The GREATEST Kettlebell Exercise on EARTH
When it comes to kettlebells you’d be living under a rock if you haven’t heard of or tried a kettlebell swing. This seemingly simple, yet dynamic exercise takes so little, yet offers so much. There are plenty of exercises that load hip extension, but few load the eccentric phase as powerfully as the swing. Explosive movements like barbell cleans, high pulls and snatches all require an explosive pull and fast hips, but are typically dropped at the apex of the movement and require much more time for mastery. With the swing you get to play with maximum output synced with the deceleration of a ballistic load. This creates a weight that feels much heavier on the body due to acceleration and allows for multiple repetitions.
Not only are you building a strong posterior with the swing you’ll also get the added benefits of increasing your grip strength, building work capacity, reinforcing the subtle balance of tension and fluidity that carries over into just about every athletic arena, and even has the potential to increase hamstring flexibility (assuming you’re not too squatty). Every client I ever had that started doing kettlebell swings praised the movement for building a stronger back and looser hammies.
As with most things in the fitness world there’s more than one way to do them (despite what “experts” who’ve gone through as single course would say.) Over the years I’ve learned and experimented with dozens of swing variations to not only get stronger and more powerful, but offer enough variation for myself and my clients to maintain interest without diverting too far from the main goal. There’s also the fact that with many different body types and limitations offering only one or two variations might not cut it. Some of these variations might be new to you so keep that in mind when choosing the load. You might need to go very light just to get the position or transition down.
Here are 22 ways to skin a cat… I mean swing a bell that will get you stronger and more powerful.
#1 Chest Supported Kettlebell Swing
This movement is a great precursor to the swing to understand the concept of swinging the bell. This allows you to control the speed without losing control of the kettlebell. It helps you feel the movement throughout glutes, hamstrings, back and core while teaching tension. I use this with new clients and it’s especially good for a class setting when different experience levels train together. It’s also a great movement to create engagement to prep for ballistic work. Since you can dictate the speed you can teach the loaded hinge with a pause and break the movement up into two different pieces until they can seamlessly flow together.
#2 Kettlebell Swing
The two hand swing (albeit not my favorite) is generally accepted as the “best” way to swing a kettlebell. Context is everything and realizing that even though the bilateral stance allows for maximum drive it also puts the most stress on the lumbar spine. Even with this one movement there’s variation based on how much tension you apply, whether you allow the bell to float or pull it down, and how high you go. With this swing you’re going to allow for a float which gives you a moment of weightlessness.
#3 High Tension Kettlebell Swing (Hard Style)
This takes the same movement, but now increases the amount of tension utilized to perform it. I first tried this from Pavel back in the RKC days and still incorporate it occasionally to intensify lighter loads. The idea here is you want to maintain the most tension you can from the second you pick up the weight to the second you carefully deliver it to the ground. There is no weightlessness at the peak of the movement so as soon as you get to your end point you immediately pull back into the downswing as hard as you can. The benefit of this is that it won’t allow you to endlessly swing the bell and engages nearly every muscle. Typically when a trainee complains about back pain while swinging it’s a lack of tension so this has the ability to teach them where to engage and when.
#4 Dead Stop Kettlebell Swing
One way to intensify the swing is stop the momentum. While I like to use this as a regression to the swing because it avoids reinforcing bad rep after bad rep it does also intensify the movement because you’ll have to recreate the drive each and every time. The idea here is to pause just before the initial backswing and hip drive and then hit that landmark each time. Plant the bell, pause, explode. This has great carry over being able to initiate explosive force quickly at any point.
#5 One Arm Kettlebell Swing
Once my clients understand the complexities of the movement with two hands it’s time to take one off. At first the goal is to maintain as rigid a stance as possible avoiding excessive rotation. Naturally with one hand off the bell will want to pull you internally. This will start to feel more natural, but I want my client to ease into the rotation. With the hip flexion you want to avoid spinal flexion and incorporating rotation right off the bat can put a new client at risk. With the one arm swing think of this a two hand swing performed with one hand.
#6 Alternating Kettlebell Swing
The alternating swing is going to require some timing which gets us into one of my favorite benefits of ballistic kettlebell work which is coordination and awareness. While you can simply keep one hand on the bell at all times, to get the best results I employ a catch and release tactic. This forces you to be incredibly mindful. As the bell approaches the peak of the movement you’ll release the bell, catch it with your other hand and perform the downswing.
#7 One Arm Kettlebell Swing with Rotation
This variation will feel the most natural to most as it allows for a natural rotation at the bottom of the downswing. Rather than staying rigid you’re going to allow your torso (without spinal flexion) to rotate. This allows you to load the contralateral glute and hamstring slightly more without being in too compromised of a position. Your gaze will be slightly altered as you downswing since you’ll want to keep a neutral neck position. I typically don’t recommend high reps with this so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
#8 Alternating One Arm Kettlebell Swing With Rotation
Similar to the last movement, but now you’ll be combining the natural flow of alternating back and forth with the ballistic nature of the swing. As you downswing you’ll create a natural rotation through your hips and torso, but it’s important to keep the bell in front of you on the way up. This will allow you to release and catch the bell with your other hand and not let it get too far away from you laterally. With this movement it will feel easy to round through your shoulders and mid-back on the downswing so maintain that extension through your upper back with lat engagement as much as possible.
#9 Dead Stop Staggered Kettlebell Swing
Here’s where things get really fun. The staggered stance (1.5 stance, kickstand, etc) is my favorite progression as it feels the most comfortable as well as has the most carry over. Learning how to create power safely from a staggered stance will create awareness and strength that will protect you during most athletic endeavors. This gives you some of the benefits of unilateral training without taking you too off balance. Balance issues can come into play so that’s why it’s important to start with lighter weight at first. Stay as rigid as possible on the downswing for this variation.
#10 One Arm Staggered Kettlebell Swing With Rotation
The one arm staggered swing will take the benefit of the staggered position, but now add in more rotation on the bottom of the downswing. As you receive the bell you’ll rotate toward the planted leg creating more stress through the adductors that will help you build more stability through your lumbo pelvic hip complex. You’re engaging your adductors with just about every variation, but I find this to be the most stressful.
#11 Alternating Staggered One Arm Kettlebell Swing With Rotation
This variation is one of the most fun and useful swing movements as you’ll add in some movement each and every rep as you change foot positions. You can make it as varied as you want changing foot positions laterally or keeping your heel high off the ground of your non-dominant leg. It’s important that as soon as the bell starts the descent you’re dominant leg is planted and ready to receive it so until you can safely perform alternating swings or one arm staggered swings hold off on this variation.
#12 Outside Leg Kettlebell Swing
Another great way to vary the swing is to vary where the load is coming from. Most swing movements keep the bell in between the legs in a wider stance, but for some clients this can pose too big of an issue on their back. By narrowing the stance you can decrease the pressure on the lumbar while still getting the benefits of the swing. The reason I don’t like to start with this variation is that most new trainees will simply swing their arms taking the hinge out of the equation. Performing this variation will require a narrow stance to avoid taking out your knee, but will engage your trunk significantly more on the opposing side particularly through your oblique, glute and hip.
#13 Double Kettlebell Swing
The double swing allows you to increase the load of the movement while also widening your foot placement. This creates the need for extra tension to avoid aggravating your back. As bell sizes increase so should the width of your stance. As the width increases it’s easy to lose the tracking of your knees and toes so be mindful of excessive external hip rotation.
#14 Double Kettlebell Swing Outside
You may find this variation to be easier on the back, but just as with the single bell outside variation it’s important to understand the hinge and extension to avoid just swinging your arms. Maintaining a narrow stance, you’ll also find that this variation will allow you to go heavier which will load your traps and upper back more. Maintain an externally rotated shoulder position to keep your hands in a neutral grip position. This will help avoid the side of the handle taking out your leg. Keep your triceps engaged to avoid curling your biceps as the bells ascend.
#15 One Arm Half Kneeling Wide Kettlebell Swing
With this variation you’re going to change the level while building adductor strength. Use a soft pad that won’t compromise the stability of your planted knee. You’ll be loading this contralaterally again (plant the knee of the opposite hand holding the kettlebell). This is another great variation for those that need help reinforcing the hinge since you reduce the distance the bell has to travel.
#16 Two Hand Lateral Pendulum Kettlebell Swing
This will be the first variation where we take the kettlebell out laterally from the body. In order to be as safe as possible you’re going to keep two hands on the bell to maintain as much control of the bell while reinforcing trunk stability and tension. You’ll feel this movement throughout your entire core, but predominantly through your glutes, back, obliques, and lats. With a narrow stance you’ll be pulling and changing direction of the movement quickly while maintaining a strong hinge position.
#17 Rotational Kettlebell Swing
This variation will further what was started with the two hand pendulum. With only one hand you’ll finish the movement in full hip extension bringing the kettlebell laterally. As the bell returns to the start position you’ll quickly hinge and receive the bell laterally to the other side and repeat. This will require timing and coordination and will build strength through the shoulder complex.
#18 Squat Kettlebell Swing
This movement is similar to a pendulum, but will put you in both a squat and hinge position. I like this movement as a variation to maintain tension throughout the lower body. This movement requires balance and timing as well as core control to avoid releasing at the wrong time. It’s important to keep as straight a back as possible since this movement will challenge you from multiple levels while trying to pull you over. When practiced it does a fantastic job at building upper and lower body strength.
#19 Bullfighter Kettlebell Swing
With this variation you’ll be moving, rotating, hinging, and changing foot positions each rep. I love the awareness it builds as well as how fun it is. You’ll be alternating from a bilateral stance pivoting into a rotation and hinging. The goal with this movement isn’t to go extremely heavy, but to be incredibly mindful of each step and movement. Coordinating hip drive with the step and moving through the weightlessness of the bell is what makes this movement so dynamic and challenging.
#20 Alternating Bullfighter Kettlebell Swing
Similar to the bullfighter, but this will require constant movement as you alternate back and forth. This will take you through multiple planes and positions forcing you to create output and maintain tension in fairly compromised positions (pivoted and hinged). This variation will help build an incredible amount of awareness
#21 Double Kettlebell Swing Staggered
This will double the load of the staggered swing and challenge your structure even more. One bell will go between your legs and one on the outside with the front planted leg getting the brunt of the work while challenging your back, grip and shoulders. Similar to the staggered swing the movement will be more or less challenging depending on how much pressure you put on the back foot. To create more of a foundation create more of an even distribution between your feet, but as you gain efficacy of the movement lift up your back heel more and more.
#22 Double Kettlebell Swing Alternating Staggered
This will create strength and power on each leg while adding a coordination benefit as you alternate foot positions. This dynamic and challenging variation is great to add in double work in to challenge one side at a time without getting completely off balance. This is a great movement to build starting strength from each leg.
Smarter Kettlebell Swings For Sustainable Success
It’s important to remember that regardless of what the high priests of kettlebell have said there is more than one way to swing a bell. As your training evolves I strongly recommend learning from a number of coaches and experimenting with yourself and your athletes based on different needs and areas of your programming. I always encourage a “flow and play” day (or two) where your training is based on feel without a specific rep or set scheme. This gives you some freedom to experiment with multiple types of swings (or any movement for that matter) and gives some much needed unstructured play into an otherwise incredible linear training world.
With that said, it’s also important to understand the fundamentals before getting too “out there.” Have a good handle on the basics and then push yourself just outside your comfort zone. If you just started swinging a kettlebell don’t go right into a double variation that you’ve never seen. There’s no rush so take it slow. The last point I want to make is don’t think of these as a linear progression. Once you’ve done the basic swing then you move on to a harder variation, then a harder one, until you get to the most challenging version and that’s where you stay. There’s a time and place for every variation in here! Enjoy.
About The Author
Marcus Martinez – Since 2001 Marcus has been helping people get stronger, more athletic and pain-free with kettlebell training. From owning his own facility in Southern California to traveling the world teaching his kettlebell certifications and programs, Marcus brings experience, innovation and excitement to this age old training tool. Along the wayside, Marcus has trained clients from all walks of life including professional mixed martial arts athletes and everyday people looking to achieve athletic longevity. He currently built and runs the Kettlebell Kings Kettlebell Certification as well creates and publishes the kettlebell information on Living.Fit