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  • Richard Ulm

Making the case for Kettlebell Swings

Updated: Jan 29

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For the last 20 years, kettlebells have become more and more prevalent. While at first they were only used by a rogue movement of shirtless, intense, fitness enthusiasts, today, they are a common (perhaps even essential) tool used by strength coaches all over the world.

Kettlebells have two hallmark movements, the Turkish Get-up and the Swing. There are two styles of swing, the American Swing and the Russian Swing. The Russian Swing takes the bell to chest level at its high point. The American “Swing” takes the bell all the way over head. For reasons I cannot fully understand, the American “Swing” is considerably more common than its sibling the Russian Swing. While both movements have utility in training, I think the Russian Swing is superior; today, I want to cover why in hopes of convincing you to start programming this incredible exercise more with your athletes, clients, and patients.

Rant…the American “Swing” is not a swing!

Before we get going, I need to clear up something that has been tormenting me years that, while quite “ranty”, is relevant to today’s topic. Are you ready? Here we go: the American “swing” is not a swing; it is a snatch. I don’t know from where the name came, but I know for certain that the American “swing” ain’t no swing. You may not have realized it, but if you’re any good at American Swings (henceforth to be referred to as the kettlebell Snatch) and you think back to the last time you hammered a few out, if you think hard, you will recall that the path of the bell was nothing like that of the traditional Russian Swing. The Russian Swing (henceforth to be referred to as the kettlebell Swing) is more arc shaped - although not entirely…a topic for another time. The path of the bell in the kettlebell Snatch, however, is much more linear and much more vertical. No one that is any good at kettlebell Snatches is arcing the bell all the way overhead. That would look ridiculous.

On the concentric movement (from the bottom, squat position to the top, standing position) of the kettlebell Snatch, as the bell moves out of the bottom, it initially resembles that of the kettlebell Swing, but the moment the bell passes in front of the ankles, their paths diverge drastically. In the Swing, the bell continues to travel forward and up toward its highpoint in front of the chest. In the Snatch, the athlete will drive his legs ballistically into the floor and pull the bell out of its forward arcing motion into a vertical, more linear path toward its highpoint directly overhead. You can see the difference in the diagram below. End of rant. Now onto the topic of today’s article.

Bell Path

(Swing vs. Snatch)

The purpose for the above rant was actually to lay the foundation for the primary reason why the less commonly used Swing is perhaps better than the ubiquitous (dare I say overused) Snatch.

Reason #1: Easier to Maintain a Proper Brace

Being able to establish and maintain a proper brace is incredibly important for injury-avoidance and for performance. While not always essential, it is valuable to program movements during which it is easier to brace correctly.

The main difference between the Swing and the Snatch is the path of the bell. In the Swing, the range of motion is much shorter and the period during which time you are able to establish a proper brace for the bottom of the movement is longer than that of the snatch…much longer. This has everything to do with the bell path mentioned above.

In the Swing, the bell path is shorter and mostly arc-shaped. The moment the bell begins to descend, you have plenty of time to pressurize into a beautiful brace, all before you enter the hinge phase where you have to take on the load of the bell, and well before the bottom transition where the forces are at their peak.

In the snatch, the path of the bell is much more vertical and curves much more dramatically. This isn’t a problem on the concentric phase, but is a huge challenge on the eccentric phase. During this time the bell drops almost completely vertically, and it stays very close to the body. At the bottom of the movement, roughly when the bell drops below your chest, you have to quickly push the bell between your legs and establish a proper brace before you sit back into the hole, all within about 1/4 second. This is very, very difficulty to pull off.

What happens more often than not in the Snatch is the athlete cranks on their spinal extensors to brace for the bottom, resulting in the Extension/Compression Stabilizing Strategy (ECSS). In the Swing, because the movement is less complex and one has more time to establish a proper brace, it is much easier to stabilize correctly.

Reason #2: Easier to Execute Properly

Not to imply that executing a proper Swing is easy, but it is considerably easier than performing a Snatch. I actually consider a proper swing to be the movement foundation on which the Snatch is built. If you don’t have a good Swing, you cannot have a good Snatch.

The Swing is essentially a ballistic hip-hinge…mostly…at least in the beginning, when you are first learning it. For today’s discussion, I’m gonna move forward with the premise that the Swing is “just a hip-hinge”. As a hip-hinge, it is predominantly a single joint movement. No doubt there is a little movement in the knees and ankle, but the vast majority of the movement occurs at the hip. Very little happens in the upper body. Truthfully, other than holding onto the bell, the arms act more as cables, transferring the force generated in the legs and hips into the bell. This is definitely not the case in the Snatch, which involves a lot of arm activity to redirect the path of the bell.

As a more complex movement, it is more likely that technique will be compromised, exposing the athlete to higher (often unnecessary) risk of injury.

Reason #3: Better Ground Contact

Not only does the bell path in the Snatch negatively affect the bracing strategy, it hampers one’s ability to maintain solid ground contact as well.

While both the Swing and the Snatch involve a ballistic, vertical leg-drive, directly into the ground, in the snatch the upward-pull on the bell, executed by the upper body, more often than not results in the athlete floating off the floor. During this short but detrimental period, the athlete looses all ground contact. Sure, the feet might literally be touching the floor, but not with any significant force. They have lost ground contact. They have lost connection between the ground and the bell, one of THE most important aspects of a good quality Swing or Snatch.

In the Swing, yes, there is a ballistic leg drive into the floor, but there is not the dramatic upper body, vertical pull like the Snatch. This makes is much easier to maintain solid ground contact, even at the top of the Swing, during the float phase. In a well execute Swing or Snatch, you should maintain a strong, active press of the legs into the ground throughout every position- drive, float, descent, hinge, squat. All of them. This is now you maintain solid ground contact, essential in both movements.

Reason #4: Heavier Weight

The final reason why the Swing in my opinion is superior to the Snatch is because you can use more weight and still move it ballistically. Because the range of motion is more in the Snatch, you just cannot use really heavy weight. In the Swing, however, because the more simple technique, and because you are able to brace better, you can use heavier weight - usually 2-3 bells over what you would typically Snatch with, perhaps even more.

The heavier weight will better train the core and improve the load on the nervous system, resulting in a stronger stimulus to develop explosiveness.

If you are programming Snatches, that’s great. They definitely have utility. But if you are having athletes perform Snatches without having first acquired a technically solid Swing, I urge you to consider programming more Swings. I know Snatches are quite common, particularly in CrossFit, but for the aforementioned reasons, I believe you will get better results if you programmed more Swings.

Last thing, remember the American “Swing” is not a swing; it is a Snatch. #SpreadTheWord

-Richard Ulm, DC

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