24 May Debating The Kettlebell Swing: The Russian Swing Vs The American Swing.
Let me explain a common question and help shed some new perspective on 2 different styles of the kettlebell swing (the Russian swing and the American swing).
Which style is better?
This is clearly a debated question, right?
The intent here is NOT to bash one method, but to look at things from a safety, biomechanical, and effectiveness viewpoint and try to rationalize and understand the difference between 2 styles as much as possible.
I strongly considered whether I should write this article or not, but feel I needed to share this unique perspective and rationale because I have not seen these comparisons at this level.
Let’s talk about the ongoing debate between the Russian style kettlebell swing (RKBS) and the American style kettlebell swing (AKBS).
Before I get into this, I must give you some information on my own background, so you know the exact position I’m taking here.
The first perspective is that of an orthopedic physical therapist.
For your reference, I’ve treated countless shoulder and spine patients (and many other orthopedic injuries, as well).
I understand anatomy, joint mechanics, and stress on the human musculoskelatal system.
The next perspective is that of an injured athlete, as a former “back injury” patient myself and having herniated a lumbar disc years ago that required surgery and rehab.
I’ve personally experienced severe low back pain and radiculopathy in the worst possible way.
My back is fine now, but I constantly seek to optimize my training to make my back stronger and healthier, while strongly considering the biomechanics and neuromuscular efficiency in every lift and exercise I perform.
And, finally, the perspective of a passionate strength coach.
To say I’m passionate and committed about teaching today’s fitness enthusiast how to achieve better movement, mobility, and strength is an understatement.
I teach people how to be stronger and move better using methods and techniques that I beleive are the safest and most biomechanically efficient to deliver optimal results for the individual’s goals.
I won’t go into all of my credentials and training, you can click here if you want to read more, but I thought you should know where I’m coming from with all of this.
Now, let’s talk biomechanics.
Biomechanics is the study of the mechanics of human movement.
There are many variables to analyze when looking at proper biomechanics.
For me, it basically means how “efficient” can we be with our movement.
It’s important to understand this as we look at this debate.
The RKBS is designed to maximize explosive hip strength and power. It is most effective by utilizing powerful hip drive and a “hip hinge” pattern, maintaining a neutral spinal position.
When done properly, there is minimal compressive and shear stress on the lumbar spine because the spine is neither overly flexed or extended during any point in the RKBS.
The arms are essentially not used actively, meaning the anterior deltoids are not forcefully elevating the kettlebell.
The kettlebell is being brought forward by forceful hip drive and the kettlebell “floats” to the height of the shoulders or possibly even lower.
The height of the kettlebell is really irrelevant because the hip power is the focus and not the active elevation of the kettbell.
The swinging of the arms and the proximity to the heart cause a tremendous cardiovascular benefit, as heart rate and breathing capacity increases with increased repetitions.
Also, the benefits to the “core” (abdominals, vertebral paraspinals, and all surounding hip musculature) are amazing.
When performed correctly, with proper coaching and motor learning, the RKBS is one of the most powerful exercises a human can perform, in my opinion, as it literally blends total body strength and power with cardiovasular conditioning.
And, it’s one of the safest, most biomechanically effiecient exercises, when executed properly.
To recap, it is designed for hip “explosiveness,” as well as many other specific benefits.
And, it can be done swinging a heavy kettlebell for added strength and conditioning.
The kettlebell travels from a position back between your legs to the height of the shoulders or below, as mentioned.
So, the range of motion (ROM) is limited to this path of travel, which is safe and efficient for the goals of the exercise.
This is in contrast to the American kettlebell swing (AKBS) which has a much longer path to travel, as the kettlebell is elevated overhead.
Now comes the question, which is better?
My answer is based on a biomechanics and safety standpoint, as I’ve mentioned.
I have tried the AKBS and have been open minded to the reported benefits of the exercise.
I have also tried to find a ‘rationale’ as to why I would do it.
I have logged extensive time and hours with the RKBS.
I have become a kettlebell expert, but I am still the student and always will be as this is continuous journey towards better movement and better strength for me.
With that said, I have not been able to find a reason why I would incorporate this into my own training, at this time, and I will provide my reasons why.
First, the postion of bringing the kettlebell overhead is not as effective for what the exercise is designed to do.
Let me explain what I mean.
As I stated, I use the RKBS for hip strength and power, as well as cardiovascular conditioning in the safest, most efficient technique.
The AKBS is not as effective for these benefits, as the hip power is lost with the overhead movement as the power shifts from the hips to the shoulders and upper body and also encourages spinal extension.
The evolution of the AKBS stemmed from the question, “why not take the kettlebell overhead?” which may have bypassed the importance of establishing a strong foundation with the RKBS first.
I would ask the opposite question.
“Why take the kettlebell overhead in a swing style pattern when there are better biomechanically efficient options?”
Let me say the RKBS is not a “half rep,” as I have seen reported in some online content.
The RKBS has a specific purpose, benefit, and rationale, which I have mentioned previously.
Because this style swing only elevates to ‘roughly’ the shoulder level, this is definitely not just a “half rep.”
It’s an efficient hip power ballistic exercise.
Yes, the AKBS is near double the ROM (range of motion) with the path of travel being taken above the head, but is it necessary and is it safe?
When you are lifting with a barbell (proper olympic lifts and power lifts, for example), you want the most effiicienct bar path possible, correct?
I know that barbell lifts and kettlebells are very different, of course, but both methods of training require lifting efficiency and neuromuscular efficiency to deliver the best results in the safest manner.
Does the overhead kettebell swing provide the best result in the safest way possible?
If you have experience with both styles, answer this question honestly.
Is it worth the extra physiological stress, joint compromise, and lack of neuromuscular efficiency?
For me, it is not.
Is the AKBS twice as hard as the RKBS?
Well, I think it may be more taxing due to the increased ROM and increased muscular recruitment of the upper body to propel the kettebell overhead.
But, I keep going back to the fact that the AKBS is simply not as “efficient” as the RKBS.
Let’s dig deeper and take this on a joint by joint approach, starting with the shoulder.
For me, the AKBS is awkward in the overhead postion as the hands are close together, which can be a more compromising position for both the AC (acromioclavicular) joints and GH (glenohumoral) joints in the shoulder region due to the proximity of the hands.
At the end ROM overhead, the shoulder joint is in an internally rotated and end-range flexed position, which encroaches the shoulder (subacromial space) and can be provacative for shoulder impingement.
In case you’re wondering how things compares to the kettlebell snatch, the shoulder is not nearly as compromised here due to the fact that the load is asymetrical and you have the ability to open and slightly externally rotate your hand at end range which opens the shoulder joint and this is not nearly as provocative for shoulder impingement.
The awkward feeling with 2 hands on the close handle of the kettlebell would be similar to squating with your feet extremely close together, which would feel very weird and unnatural.
Also, the kettlebell is in an unusual position overhead, as the kettlebell is not “tamed” as is with the kettlebell snatch, so it remains either somewhat parallel to the floor or in a vertical position, either of which is not as mechanically efficient.
Again, I’m not clear on the rationale to work the shoulders with the AKBS when there are other, more biomechanically efficient exercises.
I do understand the thinking to do more ROM and more work, it’s simply not as efficient or safe.
The proximity of the hands can potentially be more stressful on the wrists, as well, although I would say this is not a significant flaw to the AKBS, as there are larger issues, as mentioned.
I am not crazy about the shoulder position at all, for the reasons I mentioned. And, I think there are more optimal exercises to strengthen the shoulders and shoulder girdle complex, such as the military press and kettlebell snatch, for example.
The question of “why not take the kettlebell overhead” may have been an interesting question to ask, but from a safety and biomechanical analysis, it doesn’t seem logical to me.
I respect differences in opinion, but would challenge individuals to evaluate the rationale of the exercise to determine if it is a fit for the training goal and be very clear on the risks and rewards of the exercise.
If you compare the snatch to the AKBS, the snatch is significantly better on the shoulder and wrist and does not promote the lumbar hyperextension.
But, one of the challenges with the snatch is learning to effectively “tame the arch,” which is moving around the kettlebell so that it is positioned safely on your forearm without banging in the lockout position overhead.
What would potentially be a safer, more biomechanically efficient exercise with a similar effect as the AKBS?
That would be the double kettlebell snatch, but the drawback is that this is an advanced exercise.
But, I would say that the AKBS is an advanced exercise, as well.
Even Jeff Martone, CrossFit kettlebell expert, kettlebell trainer, and author of the book “Kettlebell Rx” says that “there is a time and a place for the AKBS, but that is ONLY after the RKBS has been mastered.”
Let’s face the facts here.
Many people do not master the RKBS first and instead begin with the AKBS. This is the mistake.
Let’s discuss the spine in more detail next.
Here’s the real potential risk with the AKBS, in my opinion.
The long arc of motion promotes lumbar hyperextension once the kettlebell passes the height of the shoulders to get the kettlebell overhead.
The path is very different from the kettlebell snatch, as the kettlebell snatch keeps the kettllebell closer to the body and the last phase of elevation is done by using the momentum of the explosive hip drive and pulling up with the arm and “taming the arc” by punching underneath the kettlebell.
In contrast, with the AKBS the tendency is to lurch and propel the bell overhead by leaning back, which promotes the lumbar extension or hyperextension.
This can be very problematic and unsafe, if not performed correctly.
It is this potential to “lurch” that is the real threat to safety in the AKBS because a hyperextended lumbar position can provoke muscular strain, facet joint compression. narrowing of the posterior joint space, overstretching of the ligaments, and potentially hypermobility at a lumbar segment, if improper technique persists.
That is the biggest risk with poor mechanics wih the AKBS.
Another potential challenge is head position.
As the kettlebell comes overhead, the natural tendency is to push your head forward into cervical hyperextension (a forward head).
Again, this takes the head out of a neutral position.
I will admit that maintiaining a neutral cervical spine is challenging, even with the RKBS, however, the hyperextension is more excessive and pronounced with the AKBS when the kettlebell reaches the top position overhead.
Can you convince me that the spine (lumbar and cervical) is better stabilized in an optimal position with the AKBS compared to the RKBS?
I don’t think there is any way you can convince me of that, no matter what skill level someone attains as the differences in mechanics makes that impossible.
The KEY question is what can be gained by performing the AKBS over the RKBS?
That is the question I ask myself and have not been able to answer.
Maybe your reasons and rationale are different than mine.
Maybe you can answer the question differently than I can.
As I opened this article, my intetnt was to look at the comparisons objectively, purely from a movement and biomechanics perspective and try to better understand the differences and benefits.
Again, I am passionate about optimizing training efficiency for the best results with the least compromise to safety.
With my background and understanding, I simply can’t answer why I would do the AKBS in my own training, unless at some point I simply wanted to advance my training variations of the kettlebell swing.
No matter where you stand with this debate, I encourage you to evaluate the differences in technique between the two different swing styles and ask the following questions.
What are my goals with the exercise, what are the safest, most optimal ways to achieve my goals, and are there better alternatives?
As I’ve tested both styles and evaluated the biomechanics of each, the RKBS is my preferred style.
It comes down to what is a more efficient, cleaner, safer movement for the result I am working for.
Now, I realize there are those that are advocates of the AKBS and I respect the opinions and views of others, however, the information presented here is what makes sense to me.
In closing, I do agree with Jeff Martone, that there probably is a place for the AKBS, but the RKBS must be mastered first.
Getting down the RKBS first is absolutely the key here to establish a safer pattern with the AKBS, if that is the style you prefer.
Is there a debate on this?
I provided the rationale.
Do what’s right for you, but understand the differences here and be sensible with your training.
Feel free to post your comments below and please share the article if you feel it was valuable.