The kettlebell swing and sports performance. These two topics are rarely talked about in the same breath by most in the fitness industry, but should they be?
Is this like suggesting powerlifter should do Zumba to improve performance? To some the answer is probably a resounding yes. With that said, is there a place for the kettlebell swing in a sports performance setting or is it just for general fitness clients?
We would argue the kettlebell swing is a fundamental building block for both populations. We would further argue the kettlebell swing should be in sports performance training and if it’s not, a disservice is being done to the client. Read on… we’ll explain why.
Before moving forward, we need to start out with a few definitions from the world of exercise physiology… (Please bare with us for a few paragraphs)
Potential Energy– the energy of a body or system as a result of its position in an electric, magnetic, or gravitational field
Kinetic Energy– energy the body possesses by the virtue of being in motion
SSC- is an active stretch (eccentric contraction) of a muscle followed by an immediate shortening (concentric contraction) of that same muscle.
As stated above, the SSC is activated and utilized when there is an eccentric contraction (lengthening of muscle fibers) promptly followed by a concentric contraction of the same muscle fibers. When the SSC is excited, a concentric contraction has the potential to be more powerful and produce greater force when compared to a concentric contraction not preceded by an eccentric contraction. This is because during a rapid eccentric contraction, potential energy is created and the SSC is excited. If a concentric is then performed immediately following the eccentric contraction, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, resulting in increased force production. An example would be a traditional vertical jump where the student performs a countermovement (eccentric contraction of the prime movers) and then rapidly transitions to a concentric contraction resulting in a jump.
Now to the SSC and kettlebell swings…
The kettlebell swing is a ballistic movement in which a kettlebell is actively pulled back and behind the student as a result of a hip hinge (rapid/forceful hip flexion) and then immediately followed by rapid/forceful hip extension. Please note this should all be done while maintaining a neutral head and spine (see the video below for more). In the kettlebell swing the “down portion” is a rapid and forceful eccentric contraction and there is then a quick transition to the “up portion” which is a concentric contraction. Sounds a lot like plyometrics, huh…???
From the perspective of the exercise physiologist, an ideal kettlebell swing sequence under significant load maximizes the potential energy produced via the eccentric contraction which is then converted to kinetic energy for an explosive hip drive. This occurs because when the bell “pulls/assists” the student into the bottom position of the swing the posterior chain is loaded with significant force (rapid and forceful eccentric contraction in the prime movers) which produces a greater amount of potential energy. This is the plyometric equivalent of a depth jump. Assuming good mechanics, this potential energy is converted into kinetic energy and results in a more forceful concentric contraction.
The end result of regularly performing kettlebell swings include, improved power in the hip extensors, improved control and coordination of key “core” musculature, an “overspeed” eccentric training effect on the posterior chain, and improved efficiency in the utilization of the SSC (of the involved musculature).
Improved power/explosiveness without the impact of plyometics
For Strength and Conditioning coaches, the KB swing can be an extremely useful tool when training large groups of athletes, especially those at the high school level. It is generally easier to teach than other exercises that require rapid extension of the hips, e.g. clean and snatch. The kettlebell takes up much less room than bars and plates and it is easy to cycle athletes through multiple sets of swings using a, you go, I go pattern and a clock.
I’ve done this with many sports teams that want to train in-season and it works very well. Kettlebell swings are a great way to go to for in-season athletes, most notably for sports that inherently require a lot of running and jumping to play the game, because it is impact free. The last thing a track and field athlete needs is more jumping and impact in the training room after a practice of jumping and impact! They need to get generally stronger in the positions that will benefit them the most. It just so happens that explosive hip hinging benefits pretty much everyone.
Sticking with track and field, it is really easy to take a whole team, which includes distance runners, sprinters, throwers and jumpers and put them through a kettlebell workout as a group. The first thing I have them do is find a kettlebell that fits their strength and a partner of equal strength. Distance runners and younger guys would grab the lighter kettlebells, sprinters and jumpers the medium kettlebells and throwers would grab the heaviest bells. Next you would line them up so no one is swinging at each other and tell partner one to grab the kettlebell and get ready. Setting the clock for 10 minutes, you tell partner one they will do swings for 20 seconds, they will have 10 seconds to switch, and then partner two swings for 20 seconds, then switch again. In the end, everyone gets 10 sets of 20 seconds. Lots of volume and lots of practice for the whole group in 10 minutes.
This method also gives the Strength and Conditioning coach a chance to clean up technique and generally give the group feedback. For example, if after two minutes of swings you notice a large majority of the group is doing a poor job of keeping the kettlebell above their knees as it passes through their legs, you can stop the clock and teach. A great way to give feedback and praise to someone who is doing it well, is to ask the student who is keeping the kettlebell in the right path to come in front and demonstrate for the entire group. As they swing, the coach can point out what they are doing well, give some coaching cues, and ask the partners to watch for this and to coach each other when the clock starts up again.
In this short span you’ve identified general movement flaws, provided an example of proper technique for the visual learners (while using a student model), gave verbal cues for the auditory learners, and taught the team what to look for so they can coach each other up instead of just you coaching everyone! To read more about different kinds of learns read one of our old posts here.
If during the course of a season you spend one training day a week swinging kettlebells and using a coaching model where everyone is involved, you can improve strength, fitness, sport specific movement patterns, and team building. As you can see, the benefits of using the swing for large groups in the Strength and Conditioning setting is valuable, and not just for improving physical qualities.
In closing, the kettlebell swing is an excellent accessory exercising reaping a wide range of benefits for athletes when appropriately performed. Of all the low-impact options available to improve hip extensor strength and power the kettlebell swing should be at the top of everyone’s list. To be clear, the kettlebell swing should NOT replace plyometrics in a strength and conditioning setting, but instead be treated as an alternative option when in-season and as a way to decrease foot contacts/high impact exercise year-round without losing hip extensor power.
For more information about swings or other kettlebell exercises either visit the others posts on our blog OR consider attending one our of Certified Kettlebell Coach Seminars.