The kettlebell swing can be a fantastic exercise when done correctly. It can be used to increase vertical jump, improve muscular endurance, and even to help fix bad backs. But the way I see most people doing them isn’t going to do any of that. The only real benefit from the way I see most kettlebell swings done will be your to your physiotherapist’s bank account.
The two-hand swing is the first version of the swing you learn and often the one people return to most simply for its convenience. But there are two other versions of the swing that should get used far more – the one-hand swing and the double swing.
For starters, and this opinion is never popular, kettlebells are not designed to be used with two hands. I am well aware there are many exercises you can do with two hands with kettlebells that are great, but these are all patterning exercises for more advanced variations to come later on in your training.
Take the goblet squat as an example. The goblet squat was invented by necessity to quickly teach a room of high school kids the correct mechanics of squatting without needing to give an hour-long lecture on the subject. It is a patterning exercise.
Having said that, you still need to pattern this exercise correctly to receive maximum benefit. Here’s a proven four-step plan to have you swinging well quickly.
The next step is to add a kettlebell, but perform this same action slowly. We used to say on the racetrack, “If you can’t do it slow, you’ll never do it fast.” It applies here, too. You need to be able to keep that same hips-down-and-back position and maintain a flat back while you deadlift.
Now it’s time to get things swinging. But only a little to begin with. While the deadlift teaches you the mechanics of the swing it also creates in a way a false position, as you will never need to go that low when swinging.
The only thing you need to do now is to continue swinging instead of stopping after each rep. You will find that sets of ten to twenty reps are about right. Anything more will likely lead to poor form and maybe a sore back.
However, we use the two-hand swing to initially teach the swing, but one-hand and double swings are far more beneficial in the long term. Don’t make the rookie error of predominantly performing two-hand swings for the rest of your life when there are better variations to use.
While the two-hand swing teaches us how to brace and create midline stability in the sagittal plane, the one-hand swing adds an anti-rotation component. Meaning, we are effectively killing more birds with the same cannonball with a handle than if we do two-hand swings. If training time is short, you’re better off getting more done in a single exercise.
Not only that but the one-hand swing allows us to work the grip harder, which in turn means we need to stabilize the shoulder more. In the FMS system, the one-hand swing is the final proof of a stable shoulder due to this grip-stability relationship that is derived from packing the shoulder properly.
And when we add in the control of rotary forces, what we have is an exercise that covers other FMS domains, such as the active straight leg raise (as the swing in any form is the final proof of that being adequate), shoulder mobility, the trunk stability push up, and rotary stability. Because these four elements make up the fundamental patterns in the FMS test, we know if we address these, or at least prove our ability to do them, then we will be able to do a host of other athletic movements, too. In other words, if you can perform a one-hand swing well you are likely able to perform many other more complex tasks well too.
For many people, the toughest part of learning the one-arm swing won’t be the swing action itself. That should have been adequately covered in all the initial pattering work you did with the two-hand swing. Instead, the thing they’re going to most struggle with is learning to pack and control the shoulder properly.
In this position, we are unloaded and close to lying – our most basic posture for learning patterns. All the work is done by learning to keep the shoulder stable and linking that through the rest of the body to prevent the body sagging to the ground.
Hinge at the waist to get into the correct posture for rowing. Where side planks work shoulder stability with a compression strategy the one-hand swing requires stabilising with a distraction strategy. For that we need a pulling motion.
Hold the kettlebell in one hand. Pack the shoulder and focus on pulling the elbow as far back as possible while keeping the shoulder packed at all times. Unlike a regular rowing exercise we’re not doing this to build the back but to reinforce shoulder packing on the working arm. The purpose here is not to smoke the arms and back with rows, but to make sure the trunk stays braced and the shoulder packed.
We use the deadlift to teach the two-hand swing because the deadlift is done at a much slower pace and it allows you to really feel what you should be doing without the stress of the high speed of the swing. So why aren’t we using the suitcase deadlift to teach the one-arm swing for the same reason?
When doing this movement, focus on drawing the shoulder blade into the opposite hip corner and shortening the body by contracting down the obliques. The key to this movement is that body shouldn’t tip sideways or lose posture in any way. If it does, then either the weight is too heavy to learn with or you need to regress a step until better control is possible.
Keep all the things worked on up until this point consistent – the hinge taught in the two-hand swing, neutral spine, full hip extension at the top of the swing, breathing, and the shoulder packing learned during the three preceding steps. Do all those pieces and your one-hand swing will be great.