The Russian Kettlebell Swing vs. The Overhead Swing

Written by Dave Thomas

Too often uneducated kettlebell coaches preach that there must be one or the other, and that one is inherently wrong. Usually, that’s what traditionalists say about the modern day Overhead Swing, or “American” swing.

I’ll be honest. We are biased. We believe that overall, the Russian swing offers more benefits and less risk than its American comrade. However, the overhead swing can absolutely be a great movement that delivers a lot of benefit provided the athlete is mobile and skilled enough to handle the positioning. It’s pigeonholed as a bad movement by many, and that’s a mistake.

Before we break down the different swings, some mechanical similarities exist for both versions. Think of this in the same way that you might the Clean and the Snatch. Mechanically, they are identical except for where the bar ends up.

Same thing with the two swings.

  • “Hike and Hinge” – Regardless of where the bell ends, both swings start in the exact same manner. An approach a few feet behind the bell, aggressive hike, and snappy glutes.

Russian Kettlebell Swing Set-Up

  • 20 Degree Knee Flexion – Both swings should have the athlete in about 15-20 degrees of knee flexion.

Angle of Knee Flexion in the Kettlebell Swing

  • Never Lean Back – The cue for the athlete is never to lean back, it’s to stand tall driving through the heels. We MUST avoid lumbar hyperextension in both the Russian and Overhead Swing or it’s wrong. Plain and simple.

Lumbar Hyperextension in the Russian Kettlebell Swing

  • Never Have the Heels Leave the Ground – That not only leads to lumbar hyperextension, but a loss in glute power and access of the posterior chain.

Heels Leaving the Ground in the Kettlebell Swing

    • The Glutes Lead the Way – Always. If you are not accessing power from the glutes, it’s not a beneficial swing.

Let’s take a look at the subtle nuances of each swing, and the benefits they bring.

The Russian Kettlebell Swing

Here are some of the main reasons we like the Russian Swing:

  • Low Risk – They are very low risk of injury when compared to the barbell options.
  • Trains the Body as a Complete System – Every bell movement we use in the gym focuses on using the total body in a head to toe, coordinated manner. Nearly all movements establish a full, head to toe kinetic chain.
  • Strengthens the Anterior Core – Most kettlebell movements either transfer force through the core (swing, snatch) or require the core to be braced with peak tension (squat, press, Turkish get-up). This has a very positive impact on injury proofing the athlete and building resiliency.
  • Builds Power and Strength – Explosive, high speed development of fast twitch muscle fibers.
  • Strengthens the Lats and Glutes – The two most universal muscle groups in human movement. Our main bell movements focus on these two.
  • Builds Grip Strength – Your grip and CNS are closely linked. The stronger your grip, the more motor units you tend to activate and the stronger you will be on your other lifts.
  • Builds the Posterior Chain – The kettlebell swing builds the entire posterior chain, head to toe, in one unbroken movement. This has a very positive effect on our posture and combats the effect of sitting all day.
  • Teaches Violent Hip Extension – An important skill to learn, the kettlebell swing teaches it quite well.

Coach Matt demonstrating a proper Russian Kettlebell Swing with perfect mechanics:

The Russian Swing takes the bell to shoulder height (this end point is taught differently in various circles. Some swing to the chest, some to the belly button, we swing to the shoulder). It often results in a heavier swing and more of a strength based movement for athletes.

The Overhead Kettlebell Swing

Often referred to as the American Swing, the Overhead Swing follows the exact same mechanics as its Russian cousin, with the exception that the bell does not stop at shoulder height, but rather continues all the way up overhead.

At end range of motion, the bottom of the bell should be pointed straight up, and the joints stacked.

Ankles → Knees → Hips → Shoulder → Neck → Elbows → Wrist

Because of the increased range of motion, the Overhead Swing is a great tool for total body conditioning. More ROM means more muscles involved, and a higher metabolic ouput.

This movement is performed incorrectly by most people for one main reason. They lose the hinge. For some reason, people want to short their hinge, stopping it about halfway and then jerking their low back and yanking the weight up overhead. Mechanically speaking, it should be performed in the exact same manner as the Russian Kettlebell Swing…it just goes up overhead.

Left: Full Hinge (Good), Right: Half Hinge (Bad)

Second, the movement is often performed by people with very poor thoracic or shoulder mobility. This close grip overhead position is not for everyone, and if an athlete cannot get the shoulders into proper position they often compensate by over-extending at the low back. Whenever a joint cannot achieve full range of motion, it’s often a surrounding joint that does something it shouldn’t to achieve it.

It looks something like this, usually:

OH KB Swing Hyperextension

Left: Joints Stacked (Good), Right: Low Back Hyperextension (Bad)

All in all, when performed the properly the Overhead Kettlebell Swing is a great movement with a lot of benefit. With as much overhead work as we do with barbells, it just doesn’t make a ton of sense to add to that shoulder demand with the kettlebell, when an awesome variation exists that doesn’t require it.

Coach Brenna demonstrating a proper Overhead Kettlebell Swing with perfect mechanics:

In Summary

Here’s a look at the differences in both the Russian and Overhead Swing.

Russian SwingOverhead Swing
Swing ApexShoulder HeightFully Overhead
Load PotentialVery HeavyModerate
Muscles UsedGlutes, Anterior Core, Deltoids, Lats, ForearmsSame +  Traps
Who is it For?All LevelsThose with Adequate Shoulder Mobility
Programming ConsiderationsNone, except for do not want to overdo grip and hands, dose per session should be considered. Shoulder – not a great movement to repeat multiple times in one week.
Differentiating Factor 

Load Potential:

Can go very heavy and get very good productivity in the Glutes, Lats and Anterior Core

 

More Range of Motion:

This works a bit more muscles, but at the cost of targeting a single muscle group particularly well.

Main BenefitStrengthConditioning
Risk LowerHigher

Nearly everyone will benefit from the Russian Swing, and while the Overhead Swing is a great movement when performed well, it is for those who can access it. Both are great, but we give the slight edge to the Russian Swing. In the land of the swing, the Russian reigns supreme in nearly every measurable of beneficial fitness.

-Dave Thomas
@VirginiaDave

Coaches, our FCC certification will be open to the public for the first time in our gym’s history this November. To join our invitation list for when Early Bird Pricing goes live, visit the official FCC page.

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