06 Mar 5 Unique Benefits of The Kettlebell Swing
Specifically, what makes the exercise so unique and effective for optimizing back health?
It’s so valuable, that I wrote a recent article for StrongFirst about my personal experience and how the kettlebell swing has greatly contributed to keeping my back strong and pain-free after a major injury years ago.
But, what specifically makes this exercise different compared to other major lifts and exercises?
I wanted to dig deeper on why I believe the swing is one of the most effective exercises for developing a strong and resilient back.
1-DYNAMIC STRENGTH ENDURANCE
Dynamic strength endurance may be the most important benefit of the kettlebell swing, when it comes to back health.
Strength endurance or muscular endurance is critically important to prevent or reduce the risk of low back injury or any musculoskeletal injury, for that matter.
Strength endurance is a quality of strength and could be argued to be the most important quality of strength, depending on the athlete or skill.
Dr. Stuart McGill has previously stated that it is muscular endurance that helps reduce low back pain the most.
Strength alone is not enough.
More repetitions of less demanding work that will enhance strength and endurance.
This is a unique advantage of performing a kettlebell swing as we produce sustained muscular contraction and stabilization when swinging a kettlebell, especially when performing high repetitions and high volume work loads.
The swing is an example a dynamic strength endurance, as opposed to static strength endurance (such as a plank).
Anyone that has performed swings for high reps (~100 repetition range or above, for example) knows this takes significant trunk strength endurance to perform.
Dynamic strength endurance is a distinct characteristic of the swing which greatly contributes to keeping the back strong, healthy, and powerful.
2-PROMOTES SPINAL STABILITY
As I had mentioned in the previous article about the swing, it requires stability yet it promotes stability.
This means it does require an adequate amount of trunk strength or stabilization at baseline.
An example would be if you can’t hold a static plank for at least a minute, we’ve got to fix that before attempting to swing a kettlebell.
One we have a baseline of stability, the swing will require an enormous amount of stabilization throughout the entire cycle of the swing.
Power breathing (also known as biomechanical matched breathing) is when the exhalation matches the forward motion and helps to set the spine for maximum stiffness and stability at the top of the swing.
A high level of stabilization and “bracing” is developed by this breathing technique, in combination with proper swing biomechanics.
One of the reasons the mechanics are so unique is because the swing is a ballistic exercise (fast and explosive).
While there are many exercises that promote spinal stability, but the kettlebell swing does this in a different way because it’s such a dynamic, powerful, and explosive movement.
Again, it promotes stability at a higher level, assuming baseline stability is present.
3-MINIMIZES MUSCLE IMBALANCES
With the mechanics of the swing, the motion specifically addresses the hip flexors and hip extensors.
When the kettlebell is projected forward, any tightness in the hip flexors will be stretched and will improve pelvic mobility.
And, tight hip flexors can be seem as a common problem for many people.
On the flip side, the weak hip extensors will be made stronger with the explosive hip drive.
The well executed hip drive is what makes a swing a powerful and explosive movement.
You could say that similar things can be addressed with the slow lifts (squat or deadlift).
However, because the swing is a fast and explosive, it’s a very dynamic exercise and very different in the way it helps to address muscle imbalances or flexibility issues.
The importance of the hip extensors and glute activation cannot be emphasized enough with the kettlebell swing and are considered a very unique feature of the exercise with the research by Dr. McGill.
His research demonstrated high levels of muscle activation with all posterior and anterior chain muscle groups, as well as most major hip muscles.
Specifically, high muscle activation was revealed in the glutes, abs, and erector spinae muscles, which are all major contributors in keeping the back healthy.
The swing is an interplay of muscle firing and synchronization that is distinct from many other exercises.
4-BIOMECHANICS OF THE HIP HINGE
The proper biomechanics of the swing is performing the exercise with the “hip hinge” movement.
What’s so different with the swing “hip hinge” compared to other lifts?
The deadlift, for example, also teaches a good “hip hinge” pattern.
I believe the difference is the speed and efficiency of the movement.
The “cleaner” the hip hinge, the more efficient, safe, and powerful the exercise is.
The swing “hip hinge” is fast and dynamic, it’s often referred to as a “hip snap.”
If you’re performing a high volume swing session with a well executed hip hinge, it’s a very efficient and explosive movement pattern.
And, it helps us to “learn” or “program” optimal spine biomechanics.
With the hip hinge, the spine is neither significantly flexing or extending, it’s neutral.
This helps to promote great spinal position.
5-THE “TALL SPINE” EFFECT
The final unique benefit is what I call the “tall spine” effect.
This is something that takes a lot of practice and definitely a lot of self awareness.
The picture at the beginning of this post illustrates the “tall spine” effect.
The “tall spine” effect is actively getting tall at the top of the swing when the bell is projected horizontally.
You might be thinking, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?
Well, yes it is.
But, what often happens is an over-extension (or hyperextension) of the lumbar spine as the explosive hip drive propels the bell forward.
In other words, at the top of the swing, there can be an exaggerated backward lean which can put additional stress on the lumbar region.
A little is fine, but too much is a bad thing.
Instead, I try to really focus on “getting tall” at the top of the swing and being self aware of this simple cue.
Personally, since I started really paying attention to this, it’s made a huge difference and my back feels even “healthier” if that’s possible.
When this is done right, it almost feels like you are “gapping” or opening the intervertebral spaces at the top of the swing.
What this also does is build a reproducible pattern to get in optimal spinal position at any time, meaning that it helps posture.
For example, when I notice I’m slouched or not in good alignment, I have become self aware to get myself quickly into the “tall spine” position from what I’ve practiced with the swing.
Can we also get this from other exercises?
Yes, but it’s a little bit different with the swing.
In summary, it comes down to these 5 distinctions of the kettlebell swing that make it exceptional for a strong back.
- DYNAMIC STRENGTH ENDURANCE (maybe the most important benefit of the swing)
- PROMOTES SPINAL STABILITY (great to enhance stability)
- MINIMIZES MUSCLE IMBALANCES (high levels of muscle activity in hip and trunk)
- BIOMECHANICS OF THE HIP HINGE (ensures proper hip hinging which supports neutral spine)
- THE “TALL SPINE” EFFECT (builds optimal spine position with carryover)
For me, there’s no question the swing is one of the best exercises for keeping the back strong and healthy.
These are some of the main reasons it’s different from other exercise variations.
What do you do with this information?
How does this help you?
Practice the things mentioned here that can be practiced (hip hinge, breathing, explosive hip drive, tall spine, etc.)
Pick one thing to work on and focus on that one thing until you have it.
And, to make sure you practice the right techniques, get a coach, take a workshop, do what you need to do to make sure you’re doing the right things.
Mastery is a path.
Mastery is growth and learning.
We can always get…just a little better.
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