If you’re a kettlebell guy, you know about the swing.
You hike the weight back between your legs like a football, and then explode it up using the power in your hips (it’s a little more complicated than just that—we’ll get deep into it below).
If you haven’t gotten the hang of this move yet, do so, because it’s one of the most functional and efficient lifts you can perform. But if the swing is second nature to you now (or just boring as hell), you can graduate to two other variations that will increase the challenge even more, working muscle throughout your body and developing power, strength, and conditioning.
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David Freeman, creator of The Freeman Method, a five-workout kettlebell and bodyweight program available now on the Men’s Health All Out Studio app, explains the three swings you need to master.
The Russian Kettlebell Swing
The classic swing is also called the Russian swing, given its origin in Russian sports training programs. “This swing is the staple kettlebell movement,” says Freeman, and should be one of the first exercises learned by anyone who trains with the implement. “It hits multiple parts of the body simultaneously, including the core, glutes, hamstrings, quads, back, shoulders, and arms.”
The exercise also teaches you to hinge at the hips—that is, bend your hips back while keeping a long spine and alignment from your head to your pelvis. When you hinge properly, you can perform other great strength-building moves like the deadlift and power clean safely.
When performed using heavy weight, swings can build explosiveness in the hips, which is helpful for any sports you play, and when done lighter for high reps, they really test your grip strength and cardio.
How to Do It
Step 1. Place the kettlebell on the floor and stand behind it with feet between hip and shoulder-width apart. Keeping your head, spine, and pelvis aligned, bend your hips back so you can reach down and grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands. Draw your shoulder blades together and down—think “proud chest.” Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core. Focus your eyes on a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you.
Step 2. Extend your hips a bit to lift the weight off the floor, and then hike it back between your legs. When you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, squeeze your glutes and reverse the momentum to explosively extend your hips and swing the kettlebell up. Let the power of your hips drive the weight up—don’t lift with your shoulders and arms. Your arms should be bent with elbows close to the body as the weight swings upward.
Step 3. Control the descent, and allow the weight to swing between your legs again to feed into the next rep.
Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing
Taking one hand off the kettlebell turns the swing into a unilateral exercise, which ups the demand on your core. The weight is now harder to stabilize, so your body will want to twist toward the side that’s holding it, and resisting this motion will strengthen your abs and lower back greatly.
“It also increases activation of your shoulder,” says Freeman of the movement. You’ll have to be extra careful that your shoulder is packed down and back to prevent the bell from pulling your arm (and, ultimately, your whole body) forward. “And did I mention grip strength?” says Freeman. “With only one hand to control the kettlebell, this will definitely level up your hand and forearm muscles.”
How to Do It
Perform the single-arm swing as you do the Russian swing but with one hand. Avoid twisting as your hips bend and the weight swings down. Keep your shoulder pulled down and back—imagine stuffing it in your back pocket. You can start the single-arm swing from the floor, or transition into it from the standard double-arm swing, as shown in the video below.
Kettlebell Swing + Squat Complex (SWAT)
Many people turn the swing into a squatting motion instead of a hip hinge, which is incorrect, but Freeman says you can combine a squat and swing into one movement that works the lower body even better than either move done alone. He calls it the “swat.”
“The swat requires a strong awareness of your body in space,” says Freeman, so don’t attempt it until you’ve got the Russian swing and single-armed version down.
But when you’re ready, the swat will elevate your heart rate like no other kettlebell move, as the combined hinge and squat motion works practically the entire body.
How to Do It
Step 1. Perform a Russian swing as described above to get the kettlebell moving. After a rep or two, prepare to squat down as the bell rises to face level. Allow the momentum of the rising weight to act as a counterbalance while you sit your hips back and spread your knees apart, activating your glutes. Go as low as you can without your tailbone tucking under.
Step 2. Because you’re descending, the bell will rise above your face. When it does, stand up out of the squat, and prepare to bend your hips rapidly again to “catch” the weight as it swings back down so that you can begin the next rep fluidly.
The tricky part is the timing. You have to do the hip extension that gets the weight swinging, and then immediately bend your hips again to descend into the squat.
“The bell counterbalances your weight when you squat,” says Freeman, “so, to protect your back, you should master the rhythm of the movement first with very light weight, and progress from there.”
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