This is a question that comes up often.
Before I get into a long explanation of technique and what not, let me answer the question:
No. Kettlebells are not dangerous.
It’s funny to me that the types of equipment and training that offer the most benefit are also demonized the most. Resistance training, kettlebell training, Olympic lifting all get a ton of unnecessary hate and people stay away because they heard part of a bad story.
On the other hand, I have yet to hear of someone that avoided running, spin, or another form of aerobic exercise because they suffered a knee injury or heard a story from someone they know.
I’ll stop before I go full rant, but context is important. Remember these words:
There are no bad exercises, just bad applications.
Even the most simple exercise has the potential to cause injury if you aren’t paying attention. For this reason alone, good technique is an absolute must.
Learning correct technique will keep you safe and enjoying the benefits of all exercises, kettlebells included!
Swings are not an upper body exercise!
When using kettlebells for the first time, it is common to want to raise the weight by lifting with the upper body first. This is incorrect and will definitely lead to problems.
All popular kettlebell exercises (swings, cleans, snatches, etc) are lower body exercises first. Yes, your hands and arms are involved, but they are mostly there to hold and control the weight. Your lower body, specifically your glutes and hamstrings, are the muscles mostly used. Understanding this will keep you safe with any kettlebell exercise you attempt to learn.
After teaching for about 10 years now, these are the issues I see most often with kettlebells:
- Using the upper body
- Too much range of motion
- Not using a heavy enough kettlebell
No squatting with swings!
Kettlebell swings are NOT squats. They are It’s a completely different move that’s similar to a deadlift, but with less weight and range of motion. Commonly called a “hinge” because you are only moving at one joint (think of a door hinge). When I teach this to clients, I tell them to imagine they are folding themselves in half at the waist. Think “hips to the wall, keep back flat”.
The goal of the hinge is to teach you to move using your hips first. This is the basis for the swing, so make sure you get this move down!
I like to use a wall and start with a small range of motion. Within a few minutes, clients usually feel confident doing this and move away from the wall, increasing range of motion. You can see this in the video above (ignore the single leg version).
From the bottom of this movement, you want to flex your glutes to return to the start position. Since there’s no resistance it will take several reps before you start to “feel” it in your glutes. If you don’t feel it right away that’s ok. What’s more important right now is that you don’t feel fatigue, pain, or strain in your lower back.
When learning any exercise for the first time, GO SLOW! You cannot learn and correct yourself at full speed.
If you feel this where you shouldn’t or have a difficult time holding a neutral spine position, take a step back and start with an easier exercise. Bridges are a great exercise for learning to use your glutes.
Bridges allow you to focus on hip extension without worrying about much else. Keep your abs braced tight and use your glutes, making sure that you aren’t using your low back to arch up and down from the floor. There should be no flex or bending in your middle throughout the range of motion.
Once you can do this easily, go back to the hinge.
Once you are comfortable with the hinge, you can add some resistance.
The only difference between this exercise and a full swing is the speed. We’re still learning the movement so it is best to keep the range of motion short. Don’t worry though, this will still get your heart rate up and you’ll definitely feel it!
With most resistance training exercises, we put emphasis on lowering the weight slower than we lift it. Not the case with kettlebell swings. This is one situation where we want to use the momentum to our advantage!
Stay with the hinge, but now move faster! Start by just moving faster on the way up. Feel how the weight starts to move away from your body? This is how you get the kettlebell up! Once you have a feel for the “fast up” part, try lowering faster too. Don’t pause at the bottom, or you’ll lose the momentum. Once you hit the end of your range of motion, extend your hips and immediately return to the start position.
And that’s it. Congratulations, you just learned how to swing a kettlebell!
Don’t be afraid to use a heavier kettlebell. Remember, you aren’t using your arms to lift so it won’t feel as heavy as you think. This also reduces that tendency to want to lift with your arms. If you’re looking to use kettlebell swings as a conditioning exercise, 5, 10, or 15 pounds aren’t enough to get that effect.
The RKC recommends 20kg for men and 10kg for women. If you want to start a little lighter to get the technique right, that’s fine. But don’t be afraid to push yourself once you feel confident with your form.