up with injury slowed me down and gave me opportunity to play with it. The swing became a cornerstone of the training that helped me come back from injury. After getting certified to teach in 2009, I’ve since used the swing to bring hundreds of people to levels of fitness and mobility that they never thought possible.

It’s not magic.

But it’s close!


Dave Hedges.

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