The kettlebell swing is widely considered one of the most important functional exercises ever devised.
But which is best? The American-style overhead swing or the traditional Russian version? Functional training purists would argue the latter but in CrossFit and the mainstream fitness world, the American-style seems set to stay.
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Defining the styles
In terms of execution, both swings, when done two-handed (the traditional Russian swing is a single arm movement), are executed in the same manner for the most part.
However, the apex of the Russian swing is at chest height, while the kettlebell finishes overhead in the American-style swing.
Both still require the hip hinge movement to generate the power and momentum needed to ‘pop’ the kettlebell up during the swing phase, but the greater range of motion required in the American-style swing obviously requires that you generate more power in this movement.
While this sounds appealing, and beneficial, it can expose the person doing the swing to greater injury risk. Many in the broader health and fitness industry also question whether more is actually better with regard to the kettlebell swing.
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“There’s a reason why swings have been around for so long, and are so popular worldwide – they work,” states Scott MacIntosh, owner of specialist strength and conditioning gym The Yard Athletic, and an instructor who teaches kettlebell trainer workshops around South Africa.
According to MacIntosh, a well executed swing expresses a hip hinge movement and develops a great deal of strength, power and conditioning.
“The whole body has to work in unison, with the hips providing the driving force, and the trunk and lats stabilising to create a movement with unique benefits.”
However, the newer overhead American-style swing changes the characteristics of the movement somewhat. Despite what many believe, changes isn’t always good and doesn’t always lead to progression. “In this case, newer definitely isn’t better,” he states.
“The two major reasons why the American swing has been met with so much criticism is because of the inherent risk involved with swinging overhead, and because taking the ‘bell overhead provides little additional benefit above that of a chest-height swing. In essence, the potential cost totally outweighs the potential benefit. In the strength and conditioning world, this makes the movement totally illogical.”
MacIntosh explains that the risk for injury increases when swinging the kettlebell overhead because holding a single kettlebell with a two-handed grip places the hands close together, which compromises the range of motion and mobility of your shoulders in the overhead position.
“When the ‘bell travels higher than chest height, your shoulders rotate internally. If you have any limitations in thoracic or shoulder mobility you’ll end up compensating to find the extra range of motion somewhere else.”
This is what results in the lumbar hyperextension, craned neck and flared elbows that are commonly seen in those executing this movement.
“These compensation patterns can lead to pain and injury. Repeatedly going into excessive lumbar extension under load will damage your back, and ‘chicken necking’ leads to shoulder impingement, elbow issues, wrist issues, neck pain and headaches. And the truth is, most people who attempt these swings have limited thoracic and shoulder mobility. So, unless there are major benefits to swinging overhead, what’s the point of taking the risk?”
Is higher better?
In terms of the argument that swinging the kettlebell higher offers additional benefit to the Russian swing, anyone who understands the biomechanics of the exercise will tell you that the core movement is complete before the kettlebell even reaches chest height, if you’re doing it properly.
MacIntosh suggests that if someone wants to increase the workload “why not just use a heavier ‘bell and swing it to chest height, or perform kettlebell snatches which allow you to end overhead without needing as much thoracic and shoulder mobility? Both of these options solve the power requirement problem without creating unnecessary risk.”
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.