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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Kettlebell Swings: Muscles Worked, Proper Form, and More

Kettlebell Swings: Muscles Worked, Proper Form, and More

Reading Time: 8 minutes


DATE: 2024-03-25

The number of people turning to kettlebells to get a good workout is increasing, growing from 10.24 million to 13.58 million in just a few years' time. This is evidenced by being able to walk into most any gym today and finding a row of kettlebells for use. Some fitness facilities even offer group classes surrounding this workout device.

Like with other weight training equipment, such as dumbbells and barbells, there are many different exercises that can be performed with a kettlebell. One exercise that utilizes this particular type of weight and offers a lot of benefits is the kettlebell swing.

What Is a Kettlebell Swing?

A kettlebell swing—also sometimes referred to as a kb swing—is an exercise that involves holding a kettlebell weight and swinging that weight in front of the body and back through the legs. It’s similar to how a pendulum swings. Except, in the case of the kettlebell swing, the arms act as the pendulum’s string and the kettlebell is the ball.

Kettlebell Swing Muscles Worked

This is truly a multi-muscle, compound workout. A kettlebell swing is a simple movement that works major muscle groups. These are the main muscles targeted when you perform the full range of each swing:

  • Glutes. The glutes are one of the main areas of focus during a kettlebell swing. These are the muscles that power you up and you should feel them squeeze and contract at the top of the swing.

  • Hamstrings. The hamstring muscles along the backs of your legs are nearly as important as the glutes in powering your arms and the weight up to the top of the swing. You can load the hamstrings more by bending less at the knee during the movement.

  • Quadriceps. The quads engage in the lower part of the swing when your knees are bent. Work the quads more by bending the knees more.

  • Erector spinae. These are the important muscles that stabilize the spine. They run the length of the back on either side of the spine. The erector muscles help prevent rounding forward in the back. During the swing, they activate as you move the back from leaning forward to upright.

  • Abdominals. Your abs work in the opposite direction of the erector spinae. They curve the body forward. In the full extension position of the kettlebell swing, the abs engage and prevent you from overextending the spine.

  • Trapezius. These upper back muscles work throughout the entire kettlebell swing. They stabilize the shoulder blades, preventing them from rounding forward.

  • Rhomboids. The two rhomboid muscles of the upper back have a similar function to the trapezius muscles. They stabilize the shoulders and the upper back throughout the swing.

  • Deltoids. While your arms remain largely neutral during a kettlebell swing, the shoulders engage throughout the movement. They help lift the kettlebell and provide control in the lowering portion of the swing.

  • Grip muscles. The forearm, wrist, and hand muscles responsible for gripping something get a good workout during a kettlebell swing. If you’re new to the exercise, you might notice that it is initially challenging to hold on to the bell. That control will improve as the muscles get stronger.

A kettlebell swing will work all these muscles, but the main focus is on the posterior chain. Your glutes, hamstrings, and back should be doing the bulk of the work. To get the most out of it, start slowly and emphasize perfect form before progressing.

Kettlebell Swing Benefits

The impressive list of muscles that this movement works is the main benefit, but there are many reasons to incorporate swings into your regular workout.

The Muscles Worked with Kettlebell Swings Are Numerous

This is what is known in the fitness industry as a compound exercise. The kettlebell swing utilizes several muscle groups and moves the body in multiple ways. Compound exercises are great because they allow you to do more in less time, as compared to isolating muscles.

They also improve coordination between muscles, improve functional movement, elevate the heart rate, burn calories, and improve flexibility.

Develop More Power

The kettlebell swing is a real power movement, which anyone who has done it can attest to. You really thrust your hips forward as the bell swings them. Power is an important element in sports. Doing more swings will improve your performance in sports but also in difficult workouts.

Kettlebell Swings Can Improve Your Posture

All the muscles worked in your posterior chain during this movement support better posture. After slumping over a computer desk all day, this is a great exercise for improving that form. You’ll gain strength in your back and hips, helping to keep correct postural alignment for longer periods of time.

Do Cardio and Strength Together

The powerful hip hinge and thrust of the kettlebell swing require muscles but also cardiovascular effort. You can get a good cardio workout while also building muscle. If you are interested in burning calories and losing weight, this is a great combination.

Improve Functional Movement

Functional movements are the things you do every day. Because the kettlebell swing focuses so much on the posterior chain of muscles, it helps improve any kind of functional movement that requires bending forward. Better function means less pain and a lower risk of injury.

How to Do Kettlebell Swings with Proper Form

Being able to perform the kettlebell swing with good form requires that you know how to do a hip hinge. A hip hinge movement involves bending forward at the hip while keeping the back flat. There is no rounding of the spine during a hip hinge. Instead, you should be able to hold a stick or rod against the spine and have it touch the top and bottom of your back the entire time.

Once you know how to do a hip hinge, here’s how to do a kettlebell swing with proper form:

  • Pick up the kettlebell with both hands and stand with the back straight and abs engaged. Your shoulders are pulled back as if bringing your shoulder blades together.

  • Bend your knees slightly as you hinge forward at the hip, pushing your butt out behind you as you lower the kettlebell down and back between your legs. Your body’s weight is in your heels.

  • Do a hip thrust as you raise the kettlebell to chest height. This movement should be explosive while still maintaining control of the weight. If done correctly, the muscles in the poster chain power the movement, not the upper body or arms. Remember: your back remains straight during this exercise. Don’t lean back in an attempt to lift the weight.

  • Once the weight is chest-high, allow it to begin to lower toward the floor as you return to a hip hinge position. The weight swings down and back between your upper legs. Again, this descent phase still requires that you have some control of the movement.

  • Do another hip thrust to lift the weight explosively before letting it swing back between the legs. Continue this hip hinge-hip thrust movement for your desired reps or time.

If new to kettlebell swings, start with a light weight. Using proper kettlebell swing form is more important than swinging a heavy kettlebell. Once you master form, you can begin increasing the weight used. Though, this isn’t like other strength exercises in that your goal isn’t to lift the heaviest weight possible. You want to provide enough tension to improve strength, yet not so much that you risk injuring your shoulder joints.

Additional Form Tips for Kettlebell Swings

You won’t get these amazing benefits from a kettlebell swing if you’re doing it wrong. In fact, poor form in such a powerful movement can even cause injury. Although it is a fairly simple movement, you can make harmful mistakes:

  • Don’t rely on your arms to do most of the work of lifting the bell. It should be the powerful thrust of the hips that lifts it.

  • Avoid rounding the back during the swing. It should be flat and straight. This goes for both the up and down swing.

  • Another mistake is taking that straight spine and leaning it too far back. This is when your abs should kick in and prevent that hyperextension.

  • This isn’t a squat. The primary action is a hip hinge, not bending at the knees. You can bend your knees a little more if you want to work the quads, but don’t bend deeply as if you were doing an actual squat.

  • Don’t cheat the full hip extension at the top of the swing. Extend fully and engage the abs and glute muscle group at the top.

  • Don’t be afraid to be fast and aggressive during this exercise. It is a powerful, quick movement. Newcomers tend to go slow and treat the kettlebell gently. Be forceful but safe.

Russian Kettlebell Swing vs American Kettlebell Swing

Technically, there are two basic types of kettlebell swings. They are the Russian swing and the American swing. What’s the difference?

The Russian kettlebell swing is the one just described in the section on proper form. Most notably, it involves lifting the kettlebell to chest height.

Conversely, an American kettlebell swing requires that you lift the kettlebell above shoulder height. In an American swing, the kettlebell is lifted until it is directly over the head before allowing it to swing down and back through the legs.

Because the American swing requires a greater range of motion, it can be harder on the shoulder joint. Therefore, this variation is not recommended for someone with shoulder issues or limitations.

The Russian swing is sometimes called a hardstyle swing. The term hardstyle kettlebell swing references its origins as a support exercise for a specific style of Russian hand-to-hand combat.

Additional Kettlebell Swing Variations

Varying the swing in your kettlebell training can keep your workouts from getting monotonous. It also allows you to work your muscles harder or in a different way.

Instead of holding the kettlebell with both hands, do a single-arm kettlebell swing. A single-arm swing requires the muscles to work harder to lift the weight. It also places more tension on the core to keep your torso from rotating.

Another way to ramp up the intensity is to do a double kettlebell swing. This involves holding two kettlebells versus one. Using two weights is an effective way to increase load. It also helps improve grip strength since each hand is responsible for holding its own weight.

Who Should Not Do Kettlebell Swings

Because kettlebell exercise movements rely heavily on the shoulder, this exercise can aggravate a pre-existing shoulder injury. If this is a concern, a doctor or physical therapist should be consulted before doing kettlebell swings. This helps to ensure that the exercise is safe to do.

One way to make this move easier on the shoulder area is to not swing the kettlebell as high. Instead of aiming for chest or shoulder height, for instance, only lift the weight to waist level.

If knee pain exists after doing kettlebell swings, this could signal that you’re bending too much at the knees during the movement. It might also mean that the kettlebell is too heavy. Reduce the weight and see if the knee pain subsides.

Maximizing Your Kettlebell Workout

Kettlebell exercises are like other strength training exercises in that the muscles need time to recover between training sessions. Allow 24 to 48 hours between kettlebell workouts.

Also, use a weight that offers some challenge but still enables good form. If you’re compromising your form to lift the weight, it is too heavy. Reduce the weight and build strength before increasing it.

Finally, include other kettlebell exercises, such as a kettlebell deadlift or squat, into your workout for a bit of variety. The deadlift helps build the posterior chain muscles, while the kettlebell squat works primarily the quads. That makes both of these kettlebell exercises good additions on leg day.

Learn more ways to help clients boost strength by earning your Strength and Conditioning Coach certification. This ISSA course teaches various strategies for not only increasing strength but also endurance, power, and speed. This makes you the go-to coach for athletes interested in achieving peak performance levels.

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Kettlebell Swings: Muscles Worked, Proper Form, and More, Kettlebell Ebook

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