02 Dec How To Build A Strong Posterior Chain You Can Be Proud Of (Part I)

This article is for the kettlebell enthusiast or coach who wants to better understand the many unique benefits of kettlebell training. We’ll explore specific benefits with a common kettlebell exercise.

Do kettlebells build muscle?

This question might surprise you, but it’s actually a common question I’m asked.

You might be even more surprised when I tell you about one particular exercise and how it can be a unique fit in a muscle building program (most specific to the posterior chain though).

When talking about building muscle, kettlebells do not replace bodybuilding-style training for maximizing muscular development.

But, I will share the benefits of one exercise that you might not even associate with as a “muscle builder.”

That exericise is the hardstyle kettlebell swing and I’ll explain why.

The hardstyle kettlebell swing is a balance of muscular tension and relaxation. It is most often referred to as a Russian style swing which projects the kettlebell to approximately shoulder height and does not go overhead.

THE KETTLEBELL SWING

In short, the kettlebell swing is a very powerful total body exercise that offers unique strength and conditioning benefits. You already know that.

The perception by most people is that the swing is primarily a general strength and conditioning exercise – and it is.

However, the benefits of a well executed hardstyle swing go far beyond.

I’d argue that the hardstyle kettlebell swing is an essential part of any athlete’s training program.

Let’s just say that kettlebell swings forge athleticism.

Kettlebell swings forge athleticism.Click To Tweet

When we’re talking about muscle building though, do kettlebell swings really build muscle mass?

Well, a heavy single bell can certainly work very well for this, but doubles (a pair of kettlebells) seem to work better.

Double kettlebell swings challenge the body differently than a single bell. Why? You’re holding 2 bells and, therefore, each side side is targeted more as compared to holding a single.

The double kettlebell swing is an athletic muscle building exercise.

Double kettlebell swings are an outstanding muscle building athletic exercise.

Here’s what I’ve experienced.

THE MUSCULAR DEVELOPMENT BENEFITS OF THE DOUBLE SWING

  • Forearms. Sustained grip strength is required while swinging a pair of kettlebells and because of this, double swings will develop your forearms very nicely. And, let’s face it. Muscular forearms make you look a bit jacked.
  • Upper Arms.  Indirectly, the static and dynamic nature of the swings will help develop the upper arms, as well. If you want bigger arms, I certainly would NOT replace double bell work for direct arm work, but they can be an indirect contributor due to the isometric contraction.
  • Anterior Chain Swings will build strong abs (superficial and deep). This isn’t even a question and is supported by EMG research in clinical studies.
  • Quads While not like doing squats, the swing will definitely contribute to strong legs and quad development.
  • Posterior Chain (We’ll cover this in great detail below.)

THE POSTERIOR CHAIN

Developing the posterior chain is the real essence of the muscle building benefits with the double swing (or heavy singles).

Keep this in mind.

A strong, muscular posterior chain defines the athlete.

A strong, muscular posterior chain defines the athlete.Click To Tweet

What is the posterior chain?

Dense, Thick Deep Back Muscles. Kettlebell swings are typically done for rep ranges of 10 or more. This enhances strength endurance and strength endurance is a primary strength quality that’s improved with kettlebell swing training. Digging deeper here, the spinal stabilization required to maintain proper spine position works the deep muscular stabilizers or paraspinals (muscles that run up and down your spine). These deep muscles are working extremely hard as you swing the bells. The continuous “time-under-tension” helps to build dense, strong, deep back muscles in a very unique way that’s almost unparalleled to anything else.

Powerful Glutes. Glutes are the hallmark of athletic development. Hip extension and hip power are essential in sport and activity and there may be few exercises that rival the kettlebell swing for improving explosive hip power. Glutes are the center of the athletic universe and double swings forge powerful and muscular glutes. It’s been said that strong glutes are the fountain of youth. I agree.

Besides the practical experiences of muscle activity with the kettlebell swing, we know from McGill’s research that the swing elicits high back and hip muscle activation.

In another study, EMG analysis has demonstrated high muscle activation of the hip extensors, particularly the gluteus maximus. This study was conducted with what can be considered reasonably ‘light’ loads, yet demonstrated high muscle activation.

Lats. The lats are highly active throughout the double kettlebell swing. And, the lats are one of the largest muscle groups in the entire body. Performing double kettlebell swings isn’t a replacement for doing barbell rows or pull-ups, but they are a solid way to build stronger and more muscular lats. To put this simply, swinging the bells highly engages the lats.

Traps. Swinging kettlebells are also a great way to work the traps. Like other muscle groups here, the traps are firing the entire time you’re swinging the bells. The isometric contraction is needed to stabilize the entire shoulder girdle and I’ve noticed that consistent use of double kettlebell swings are phenomenal for developing the upper and middle traps.

Shrugs have always been a targeted upper trap builder, but swings are a lot more dynamic and provide significantly more benefits than the old barbell shrug (*the barbell shrug still remains one of my favorites for the upper traps as a “recovering bodybuilder”). To clarify, you are not actively shrugging during swings, rather it is the stabilization effect of working these muscles.

These are the key muscle groups active in the posterior chain that get the majority of the workload.

Oh, let’s not forget the hamstrings in this group as they are highly active, as well. We know that swings really light up the hamstring group. We’ve probably all experienced that wonderful hamstring soreness the day after heavy – or high volume – swings.

In addition to the muscle building benefits I just covered, you’ll also get a helluva lot leaner and stronger with solid programming.

SPEAKING OF PROGRAMMING…

In part II of this post, I’ll have a simple and effective double kettlebell program you can use.

Yes, you can use this as single kettlebell program, as well.

When do you swing doubles?

Only after you have a strong foundation with the single kettlebell swing.

Remember that doubles are a progression from the single kettlebell swing.

Anyway, stay tuned for part II.

I didn’t want the program to get lost, so I’ll post that in a separate short post.

The program is called the “triple-double” and you’ll see why.

Click here to read part II – The “Triple-Double” program.

Feel free to share this anywhere you’d like by clicking on the social share icons on this post.

Scott Iardella, MPT, CSCS is a strength coach, athlete, and former “physio” who’s mission is to bridge the gaps in strength, performance and injury prevention. At Rdella Training, you’ll learn how to train at a high level of strength and performance while minimizing (or negating) risk for injury to achieve an unsurpassed level of results.
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6 Comments
  • Matteo Mura
    Posted at 18:03h, 03 December Reply

    Hi Scott,

    just a observation regarding the traps… as far as I know the lats activation to pack the shoulder should inhibit the traps. Am I wrong?

    Matteo

    • Scott
      Posted at 00:33h, 04 December Reply

      Matteo,
      Great observation. I’d have to say that the traps are definitely working, just as the lats are working. Primarily isometrically to stabilize the shoulder (and yes, keep the shoulders “packed”). EMG data would be great to see, but I can tell you that my traps are on ‘lit up’ – especially swinging heavy doubles. The traps and lats are working at different points throughout the swing.
      Make sense?

  • Matteo Mura
    Posted at 06:30h, 04 December Reply

    Yep, Thanks Scott.

    Matteo

  • Darshan WEERASINGHE
    Posted at 17:20h, 04 December Reply

    I have to disagree with you with regard to the musclebuilding benefits of kettle bell swings…i have done thousands of swings with decent weight and good form and have even completed Dan Johns 10000 KB swing challenge. I certainly got leaner, more athletic and had definite carryover to my squats and deadlifts. But apart from. Some muscle on my forearms and traps it didn’t build my glutes. Still a great exercise and a well written article. I’m referring to the single KB swing here

    • Scott
      Posted at 02:42h, 05 December Reply

      Darshan,
      Absolutely, feel free to disagree.
      What I wrote about is what I have experienced, but remember – by no means do kettlebell swings replace a hypertrophy program.
      I can tell you conclusively that swinging a ‘beast’ or a set of heavy doubles add to the the posterior chain muscle building benefits.
      I have found nothing better to develop those deep back muscles than a heavy dose of swings.
      But, we’re all different and these aren’t the “show” muscles. That’s important to remember too.

  • Renny Lupo
    Posted at 13:41h, 05 December Reply

    Read this
    and wanted to hit the swings ASAP, but, alas, 4 months out of hip replacement surgery.
    Nice article

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