The American Swing: What is it?
The American swing is distinguished from the standard kettlebell swing by being a two-handed swing that results in the bell ending up overhead. That means it involves considerably more travel than the standard swing, which finishes about eye height.
Advocates of the American swing say that it therefore requires more work to complete and that makes it better. CrossFit has been instrumental in encouraging the American swing and it’s Workouts of the Day (WODs) often call for the exercise specifically.
The organization’s Silicon Valley website explains that:
‘The American kettlebell swing involves more muscle groups and is a more complete workout. The greater height of the bell also means the hips and back are being trained harder. In addition, the overhead swing increases shoulder girdle flexibility, balance, and coordination.’
But not everyone agrees.
One-handed kettlebell swings, presses and other moves load the body asymmetrically, requiring input from the spinal erectors and glutes to retain correct posture.
Comparatively, the American swing, despite claims that it ‘works more muscle groups’ like those made above, actually uses all the same ones that the Russian or standard swing does – glutes and hamstrings, lats and traps, abs; they’re all there in both exercises. So doesn’t that mean you should just pick the one you like the best? Or the one you think looks best?
Choosing a Swing: Which is Better?
Well, since that’s what you’re going to do anyway, I wish that were true.
The American swing is a two-stage movement; it has to be, to pull the kettlebell overhead after the hip drive has completed. The Russian swing is a one-stage movement. In soft-style swings, that stage is a little diffuse; in hard-style it’s crisp and sudden, a hard snapping movement. Which of these styles you prefer is down to your goals and preferences, and there are big guns (pun intended) on both sides. What they have in common is a simple, repetitive swing.
One of the strengths of kettlebell training is its simplicity and relatively low mobility requirements. Many of us can’t overhead squat safely; lots of us shouldn’t snatch, or clean and jerk, a barbell until we’ve built a respectable skill base, and most of us would struggle with even basic gymnastic positions or movements. But almost anyone can swing a kettlebell.
Unless they have bad shoulders, or hips, or low back problems, or knee issues. Then you can Russian swing – but you shouldn’t American swing. American swings end in an overhead lockout with the hands touching. Some people can do that safely but for every one who has the mobility, strength and lack of pre-existing issues there are dozens who don’t. When you pull the bell back into position at the top of the American swing you’re also moving your body – since there’s a lateral force at the top of your body and only your feet are holding you still, your body acts like a beam, with stress developing on the spine.
Whichever part of your spine is weakest will go first, but the overhead position with your hands touching makes it more likely that the lumbar spine will suffer. That’s because the overhead position is a mobility challenge for most people even with a wide, comfortable grip. The narrower the grip is, the more likely the chest is to ‘pop out’ the back. When that happens, the lumbar spine becomes lordotic to compensate – it curves too far, making the abdomen bulge and the pelvis roll forward into anterior tilt. That’s not a good position tot be holding a heavy weight in –not even a weight like a kettlebell.
The action of getting under the bell isn’t too great either, involving shearing force on the spine as the bell is pulled ‘up’ – ie, backwards and up to an overhead position.
Replacing the American Swing
By contrast, let’s look at the traditional overhead kettlebell lifts – the press and the snatch. At first glance, the snatch looks pretty much like the American swing, but all it really has in common is a similar final position. In the snatch, the overhead position is either one-handed, or uses two bells.
This broader configuration of the hands in the finishing position allows the large muscles of the upper back to support the weight of the bell, and that in turn lets the spine stay in a good shape. A snatch starts as a swing. As the apex of the swing approaches, however, the athlete curves her arm slightly and pulls the bell backward and slightly upward. The path of the bell now takes it to the height of an extended arm overhead, where the athlete simply catches it.
Since the arms aren't required to stay straight there’s far less damaging shear force on the spine, and the pull back is incorporated into the initial hip drive of the swing. The snatch, not the American swing, is the swing taken to its logical extreme.
Snatches offer the larger range of motion the American swing gives, with the bell moving just as far, but in a far safer manner. But what if you can’t snatch the weight you’re using?
In the clean and press, the arc the kettlebell travels to meet the athlete’s centreline is much shorter, so the bell is pulled onto the back of the arm on the chest, in the rack position.
Like most of the basic kettlebell moves, this is derived originally from Olympic weightlifting, and has some of the same benefits as the Olympic rack position, not least that it facilitates front squats.
To feel the rack position for yourself, put your hands together as if in prayer, with your thumbs touching the joint between your collarbones and your sternum. Stand upright with your hips extended and allow your chest to hollow slightly.
Now repeat the process but with the handle of your kettlebell over the back of one of your hands. The mass of the bell should rest on the outside of the supporting arm, neither in front nor behind of the forearm – particularly, don’t allow the bell to fall behind your forearm.
While this can take a couple of sessions to learn, the time is well spent since the movement can be a great strength builder. Having cleaned the bell to the rack position, you can either press it (or push-press it) overhead, or push it forward and off the rack position and re-swing or re-clean it.
Kettlebells have gained their reputation for efficacy on the back of a few simple, effective movements that allow athletes to begin working on endurance, strength and conditioning all at once and quickly, without the long training in technique required to safely execute Olympic lifts.
And that reputation is well deserved. While they aren't the magic bullet some claim them to be, kettlebells offer some great advantages. But the American swing isn't one of them.
Kettlebells are already simple and effective – there’s no need to ‘improve’ the swing. Instead, swing something heavier or clean the bell for a spinal erector, glute and core workout – or snatch for power and conditioning gains you won’t believe until you try it!
If you agree or disagree, if you have a question or a story, drop me a line in the comments below!