I was completely unaware that there was a lift being referred to as a kettlebell swing that was, in my honest and professional opinion, not a kettlebell swing at all. This weekend, I saw before my very own eyes something being taught as a kettlebell swing which, to get super nitpicky and technical, is actually a version of the kettlebell snatch. For those of you who are not familiar with the difference I am referring to here, please view the following video.
I have seen this particular lift in my past being referred to as a two arm kettlebell snatch, as the overhead lock out position and end point is similar to the one arm kettlebell snatch. After years of studying, practicing, training, preparing for and eventually passing my RKC certification, I can tell you that never once (yup..NOT ONCE) did I ever encounter nor practice this lift they call “the American swing”. Of course, I went to the “Russian Kettlebell Challenge” in order to earn my RKC certification (a gut wrenching and grueling experience to say the least). Since the term Russian is in the title, you all should be fully aware that there IS a difference in overall form between Russian Kettlebell swing technique and the aforementioned American version. And yes, that difference matters! Throwing the name game aside, I had two big beefs with the “American Swing” when I saw it being executed. I will list those beefy bits below (side note: I am the queen of alliteration 😉 ).
Beefcake Numero Uno: Concerns for Shoulder Mobility. Watching the American swing will have you question the range of motion of the shoulders necessary for this lift. I am saying that for a few reasons. Reason number one is because the video above already made a point that many people will have limited shoulder mobility and thus, will be unable to perform this lift properly (a super important thing to be aware of when training clients). The average person may not be able to extend both arms overhead in a full, lock-out position due to things like arthritis, injury, use/misuse of the joint itself, etc. etc. On a more personal note, I have my own shoulder mobility issues due to a very nasty accident I was involved in when I was 19 years old. To this day, my right shoulder is still a bit stiff from scar tissue that formed after tumbling on pavement after having lost control of a skateboard going roughly 20 miles an down a hill (it actually hurt a lot worse than what you are currently imagining. Believe me). After years of mobility work and new found gains with primal move, much of my shoulder issues have significantly improved, but they will never be the same. I will admit, out of my own sheer curiosity, I wanted to feel the difference in my shoulders with the American swing as opposed to the Russian version due to my own personal limitations. Mobility issues aside though, let’s talk about something else that is a cause for concern even if your shoulder mobility is spot on solid.
Beefcake Numero Dos: The Hip Hinge, or the Lack There Of. The “American Swings” made me question whether a full hip hinge was possible in order to fully execute the kettlebell overhead. The Russian style I was taught per my certification requirements was enforced, reinforced, if not just brutally forced proper hip hinge technique when performing the kettlebell swing. That being said, by fulling extending our hips at the top of the swing, the kettlebell will quickly and almost effortlessly float to chest level. Properly loading the hips creates a ton of extra power on that is driven through the quadriceps, the glutes, and the hamstrings. This means your legs will increase their strength and power output. That extra hip hinge (or as one of my clients calls it the “hip-pop- and boom!” effect) creates a ton of power and strength in the lower body and the abdominal muscles at the height of the Russian swing. The issue then with the American swing would be weather a full loading of the hips and legs was possible and also, whether you could fully pop your hips forward to get the kettlebell overhead as opposed to chest level, as is taught in the RKC school of strength.
It was time for a serious science experience. While this go on the American swing was an interesting experience, I will never be repeating this experiment again. Here are the two major points I walked away with after taking these American swings out for a test drive.
1. Loading a kettlebell overhead with two arms limits your overall shoulder mobility. I actually felt my posture starting to suffer as I was unable to fully extend my hips to get the kettlebell overhead. This means that my shoulders were never in a full lock out position like they should be in a single arm kettlebell snatch. The lack of movement in the shoulders then improperly loads your entire back, causing some interesting feelings that creep down into your entire spine. It did not feel comfortable. My posture would have been much more solid had single arm snatches been a part of the equation, not to mention to full lock out in the single arm kettlebell snatch helps increase mobility in the shoulder itself. I should note that yes, I do have some limited range of motion in my one shoulder as I mentioned above. But that should serve as an interesting point as well. How many of us out there might actually be trying to do something our bodies are a) not meant to do and b) are doing something that can create more problems with our overall mobility in the first place? Here, the Russian style swing, being executed at chest level, would serve to properly load and stabilize the shoulders. If you want more shoulder mobility and shoulder strength, come see me for some serious primal move and snatch practice. It’s the 1-2 punch for shoulder problems, and that’s real talk, ya heard?
2. The hip hinge itself is compromised, which is a recipe for disaster on the spine. The Russian kettlebll swing focuses on loading the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and the entire core structure should contract at the height of the swing. Hinging at the hips actually helps load the body for a proper ballistic execution of the swing, which should end at chest level. Elevating a kettlebell overhead with two arms will not allow for a proper completion of the hip hinge. As stated above, what ends up happening is that you will improperly load your entire back since you cannot fully extend your hips. If the shoulder mobility issue hasn’t caught your attention, how does serious back strain sound? To quote a fellow instructor friend of mine “That lack of thoracic mobility….ouch!” I can tell you from personal experience that this awkward tension feeling in the spine is not something you’ll want to have happen to you.
I surfed around for some top level RKC discussion on this particular subject and came across a stellar post by Master RKC Andrew Read on this “American” vs “Russian” swing issue. Please feel free to read the article and check out his visual explanation below.
It’s time to get nitpicky. The Russian Kettlebell Swing IS NOT the same as The American Kettlebell Swing. As a Russian Kettlebell Instructor, I would never nor will I ever teach the “American Swing” for the sake of safety. The shoulder mobility range you need for something like that is huge, and the average Joe will not have that kind of shoulder mobility. Period. Besides, this particular swing style is, in my professional opinion, an archaic variation of the kettlebell snatch and is not generally accepted as proper when it comes to overall posture and functionality of the spine. Speaking from an instructor standpoint, I want my clients to move freely, increasing their mobility, stability and strength all while minimizing the risk of injury as much as possible, especially when we are dealing with the spine. The “American Swing” is really a two arm snatch, and I will always make that distinction. I have an entire tutorial dedicated to the Russian Kettlebell swing which you can view here, here and here. If you want to master the kettlebell snatch, please visit this link as well!
I realize that getting this technical may seem annoying and super nitpicky with many of you reading this blog post. But allow me to make a point. As a certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor who spent nearly 3 years studying under some of the top fitness professionals in this Russian kettlebell niche, and having passed a murderous 3 day certification workshop that involved 8-9 hours of high volume lifting, teaching evaluations, and the mental stamina the size of Russia itself, I have every right to be this nitpicky and to make this distinction. I teach Russian Kettlebell Swings as I am a Certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor. You can expect no other variation on my end when you come on board and train with me. With that being said, I will not lump the two variations of kettlebell swings in the same category. There is the Russian Kettlebell Swing and the Two Handed Snatch, commonly referred to as the “American Swing”. They ARE NOT one in the same. In the name of strength, power, functionality and overall safety, the distinction between kettlebell swing styles matters. It matters A LOT!
Remember to eat smart, train hard, and enjoy your life!
Janelle Pica, RKC and PMF1 Instructor