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Why You Shouldn’t Do Kettlebell Swings

sandbag workouts

After my first kettlebell certification in 2003 I was so excited to teach my clients everything I had learned. It was the first time that I heard about this concept of movement and we covered around 15 exercises during the weekend (it was a much different program back then). Of course one of the more unusual exercises along with the Turkish get-up was kettlebell swings.

kettlebell swings

After all, isn’t the purpose of going to an educational event to use the information you learn? The answer was yes but I would learn a hard lesson after committing numerous mistakes, with a giant BUT! The but in that sentence is knowing WHAT to teach people and how fast you teach them. It wasn’t until I started teaching kettlebell certifications myself and then DVRT that I realized the biggest challenge in providing continuing education is time. What you squeeze into a weekend (many times you have to also think about what you have to leave out due to time) is meant to be weeks, months, even year’s worth of training. Because the training happens in a weekend and we are usually teaching pretty fit people, it seems like you should use most of the information when you are back with your clients for the first week. This was my biggest mistake and the best example probably comes in the form of what I did with kettlebell swings.

Josh henkin

Teaching at the same summit alongside people like Pavel, Dan John, and Charles Staley was a great thrill in my early career. 

I did probably what most do, during the first week back from my kettlebell certification I taught everyone the foundations of swings. Going over techniques, some foundational exercises, then we were ready to roll. Almost everyone I worked with was performing kettlebell swings within the first month of training. They looked good, they looked strong, however, many times they didn’t feel great. There would be many clients that would tell me after the training they felt still in their low back, or they just felt “achy”. Of course I wrote it off as either they were doing something else in their lives that caused it or we just needed to hammer more technique on their kettlebell swings.

kettlebell swings

From teaching the U.S. Marines, University Sports Performance Programs, to national conferences and actually teaching kettlebells in Russia (true story!), not knowing proper technique was not the issue for my clients. 

If you want to believe that the issue with my clients’ kettlebell swings was technique, that is fine, but it doesn’t explain what I began to hear more and more from other fitness professionals. In the next few years I would be contacted by several coaches that had gone to a kettlebell course and like me, had been implementing everything they learned with a heavy emphasis on kettlebell swings, but were noticing the same issues in themselves and their clients.

That leaves us with either the kettlebell programs don’t teach how to implement technique very well, everyone stinks at learning the technique, or there was something else going on. I prefer to go with the last option. It would take me some time to really figure it out, but it ended up being a huge AH-HA moment!

When I first attended my 2003 kettlebell certification it was 99% strength coaches, elite military, and martial arts enthusiasts. As I reflect, what these people had in common was years and years of training both strength, movement, mobility, etc. That meant there was a rather high fitness level, but also movement skill level (I remember being next to a guy who could do a split jerk with a 225 pound barbell with one hand, yea). As kettlebells grew, the audience did as well. This meant general population and even fitness pros that didn’t have the movement background that some others possessed (deadlifting wasn’t more new to fitness at the time than it was strength and conditioning for example).

Instead of saying kettlebell swings are bad, what I started to realize was that a lot of people just were NOT ready for them, at least not at first. What did people need to do? Maybe some deadlifts, work on some kettlebell swing technique progressions right? NO!

Especially when it comes to people rather new to fitness or haven’t been doing true functional fitness for some time, the FIRST thing we need to do is build pelvic stability. If we can’t control our pelvis on the ground in different environments and conditions there is NO WAY we will do so with an explosive exercise that creates a HUGE lever arm on the body.

It would be easy to say oh that this or that muscle is weak and if we just build that muscle to be strong we fix all these issues. That isn’t the case and even when we discuss core stability we are referring to 35 muscles that have to work together AND at the right time to develop proper control. That is why instead we focus so much on building up strength in drills like dead bugs, bird dogs, side planks, and half kneeling positions that do such an important job of building this pelvic control.

Does it mean you have to do all these exercises before you do kettlebell swings? No, of course not and you still want to reinforce your pelvic stability even when you do get to kettlebell swings. I like to do these exercises mainly as part of the “activation” or “warm-up” unless extra time needs to be devoted. They do serve an important foundation, but then what?

Deadlifts may seem obvious, but how many and how heavy we need to get in deadlifts to do kettlebell swings because the jump from deadlifts to swings is quite large. While load is something we want to use in our deadlifts, we don’t want to do so exclusively because it fails to address other aspects that we need for great kettlebell swings (like reactive core stability) and we can still hide movement compensations that may be hard to see with just the eyes. That is why we use methods like our DVRT deadlift matrix to build strength, stability, and power.

Once you get to our Burly Ultimate Sandbag the size can make it hard to get the range of motion we want. So, we can move to our front loaded position which makes the exercise more challenging, but also helps us learn how to use the core/lats together better while we hip hinge to really reinforce a key in kettlebell swings.

Do kettlebells play any role in these progressions? I was just asked by a coach the other day how we progress tools in DVRT. I don’t think of progressing tools as much as need. To me, it is like asking, “when do we progress from a hammer to a saw?” It isn’t so much a progression but using a tool that allows us to solve other needs as we describe in the video above. Rather than trying to get to one tool or another because your are bored of using one tool or you think another gives you more weight, think about the problems you are solving!

These are the first steps to building better and pain free kettlebell swings. In another installment this week we will continue to build layers with kettlebells, Ultimate Sandbags, and more to teach how we bring in important elements of power into the equation with our sacrificing the quality of work with have created so far!

Want to find out more? These ideas are in our Progressive Kettlebell Movement (PKM) certification and L.I.F.T. modules (our multi-modality certification) that you can get for 25% off HERE with code “25off”. Don’t forget too that when you invest in our Ultimate Sandbags you can not only get 25% off but also our new DVRT Strong T-shirts for FREE (one per order) when you go HERE.