Love at First Swing
Earlier this week I had the extremely pleasure to share some kettlebell technique and workouts in a video shoot for the amazing people at FitBit, and it became clear very quickly to everyone on set that I absolutely love kettlebell swings! Anyone who has talked to me about fitness for 5 minutes could easily tell you, “Coach Kati LOVES kettlebell swings!”
I remember the first time my coach showed me the swing. We had spent several sessions learning how to hip hinge and plank, and putting the two together doing kettlebell deadlifts. And then one night he said “OK, I’m gonna teach you the swing”. When I saw him demonstrate it, I was definitely a little scared! “You want me to swing this ‘cannonball with a handle’ back and forth between my legs?!” But with attention to technique and a mind focused to the task, by the end of the training session I was swinging, and loving it!
As my skill with swings progressed over the next several weeks, I started including more and more of them in my training sessions, and I began to notice some really exciting things. I was feeling strong and powerful! My body was moving better! I was shedding body fat, and building muscle at the same time! I was having fun and enjoying my workouts!
Kettlebell swings are so important to overall fitness that we include them to some degree in nearly every program we write for our gym members, whether they want to lose weight, build strength, or just move and feel better. And it’s not just because I love them! The swing is a special move, and has many unique benefits that other exercises don’t have to the same extent. With all of this fresh in my head from sharing with the FitBit crew, I thought I'd share some of my favorites with all of you:
1. Strength and cardio at the same time – This is one of those cases where too good to be true, actually is true! Kettlebell swings help you build muscle and burn fat at the same time. Very few exercises provide the same level of cardiovascular conditioning and caloric burn as swings. And the type of muscle being built is lean, strong, functional muscle. Not only are you working most major muscle groups all at once, but you are experiencing three different types of muscle contraction – concentric contraction as you stand up with the bell, isometric contraction as you hold your body in a “plank” as the bell descends, and eccentric contraction as the bell swings behind you.
2. Healthy back – The abdominal engagement required at the top of the swing will not only help your abs get stronger and look good, it will strengthen your back as well. Swings require a technique knowing as “bracing”, which can help stabilize the spine. In addition, the swing’s unique ballistic nature develops “dynamic strength endurance” (as opposed to static strength endurance like holding a plank). This type of strength endurance has been found by the leading spine biomechanist in the world, Dr. Stuart McGill, to be extremely effective in reducing the odds of back problems. Now, if you have seen swings and have a reaction like I first did, or have tried them and have experienced back pain, you might be doubting that this is true. If you experience back pain when you swing, most likely there is either something faulty in your technique or you need to spend more time working with hip hinges, planks and deadlifts first. We have seen people with a variety of back issues get out of pain and build strong backs when they have been patient in building their skills gradually with swings.
3. Strong and supple hips – Hips are primarily meant to be mobile, but for optimal function they should be stable as well. The sad reality is that most of us spend lots of time sitting at desks and driving cars, and as a result we have tight hip flexors and weak hip extensors. Kettlebell swings provide the perfect opportunity to strengthen the hip extensors by maximally contracting the glutes at the top of the swing, and stretching the hip flexors by allowing the hips to fully extend. Weak glutes and tight hips can also contribute to low back pain, so this is another reason swings can help your back.
4. Happy joints – Jogging, treadmills and plyometric exercises are what most people turn to for cardio conditioning, but they can be very tough on the joints, especially if you are older, overweight or have existing joint issues. Kettlebell swings allow the feet to remain planted, and are very low impact on the joints. In fact, ballistic loading like you get from doing swings has been shown to strengthen the joints and cartilage, and even reduce the risk for osteoarthritis.
5. Power and explosiveness – There is nothing quite like a set of explosive swings to make you feel powerful and exhilarated. Especially as we get older, we lose a lot of our ability to move explosively and generate power. Again, the low impact nature of the swing allows us to retain this ability even if we can’t jump, sprint or throw punches like we used to.
6. Focused mind – Kettlebell swings are a great way to connect the mind and body. Granted, this particular benefit is not unique to swings. But there is just something special about getting into that perfect swing rhythm, coordinating your breathing to the movement, and focusing your mind so that nothing else matters but the next perfect rep. Challenging moves that require you to stay mentally focused on the task at hand provide benefits to your brain as well as your body, as opposed to watching TV reruns while you zone out on the elliptical machine like a hamster in a wheel.
From teen athletes to octogenarians (yes, we have clients in their 80s who can swing!) we have seen the tremendous benefits the kettlebell swing can provide. Yes, there are occasionally people who have certain injuries or conditions that prevent them from swinging safely. And some people are able to quickly pick up the move more quickly than others. But with patience, attention to detail and a willing attitude, swings have the power to transform you in a multitude of ways!
Strength, love, and lots of swings,