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The King of Exercises: Kettlebell Swings

kettlebell swings

If you were looking for the single perfect exercise—one that would not only burn a crapload of calories, scorch fat, build muscle, boost your endurance, but that would also improve your posture and keep you from getting lower back pain—you’d need to look no further than the kettlebell swing.

With all the benefits they have to offer, kettlebell swings are truly the ‘king of exercises’—and all they require is one heavy, medieval looking piece of equipment that lasts a lifetime.

They’re one of my favorite exercises to include in the 12 Minute Athlete workouts—you can see them here, and here, and even here.

So…what the heck is a kettlebell swing?

Kettlebells are nothing new in the world of fitness. Folklore has it that kettlebells were first used as counterweights in Russian markets, and at the end of the day the farmers would swing, toss, and juggle the weights for fun and exercise.

The kettlebell swing we do today is a variation of the traditional Russian kettlebell swing, which is shorter—but it’s still just as awesome as it was hundreds of years ago.

Note: You can get kettlebells for fairly cheap at any sporting goods store, but not all kettlebells are created equal. Look for kettlebells with a wide enough handle that you can grip it with both hands, and make sure there are no rough edges that will cut up your hands. I like the CAP kettlebells because they’re good, sturdy, kettlebells that last a lifetime—plus Amazon sells them (which means you can get free shipping!).

Why kettlebell swings are awesome

Everyone from bodybuilders to the most casual exerciser loves kettlebell swings for a reason: they rock.

Why? Because they’ll give you:

Increased power. To properly do a kettlebell swing, you’ll need to do a powerful hip thrust using your glutes and hamstring muscles. In traditional weight lifting, these muscles, along with your lower back, are known as your “power zone” since they’re involved in virtually all forms of lifting, running and jumping movements. Even low reps of kettlebell swings will increase your muscular power by a ton.

Better muscular endurance. Muscular endurance is your ability to generate sub maximal muscular contractions for extended periods of time. Doing moderate to high reps of kettlebell swings will put your muscular endurance through the roof.

Increased aerobic capacity. Moderate to high repetitions of kettlebell swings will give your heart and lungs an incredible workout. Anyone who’s ever tried the 200 Rep Reckless Challenge Workout will know that by the end, your lungs are dying and your heart feels like it’s going to beat out of your chest.

Increased anaerobic capacity. Kettlebells are a perfect match for interval training, and the constant acceleration of your breathing and heart rate during HIIT will no doubt boost your anaerobic capacity.

Full body training. Burpees may be my favorite exercise ever, but kettlebell swings follow close behind due to the crazy amount of muscles the single exercise works. In fact, kettlebell swings work everything from your core, to your shoulders, your quads, your hamstrings, your glutes (a.k.a. butt muscles), and your back. That’s a lot of muscles at once!

In fact, kettlebell swings have notoriety as kind of a ‘magic’ exercise. In Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Body, he experiments with doing only kettlebell swings as a form of exercise, and had dramatic results (you can read about the full results on his blog here—and trust me, it’s pretty impressive).

Basically, kettlebell swings are awesome.

How to actually do kettlebell swings

Kettlebell swings may seem simple—just swing a heavy kettlebell over your head, right? But there’s more technique to it than that.

First, you’ll need to pick out the right kettlebell weight for your fitness level. If you’ve never done them before, always start lighter than you think you’ll need. Women can start with a 12 or 16 pound kettlebell, and men shouldn’t start with more than 25 or 35 pounds. You’ll eventually want to scale it up—but you don’t want to hurt yourself when you’re first getting started.

(I typically use a 35 pound kettlebell for my workouts because I’m aiming for speed, but may try and push that up to 50 pounds soon).

Once you’ve got your kettlebell, here’s how to actually do a kettlebell swing:

  • Begin in a lowered squat position, standing with your feet 6–12 inches outside of shoulder width on either side, each foot pointed slightly outward. Make sure to keep your shoulders pulled back (retracted) and down to avoid rounding your back.
  • Brushing your arms on your inner thighs, forcefully extend the knees and hips to accelerate the kettlebell up. Keep your arms straight while you project the kettlebell up and away from the body.
  • At the top position, the kettlebell should be nearly straight above your head and slightly facing slightly forward (there is some contention on this; some people say the kettlebell should be facing completely skyward, but I was always taught to have it point slightly forward so if for some reason you loose control, it would fall in front of you, not behind you).
  • Absorb the kettlebell weight as it follows the same path back to the starting position. Make sure to keep your arms straight the entire time.
  • Repeat immediately!

Watch the video

Want to see a kettlebell swing in action? Here’s a short video on how to do a two-handed kettlebell swing:

Give kettlebell swings a try

Pretty awesome, right? Now you can see why I include kettlebell swings in so many of the 12 Minute Athlete workouts… they’re an incredibly effective (and fun) exercise.

Feeling extra adventurous? Try a kettlebell swing using just one arm at a time… it’ll build extra balance and force you to use your core even more to stabilize yourself.

No kettlebell at home or at your gym? That’s ok, you can still get many of the benefits of a kettlebell swing by swinging a sandbag, a dumbell, or even a duffle bag full of heavy stuff (just make sure it’s not to big that it hits the ground every time).

Now go swing away!

17 Responses to The King of Exercises: Kettlebell Swings

  1. mel September 10, 2014 at 3:01 pm #

    I have just had an induction training in the kettle bell swing and subsequently got another trainer to check my technique. They all asserted that the weight should remain at shoulder height or below, and that the only knee bend was to allow the back to remain neutral (a squat would not allow the hamstrings to kick in). They all made more of the need for an explosive snap forward of the hip which this video does not stress (although she does appear to use this technique, albeit with more bent knees than i would expect).

    • JPW April 7, 2015 at 7:20 am #

      These are not swings. For one you bend your knees way too much. Secondly there is no benefit at all to swinging the weight over your head. The swing is a hinge not a squat movement. You also use too much arm pull. Maybe you should attend a workshop on how to do this stuff before passing yourself off as some sort of expert. Other than that you’re doing OK.

      • Bobby November 28, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

        You sir or ma’am may not be quite right. There is benefits to all movement. Russian type gain popularity but it doesn’t make it wrong.

  2. May 28, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    Really great comprehensive description of the kettlebell swing! I agree, it’s quite possibly the number one best exercise out there. It covers all the bases and then some!

  3. Jordan October 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Hey, you are awesome! Just thought I would let you know!

    • Krista Stryker October 22, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

      Thank you Jordan!

      • Dean R. Smith October 30, 2015 at 7:19 am #

        I prefer the shoulder height swing, myself, but other than that, Krista’s technique is perfectly fine.


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