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.
I had a conversation with a client recently that made me stop and think for a while. She commented on the advice and coaching throughout the session and how helpful she found it, both in and out of the gym. It’s part of the job and automatic at this point, so I tend to think nothing of it. I thanked her for the compliment and then tried to think of a time when I was in her shoes.
Sit back, put your feet up, and relax. Its story time!
Flashback to 1997 and a gym somewhere in suburban New Jersey.
About halfway through one of many basketball practices, the coaches split us up to practice free throws. Right behind sprints, this was my least favorite part of practice. I had a lot of work to do in this area and I was a very inconsistent shooter.
I must’ve missed several shots in a row, because our “shooting coach” felt the need to chime in…
“Jay, you’re a horrible shooter.”
And that was it. Nothing else. No help, no advice. Nothing. From the shooting coach. The coach who’s job it was to help us improve our technique. To say I was angry is an understatement. As an athlete, you get used to coaches pulling you aside to tell you where you messed up. I didn’t mind the criticism, but the other coaches would tell you something you could learn from and use next time. This guy gave me nothing. Thanks for the help, coach!
Here’s my question: if you’re a coach and see a player struggling with some aspect of their game, why open your mouth to criticize if you have no intention or ability to help them? To any personal trainer and coach, fitness sports or anything in between, I ask you the same question:
why criticize and berate your clients if you can’t do anything productive to help them?
This approach does nothing to correct or solve any problems It is confusing at best, and discourages people from trying at worst.
There’s a much better way to go about it.
Compare that experience to my brief time practicing with the basketball team in college 2 years later.
During one evening practice, the coaches had the big men together working on free throws and post defense. My free throw shooting was better, but not by much. After a few shots, the head coach came over and explained what he saw that was causing me to be so inconsistent. He told me what to do and what I should focus on while on the line.
Within 5 minutes there was a noticeable improvement. Mind blown! Even after I quit the team I continued to use his advice when I played or went to shoot around.
These two experiences stick with me to this day as examples of what to do and what to avoid when coaching people on exercise, nutrition, and daily habits that lead to better health.
Of course, fitness is much different than sports, but coaching is an important part of both. In all my experiences with coaching, on the receiving end as an athlete and student and on the providing end as a personal trainer, these are a few of the things I believe make great coaches stand out:
1.Observe, listen, and do something helpful.
Being critical is fine, but also give them something they can do to improve. It’s silly to have to say it, but this is what coaching is! If you’re coaching a client with nutrition, don’t yell at them for having a bad day. Listen to them and discuss what they can do to get back on track and solve the issue going forward. Instead of “wow, your push ups look awful!”, show them how to do it right. Train them. This is what you’re there for!
2.No advice is better than bad advice.
Sometimes its better to just be quiet. The last thing anyone needs is more bad advice that doesn’t help them solve their problem. If you can’t help, keep it to yourself.
3. Communication is key.
As a coach, you have an understanding of fitness, nutrition, sports, or whatever your chosen field is. Your knowledge is useless if your clients don’t understand you when you speak. Big words and industry specific terms are fine when talking to colleagues, but your clients most likely don’t care. Skip the buzzwords and learn to speak their language. The better you can communicate, the better their results will be.
4. Be patient.
It would be great if everyone was 100% on board and ready to go from day one, but that’s not how it works. People progress and learn at different speeds. Understand that it takes more time for some than it does for others. Encouragement, reminders, and even a little “tough love” are all fine, but don’t hold it against them or get mad because they aren’t getting it as fast as you want them to.
Lift. Eat. Sleep. Stretch. Don’t eat a lot of garbage.
If you came to my gym looking to train and asked how to get results, this is what I would tell you. How much of each and how often depends on the goal, but this is the general message.
Most people agree, and follow the program even if they are slow to implement the changes. Some will disagree and want to argue, which is fine. Education is part of the process and through these conversations they also come around and eventually follow the program.
Every now and then I meet someone that doesn’t want to listen. Not just to me, they don’t listen to anyone! Instead of taking the advice of their coach, they try several approaches at once or switch from one to the next weekly in the pursuit of instant gratification.
Flustered and frustrated after several attempts, stops, starts, resets and jump starts they eventually come to ask me “what should I do? I’ve tried everything and nothing is working!”
Stop trying to do everything. Pick one approach and give it a chance to work.
While I’d be thrilled if everyone followed my recommendations, I understand that everyone has different goals, interests, time commitments and motivations. The approach I use works, but it isn’t for everyone.
No matter what fitness or nutrition approach you take, amazing results don’t come overnight. Yes, I’ve had clients see visible progress in one week, but this does not happen with everyone. Expecting a completely different body or big changes in strength in a week or less is unrealistic and guaranteed to bring frustration.
As long as its not something dangerous or some silly fad diet (you would not believe half the stories I’ve heard!), give any program a minimum of 4-6 weeks before changing to something else.
4 weeks allows you to mentally and physically adjust and get the early mistakes out of the way. This is enough time to figure out if you can sustain this approach long term. It takes more than a week or two to figure these things out and get settled, so be patient! If the program is solid, it will work and you’ll get results. If not, go ahead with Plan B.
The “trick” to getting results is simple – be consistent. That’s it. You don’t need to do anything extreme or complicated! Whether it’s getting stronger in the weight room, losing inches through better nutrition, or even something not fitness related like saving money, consistent effort over time brings success. Make this your focus, instead of looking for a different approach.