Many instructors say that the kettlebell swing is the starting point for all or most kettlebell exercises. There is something even more fundamental and it is something that most people brush over. I’m talking about the kettlebell deadlift. If you look at the top google searches for how to swing a kettlebell not much is said about the kettlebell deadlift and how it is the foundation of a proper, safe, and effective kettlebell swing.
If you are interested in anti aging, and keeping a relatively pain free, strong and well conditioned body as you age for whatever your sport or activity may be, I suggest learning and doing the following BEFORE jumping into a butt kicking kettlebell swing workout.
The Deadlift: First for a Reason
The kettlebell deadlift, NOT THE SWING, is the starting point of a successful kettlebell career. It, along with mobility and flexibility training that are built into making a more structurally efficient deadlift is the starting point of “The Ageless Body” in my system. If your deadlift is wrong, everything after will be affected for the worse. Spend time getting this dialed in! It will pay off down the road when you are knocking off sets of kettlebell swings.
Getting your deadlift “dialed in” requires you to understand the HINGE movement. The hinge allows you to learn to move from you hips first and let the knees move as an “after thought”. In other words hips first – knees second. All the while the pelvis and spine remain neutral. It’s worth spending some time with a qualified instructor to guarantee the correct movement pattern to create a stronger, safer and more powerful kettlebell swing.
The key to deadlifting is staying in your own optimal range of motion which means not rounding your upper (thoracic spine) and lower (lumbar spine) back. Improper movement, rounding, of the upper and lower back not only leads to injury, it accelerates aging. Bad posture increases aches, pains, and aging while good posture helps prevents aches and pains, increases strength and helps your body fight aging.
The kettlebell deadlift slows things down so that you can work on the basics of hip movement needed for kettlebell ballistics such as swings. At my Ageless Body workshops we spend considerable time working on getting the spine and hips neutral, and we do this in the context of the kettlebell deadlift. The deadlift is the place to work on spine and pelvis neutrality, NOT the swing. By the time you are swinging you are moving too quickly and its harder to work on these things.
We spend time opening up the hips by working on the hip flexor stretch, among other drills, and thoracic mobility drills plus several key shoulder stretches that opens up the thoracic spine and shoulders. I show you several of these in my Kettlebell Boomer DVD and Ageless Body Book.
What To Do if Your Are Rounding Your Back
A huge advantage to kettlebell deadlifts is that there are so many variations. In addition to the number of bells you can use, sumo (wide stance) or conventional (narrower, shoulder width stance), suitcase (bell or bells outside feet) or traditional (bell or bells inside feet), I’m talking about the variation of the HEIGHT of the platform from which you are deadlifting.
Raising the bell (or whatever you’re lifting) is important because when teaching spine neutrality, it takes greater amounts of mobility to keep the spine neutral the closer the bell is to the ground (or on the ground or even below the “ground” with certain set ups we won’t get into here).
Keeping Your Spine Neutral
Why is spine neutrality important? Most importantly, keeping a neutral spine in a kettlebell deadlift or kettlebell swing is the safest AND strongest position for your back. The spine transmits force when it is in the neutral position. Rounding your back, generally, leads to injury and weakness. When you round your back to lift (there are a very few exceptions with some elite powerlifters who round their backs as a specialized techniques that do not apply to the majority of the population) this indicates you are shifting the load of the weight from the hips and glutes, where the load belongs, to the lower back. Deadlifting with a rounded back, again, is a recipe for injury.
But a lot of people do not have the hip mobility to come all the way down to pick something off the ground without rounding the lower back. So we elevate the bell or bells off of boxes. I like using yoga blocks. You work reps within your optimum range of motion, the range that allows you to pick up the bell without rounding your back.
Train your body to lift in YOUR biomechanically optimal position. Own it. Then move to a shorter box and work on that range of motion until you own that one, and so forth until you are lifting from the ground. This takes discipline. If you care about your spine you will be patient and not lift beyond the limits of your mobility.
Ways to See if Your are Rounding Your Back
A lot of people aren’t aware they are rounding their backs when they deadlift. Another easy way to work on this is to use a broom stick or dowel to place along the back of the spine to keep it neutral while hip hinging. Hip hinging is simply standing with feet shoulder distance apart and sitting back, so that your hips move back and not your back or knees.
Another component of the safest and strongest biomechanics for deadlifting is not just keeping the spine neutral, but keeping a neutral pelvis. This means not having too much of an anterior (forward) or posterior (backward) pelvic tilt.
Your Posterior Chain and “Core”
You will discover by simply lifting a kettlebell with proper form the wonders it will do for your posterior chain (the key to a healthy backside, posture, and a firm butt) and even strengthen the abdominals “core” because of their role in stabilizing the spine.
Think of the spinal muscles and abs as the “tent” that protects the spine.
Having the habit of moving and loading the hips when lifting something removes stress on the back and knees and is therefore a key principle to a pain free back.
There is more to the hip hinge for keeping spinal neutrality in the kettlebell deadlift or swing.
Most people will ignore this drill because it looks simple and the benefits are hidden. If you are disciplined and practice the deadlift often, then you will enjoy the benefits of a long athletic career and more muscle (muscle mass decreases as we age).
Tips on a Better Deadlift, and then the Swing
Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Place a kettlebell in between your legs. Sit back and reach for the kettlebell maintaining neutral spine with shins nearly vertical and hips loaded. If you can’t reach the kettlebell maintaining this structure, raise the kettlebells up onto a platform of some kind to guarantee proper alignment, as we discussed above. Make sure the platform is just the right height, not too high and too low. Second, if you are performing the exercise on your own, use a mirror to watch yourself from the front to help you keep your hips and shoulders straight and in alignment.
1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Place a kettlebell in between your legs.
2. Start pushing your hips back. “Sit back,” do not bend over. Keep your pelvis and back in a neutral position. DO NOT let your back round.
3. Keep your lats and upper back engaged and don’t let your shoulders roll forward or shrug up. Let you arms stay against the body as long as possible, and reach straight down for the kettlebell. To what extent do you use your lats? There is SOME lat engagement and stability, but it’s not a mobility or strengthening drill per se for the lats and shoulders.
4. As you reach for the kettlebell make sure the shoulder picking up the kettlebell is engaged at the lat. Think about keeping your shoulder blade glued to your spine. Notice your arm can pendulum down while your scapula is still pulling in and down the back. If your upper back rounds or your shoulder drops as you move your arm forward you have lost the connection of the arm to the body.
5. Push your hips foreword to full lockout. It helps to squeeze your glutes together to achieve full lockout.
When this exercise is done correctly, you should feel your hip and leg loaded and your abs and lats engaged.
The Kettlebell Swing
The swing is the “mother of all kettlebell drills”.
It is the “second foundation” from which all other lifts are based. The basis of the swing is the explosive hip drive, which you should first learn from deadlifting. Don’t even think about starting to swing until your deadlift is dialed in!
The swing adds a more explosive hip load and hip thrust known as “ballistics.”
The hip mechanics of the deadlift and swing are identical, but the intention is different. With the deadlift you are lifting the bell up into a lockout position. In the swing, you are using the explosiveness of your hip drive to project the bell in front of you.
As in the deadlift, you should feel your hip and leg loaded and your abs and lats engaged.
Without mastering this most basic of ballistic moves, you will not be able to take on more complicated kettlebell moves such as the snatch and front squat.
The swing is most important tool to create a strong and healthy back, and powerful hips, which is the basis, all athletic movement.
And of course if you program the swing correctly, it will literally melt fat off your body.
1. Hips and lower body follow a deadlift pattern NOT a squat pattern.
2. Back must remain straight or neutral throughout the movement
3. Sit back, not down.
POWER MOVE: NOTICE THE START TO THE DEADLIFT AND SWING IS EXACTLY THE SAME EXCEPT FOR THE PLACEMENT OF THE KETTLEBELL
4. Shins remain as vertical as possible with little to no forward movement of the knees.
5. Keep heels down and knees must track toes.
6. The feet may turn out SLIGHTLY no more that 45°
7. Actively “hike” the bell behind you, forcefully loading the hips. This is not a soft move, “throw” the bell back with the inside of your forearms hitting your inner upper thighs. Notice the hip and thoracic mechanics from the deadlift are still there in the kettlebell swing.
8. Fully extend the hips and knees by squeezing your gluts at the top.
9. Body maintains a straight line at the top; do not let your upper body lean back.
10. Kettlebell is an extension of your arm, your shoulder may not shrug up or forward.
11. Use biomechanical breathing, inhale sharply near the bottom and exhale sharply as your hips fully extend- not when the kettlebell reaches the top.
Most people have no business jumping directly into kettlebell swings. Working on hip and shoulder mobility and strengthening them with strategic mobility and stretching exercises and working on the deadlift within the framework of your limitations is the best method for building safe, strong, and effective swings.
It takes some discipline and work, but it is worth it for building an “Ageless Body.”
If you want more, much much (much) more Master Instruction on the safest and most effective (with power to reduce aches and pains) kettlebell instruction plus mobility, sign up for the 2 DAY Ageless Body Workshop. Save $200 if you register by MIDNIGHT January 31: www.agelessbodyworkshop.com