SAVED BY THE BELL
In its widespread adoption of the kettlebell, the fitness industry is acknowledging what the Russian military has known for an age: this tool is perfect for general physical preparedness, says Emily Friedel.
Ten years ago there were only a few home-made kettlebells floating around the odd garage gym in Australia. Now you can walk into just about any commercial chain gym and find a rack of kettlebells in the weights area or kettlebell classes on the group exercise timetable. Why the change? Well, the kettlebell is a unique, effective, fun, versatile and time-tested training tool. The fitness industry has cottoned on to what the Russian military has known for ages: the kettlebell is perfect for general physical preparedness.
A fundamental kettlebell lift, the kettlebell swing is a unique, ballistic exercise that elicits several training effects simultaneously, making it a beneficial exercise for just about anyone, and one of the most popular kettlebell lifts.
The kettlebell swing can help develop:
- Power endurance in the posterior chain. This will assist many athletes whose desired movements are posterior chain driven and require repeated and consistent generation of power over a period of time (e.g. running, kicking, jumping, striking). It can also help counteract the inevitable atrophy of the posterior chain that happens in those with sedentary occupations, which leads to a number of problems including back pain.
- Cardiorespiratory fitness. A study by Truman State University in the US found that a simple kettlebell swing protocol (performing as many two-arm swings as possible in a 12-minute window, self-regulating rest) was sufficient to increase VO2 max and more effective than traditional weight training circuits.
- Mobility in the hip joint and hamstring flexibility. While, in order to perform the movement safely, you should have sufficient mobility and hamstring flexibility before you start swinging a kettlebell, performing swings regularly will maintain and even improve hip mobility and hamstring flexibility through a dynamic stretch of the hamstrings and glutes.
To squat or not – using a hip dominant action
There are two ways you can swing while maintaining the neutral spine position vital for safety: using a squatting type action, or a hip dominant action (more akin to a Romanian deadlift).
The hip dominant swing is preferable if you are aiming to target the posterior chain (as discussed above, there are good reasons you’d want to do this). The hip dominant swing is also far more efficient, which makes it well suited to training power endurance.
The two arm swing
- Stance: place your feet roughly shoulder-width or slightly wider apart: the most important thing is to have a comfortable, stable stance. Start with the kettlebell between your feet so the handle is in line with your heels.
- Picking up: soften your knees and hinge at the hips, keep your spine neutral.
- Stand up: fully extend your legs and hips, in the same way you would lock out a deadlift. Ensure you squeeze your glutes as you do this.
- To start swinging: make as if to put the kettlebell back in its start position between your feet, but only go halfway so the bell stops just behind your knees and then stand up again.
- Repeat: keep pushing the kettlebell back behind your knees and standing up, getting progressively faster, and the kettlebell should start swinging.
- Power with the lower body: the leg and hip extension at the top of the swing (when the kettlebell is at shoulder height) power the movement. Keep your arms relaxed.
Breathing for the swing
There are essentially two types of breathing you can use when swinging kettlebells: power breathing or anatomical breathing.
Power breathing is designed for use with heavier weights and lower reps; it’s the sort of breathing pattern used with most weight training. With the swing, the power breathing pattern is: inhale on the backswing and exhale on the upswing.
Anatomical breathing works with the body as much as possible to promote efficiency for endurance training. For the swing this requires inhaling on the upswing and exhaling on the backswing (the opposite to power breathing).
The kettlebell swing is better suited to higher repetition/power endurance work (if you want to perform pure strength or power lifts, a barbell is a more appropriate tool), so anatomical breathing is usually the preferable option for swinging.
Some tips for swinging
- Be very careful of your spine position, any sort of flexion is dangerous.
- Make sure you fully extend your hips and legs, so they do the work rather than your lower back.
- Keep your arms relaxed, rather than trying to front raise the bell with them.
- Only apply tension when you need to – if you are tense throughout the whole movement then efficiency and power will be reduced. Tension should be applied when you extend your hips and legs.
- Only apply as much power as is needed to move the weight that you’re lifting.
- To get the hip dominant swing, imagine your hips are locked on horizontal rails and that they can only move backwards and forwards.
- Stand up, rather than leaning back, at the top of the swing.
The one arm swing
The two arm swing and one arm swing are very similar; however, with the load transferred to one arm there are a couple of differences.
With the one arm swing there will be some rotation of the torso on the backswing (the shoulder of the swinging arm will drop lower than the other shoulder). At the top of the swing your chest should be square and the shoulder blade of the swinging arm should be retracted.
The one arm swing is far more taxing on your grip, and grip endurance is usually the weakest link. The following grip-saving techniques will not only help prevent you injuring your hands, they’ll also allow you to swing for longer:
- Hold the kettlebell close to the inside corner (so if you’re picking the kettlebell up with your left hand, your hand will be closer to the right side of the handle).
- Focus your grip on the ‘finger lock’: thumb over forefinger. This is very strong and will remove the need to crush the handle with your whole hand, which will tire out your forearm muscles very quickly.
- Internally rotate your shoulder on the backswing so that the handle swings back on roughly a 45 degree angle (thumb pointing backwards).
- To keep the movement flowing, the non-lifting arm should also swing and mirror the lifting arm.
The alternating swing
The alternating swing involves performing a one arm swing and passing the kettlebell from hand to hand at the top of the swing.
There are many ways you can pass from hand to hand, but a simple one is to slide one hand over the top of the other, then slide the first hand out from underneath to swap hands. This method allows you to have continuous contact with the kettlebell, and will help you build confidence until you are, eventually, ready to completely release and catch the kettlebell.
The alternating swing is a great drill for many reasons:
- By changing hands you can save your grip, and therefore swing for longer.
- You can get a bit of air time and so throw and catch the bell – done with a moderately heavy bell, this is fantastic for developing strong connective tissue in the wrists and elbows.
- The alternating swing enables you to change hands without putting the kettlebell down, making it very useful if you are trying to work continuously for extended periods of time.
- The alternating swing teaches you to relax and contract your grip at the appropriate time, which is an essential skill for kettlebell training, particularly for the more difficult lifts such as cleans and snatches.
- The alternating swing is a precursor to juggling.
Emily Friedel, BSc
Emily is a world champion kettlebell lifter and Australia’s first ‘Master of Sport’ in the discipline. She has been using kettlebells with her personal training clients for over five years and is passionate about helping other trainers use kettlebells safely and effectively. A WKC Master Trainer with the Australian Kettlebell Club, Emily’s blog can be found at http://emilyskettlebellsport.blogspot.com.au