10 Things I Learned From the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge

Nick English
·11 mins read

From Men's Health

Total body power, an active and functional posterior chain, core stability for days, grip strength, glute strength, hamstring strength, better anaerobic fitness—the benefits of the kettlebell swing are almost too numerous to mention. But here’s one more: a kettlebell takes up almost no room in my tiny Manhattan apartment.

Like Indiana Jones sliding under a closing door, I barely managed to click “purchase” on two kettlebells before they became sold out everywhere in The Great Home Workout Equipment Shortage of 2020. That stroke of luck has been a godsend for me in the home-workout-a-thon that this year became in the early stages of the pandemic.

Yes, gyms had shuttered nationwide, but armed with 16 kilogram (35 pound) and 24 kilogram (52 pound) kettlebells, I knew exactly what I was going to do with them: finally tackle the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge.

What Is the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge?

Photo credit: franckreporter - Getty Images
Photo credit: franckreporter - Getty Images

The world famous workout from strength coach Dan John is a white whale for a certain stripe of fitness-minded folks. John is aware that the program has seen a resurgence especially in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Honestly, it’s a bit of an honor (…) because in times like this where people are scared, people are worried, and I know that physical exercise is going to do some good, it’s quite nice to see so many people join in in these Internet challenges," John said of the challenge on the BarBend Podcast.

Here are the parameters for the workout:

Do 500 swings over 20 workouts over 30 days. My split was two days on, one day off.

Use a 24kg bell with two hands. I decided to start off the workouts with a few sets of one-armed swings with the 16kg bell. This wasn't only to serve as a warm-up, but also to fit some unilateral and anti-rotational elements into the month's work.

Structure the workout with five clusters of four sets. Do 10 swings, then 15, 25, and 50, for a cluster of 100. Rest 30 to 60 seconds after each round of 10, 15, and 25 swings, and rest up to 3 minutes after the round of 50. John encourages some mobility work during the longer rest periods.

Mix in a low-volume strength movement between each set. The idea is to do 10 swings, 1 rep, 15 swings, 2 reps, 25 swings, 3 reps, 50 swings, then no reps and recovery.

You do the same lift all the way through the workout, with four different options. Workout 1 is an overhead press variation, workout 2 is a dip, workout 3 is a squat variation, and workout 4 is a pullup/chinup variation.

You can read more about the ins and outs in the original guide to the workout, but with two kettlebells, a couple of chairs for dips, and New York City’s endless supply of scaffolding for pullups, I was able to run the program through from start to finish—albeit with a little more volume for the squats, given how light the weights were that I had at my disposal.

The 10 Biggest Lessons from 10,000 Kettlebell Swings

Photo credit: AzmanJaka - Getty Images
Photo credit: AzmanJaka - Getty Images

Here are some lessons I picked up along the way, in roughly chronological order of when I learned them.

1. Being Strong Doesn’t Make You Fit

Before embarking on the challenge, I was more of a wannabe powerlifter: besides 10 minutes of warm-up cardio and plenty of walking, my exercise was largely low reps and nice, long rests between sets.

I thought my double bodyweight deadlift—I know, it’s not a lot, but it’s not bad—meant I was fit, but halfway through my first kettlebell workout I was left gasping on the floor. Fit men can elevate their heart rate for a few minutes. I knew I had a ton of work to do.

2. You Can’t Lose Focus in Your Workouts

It’s easy for the mind to wander when you’re lifting, but if I spaced out during that day’s hundreds (and hundreds) of swings, I’d forget how many I’d done. That’s a very frustrating position to be in when you’ve been hammering your posterior chain with the same exercise over and over again—you don’t want to perform any unnecessary reps.

Swinging aside, the program was a good reminder to stay present during all my exercises. Sure, music screaming in your ears can be a great way to improve your workouts, but you want to stay present when you’re moving. Be mindful of your form. Know where your body’s situated in space. Is your core tense? Are your hamstrings firing?

Loaded movements at high repetitions deserve respect. Pay attention. Stop writing this article in your head. Be with the bell.

3. Your Form Probably Isn’t as Good as You Think It Is

I thought I knew hinges, but I didn’t. Busting out low rep deadlifts is very different to smashing thousands of swings.

Whenever I thought I could increase the weight of the bell, I’d realize I only felt that way because my form had slipped: my torso wasn’t getting all that close to parallel with the ground, or I was throwing the bell up with my shoulders instead of keeping my upper back tight, or my posterior pelvic tilt had crept back. (Always one of my most persistent struggles, a tilted pelvis would mean my glutes and low back were taking on load that my core should have been bearing.)

This is related to the previous entry, but to recap: when your reps are this high, it’s really easy for tiny issues with your form to wind up magnified.

Form is more important than weight.

4. Stretch Your Damn Hip Flexors

Your poor hip flexors. If you sit all day, they’re tight. If they’re tight, they pull on your pelvis. That’s why, when I wasn’t stretching and mobilizing mine, I’d have godawful low back pain after a few sets of swings. Stretch your damn hip flexors.

5. Your Life Outside the Gym Affects Your Performance in the Gym

Some guys track their workouts, some guys just turn up at the gym and lift. Guys who just turn up and lift might find that a workout feels productive even if they’ve been eating and drinking crap. They wouldn’t think so if they knew their previous sets, reps, and weights.

A lesson from the 10,000 Swings: if you try doing the same workout every time you go to the gym, you’ll know when you’re being a dick to your body.

Once, I tried working out at 6 p.m. after only eating fruit rollups and a protein shake all day. The resultant workout served as a good reminder that the body really likes actual food, and that electrolytes help to keep my lower back from cramping like a mother.

I hadn't followed a program in which I recorded the weights and reps I was hitting every day in some time, and the 10,000 Swing program was a harsh reminder that yes, I actually do need eight hours of sleep every night. I do need enough protein and carbs. My body does feel it if I’ve had a few drinks the night before.

Messing up any of these habits suddenly meant that I couldn’t finish the swings without longer-than-prescribed rests… a lot longer than prescribed.

In other words, a program with measurable benchmarks reminded me to be healthy.

6. Kettlebell Swings Are Freaking Boring

Up, down, up, down, up, down. Then up. Then down!

7. You Don’t Always Have to Push Through Your Limits

People always say to push through your limits and that your barriers are all in your head, but if those limits happen to involve your spine bearing weight, you should not listen to these people.

Some days, I really wanted to do 500 swings, but it just didn’t feel right. I was tight in the wrong ways, I was tired, I couldn’t get my posterior chain firing the way I wanted it to, I hadn’t eaten enough… did I mention I’m over 30? These things matter now, and sometimes the body just doesn’t work the way you want it to.

In cases like these, I’d cut the workout short and try to finish it later, or I’d split it up over a couple of days. Ten thousand in a month was the number that mattered the most.

But you know what? If I felt my body breaking down from this program, I’d quit it without a second thought. Know when to push through and when to stow your ego—exercise should build you up, not destroy you.

8. Kettlebell Swings Improve Your Posture

Kettlebell swings train the whole posterior chain, from upper back to core to hamstrings.

My core has always been my weak link (I’m guilty of skipping my ab exercises at the end of my workouts and slouching for the rest of the day) and as a result, I picked up that annoying pelvic tilt that made my already large butt stick out even more than it already did. The ridiculousness of that image aside, a tilted pelvis is a recipe for back pain and injuries.

Thousands of kettlebell swings really ingrained the importance of a ramrod straight back. My spine, butt, and glutes slowly fell in line and began really working together as one. No more sleepy, inactive muscles. My body knew how to move.

9. Kettlebell Swings Improve Your Athleticism

And my body moved fast. Barbell movements are fantastic for countless reasons, but not many guys do them for speed. (I know, there are exceptions, but I’m talking generally.)

Especially in powerlifting training, moving fast (despite the documented benefits for your 1-rep max) isn’t as common as it should be.

Anyway, I didn’t train explosiveness very much, but after a few weeks of swings I found myself launching up stairs and out of chairs faster than ever before. I felt like Spider-Man discovering his powers.

Working so hard on my posture, posterior chain, and fast twitch muscle fibers made me feel unmistakably athletic. I looked good, but I was moving even better—and nearly 20 years of lifting has taught me that moving well is infinitely more important than aesthetics.

10. Don’t Specialize Too Much

Ten thousand kettlebell swings made me better at a lot of things, but I also got worse at a lot of things.

My lateral strength and stability sucked, I lost some of the size you can only build with heavy compound lifts, I got weaker in pushing exercises, and my ankle health was worse—roughly a million sprains has made me very prone to more, and my programming needs prehab. I was very fit and I looked great, but five exercises doesn’t come close to making up a complete, balanced fitness protocol.

Now, that’s not to say I shouldn’t have done the program! I learned a ton, improved my fitness in myriad ways, and, as someone who’s extraordinarily quad dominant, my body sorely needed that focus on my posterior chain. I’m carrying these benefits into my next strength cycle and couldn’t be happier about it.

I’m just saying that this kind of experiment is great for a month, but you don’t want to go really hard on one exercise forever. If your training revolves around similar (or identical) workouts for too long, you’ll lose your proficiency in other areas of your fitness and increase your risk of injury.

Next, I want to try a Smolov Junior: a three-week program of 12 back squat workouts. Then, I want to work on getting to a 500-pound deadlift. Then I’d like to train for a kettlebell sport competition. After that, who knows?

I loved focusing on swings. I got fast and functional, and it reminded me how great training for specific goals can be for my overall fitness and well-being. It’s a lesson you should learn, too. Just try to find room for strength, cardio, and functional training, no matter what that goal is. Then you’ll be able to keep training for years to come—and keep trying weird experiments like this one.

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