The overhead kettlebell swing

 

WARNING – OPEN MINDS REQUIRED TO CONTINUE

Please understand that I am not against crossfit apart from 2 areas mentioned below. I have coached out of many crossfit gyms in the UK. I run accreditations that have been attended by crossfit coaches. I have coached at crossfit venues internationally. I have many friends that train crossfit and I know a multitude of respectable and competent coaches that run crossfit venues and help people improve their health. I have successfully converted hundreds of overhead swingers simply by letting them personally compare both movements after I have taught them correct form and then asked them to change half way through a set of 10 to the overhead swing. Invariably the movement now feels alien to them, inferior, very poor on performance and a waste of time and energy in comparison – their words, not mine. It is not a personal mission, or vendetta, and I do not punch the air and wave a finger at crossfit when I change the mechanics of an overhead swinger. I simply thank them for being receptive to the information I provide based on the excellence of the professional coaches I have been privileged to work with, train under and learn from for many years.

The correct mechanics for the kettlebell swing are shown above. The idea is to flex at the hip and produce horizontal force as if you are going to perform a standing long jump. This action accelerates the kettlebell to head height along a fixed path based on a pendulum action. Working height is around head height and just like a child’s swing it is forward force that produces upwards motion. Vertical action/squatting is not required. To better understand the preparation for the swing stand with your back to a wall, take half a step forwards and then sit back until your backside hits the wall. You have just effectively loaded your hips in the correct position to drive the kettlebell along this pendulum range of motion.

Swing range of motion based on hip and knee flexion

Here we show the correct hip loading pattern by pushing them backwards with the fingers at the iliac crest where there should be a fold allowing the tibia to remain almost vertical. The important thing about this position is that it mirrors the universal athletic position, or power position, which is fundamental to most sports and essential for understanding eccentric loading and effective concentric force production for any type of power move from weightlifting to plyometrics and reactive sports. It is important to understand the origin of this movement and some terminology. The kettlebell swing is invariably around head height. The American swing is a redundant term as many people use it incorrectly to refer to the overhead swing. The crossfit swing is also a redundant term as not all people that train crossfit swing overhead. The overhead swing is simply the overhead swing – neither American, nor crossfit.

The overhead swing – unfortunately.

If you consider the many training providers in the states, none of them swing overhead in training or competition. Organisations such the IKSFA, AKA, IKFF and many additional groups and affiliations do not swing overhead as they train for optimal fitness and competitive performance. The important thing to consider is the reason the overhead swing exists. When you ask people why they do it, you get the usual responses such as increased range, greater power, shoulder mobility and all sorts. When you understand the true reason the movement exists these false justifications fall like autumn leaves. The only reason people swing a kettlebell overhead is because that is how crossfit counts an acceptable repetition while competing – when bicep meets ear. There is no movement benefit, range benefit, power benefit, or any other benefit. The irony is that the movement is unfortunately a very inferior substitute to a pattern that was already close to a perfect exercise. There is little point in going over the potential problems with the AC joint and lordosis of the lumbar spine as almost every article dealing with the overhead swing covers this in detail as a potential injury route. What they all seem to miss is the real reason it exists and then you understand why it should not. The irony is that crossfit games are timed and usually training sessions are for rounds in time, or as many rounds as possible. So why would you perform a variation that takes twice as long and is half as effective? You would not. You do because that is how they taught you and that is how they count a rep if you compete. You have to be in it to win it. It really comes down to who taught you, what they were taught and how much you value long term health and performance progress for time invested. If you were taught to vertical jump with your arms by your side then you will teach the same. If you were taught to clean continental style with no leg contact on the bar you will also teach the same. If you understand that both of these are not optimal and you have the option of advancing your knowledge to improve yourself and your athletes then everyone wins. The same is true of the overhead swing. It is not a terrible, or dangerous, exercise. It just has no purpose other than what it was designed for – to get a judge to say 1 at the crossfit games and other competitive events. Please understand that I am not against crossfit as the usual response is ruffled feathers for anyone not part of the group and a horde of people out to squash you as a heretic. I only really have 2 problems with crossfit –

  1. Using Olympic weightlifting as a conditioning tool – a separate article in itself
  2. Overhead kettlebell swings – this article

If you do compete in crossfit then you will obviously be required to swing overhead to get your reps counted and obtain a score for the kettlebell event. If you are looking for performance then I am on your side. As an athlete and coach my job and career have been based upon performance. If you can look past the alien invasion of someone telling you to do something differently from what you believe is right then we have a solution. Train the swing the correct way and simply work overhead for comps. By adopting the correct pattern that is performance based you will see a huge improvement in your numbers. The perfect solution would be for crossfit to change the rules from bicep to ear to arms horizontal, or kettlebell breaks parallel – i.e. reaches head height. This will probably never happen and is extremely unfortunate as we will forever be left watching terrible form and sub-standard performance on a beautiful movement. What I have seen on many occasions is a lot of coaches – particularly in the strength and conditioning arena – throw kettlebells out of the window as a training tool along with crossfit in its entirety simply based on the overhead swing and use of weightlifting as reps for time or insane volume. Crossfit – this does not do your credibility any good in my opinion.

The only justification I have seen for an overhead swing was along the lines of explosive power training that would mimic the pattern of the overhead keg toss in strongman competitions. As I am sure you will agree, the preload, force production, and launch mechanics would be a very different movement to even the mainstream overhead swing and the last thing anyone would want to do would be keep hold of the weight in order to repeat the movement as a cycle. Explosive power has to go somewhere and this would be the equivalent to keeping hold of the javelin, or shot put, rather than releasing it. Correspondence to this movement is a mild possibility with a very heavy kettlebell that would probably never reach head height and would certainly not be trained for volume in time. Furthermore, if you consider the force-velocity curve there will be better ways of training for power than by using an overhead kettlebell swing. The best power exercise with kettlebells is the snatch and this rightly finishes in the overhead position with a single arm and so would be better suited to those using the swing for power and shoulder range. The best advice is to realise kettlebells are not the one-stop solution for everything – strength, power, fitness VO2, flexibility and so forth. They are great tools and should always form part of a larger tool-box so you have variety and can complete the job properly. Many times I have had people ask which kettlebells they need for hypertrophy and max strength. When I tell them they don’t, they need a cage and barbell set they are a little shocked, but appreciate the honesty.

When you realise that kettlebells were never designed to be used with 2 hands it becomes evident that not only is the overhead swing redundant (not many will feel a 1 arm overhead swing is comfortable to say the least), but the 2 hand swing itself is also a non-starter. That is until you consider the differences in competition steel and cast iron handle measurements. Competition steel are right angles and most people will find getting 2 hands on it properly for swings quite an effort. Cast iron can be more forgiving as they spread more and can accommodate 2 hands much easier. So then we have the possibility to perform a 2 hand swing on a cast iron kettlebell – should we? Absolutely, and for a very good reason. Personally I never train the 2 hand swing and have not used them for over 5 years as it has little carry-over to what I do aside from the general posterior chain and work capacity components. However, with a beginner it is beneficial as a modification of the 1 arm swing as they do not need to worry so much about anti-rotation and form suffering because of it. If a 2 hand swing leads to a great 1 hand swing with correct loading mechanics then it can only be a good thing.

If this article stops a few people from swinging overhead in training then it has served its purpose.

If people still continue to train the swing overhead then you are not against me, you are against your own progress.

If it convinces crossfit to change the rules then we can all smile.

Comments and feedback most welcome.

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