Exploring Differences Between Kettlebell Swings

A question came up recently at Quality Strength, the answer to which I feel deserves a more lengthy explanation than I was able to provide in a busy gym. The question regarded kettlebell swings, and why we do one version while the MMA school the person attends does another.

If you’re new to kettlebell training, or haven’t been exposed to kettlebell training outside of what we do here at Quality Strength, you may be surprised to find that there are a few different styles. Much like martial arts has many styles, with certain nuances, so it is with kettlebells. Also, like martial arts, some are better suited than others to help you achieve a given goal. I’m going to focus on two of the better known styles of kettlebell swing in this article, as those are the ones with which I am most familiar. One is known as the Russian Swing, or the Russian Hardstyle Swing. The other swing is known as the American Swing. The later of the two is the style popularized as of late by CrossFit, the former is the style we do at Quality Strength.

To the untrained eye, these two swing variants differ only in the range of motion that the shoulder moves through. The Russian Swing is stopped at chest level, while the American Swing proceeds in an arc to finish overhead. At Quality Strength, Melanie and Eric have used both swings in our programming over the years, and over a year ago we adopted the Russian style swing as our standard kettlebell swing. So, why is it when we’re always encouraging our clients to move their joints through large ranges of motion that we decide the Russian Swing is the superior movement to teach to our classes?

The first answer to that question is that it’s simply a safer movement. Lifting weights overhead is an important part of our fitness approach, and with safety as our prime concern when coaching you, we feel there are better exercises than a kettlebell swing to get weight overhead. The American Swing requires very mobile scapula, and a very mobile thoracic spine. If the shoulders and upper back aren’t sufficiently strong and mobile, then the lumbar spine goes in to extension to compensate in order to actually get the weight overhead. Core strength is also required to keep the spine neutral. If the musculature of the core is not sufficiently strong to maintain a neutral spine under this ballistic load, then we have another opportunity for lumbar extension. This is unsafe, and not ideal. In order to safely perform the American Swing, the spine MUST remain neutral as the weight moves overhead. So, scapular and thoracic mobility along with core strength are requisites for the American Swing. Without these requisites, there’s no sense in even putting the movement in the workout. It will not be a safe exercise.

Since the Russian Swing does not take the weight overhead, these problems are avoided. In fact, with proper technique on the Russian Swing, the correct core strength can be developed to move on to the American Swing. So the Russian Swing is a necessary progression to the American Swing. What about the thoracic spine? Again, when we perform the Russian Swing, Melanie and Eric are like broken records repeating the words “Pack your shoulders. Shoulders back, chest up.” We’re constantly encouraging clients to pull the shoulders back and down. A funny thing happens when we have correct shoulder position on the Russian Swing. when our shoulders are in the properly packed position, the muscles of the upper back get a great workout. The Russian Swing is an incredible exercise for helping to remedy the poor posture that’s associated with our modern life of driving around in cars, and sitting at desks looking at cat pictures on Facebook. Here again, the Russian Swing provides the foundation for the American Swing.

Now, how does one know if they have the requisite strength and mobility to safely perform the American Swing? Has Eric ever had you stand with your back against the wall and raise your arms up overhead? He’s checking for both shoulder mobility and core strength. Here’s the test:

  • Stand with your back to a wall. Butt, upper back, and head should be touching the wall. Bring the feet about 10 inches away from the wall. Place your arms at your sides, hands by your hips, palms against the wall.
  • Tighten your abs to tilt your pelvis forward and drive your lumbar spine to the wall. (NOTE: This is part of the test and is NOT the position for the pelvis and lumbar spine in any swing variant)
  • Raise your straight arms up in front of you in an arc attempting to bring the back of your hands to the wall over your head. Do NOT bend the wrists or elbows.
  • Stop when the elbows or wrists have to bend. Stop if the lumbar spine moves away from the wall. Stop if the butt, head, or upper back move away from the wall. If any of these occur before the back of the hands get overhead, then there is either a core weakness, a lack of mobility somewhere, or a combination of things. This problem needs to be found and corrected before performing the American Swing.

If you’ve successfully performed the test, have a solid deadlift and good Russian Swing technique, then you can likely perform the American Swing safely. So, say goodbye to that stupid Russian Swing forever, right? Not so fast there. There’s more to the story.

Now that we’ve established some safety prerequisites, to which I would also add a caveat that there is still a risk for shoulder impingement when performing the American Swing, let’s take a deeper look at the two movements, and how they truly relate to sport and health.

The very first thing that needs to be understood is that the Russian Swing requires an amount of tension throughout the body that requires practice to develop. Far more than just a shorter version of the American Swing, there is a rhythm to the aggressive tension and relaxation of the entire body that is necessary with the Russian Swing. This correct tension results in an incredible core and back workout. Rather than simply not swinging hard enough to get a weight overhead, the Russian Swing is accomplished by swinging the hell out of that bell, and using the muscles of the upper back to resist the upward momentum of the bell. This turns the exercise in to sort of a game of tennis, where large muscles of the lower and upper body are volleying a heavy weight between them. The hips are driving the weight up and out, and the upper back is fighting to keep the arms in a powerful position in front of the chest. The arms are rather passive in that they are going along for the ride. The forearms get a workout by holding on to that weight that wants to fly away. This video may help clarify this.

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This dynamic interplay of tension and relaxation is not present to the same degree in the American Swing. Depending on the person performing the American Swing, the shoulders may assist in getting the weight up overhead, resulting in what is essentially a kipping front raise. There is tension that is required to keep the weight from traveling beyond the overhead position, but it is typically not the same type of tension that is required of the Russian Swing, since the speed of the bell should have slowed considerably by the time it reaches overhead. This is unless the acceleration is maintained with help from the shoulders, which shouldn’t be the case. If the shoulders assist in the movement, then it is very likely they will move away from the shoulder packed position. This gives us problems when we are considering the movement in context of how it carries over to sport. If the shoulders are not packed in the torso, there is a lot of power transfer that is lost. Also, there is increased risk of injury when the shoulders are pulled out of shoulder pack by a fast moving weight.

Having mentioned power, let’s take a moment to consider the directions of force expressed in sport in general, and in martial arts in particular. What follows are examples of a few sports, and a brief description of how each swing may translate to excellence in that sport.

First up is football. Consider how many positions require the athlete to be able to aggressively get his arms up overhead. I’m not much of a football guy, but the number of positions where there is a need to control and express force in front of you seems to outnumber them. The act of a quarterback throwing results in the arm moving away from the top position of a throw, not vice versa. A lineman needs to be able to use his legs and core to stop the opposition. The arms and hands are simply one outlet for the expression of that force. Nobody blocks with their hands in the air, and nobody excels at throwing by spending time building their ability to put a ball over their head.

What about tennis? Surely all of those overhead smashes could benefit from some American Swing, right? Nope. Again we see the muscles used are big back and core muscles. Developing a good smash is better developed by doing lots of pull ups, Russian Swings, and practicing one’s technique. The racquet needs to get in position quickly, but when comparing a light weight racquet to a heavy kettlebell, there seems to be an unnecessary mismatch. Again, it’s not on the way up that the match winning force is expressed, it’s on the way down.

Basketball? Can the American Swing help with the overhead power necessary for a long 3 point shot? No. Not unless you’re throwing underhanded 3 pointers, in which case I can’t help you. This is better accomplished by heavy pressing, perhaps some jerks. The kettlebell snatch may even be of use here, but that’s a subject for another time. In fact, when taking a rebound, what is the first thing most players will do with the ball? They’ll pull it down close to the chest where they can control and protect it. Sound familiar?

The list could go on and on, but since the question was originally asked by a mixed martial artist, let’s look at how the Russian Swing is again superior.

In both traditional and sport martial arts we are trying to accomplish the goal of subduing an opponent. There may be other goals to the practice, but when it comes down to utilizing the skills a martial artist practices, it is to subdue another human being within the constraints of a given set of rules. Those rules could be social or political constructs, or the framework of an athletic competition. Rules will dictate the force used, and the techniques available for consideration, but at a high level of martial arts, all techniques originate from the hips and core. Many techniques express force through the hands, elbows, feet or knees.

EVERY martial arts teacher I’ve ever had has mentioned the importance of keeping the shoulders down. There’s a reason for this. In boxing there is the term “arm puncher”. This is a person who is punching without connection to his core and hips. His punches are weak. We connect the shoulders to the core via the same shoulder pack we use in the Russian kettlebell swing. For punches that have the force of a freight train behind them, the arms MUST be connected to the torso, the shoulders must not raise up. Recall Bruce Lee’s famous 1 inch punch? Here’s an example of the difference between punching with the core and punching with the arms.

When grappling, we are manipulating the balance of the opponent while trying to maintain our own balance. We control them by pulling them in to us, and keeping our own center of gravity low, often working in that area in front of our chest where the Russian Swing is so useful. One of my teachers refers to this area of power as the same place a steering wheel is in your car. We are strong in that zone. To throw a person, you don’t lift them up and drop them. You lower your own mass, get underneath theirs, and let the big muscles of the legs, hips, and core do the work. The arms may steer and control the opponent, but they’re not doing the work. A throw that comes to mind that may have some remote similarity to the American kettlebell swing is the suplex. But here again, the throw is accomplished by a manipulation of centers of gravity rather than throwing a person up overhead with the hips and arms. We wouldn’t want that big range of motion on a throw anyway, it would give the opponent time to do something other than forcibly meeting the ground on our terms. The best suplexes are short and sweet.

Grip strength is an important part of grappling. Few things will develop an iron grip like heavy kettlebell training. For a given athlete, one’s Russian Swing will be heavier than what they can do with the American Swing. This is significant for grip strength development. The heavier usable load also has relevance regarding the effects of using kettlebells for metabolic conditioning.

That brings us to asking the question of which swing variant is superior in terms of total work output, and metabolic conditioning. I’ll explore those questions in a future article. If you’re reading this article and have yet to receive qualified instruction in kettlebell exercises, you’re invited to make an appointment for a complimentary personal training session with a Quality Strength coach to get you started. Call 520-351-9074 to schedule.

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