The first time I ever performed an American Swing it was taught to me by a Russian kettlebell sport world champion. The irony of this moment was not lost on me. It was included as part of a conditioning circuit during a two day kettlebell sport certification. I had been swinging kettlebells for years at this point and had always been turned off by what seemed like an exaggerated movement in the spectrum of ass kicking kettlebell techniques. Here was my chance though, I have an elite level expert showing it as a conditioning drill, and maybe I was being close minded. The fact that jump squats while holding a kettlebell behind your head were also part of the circuit, thus smashing your spine with ever rep, helped to confirm my suspicions that maybe sometimes strong and amazing athletes can make bad life decisions.
So what is the American Swing anyways? It is a variant of the common kettlebell swing where you swing the kettlebell from between your legs in the backswing, all the way over your head until your arms are directly in line with your ears, achieving a ‘full range of motion’ for the shoulders. This move was heavily popularized by CrossFit gyms and competitions. I have often seen kettlebell novices performing this swing variant in university gyms, parks, and anywhere else where a kettlebell can be swung! Full range of motion, doesn’t sound so horrible right. Let’s consider what we are looking to achieve here.
The kettlebell swing has become a very common movement and for good reason. It is a fantastic exercise used to develop strength and power in the posterior chain, utilizing the hamstrings and glutes as the primary movers. It is an important exercise to include in your programming as most people are typically quad dominant due to how we live our modern lives, we spend most of our times in forward motion, running and walking, and excessive amounts of time seated which leads to very tight hips. The kettlebell swing is a hinge motion, where the hips are pushed backward in the backswing, creating tension and stretch in the hamstrings, which is unleashed in an explosive extension of the hips. Not only will the movement aid in the development of stronger and more powerful hamstrings and glutes, but it will also serve to open tight hip flexors through reciprocal inhibition at the top of the swing. When the glutes are contracted, the hip flexor muscles will relax and open. A win win all around for everyone, from athletes to keyboard warriors. Your hands are firmly connected to the kettlebell throughout the swing however it is the legs that should be performing all of the effort as opposed to your shoulders.
Russia vs America
Many will call the movement I described above the “Russian swing”. As kettlebell guru Shawn Mozen – Episode 8 of the HRD2KILL Podcast, the man who brought kettlebells to Canada once told me, Russians generally don’t perform high tension kettlebell swings like we do here in North America. In Russia the kettlebell swing is used as a warm up and preparatory movement for other more advanced techniques like the clean and jerk or snatch. Whether performing a single arm or two handed kettlebell swing, the kettlebell height should generally not far exceed the height of the shoulders. If it is, you are either trying to lift the kettlebell with your shoulders (why?), or if all of the power is being generated from your hips, you are ready for a heavier kettlebells (congratulations!). The American Swing made sense for one reason – competition! In the CrossFit games, it was easy to measure a rep being completed if the arms passed the ears. It was considered a full expression of the movement, achieving full range of motion of the shoulders. Once again, what is the point of a kettlebell swing? To strengthen the glutes and hamstrings and increase the power of the hip drive. So why are we concerned with a full extension of the shoulders here?
Common Problems with Going ‘American’
There are also quite a few dangers to consider with this movement and this is why it doesn’t make sense for 90% of people out there. To begin with, in the American Swing, you are essentially explosively throwing a heavy metal cannonball over your head while holding on to the handle. This takes a tremendous amount of stopping power to hit that sweet spot and put on the brakes at exactly the right moment without taxing your back and shoulder muscles at their end range of their motion. For a Russian world champion who regularly completes 10 straight minutes of kettlebell clean and jerk with double 32kg bells (140lbs total) without putting the kettlebells down, performing American Swings with a 35 lb kettlebell for conditioning probably presents little risk. For your average gym goer, their body is not prepared to handle that kind of load and strain. They don’t possess the grip strength to control the kettlebell overhead and eventually something is going to give.
Overhead range of motion is a second big issue. For most people that enter a gym holding a barbell overhead with your arms far apart, let alone holding a kettlebell with your hands closely together like you do in the American swing, is a challenge. Why does our contemporary overhead mobility suck? Simply put we spend too much time driving and in front of our computers. Our shoulders are hunched forward, our thoracic mobility is nonexistent and it shows up as an issue when we try to lift things overhead. On its own this is a problem that can easily be addressed, however the body is amazing compensating and cheating its way into a position. This will show up in people arching their lower back, popping their ribs out, tilting their head forward or bending the arms. Sound familiar at all?
Another common problem I see when people perform the American swing is a lack of connection in the bottom of the swing between their hands and their hips. The whole point of this movement is explosive hip power. If my hands and the weight I am moving are disconnected from my body in the backswing, I am not using my glutes and hips to propel the weight forward, I am using my shoulders and lower back. This is also generally accompanied by more of a squat swing style and a rounded lower back, which will put strain on the lower back muscles and lead to injury over time. There is a lot of timing involved in the kettlebell swing. When the kettlebell is coming up the hands and hips should be connected and are moving together, however once the bells starts coming down, whether it is from parallel oroverhead, if the hands and the hips start moving back at the same time the kettlebell will end up around the knees in the backswing in no man’s lands, you will have no connection to the hips and you will be using your back and shoulders and move that bell. It is a tricky move to master, it takes time to learn how to wait for the kettlebell and arms to descend before starting to move your hips back to maximize that hip connection.
There are just too many things that can and will go wrong with the American Swing and the risk is not worth the reward. So what should you do instead? Start with high tension kettlebell swings.
The kind where you maximize the connection between the wrists and the hips, the posterior leg muscles do the work, the arms are straight, the lats are packed and the bell comes to at or below shoulder level. If you want to build explosive hip power or a rock hard ass, this is a solid and safe bet. If you want to watch a tutorial of how to perform the high tension two handed kettlebell swing, click HERE. If this fails to check the box on what you would consider a full expression of the swing, I would look towards learning the single arm kettlebell snatch. As the movement is single armed, it is much more forgiving of poor overhead mobility. I recommend that everyone assess and work on their overhead mobility before putting any kind of load over their head. If you don’t own a position you shouldn’t be working there in the first place.
In the kettlebell snatch when the bell is held overhead in a fixation position the handle is above the bell weight, as opposed to a bottoms up position where the bell weight is above the handle as in the American swing. It is much easier to control and manage the weight that you are throwing up and above your head, hopefully doing so without having to have your upper back muscles fire hard to prevent your arm from tearing off. The kettlebell snatch is an excellent all around movement for power, strength-endurance and conditioning. It is also a more advanced technique and it is best to learn it from a qualified instructor who can safely guide you. Finally if you feel that you are being short changed and that the American Swing is part of your shoulder routine, I would suggest you look elsewhere to other safer and better controlled pressing and shoulder strengthening movements with a dumbbell, barbell or kettlebell. Exercise doesn’t always have to be complex or work every muscle in your body at once, whether by accident or on purpose. It is ok to work kettlebell swings for your lower body and military presses or front raises for your shoulders. This is why supersets were invented!
In summation, while the American swing may seem like an appealing movement, there are far too many things that can are going to go wrong to prevent you from hitting the mark, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze. There are far better techniques to strengthen your body and reach your goals. Please take my advice, your shoulders will thank me.
Check out my episode on Episode 1 of The HRD2KILL Podcast about how to become a better prepared tactical athlete.
Patrick Burkhard is the a Level 2 Agatsu Kettlebell Instructor, the Director of the Mace and Indian Club program for Agatsu Inc. and the head coach at the Agatsu Montreal Gym. He competes in both kettlebell sport as well as mace sport. He has had a passion for health and fitness since his youth and his mission is to inspire others to lead a healthy and active lifestyle and use exercise as a means to better all aspects of their lives, making them physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually stronger. You can connect with him on agatsumontreal.com or on instagram @coach.burkhard and @agatsumontreal.