The Fallacy of the Heavy Kettlebell Swing

By Dave Thomas

We’ve been noticing an awesome trend always of late at P360 and it’s got our staff talking on ways to improve.

People want to go heavy.

Everywhere.

Naturally, we approve of this as the efficacy of such a mindset gets results.  Indisputable, sexy, athletic results.

However, one exercise where we want to be careful to not get too far ahead of ourselves is the beloved Russian kettlebell swing.   Often, folks are so eager to enjoy the feeling of increasing their swing weight, we leave potential gains on the table we could have achieved had we swung a bit lighter.

So what we want to do is foc—.

Wait, huh?  Leaving gains on the table by going too heavy?

Before you dump the tar and feathers on us, let me explain.

We train the kettlebell’s strength benefits by focusing on explosive power and reaching hip extension at peak speed, not through maximal load and see-sawing back and forth like the pendulum of a clock completely driven by momentum.

You don’t want to gradually arrive at hip extension, you want to explode there, which is why we’re not fans of Russian swings for conditioning.  You want to keep it its home of training the power system.

We have deadlifts, squats, lunges and you name it for raw, brute strength.  The kettlebell swing exists to be swung with aggression.  There is nothing smooth about a proper Russian swing.  It’s abrasive.  It’s violent.  It’s Gary Busey.

To be truly strong and athletic means you posses raw strength (i.e. deadlift), power (i.e. Oly lifts), and explosiveness (i.e. box jump, kettlebell swing).  This explosiveness, or burst, is a very critical part of it all and the kettlebell swing is one of the few movements that isolate it effectively.

When you ignore burst, you dissolve the benefits of the swing like pouring a bottle of water into a perfectly good Scotch.

That’s what we mean when we say going too heavy can leave gains on the table.

Stop Test

One method I have used on our athletes is the Stop Test.  It’s simple and effective.  Gradually have an athlete, or in this case, yourself, increase in kettlebell load slowly.  Swing for ten reps.   When the athlete is in mid swing on a random rep, yell, “Stop!  You should be able to control the bell and bring in into center without any deviation of your stance.  If it’s wobbling you around like the leaning tower of Pisa, you can’t control it and the kettlebell is controlling you. Thus it’s momentum driven and you’re not receiving the benefits of peak power.

Floating Bell

You also want to look for the “floating bell”.  The position of the kettlebell at end range of concentric motion right before the eccentric descension begins.  At that point, the handle should be below the kettlebell because you are swinging it with such power the bell is literally muzzled from continuing its upward movement.  P360 member Maria Alcoke exhibits this without flaw on a 72# bell in the cover photo above.

The opposite would be a bell that struggles to reach end range of motion and crumbles back down easily with gravity, not you, as the main driver.

It’s the difference between power driven and momentum driven.

Here’s an example of exploding to hip extension, power driven and a floating bell.

Here’s an example of gradual hip extension, momentum driven and a flat bell.

The best mix of kettlebell swings includes a healthy diet of the following:

  • 75% of your workload– Days with lighter reps focusing on reaching hip extension at peak speed.  If you can swing a 106# kettlbell, this would put you at about 72# for this.
  • 15% of your workload – Heavier reps at shorter range of motion
  • 10% of your workload – Clusters.  Heavy. Think 5 reps.  Set it down.  5 reps.  Combining the first two bullet points.

There’s a reason we don’t test a 1R swing in the fitness industry.  It’s meaningless if you are not generating a high wattage swing.

So, continue to challenge yourself and continue to go heavy on the swing.   Always challenge weight and reach your potential with the swing. Just make sure you are always swinging the kettlebell with peak explosion and in full control of it throughout  the concentric and eccentric phase of the movement.

For more awesome swing tips, check out Robby Sparango’s 5 Tips for a Productive Swing.

Dave Thomas is co-owner of Performance360 Strength & Conditioning Gym in Pacific Beach, San Diego.

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