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March 17, 2021 1 Comment
In this article, we cover what muscles are worked during kettlebell swings, in depth and at each phase of the movement, as well as other benefits of kettlebell swings, how to perform a kettlebell swing correctly, common mistakes, best rep ranges for kettlebell swings, kettlebell swing workouts and more.
Before we jump into what muscles are used during kettlebell swings, let us quickly go over what a kettlebell swing entails, why it is so special, and the difference between the conventional kettlebell swing (aka Russian Kettlebell Swing) and the American Kettlebell Swing.
The kettlebell swing is arguably the most important kettlebell exercise there is, which is why you'll find it in many of our workouts, including the best butt lifting exercises. It is a ballistic movement (explosive movement) that targets pretty much the entire posterior chain of the body (as well as other muscles, all of which we will get into). In the simplest explanation possible, the kettlebell swing involves holding onto the kettlebell at the handle and swinging it from between the knees to about head level using either one or two hands.
While it is a basic movement in terms of kettlebell training, it does require a thorough understanding of proper form as it is a multi-joint exercise with a movement pattern that takes the kettlebell through a large range of motion. Not to mention, because it is an explosive, dynamic movement that incorporates the use of momentum, correct mechanics is key to avoiding injury, especially when doing heavy kettlebell swings.
We will be covering how to do a kettlebell with proper form below, as well as everything else you need to know about kettlebell swings, such as tips, variations, progressions, best kettlebell weight, reps, and so on.
Before we jump into the kettlebell swings muscles worked, we'd like to quickly differentiate between the conventional kettlebell swing (aka Russian Kettlebell Swing) and the American Kettlebell Swing...
Put simply, the Russian kettlebell swing involves swinging the kettlebell to about chest or eye level, whereas the American kettlebell swing involves the kettlebell being swung up overhead with the bell pointing straight up.
So, the mechanics of both the Russian and American kettlebell swing are exactly the same, but the American kettlebell swing has a larger range of motion - instead of stopping at eye level like you do with the Russian swing, with the American swing you continue the movement pattern until the kettlebell is directly overhead (with your arms still full extended). Once it reaches overhead, you bring it back down with the same pattern in reverse.
There are some notable pros and cons between the two types of kettlebell swings. Let’s start with the American Kettlebell Swing (AKBS). The AKBS involves a larger range of motion, and it works the muscles in the arms, whereas with the Russian Kettlebell Swing (RKBS), the arms simply guide the kettlebell. This could arguably trigger a higher power output and increase heart rate and exertion levels to a greater degree. However, with the AKBS, you can't go as heavy as you can with the Russian Kettlebell Swing and it certainly has a higher risk of injury (especially for the shoulder joint). As for the RKBS, because you are not bringing it overhead, you can maximize explosive hip and posterior chain strength and power, and you can use a heavier kettlebell. With that, one could easily argue that the power output is actually much greater in the RKBS. Even though the range of motion is bigger with the AKBS, once you reach eye level and start to move the kettlebell overhead, the movement slows down considerably. You simply can't use the same max explosiveness with the AKBS like you can with the RKBS.
Note: With Russian Kettlebell Swings (conventional swings), you can also do single hand swings, whereas American Kettlebell Swings you will only do two handed swings.
Anyway, if you want to do what the vast, vast majority of the world does, then just focus on the Russian Kettlebell Swing, as that is what people consider to be the conventional kettlebell swing. It is by far the most common and beneficial kettlebell swing. It is both lower risk and higher reward. The Russian Kettlebell Swing is a must-do movement, the American kettlebell swing is essentially a variation of the conventional swing that you can try out. Nevertheless, we will also discuss the additional muscles worked in the American Kettlebell Swing.
Now, let’s get into the muscles worked. FINALLY.
To start, we are simply going to discuss the conventional, two handed kettlebell swing. We will cover the muscles worked and at which point in the movement certain muscles are firing off. The picture above depicts most of the muscles worked, but we will go in-depth below. After we cover the standard two handed KB swing, we will discuss the additional muscles being worked in the American kettlebell swing and how doing single hand kettlebell swings affects the movement’s muscles worked as well.
While the kettlebell swing is often done for its super cardio, weight loss effects, it is also an excellent power and strength generating exercise that targets many muscles.
The conventional kettlebell swing is predominantly a posterior chain exercise, so you will be hitting your:
While your posterior chain makes up most of the primary and secondary movers, you will also be targeting your:
As you can see, kettlebell swings hit so many muscles!
Now, it’s important to note that many of the above muscles are secondary muscles and stabilizer muscles rather than primary movers. In essence, kettlebell swings are all about your hips, not your arms, so the glutes and hamstrings (your main hip extensors) should be doing the brunt of the work (they are your true primary movers) as well as your low back, but your low back is working in an isometric fashion, by maintaining a flat or neutral spine throughout…the rest of your muscles are stabilizers and secondary movers. Nevertheless, they must work hard to keep posture and form in order.
At the start of the kettlebell swing, as the kettlebell is swinging back through your legs, your glutes and hamstrings (and to a certain degree, your quads) will be fully engaged as you explosively hip thrust, moving from a hip hinge to an upright standing position.
Your lower back will be working isometrically to maintain a straight back as you go from the hip hinge to a neutral spine position.
Moreover, because your glutes will be fully contracted at this point, so your hip flexors will be lengthening, which is great for their flexibility.
To be able to raise the kettlebell up to your shoulder level, you will obviously be activating your shoulders, as well as your upper pecs. However, they are more so controlling the kettlebell rather than pulling it up. The explosive hip thrust is what propels the kettlebell up.
As to maintain a standing position (and not come forward because of the force of the kettlebell), your upper back muscles, core and glutes will stabilize your spine.
As you come down from the swing, the same muscles will be working to maintain a straight spine.
When the kettlebell goes through your legs to the backside, your glutes and hamstrings will be lengthening (eccentric phase).
Throughout the entire swing, your erector spinae and abs muscles must work to keep your spine erect.
Also, for the entire exercise, your forearms and hands will be engaged so that you can hold onto the kettlebell. Your grip strength will be particularly noticeable the heavier the kettlebell is.
So, your forearms, spinal erectors, and abs are your constants during kettlebell swings, just in an isometric manner, and your glutes and hamstrings are your primary movers.
Now, let’s not forget about the very important stabilizer muscles…
To keep your knees above your ankle during knee flexion (when you perform the hip hinge to hip thrust), your calves and quads/thigh muscles are working with your hamstrings to stabilize your knees.
As for the upper part of the swing, posture is crucial, so you have to have both shoulder and scapular stabilization. This means your shoulders are pulled down nice and safe, with your chest out, and your shoulder blades slightly down and pulled together (retracted). With that, your lats, traps, levator scapulae, rhomboids, rear delts, and pecs, as well as your delts, are stabilizing.
That pretty much covers it, and explains how each of the muscles we listed above comes into play during kettlebell swings.
As you can see, so many muscles are working during kettlebell swings. HOWEVER, don’t forget, it is your glutes and hamstrings that truly power the movement, not your shoulders and arms, which is why kettlebell swings are not an issue for people with shoulder joint issues.
Apart from that, your erector spinae muscles are doing a lot of work too keep your spine erect and safe throughout the movement, so it is a great exercise to strengthen your spinal erectors as well as your glutes and hamstrings.
In terms of building muscle, you will be building some nice looking hamstrings and a nice, tight, round butt with kettlebell swings!
When it comes to one handed kettlebell swings, you are adding in more stability requirements. As such, your abs, obliques and serratus anterior will play a larger role, as well as your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. All in all, the unilateral nature is great because it makes your stabilizer muscles worked even harder to maintain a squared forward, upright position. Your shoulders will also be doing a little more work to bring that kettlebell up. That said, it is still a glute, hamstring and erector spinae focused exercises, just with added core stability.
With American Kettlebell Swings, you will be bringing the kettlebell up overhead. That means your arms will actually be taking on a bigger role. This overhead portion of the swing (from about upper chest level to overhead) will turn your anterior deltoids, pectoralis major, serratus anterior, coracobrachialis (long slender muscle that runs along your upper arm), and biceps, into primary movers. Once the kettlebell comes back down and passes below your eyes/chin, the rest of the mechanics, and thus muscles worked, are exactly the same as the two handed conventional kettlebell swing.
We’ve already went over all the muscles being worked during kettlebell swings, but this doesn’t cover all of the benefits that you’ll reap from doing kettlebell swings. So, let’s run through some of the most important reasons why you should be doing kettlebell swings.
All in all, kettlebell swings hit so many pillars of fitness - strength, endurance, mobility, cardio - making it truly an all-in-one exercise. You can hone in on certain aspects as well by adjusting the weight and trying different kettlebell variations.
With all the benefits, it’s no wonder the kettlebell swing is one of the most popular exercises around the world.
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart (even a little wider than shoulder-width is fine and your toes can be pointed very slightly outward if you’d like or they can be straight forward, whatever feels more natural for you). Place the kettlebell on the ground about a foot in front of your feet. Put a little bend in your knee and shoot your hips back to a hip hinge so you are leaned down and forward with your back straight. At this point, your hamstrings and glutes will have a stretch in them and they will be activated. From there, grab the kettlebell with your palms facing your body. Put the kettlebell at a slight angle towards your body (so the base will not be flat to the floor). Your upper body will be nearly parallel with the floor a this point.
Note: Before you start the movement, pull your shoulders down and back and get ready to brace your core.
Lift the kettlebell off the ground and hike the kettlebell between your legs. Your knees will have a bend in them. As soon as the kettlebell fully passes behind your legs, explosively drive your hips forward to propel the kettlebell into the air. The kettlebell will come up, with your arms still fully extended, to about upper shoulder or eye level (generally speaking, your arms will be horizontal with the floor).
Note: Your arms are simply controlling and guiding the kettlebell. It is your forceful hip thrust (and thus, your hamstrings and glutes) that is propelling the kettlebell up.
Allow the kettlebell to swing down and back through your legs in the same path of motion. As the kettlebell reaches about hip level, move back into a hip hinge to allow the kettlebell to swing between while maintaining a straight back.
Note: You control the descent by keeping your core engaged and your shoulder blades retracted. This will ensure your back doesn’t arch.
Repeat for as many reps as you want. On your final rep, allow the kettlebell to swing back through your legs and don't drive your hips forward so when it comes back through your legs you can slow the momentum to place it on the floor carefully.
Note: Always end a set of kettlebell swings as stated above. You never want to stop with the kettlebell in the top position. The end of a rep is when it is between your legs. That is when you should stop a set.
AMERICAN KETTLEBELL SWING - ADDITIONAL STEP:
The mechanics are exactly the same, but rather than stopping at eye level (end of STEP 2), allow your arms to continue up and straight overhead. Once the kettlebell reaches about shoulder level, you will have to engage your delts to get it up overhead. The kettlebell’s bell will be pointing straight up.
Make sure to keep your shoulders packed, your shoulder blades down and back, and your lats packed. This will ensure the kettlebell is controlled. Also, don’t flare your ribs, your upper body and spine should be in a neutral position.
Once it reaches overhead, allow the kettlebell to come forward and down in front of you in the same path of motion. As this will create even more momentum (as it is falling from a greater distance), it’s very important to make sure your scapular (shoulder blades) and core are braced for good posture.
Note: This movement is more risky, so you will not be going as heavy as you would with a conventional kettlebell swing.
SHOULD I DO THE AMERICAN KETTLEBELL SWING?
Generally speaking, we advise athletes to avoid the American Kettlebell Swing as it places extra stress on the spine and shoulders. If you have shoulder issues, definitely avoid it.
If you do want to try it, just go light and see how it feels. It’s nice to switch things up here and there.
While there are some slight benefits to the American Kettlebell Swing, it is an exercise that you could completely go without. We wouldn’t miss it.
However, the Conventional Kettlebell Swing is one of those exercises everyone should be doing, regularly.
All in all, there’s no competition between the American Kettlebell Swing and the Conventional (Russian) Kettlebell Swing. The conventional kettlebell swing is far and away the winner.
As a beginner, it is very important that you master the hip hinge. Practice the hip hinge and get that movement pattern down before you even pick up a kettlebell to swing. The hip hinge is a basic, fundamental movement, but it must be done correctly.
Also, work on scapular stability.
Once you feel good with the hip hinge, practice the movement without a kettlebell.
When you are ready, start with a light kettlebell. Master the two handed kettlebell swing first before you start doing any other variations.
Here are the most common and recommended kettlebell swing variations.
Want to see more kettlebell swing variations? Check out our top 50 kettlebell exercises post. In there you will find all types of kettlebell swing variations!
In regards to starting weight, we recommend women starting with around a 12-16lb kettlebell (athletic women can likely start with 20-30lb), and men around 20-25lbs (athletic men can likely start around 35-40lbs).
If you want to learn more about which size kettlebell to start with, read our in-depth guide on choosing the right kettlebell size.
INCREASING KETTLEBELL WEIGHT FOR SWINGS
You don’t need to overcomplicate this. When the swings are becoming too easy, simply decrease rest time or increase the weight. If you don’t have a heavier kettlebell weight, try alternating single arm swings for lower reps and work your reps up and rest time down.
That said, you may have a large gap in kettlebell sizes, so going up in weight can be a challenge. This is the issue with not having a complete set of kettlebells, which a lot of people who train at home don’t. Even those who do have sets, kettlebells often increase in larger increments (i.e. 9lbs). Check out this article by Breaking Muscle for kettlebell sizing up strategies. They go over all of the important kettlebell exercises, not just kettlebell swings.
A good place to start is around 3-5 sets for 10 reps. From there, rather than working your way up in reps, work your way up in sets. 10 sets x 10 reps is a good maximum. All that said, it really depends on your workouts.
To dive a little further into the best rep ranges, let’s look at the standard power, muscle building and endurance rep ranges.
For kettlebell grinds and conventional barbell lifting alike, the following are the best rep ranges:
Power: 1-5 reps
Muscle Building: 6-10 reps
Endurance: 10-20 reps
Since kettlebell swings are a ballistic exercise, which means you are using some momentum, and thus, you will have less time under tension, you can times the above numbers by 1.5-2.
So, for kettlebell swings…
Muscle Building: 9-15
Obviously the weight of the kettlebell decreases from power to muscle building to endurance.
There are some things to consider, sort of caveats to the above power, muscle building and endurance numbers…
Kettlebell swings entail maximum explosiveness, and the average person’s body can only sustain max explosiveness for around 15 seconds. For kettlebell swings, that’s around 10 reps. This is why most people tell you to stay in the 10 rep range or less. That said, if you are using a light weight kettlebell, you should have no problem doing high repetitions while still feeling good and explosive. The famous 10k swing challenge will have you doing very high rep sets, like 25-50 and many people try this.
All in all, if you are going heavy relative to your strength, 6-10 reps is a good max.
For beginners, we always recommend going for 10 reps or less. In fact, less is usually better. This will ensure you are maintaining good form and maximizing explosiveness. Even intermediate trainees will see their form start to deteriorate after 10-15 reps, so keep it low as a beginner.
No matter what you are trying to achieve (power, hypertrophy, endurance), stop if your form is breaking down. Each rep should have proper form, don’t just push through to reach a rep count if your form is deteriorating.
To sum it up, play around with the rep count as you see fit and depending on your goals and the kettlebell weight. If you want a standard go to rep count, it is 10 reps for 3-5 sets.
Do things change with single arm and double kettlebell swings?
Not really. With single arm swings, 10 reps is still good, with alternating single arm swings, 10 reps would be 5 each side, and with double kettlebell swings, you will probably have to go lower than 10 reps because it is more difficult, but if you can perform 10 solid reps, then go for it.
Do not do the following kettlebell swing challenge if you are a kettlebell swing beginner. Waiting until you are ready for this as this challenge is hard (but this will give beginner’s something to look forward to!)
10K Swing Challenge: 10,000 swings in 30 days. You can break up the swings as you see fit. Most people do 500 swings over 20 workouts (two days workout in a row, then 1 day off, repeat).
This challenge might not seem that hard, but 500 swings in a workout is TOUGH, especially at a reasonable weight. Men are recommended to use a 53lb kettlebell and women a 35lb kettlebell. That said, you can adjust the weight if need be.
AGAIN THE ABOVE IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS. We have a simple kettlebell swing workout for beginners below…
Make an easier challenge for yourself!
100 Swings a Day Challenge: Perform 100 swings for 28 days!
This can be adjusted as you see fit, i.e. 50 Swings a Day Challenge or 200 Swings a Day Challenge, and so on.
This kind of challenge is a lot of fun and you will burn a lot of calories!
We mainly recommend throwing kettlebell swings into the mix of a workout. However, if you want to do a kettlebell swing only workout, here are some ideas…
20 seconds swings, 10 seconds rest x 8 rounds
Beginners can do 15 seconds swings, 10 seconds rest x 8 rounds
EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute)
Do a set of 10 kettlebell swings every minute on the minute for 10 minutes!
Kettlebell Swing Ladder
Do 20 reps, 15 reps, 10 reps, 5 reps. Resting only as needed between the sets.
These are all quick, high intensity workouts, which kettlebell swings are perfect for.
10 x 10
If you are ready for this, do 10 reps x 10 sets. Rest as needed between sets.
You can also adjust this to 20 reps x 5 sets, or 5 reps x 20 sets!
More Kettlebell Training Resources:
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December 09, 2022
December 09, 2022
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