The hip hinge is one of the most important fundamentals out there, and the kettlebell swing is a time-tested favourite.
If you’re trying to build a strong posterior chain (or a big posterior), get sporty, or just improve your overall physique then stick around. We’re talking booties, backs, and strength gains!
Why Are Kettlebell Swings Useful?
The kettlebell swing is great, theoretically. It can be used to strengthen most of the muscles of the back – from the hamstrings to the traps – if performed correctly.
A well-balanced, well-executed swing is a way to recruit all of these muscles. This can also produce very different results depending on what weight/reps you’re using. Heavier swings can build strength and size, while lighter weights are great for conditioning and fat loss.
They transfer over pretty well to sport performance, too, where strength in the glutes and core are essential. The extension of the knee and hip together is a great pattern to train since it emulates running, jumping, and good throwing mechanics.
On top of all the fancy stuff, the swing COULD also do two of the most important fundamentals: improve core strength and practice good hip-hinging. These are the things you won’t see in most gyms – and you can’t flex them – but they’re key.
These contribute to the long-term health of your hips, spine, and lower body more generally. They also help keep injury risk down in other movements and pattern for long-term strength and success.
No matter your fitness goal, you can benefit from SOMETHING that a good swing does – whether that’s with a kettlebell or a weight plate. However, unfortunately, it’s not always that simple…
How NOT to Perform a Kettlebell Swing
The swing is a movement that relies on a few things that pop up as common flaws for most people: core strength and control, hip hinging mechanics, and keeping balance while moving with weight.
If you have mastered these then you can get serious benefits. However, many people haven’t, and you shouldn’t be adding dynamic movement to weights you can’t control. I see heavy swings performed badly all the time and, as Dan John says, it only takes one bad swing to hurt your spine.
Getting it right isn’t optional, and getting it wrong could cost you. So here are a few of the common problems I see with kettlebell swings and plate swings:
- Back rounding: this shouldn’t happen on most exercises – and when it’s done on purpose, it should be carefully. This is a key principle of good exercise and you NEED to focus on keeping the back flat and stable throughout a swing – since this is where the stress goes if you do it wrong!
- Rocking on the feet: the balance of an exercise is key to keeping the right muscles on. This is even more true when we add dynamic movement or more weight. Keep the balance in the middle of your foot or slightly further back – it should ease toward the heel on the way down.
- Squatting the swing: it’s a hip hinge, not a squat. Your knees shouldn’t move forward in a kettlebell swing or something’s gone wrong, keep the knees back and move from the hip!
- Losing control: if you start losing control of your knees, your back, your arms, or the weight, something’s wrong. You should be able to retain conscious control of where you and the weight are at all times. If not, you’re pushing it too much or you need more movement practice!
If you’re doing any of these then step one is, of course, drop the weight. There’s no point doing a compound exercise with weight that compromises how you move – it’s not worth the risk and it won’t have the desired effect.
While the weight is lower, direct specific effort to NOT doing the thing you identified above. It’s obvious but it’s often the best solution: practice doing it right before you add extra load! On top of this, you can focus on isolation exercises for the hamstrings, glutes, and core/back.
How to Perform Perfect Kettlebell Swings?
Hip Hinge 101: Basic Movements
You should start by making sure you can perform the basic hip hinging movement – as well as some of the loaded forms. This is the key to a good swing and – if you nail it – you’re going to improve the gains in your hamstrings and glutes.
The hip hinge can be practice with little, or even no, weight and is one of the foundations of health and performance. Practice with movements like the Romanian deadlift and cable pull-through can be used to practice with more control, just to make sure you have the movement down.
Strength and familiarity are awesome, so be sure to practice – whether it’s to get the hang of the movement or strengthen the muscles of the swing. Getting the simple movements down is step one to mastering complex exercise and lifting good weights/improving your physique.
The Plate Swing: A Great Learning Tool
The plate swing is a really interesting choice and it’s where I want to start a lot of beginners. It’s a simple movement and it can be performed very light, very simply, and without having to over-learn the kettlebell itself.
This is a way of progressing into kettlebell swings without compromising movement or complicating things. You can take a 5-10kg plate and perform swings that have a shorter range and less dynamic elements at the very end, getting control and balance down.
These offer a quick warm-up and cool-down for your barbell movements, too, if you want to warm the hips up. I love this exercise as a simple way to get you primed and ready for heavier hinging without too much time or equipment, and recommend you give it a go.
Go Slow, Practice the Hinge
From here, you should try to slow your swings down and really control those end ranges. The bottom position could easily pull you forward or rock you off your toes, and the top could leave the kettlebell out front.
As with any other exercise, good balance is necessary and it’s a symptom of moving well. If you’re in control of the balance then you’re in control of the weight and injury risk goes down while results in the right muscles are likely to go up.
Taking the time to get familiar with any movement is important before loading it, and swings are a perfect example of this. Be patient and your long-term returns will be far greater.
A Quick Final Word!
If you’re looking to build your glutes, improve hamstring strength, and add mass to the back of your body then you should really consider mastering the swing. The progression from slow and controlled movements up to the more dynamic kettlebell swings is an important one and will bring great results.
Learning to hinge and swing properly are great ways to equip yourself with more tools for building a strong physique. On top of this, it means keeping your spine healthy and avoiding unnecessary injuries – keeping you in the game while you progress.
If you need more guidance or you are still struggling to get these kinds of safe, sustainable results, feel free to get in touch. Structure and guidance add a ton of value to the fitness journey and I’m always on-hand if you’re looking for some professional help!