Picking up heavy things off the ground is foundational not only to CrossFit training, but to daily routines as well. We regularly bend at the hips to pick things up or tie our shoes, thus a more conditioned posterior chain is imperative for spinal health and longevity.
For this very reason, the deadlift is a staple in almost all training programs.
However, despite its efficacy in strengthening the posterior chain, among other things it is also notorious for catalyzing CNS fatigue, making it impractical for frequent implementation at the heavier loads demanded for adaptation. (Read our article on CNS fatigue and our article on overtraining here)
Are there feasible alternatives you can incorporate in lieu of heavy deadlifts? According to leading industry trainer Bret Contreras, there are: heavy kettlebell swings. Find out why (for more on this topic, read our article on How To Improve Your Kettlebell Swing).
The kettlebell swing is an incredible exercise, but it’s also quite polarizing, as strength coaches seem to either love it or hate it.
I’ve spoken to coaches in America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and I always get the same two opinions.
I can understand both sides of the equation. What the coaches with the latter opinion fail to realize is that the hip extension torque requirements of a lighter kettlebell swing can indeed match that of a heavier clean or snatch, due to the inherent arced motion of the kettlebell.
It’s either something like, ”I love the kettlebell swing, it’s a great tool for teaching proper hip movement and for conditioning the glutes and hamstrings,” or something like, ”The kettlebell swing sounds good in theory, but my athletes need heavier loads to induce adaptations. Therefore I’ll keep squatting and power cleaning.”
You must absorb eccentric loading and then reverse the kettlebell forward and upward, whereas in the case of the Olympic pulls you simply accelerate the barbell upward and then catch it up top.
For this reason, the classic argument suggesting that power outputs of kettlebell swings can’t match those of power cleans and snatches isn’t accurate, but you must take into account the resultant (horizontal and vertical) data to realize this.
However, I agree with the premise that a 35-pound kettlebell won’t do much for increasing a lineman’s hip strength – heavier loads are indeed needed as they lead to greater force production, which is always important! But force isn’t the only variable important in sports, power is a critical component, and the swing is an excellent movement for hip power.
Perfect Swing Form: You Know it When You See It
First, I’d like to discuss kettlebell swing form. I’m sure the RKC folks have scrutinized every last detail about the swing and have come up with the best possible way of teaching it. And since I’m not RKC-certified, I’m not quite as qualified as those folks to discuss kettlebell swing form.
However, I’m obsessed with biomechanics and a student of movement in general. And for this reason, I know a perfect kettlebell swing when I see it. There’s a certain beauty to the motion that’s hard to describe.
Watch this video of my friend Marianne and you’ll understand:
Here are some general rules you want to be aware of:
- A proper set up (sort of like a center hiking a football) is with high hips, a solid arch, and the kettlebell out in front to allow for proper “hiking” of the first rep.
- The feet stay planted firmly on the ground – there’s no rising onto the toes.
- The movement’s emphasis isn’t on sinking down into a squat, but rather on hinging around the hips. There’s a considerable range of motion around the hip joint with the torso position nearly parallel to the ground at the bottom range of motion.
- On the way down, the lifter shifts his weight forward a bit and the knees bend and travel forward slightly. On the way up, an explosive hip action characterized by a strong gluteal contraction raises the kettlbell upwards and the lifter shifts his weight backward a bit.
- While the kettlebell is near the body, it stays close to the “privates” and never sinks below the knees.
- A neutral spine (no lumbar flexion at the bottom or hyperextension at the top of the movement) position is maintained with very slight anterior pelvic tilt at the bottom of the motion and very slight posterior pelvic tilt at the top.
- The posterior pelvic tilt and glute contraction is maintained while the kettlebell travels upward and away from the body and is held until the kettlebell drops back down and returns near the body.
- There’s no excessive contribution from the arms; for the most part the hips drive the kettlebell to its peak height, which is around shoulder-level.
- A neutral neck position (no cervical hyperextension) is maintained throughout the movement.
- The goal isn’t to learn how to use momentum and conserve energy – it’s easy to figure out how to “cheat” during the swing. Rather, the goal is to achieve a maximal glute contraction to drive the kettlebell forward and upward explosively while adhering to excellent technical form.
Show Me Someone Who Can Swing Properly and I’ll Show You Someone Who Can Squat, Deadlift, and Hip Thrust Properly
Talk to any coach or trainer and they’ll tell you some horror stories about “nightmare” athletes or clients who showed up on their doorsteps with the worst lumbopelvic-hip-complex (LPHC) kinematics known to mankind.
I’ve trained a few of these folks myself. They’re unable to keep a neutral spine while bending. Tell them to sit back and they coil over like a snake. They don’t possess the motor control to stabilize the spine while moving solely around the hip joint. It can take weeks just to get them to hip hinge properly. With these clients, you must improve their movement patterns before loading them up, so patience is needed.
For this reason, when someone shows up to train with me and they have proper kettlebell training experience, I’m ecstatic. If they can swing properly, it’s quite easy to teach them how to squat, deadlift, and hip thrust properly.
They already possess superior motor control in the LPHC characterized by proper hip hinging form and proper gluteal contraction at lockout. These qualities exemplify most of the more complex components of the big lower body lifts.
Think about the typical cues used by coaches during squats and deadlifts: “Sit back,” “knees out,” “chest up,” “push through the heels,” “squeeze the glutes,” and “keep the neck in neutral.” Good kettlebell swingers are already doing all of these.
So, with plenty of practice on the preceding biomechanics, heavy ass kettle bell swings can provide the same benefits to strength and conditioning as maximal deadlifts, but without the feeling of being destroyed subsequently.
Inherent Ground Reaction Forces Involved in 2 Styles of Kettlebell Swings
When I was in Auckland, New Zealand, I conducted a minor experiment. I used two different loads (70 pounds and 140 pounds) and performed two different styles of swings (a squat style swing and a hip-hinge style swing) while standing on a force plate.
To the naked eye, the differences in form between the two appear very subtle, but in terms of kinematics and kinetics they’re quite different. In the squat style, the kettlebell sinks down more, the knees bend more, and the torso stays slightly more upright, but in the hip style swing, the emphasis is on hip hinging (see Marianne’s hip range of motion).
Style Load(lbs) Peak Vertical Force(N) Peak Horizontal Force(N) Squat Style 70 2,170-2,349 166-182 Squat Style 140 2,431-2,444 278-353 Hip Hinge Style 70 1,935-2,140 340-402 Hip Hinge Style 140 2,325-2,550 499-520