The swing is the foundational movement of kettlebell training. It teaches movement patterns, breathing protocols, energy management and key principles that carry over to other exercises and countless athletic activities.
The benefits of the swing are equally diverse. It’s a full body exercise that synergistically couples strength training with aerobic/anaerobic conditioning and develops a “smart” nervous system. The swing and its variations can be used to burn fat, improve power, boost endurance, enhance mobility and develop a host of other attributes on the athletic continuum. Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly popular in the therapeutic community as a way to counter injury due to its focus on strengthening the posterior chain.
The focus of this article will be on movement mechanics and proper breathing in the swing. In future articles, we will cover additional variations, training programs and more.
To start, we want to discuss hip and knee mechanics in the swing. There are two primary variations:
*Squat swing – like the name implies, as the kettlebell is swung between the legs, the lifter squats down via flexion in the hip, knee, and ankle joint. heavyweight is neutral and the head is neutral. From there, the bell swings up and the same joints go into extension. This is a leg dominant vs. momentum based movement, allows for faster pacing and is ideal for heavier weights, interval work etc. based on how quickly it jacks the heart rate.
*Pendulum spring - as the kettlebell drops, the weight of the bell is first absorbed via a shallow knee bend, the hips then transition the energy backward in a horizontal plane, knees move toward locking/close to locking and the movement is reversed back into extension. As with the squat swing, the spine is neutral, the head is neutral with the primary difference being that it is a momentum based vs. leg dominant movement. So, it’s more congruent with longer sets (example – 10 min k-bell sport competition sets) due to it being less “work”, more efficient via lowering the heart rate etc.
So, both have benefits depending on the weight of the bell, the goal for the training session and anatomy of the athlete.
In regard to breathing, there are two general variations:
*Paradoxical breathing – as the kettlebell drops in the backswing, the athletes inhales, then as the k-bell finishes the upswing, the athlete exhales. In other words, inhale on compression, exhale on the extension. This breathing variant creates thoracic pressure which protects the spine. Thus, a good match for heavier weights and de-conditioned lifters who struggle with core stability.
*Anatomical breathing – this is the reverse of paradoxical breathing. Instead of inhaling on compression and exhaling on the extension, you exhale on the backswing (compression) and inhale on the upswing (extension). To make conceptualizing the rhythm easier, only think of the exhale points since if you blow out with enough force to create a casual puffing of the cheeks, the inhale will take care of itself/happen organically.
For 1 cycle anatomical breathing, the exhale is at the back of the backswing. For 2 cycle anatomical breathing, the first exhale is at the back of the backswing and the second exhale as the arm leaves the body before finishing the upswing. This type of breathing is ideal for maximizing oxygen and lowering heart rate.
In addition to hip/knee mechanics and breathing, I also want to talk about the importance of “connection” and “deflection”.
*Deflection – at the top of the swing, the lifters want to extend the pelvis so the upper body “deflects” back. This compensates/keep the body balanced for the load in the front. In addition, as the kettlebell starts to drop into the backswing, the athletes want to maintain this deflection until the tricep/elbow makes contact with the torso. Once that happens, the lifter can then transition into the squat or pendulum spring mechanic. This timing counters trauma to the back and keeps the body unified during the movement.
*Connection – as the bell swings between the legs, we want to focus on keeping the arm connected to the hips/inner thigh and maintain that on the upswing for as long as possible to ensure power transfer from the primary movers (legs, hips, back) to the secondary movers (arm). As with deflection, we want the body to stay unified via working together as one unit vs. separate individualistic parts.
Last, in reference to what the free arm is doing, we want it relaxed and mimicking the path of the k-bell.
I hope this helps with your training! As mentioned, in future articles, we will dive into additional technical details, corrective drills, advanced variations, example workouts and more!
Ken Blackburn is the International Team Leader and Head Master Trainer for the IKFF (International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation) and is widely considered amongst the top kettlebell sport coaches in North America. For information on his online training, IKFF certifications and/or seminars, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org