Fitness Myths that NEED to Die: The “Right” Way to Kettlebell Swing

by Jordan Syatt September 10, 2014

The fitness industry survives on extremes.

With little-to-no middle-ground, things are classified as either good or bad…

Right or wrong

Healthy or unhealthy…

This holds true for all aspects of fitness including both training and nutrition.

I mean, think about it. Depending on who you’re talking to…

Carbohydrates are either the best or worst thing in the world

carbs

Barbell Back Squats are either safe or extremely dangerous

squat

Steady state cardio is either absolutely essential or inherently useless

Seriously? Who comes up with this crap?
Seriously? Who comes up with this crap?

See what I mean?

Rarely are we presented with a moderate point of view. Discussions examining both the pros and the cons in an un-biased, open-minded, non ego-driven manner are few and far between.

This extremist attitude is maintained for two major reasons:

1) Extremes sell. Moderation doesn’t.

People want to know the “right” way to do something.

Period.

They don’t want to futz around with the semantics or science. They don’t want to hear there are a variety of ways to accomplish the same goal.

They want to be told exactly what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” so they’re left with zero guess work.

Extremes do exactly that (even if they aren’t accurate).

2) People Associate Their Beliefs with Their Sense of Self

When you  learn something new – especially if you agree with it and successfully implement it within your lifestyle – it’s not uncommon to begin associating that belief with who you are as a person.

In other words, this belief ceases to exist as a possible idea and instead becomes an integral part of yourself – your self worth – with which you strongly identify as a component of your being.

It’s for this very reason why low-carb dogmatists fail to accept the fact that high-carb diets work despite a truly staggering amount of opposing research staring them directly in the face.

See, when presented with new information that directly contradicts something in which you’ve invested a great deal of time, effort, and money…it’s easier to turn a blind eye to support your preconceived notions rather than risk being wrong.

Because, when you associate a belief with your sense of self, being wrong is no longer a matter of little significance. 

Rather, admitting that your belief is wrong would be akin to admitting that you – you and all of your successes – are wrong.

To admit that an entire framework by which you associated your life success is inaccurate would be devastating.

But It’s Only Devastating If You Allow It To Be…

This is the most important part of all.

You don’t need to associate your beliefs with your sense of self. 

Doing so is a natural tendency for all of us but awareness is the first step towards progress.

Through consciously examining your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, you can become aware of when and why you associate your beliefs with who you are as a person.

To maintain an open mindset geared towards progress – not ego preservation – it’s essential to understand that few things are explicitly “right” or “wrong.”

Rather, everything works so long as it’s provided in the right framework and situation.

What’s This Got To Do with the Kettlebell Swing?

Everything.

The Kettlebell community, like all areas of fitness, is excruciatingly polarized. 

Depending on the certification and instructor, there are numerous techniques touted as the “right” way to kettlebell swing.

While the various camps will argue day-in and day-out as to which swing is “best,” the funny thing is they’re mostly similar hip dominant variations with relatively insignificant differences.

How Do I Coach the Kettlebell Swing?

My preferred technique varies from person to person based on individual needs and goals.

That being said…

I am a huge proponent of the knee dominant kettlebell swing.

seriousBlasphemy, I know.

In this day and age who could possibly be a fan of the knee dominant kettlebell swing?

Considering the well-documented importance of the posterior chain – not to mention the fact that everyone says the kettlebell swing is supposed to be hip dominant – a knee dominant swing must be the single dumbest exercise in the world.

Right?

Well…note quite.

Making the Case for Knee Dominant Kettlebell Swings

In the brief video below I demonstrate the major differences between the knee and hip dominant kettlebell swings.

Beneath the video I go into far more detail, outlining several major reasons why the knee dominant swing should be included within your programs.

1. Knee Dominant Swings are Safer for the Lower Back

lower back

The hip dominant swing is not inherently dangerous for the lower back.

Hold on.

Let me repeat myself.

The hip dominant swing is NOT inherently dangerous for the lower back.

Now we’ve got that out of the way…

If back pain is or has been an issue, the torso positioning near the end-range of motion of the hip dominant swing is far more likely to exacerbate pain/injury than the knee dominant variation.

To illustrate, let’s examine the two end-ranges of motion.

Hip Dominant Kettlebell Swing End-Range of Motion

Screenshot (67)
This screen shot is taken from this video of Master RKC, Phil Ross, from the official RKC blog.

Knee Dominant Kettlebell Swing End-Range of Motion

Screenshot (60)
This screen shot is taken from this video of me performing my variation of the knee-dominant KB swing.

As you can see, the RKC hip dominant swing has the torso parallel to the floor while the knee dominant swing allows for more of an upright position.

Considering forward lean increases shear forces on the spine, it makes sense that the knee dominant swing which facilitates an upright torso would be far less likely to exacerbate lower back pain.

Not sure what I mean?

Consider the difference between an RDL and Trap Bar Deadlift.

RDL – Hip Dominant

RDL

Trap Bar Deadlift – Knee Dominant

trap bar deadliftWhich one places more stress on the lower back?

Obviously the RDL.

What’s interesting is that any halfway decent coach would immediately nix the RDL for a Trap Bar Deadlift when programming for an individual with previous back pain.

But ask that same coach to switch to a knee dominant swing for the same reason and they almost have a conniption….

Your Takeaway: The kettlebell swing is just another tool in the toolbox. Sometimes a hip dominant approach is the best choice while other times knee dominant makes more sense. When coaching individuals with previous back pain/injuries, the knee dominant approach is usually the smartest decision.

2. Knee Dominant Swings Target the Quads Better

quads

In recent years it’s become the cool thing for fitness pro’s to vilify the quads.

“They aren’t functional!” they’ll shriek.

or

The posterior chain is more important!” they’ll claim.

But they’re missing the forest for the tree’s.

Sure, the posterior chain is important.

No one denies that.

But strong quads are absolutely essential for high level performance in pretty much every athletic competition. 

Not only are the quads key players in sprinting and jumping performance, they’re also main contributors to all planting and cutting actions in sports like soccer, football, rugby, lacrosse, and quidditch.

O.K., maybe not quidditch.

The fact is that a knee dominant swing targets the quads better than a hip dominant swing which will help in a variety of athletic endeavors. 

Your Takeaway: Hip dominant swings drastically contribute to glute and hamstring strength which unquestionably aids numerous athletic qualities. On the other hand, knee dominant swings do a much better job of recruiting the quads which hold separate but equally important benefits in sports performance and injury prevention. 

3. Knee Dominant Swings are Better for Improving Vertical Jump

jumping

Look at the picture above. Specifically, the 2nd phase (middle figure) of the jump.

Remind you of anything?

Maybe this picture?

Screenshot (67)No, no, my mistake that doesn’t seem right….

How about this picture?

Screenshot (60)Ah, there we go.

That makes more sense.

In the interest of specificity, it goes without saying the knee dominant kettlebell swing is unquestionably more specific to the vertical jump than hip dominant variations.

It makes sense, not only from a biomechanical perspective, but also from the simple knowledge that the quads greatly contribute to vertical jump performance and the knee dominant swing trains the quads more effectively.

Your Takeaway: If improving your (or your clients) vertical leap is high on your to-do list, you’d be much better off training the knee dominant kettlebell swing.

4. Knee Dominant Swings Target the Glutes Better

glutesI have zero experimental data to support this statement.

Like…zero.

As far as I know, there isn’t a single study comparing the differences in glute involvement between knee and hip dominant kettlebell swings.

Speaking from personal experience, however, my clients and I have found time and time again that knee dominant swings target the glutes significantly better than hip dominant variations. 

Remember, I don’t have a single shred of data to show you so take this for what it’s worth.

But before you knock it…why don’t you give it a shot?

Try some knee dominant swings for a week or two and see how your glutes feel.

Assuming you give it a fair chance, I bet you’ll feel your glutes light up like NYC on christmas eve.

The Final Word

gavelI love the hip dominant kettlebell swing.

Seriously.

I use it all the time.

That being said, I also see tremendous benefit in the knee dominant kettlebell swing.

So you know what I do?

I use ’em both.

Crazy, right?

Sometimes I’ll use the hip dominant variation and other times I’ll use the knee dominant varition.

Much in the same way that sometimes I’ll deadlift sumo and other times I’ll deadlift conventional.

One isn’t inherently better than the other. 

Rather, they each have a time and place given the right framework and situation.

Most Importantly…

More than the “right” way to kettlebell swing, if you take anything from this article let it be that you’ve better learned to disassociate yourself from your beliefs.

It will take time, effort, and practice – anything worth being good at always does – but mastering this skill set will help you and your clients improve in all aspects of life and fitness more than most people could ever imagine.






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