A sneaky low-impact, full-body exercise, the kettlebell swing shouldn't be overlooked. Learn more about the move's key benefits and all the muscles it works.
When efficiency and safety are top priorities for you when crafting a fitness program, you might be on the hunt for a single exercise that has three key qualities: It must build strength, challenge your cardiovascular system, and avoid putting a lot of stress on your joints. Sounds too good to be true, right?
But surprisingly, there's one move that fits all three criteria: the kettlebell swing, a full-body exercise that requires one simple piece of equipment and can be tailored to meet your fitness level. Ahead, get the details on all the benefits the exercise has to offer, including the kettlebell swing muscles worked, and how to perform it with perfect technique.
How to Do a Kettlebell Swing
To perform the kettlebell swing, you’ll stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a kettlebell about a foot in front of you, hike it back behind your butt, then drive it in front of your body and up to chest height. As you complete your reps, you’ll continue explosively swinging the kettlebell back and forth as if it’s a pendulum, says Maggi Gao, an NASM-certified personal trainer and Russian Kettlebell Challenge-certified coach in New York City. In turn, the move builds full-body strength and gets your heart pumping, she explains.
If that sounds way too complex, watch Gao demonstrate the move and follow along with some simple instructions below.
A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands at sides, and a kettlebell on the floor about one foot in front of toes. Bend knees slightly and hinge at hips to lower arms toward the floor. Grab the kettlebell handle with both hands and tilt it toward body.
B. On an inhale, hike the kettlebell back and up between thighs. Then on an exhale, press feet into the floor, squeeze glutes, and drive through hips to quickly stand up and explosively swing the kettlebell forward and up to chest height. Keep arms extended with a slight bend in elbows throughout the movement and allow gaze to follow kettlebell.
C. Hinge at hips, bend knees slightly, and drive the kettlebell back down and in between thighs.
The Key Kettlebell Swing Benefits
Although the kettlebell swing doesn’t involve any jumping or fully loaded barbells, the exercise comes with serious benefits for your ticker and your muscles. Here’s what you can expect to gain from the movement when performed properly.
Builds Explosive Strength
By repeatedly hiking a heavy kettlebell back behind your body and driving your hips to float the weight upward, you’ll build explosive strength — the ability to produce the most force in the shortest amount of time, says Gao. In fact, a small 2012 study found that folks who performed 12 rounds of kettlebell swings, alternating between 30-second work periods and 30-second rest periods, twice a week for six weeks increased their explosive strength by nearly 20 percent. This perk is not only beneficial for athletes looking to improve their performance on the field or court, but it can also do the general population some good. “The kettlebell swing’s ballistic, explosive movement is going to help strengthen your lower back and hips and, [in turn,] improve your posture,” says Gao.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Even just a few sets of the kettlebell swing can leave your heart racing, says Gao. “You want to put as much force behind [the swing] as possible… and that’s good for increasing your cardio capacity,” she explains. And research backs this up: A 2010 study found that the kettlebell swing is an effective exercise for improving VO₂ max, or the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during vigorous exercise. The more oxygen you can use during these intense activities, the more energy you can produce, and, as a result, the less fatigued you’ll feel, according to the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine.
Is Easy On Your Joints
Unlike other cardio activities, such as running or jumping-based plyometric exercises, kettlebell swings are low-impact, as both of your feet are planted on the floor throughout the entire movement, says Gao. In turn, the exercise gives you all the heart-health benefits without killing your joints. And this impact-free feature is particularly important if you recently had surgery on a joint or are worried about harming your lower back or knees, she says. The reason: Low-impact physical activity has just a third of the injury risk of higher-impact activities, as Shape previously reported. In fact, Gao herself first began training with kettlebells when she broke her foot and wanted to train her cardiovascular system without aggravating her injury, she says.
Kettlebell Swing Muscles Worked
The kettlebell swing can easily be described as a full-body exercise, as it calls on your hamstrings, glutes, hip adductors, quads, lats, deltoids, triceps, biceps, forearm muscles, and core, according to the American Council on Exercise. Specifically, your lower half will work to drive the weight up to chest height, while your shoulders and lats will engage to keep your back flat and prevent your torso from pulling or hunching forward, explains Gao. Your core muscles will also help keep your entire body stable. “When you're at the top of the swing, [it’s almost] as if you're in a standing plank,” she explains. “You don’t want to lean back or forward — you want to stand nice and tall, and that's where your core comes in.” Without proper core engagement, more stress will be placed on your lower back, particularly if you’re using a heavy weight, she adds.
Kettlebell Swing Variations
If you take one look at the kettlebell swing demonstration and feel it’s too advanced for your fitness level — or it’s not quite challenging enough — you’ve got options. Steal these modification and progression ideas, courtesy of Gao.
Modification: Goblet Clean
If you're struggling to transfer the force of your hips into a kettlebell, scale back to a goblet clean. During a kettlebell swing, “you want to use your hips and legs to power through to standing, rather than just curling the bell up,” she explains. And the goblet clean will teach you how to drive through your lower body to float the kettlebell up in front of your chest before you add in the complexity of a swinging motion, says Gao. Once you have the hip drive nailed down, you can practice hiking the kettlebell back behind you, then test a full-fledged kettlebell swing, she adds.
A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands at sides, and a kettlebell on the floor in between feet. Bend knees and hinge at hips to lower arms toward the floor. Grab the kettlebell handle with both hands and gaze forward.
B. On an inhale, press feet into the floor, squeeze glutes, and drive through hips to quickly stand up and float the kettlebell up in front of face, bending elbows to 90-degree angles. Simultaneously, slightly release hands from the top of the kettlebell handle and slide them down to the sides of the handle.
C. Slightly release hands from the sides of the kettlebell handle and extend arms to floor to return hands to the top of the handle, simultaneously bending knees to return to the starting position.
Progression: Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing
If the traditional kettlebell swing feels like a piece of cake, up the challenge by increasing the weight or performing the move with just one hand gripping onto the handle. Removing one arm from the equation increases the difficulty for your core, as you’ll need to call on these muscles to stay stable and prevent your torso from twisting to one side as you swing the bell forward and back, says Gao.
Common Kettlebell Swing Mistakes
Whether you’re tackling a traditional kettlebell swing or a leveled-up version, remember to keep your core engaged and focus on using your lower body — not your back or arms — to drive the kettlebell forward, says Gao. “A lot of people, when they first start off, don't understand that it's the hips that are powering the movement and your arms are like ropes attached to the kettlebell — you're not using any arm force,” she adds. If you were to use your upper-body strength to lift the kettlebell, you’ll put unnecessary tension on the shoulders, neck, and trap muscles, she says.
You’ll also want to maintain a neutral spine and gaze forward throughout the entire movement. “If you’re constantly looking down, I often find that your shoulders are going to be hunched forward and your chest isn’t going to be as open,” says Gao. “Looking down creates a [mis]alignment, so it’s just important to look straight ahead without looking up.” In other words, as you hinge at the hips and return to standing, you should keep your eyes locked on the kettlebell in front of you.
Finally, remember to breathe with intention. “With any ballistic movement, you want to see big breath control,” says Gao. “Exhaling as you exert force from the hips is going to help you contract your abs and help you move more weight. As it comes back down, that's when you have to take your breath." If your breath isn't in sync with the movement pattern, you won't move as efficiently and will feel more fatigued, she explains.
How to Add the Kettlebell Swing to Your Routine
Before giving the kettlebell swing a shot, chat with your healthcare provider if you have a cardiovascular condition, hip issues, or lower-back concerns to ensure the exercise is a safe option for you, says Gao. “Even though you don't want to use your lower back through the kettlebell swing, if you lose concentration or if you're working with a heavier bell than normal, you may feel it in your lower back a bit more,” she explains.
Once you get the all-clear, make sure you have the forearm plank nailed down, as the exercise teaches you how to maintain a neutral spine and helps you practice core engagement, says Gao. When you feel ready and confident to test out the kettlebell swing, try performing three sets of eight to 10 reps of the kettlebell swing, which is a good starting point, says Gao. If you’re looking to build strength, you can cut those reps down to three to five per set, using a heavier weight and taking adequate rest between rounds, she suggests. And if you’re itching for a more intense cardio session, lower the weight and aim for 10 to 20 reps per set, she recommends.
If you're new to kettlebell training, start with a lighter weight while you perfect your form, as a heavier load could put you at risk of pulling a muscle if you're lacking core control, as Shape previously reported. Try a 6 or 8-kilogram kettlebell to start and work your way up from there. And if you have experience with strength training or kettlebells, shoot for 12 kilograms. Still, if all you have on hand is a super light kettlebell, don’t feel like you can't tackle the exercise. “It’s not about the weight of the kettlebell, it’s how you use it,” adds Gao. “A light weight can also be highly, highly effective if you’re doing a kettlebell swing correctly.”