The Dangers of Dogma: The Overhead Swing

The danger of a purist mindset is that you run the risk of letting dogma disrupt potential. Turkish Get-Ups are NOT for conditioning. The kettlebell is NOT for swinging overhead. James Van Der Beek can NOT be a lead role. Why? Says who? Every single circle has their own form of purism that is misguided at times (myself included), but today we’ll use an example to illustrate why pigeonholing movements is more often shortsighted than beneficial: the Overhead Kettlebell Swing.

Invariably, every time we have posted an article on the swing or a video example of it, the internet comes alive to tell us how wrong we are for doing this. Even the comment on the video below, complimentary in nature, but not without a slight hint of passive aggression to make sure that we know they don’t quite approve. Someone who spent 48 hours one weekend learning the traditional swing is usually itching to let us know that, “It’s CrossFit garbage”, not good for the shoulders, and should never be performed unless we want to die of gonorrhea and burn in hell.

Some truth there, the part about the shoulders. The kettlebell swing is tough to swing overhead and maintain good thoracic positioning for those with mobility challenged shoulders, and it’s not a great movement for those who can’t sense their limbs in space. But it’s very doable for many people. That’s like saying we shouldn’t eat a cheeseburger every now and then because some people eat too many and are unhealthy. Do we eliminate the accessible benefit for a certain population entirely just because it has risk for another? Or, does it mean we focus on teaching it correctly with barriers to entry? After all, the movement does have real benefit up overhead.  

We make movements accessible for whom those it makes sense. We make it inaccessible for whom it doesn’t.

Here’s who can benefit from overhead range of motion.

  • Athletes with good shoulder mobility.
  • Athletes with excellent hinge and dialed Russian swings.
  • Athletes who can hold position under fatigue. 

Here’s who shouldn’t.

  • Those still learning the hinge vs. the squat.
  • Those with poor shoulder mobility.
  • Inexperienced bell swingers.
  • Those with poor fitness and body spacial awareness. 

For those whom the overhead swing is accessible, the focus should be on the following.

  1. Maintain the hinge.
  2. Keep the balance over the midfoot throughout the movement. Do not elevate the heels ever.
  3. Respect the arc. Don’t turn this into a snatch.
  4. Keep slight flexion in the elbows to facilitate easier ROM in the shoulders.
  5. Extend the hips and be patient. Don’t rush the rep by leaning into it.
  6. The chest should stack above the hips at the top of the rep. 

By dropping the polar viewpoint, we can access, restrict, and improve all at once.

The criticism is understandable and the temptation to eliminate based on risk is extremely temping for any movement. I use the overhead swing today because one, I fancy myself a major kettlebell snob so I can relate with my purist brethren on that level, and two, it’s a highly divisive example and low hanging fruit to pick. I used to have a polar view of the barbell snatch for the exact same reason, but there’s real danger in categorizing in totality based on partiality. 

Very rarely does the dogmatic perspective lead to evolution. It’s self-inflicted growth stunting, and its stubbornness that chokes progress.

-Dave Thomas

Suggested Reading:

Strict vs. Kipping

Russian vs. Overhead Swing