The kettlebell swing is a ballistic exercise that trains the posterior chain muscles by swinging the bell from between the legs to eye level or above the head. This exercise enhances power and muscle endurance as well as helps with the stability of the core, balance, and aerobic capacity. While there are many benefits to the kettlebell swing, these gains may also be achieved through alternative exercises.
The alternative exercises to the kettlebell swing range from workouts that use body weight alone to the need for equipment. These exercises include broad jumps, cable pull throughs, barbell hip thrusts, and sumo deadlifts. Each exercise noted provides similar benefits as that of the kettlebell swing.
Learning about the muscles activated and benefits of the basic kettlebell swing helps in the proper execution of the exercise as well as its alternatives. Avoiding common mistakes in these exercises is also important in both injury prevention and workout optimization.
What is a Kettlebell Swing?
The kettlebell swing is a compound exercise that enhances total body strength, power, and balance while building stamina and cardiovascular endurance. This activity engages a number of muscle groups simultaneously. Although it may seem as if it is largely an upper extremity exercise, the kettlebell swing is a low impact exercise that targets and strengthens the gluteal muscles.
Kettlebell swings should be performed with appropriate form and control to avoid risking injury. The movement is reliant on the hinging of the hips to drive the weight upward rather than the use of the arms to lift the weight. The upper limbs only serve to control the swinging motion, but have no part in lifting or lowering the weight.
Performing a kettlebell swing starts with having the individual grab the kettlebell by hinging at the hips and slightly bending the knees. The weight is positioned between the legs and is pulled backward to create a momentum. To lift the weight, the hips drive forward to push the weight while the individual maintains a neutral back. The kettlebell is allowed to propel upward until it reaches shoulder height. As the gravity pulls the weight downward, the weight returns back between the legs, and the activity is repeated until a set is completed.
Kettlebell swings primarily target the gluteal muscles. However, this exercise also enhances the core, grip, shoulder, quadriceps femoris, adductors, hamstrings, and calf muscles. The primary mover for this exercise is the gluteus maximus assisted by the hamstrings since it involves strong hip extension.
Kettlebell Swing Alternatives
Alternative exercises to kettlebell swings include various activities that primarily engage and strengthen the gluteal muscles. Some of these exercises may be performed without the use of equipment, such as in broad jumps, while others require cable machines and weights.
Broad jumps are a great alternative to kettlebell swings to target the same muscle groups without the use of any equipment. The broad jump is a basic exercise which offers a variety of vertically oriented jumps that develop explosive hip and leg extension.
Broad jumps are performed by hinging on the hips and bending the knees with the arms extended backward. The arms are then swung forward as the feet are driven into the ground to propel the body forward. The individual lands back to assume the starting position, and the activity is repeated until the set is completed.
Cable Pull Throughs
The cable pull through, like the kettlebell swing, is a compound exercise that trains the posterior chain muscles. These muscles include the glutes, hamstrings, and the muscles in the lumbar area. It helps in exercises that require hinging of the hip and promotes gluteal muscle hypertrophy through overloading.
Cable pull throughs involve the use of a cable machine and a rope handle. To start the activity, the desired weight is set on the machine with the pulley set to the lowest height setting. The individual is facing away from the machine and grabs the rope handle by reaching for the rope between the legs. The individual then moves forward until the weight is off the stack.
To begin the movement, the individual stands tall with the feet placed slightly wider than hip width apart and the knees slightly bent. The hips are hinged backward until a stretch is felt at the hamstrings area and the torso is almost parallel to the floor. The upward movement is initiated by extending the hip while keeping the spine in neutral extension. As the hips travel forward, the gluteal muscles are squeezed until the individual is standing erect to complete one repetition.
Barbell Hip Thrust
A barbell hip thrust is a gluteal muscle targeted exercise wherein a barbell is placed on the anterior hip to create resistance against the muscles that push the hips forward. It is performed with the use of both a barbell and a bench.
To perform a barbell hip thrust, the individual sits on the floor with the knees bent, the back against a bench, and a barbell situated at the hips. The barbell must be placed comfortably on the crease of the hip before lifting the hip by pushing the feet into the ground, and driving the back towards the bench.
The torso must be parallel to the ground at the top of the movement with the knees flexed at around a 90-degree angle. The shoulder blades must be stable on the bench as the lifter maintains a straight line from the hips to the torso. This position is held for a second before bringing the weight back down to complete one cycle.
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift that involves assuming a very wide stance with the toes slightly pointed out when doing the activity. This puts the individual in a deeper initial squatting position which puts more focus on the gluteus maximus and adductor magnus muscles. Due to the wide stance and deeper initial squat of the lift, the hips start closer to the barbell with the trunk more upright. This puts less stress on the back extensors and relies heavily on the hip musculature as compared to a traditional deadlift.
To start, the individual assumes a very wide stance--wide enough to be able to extend the arms downwards in between the knees to grab the bar. The toes slightly point outwards with the lower leg perpendicular to the floor. The spine must be in neutral extension and the shoulders directly above the bar.
After getting into position, the core muscles tighten and the back, leg, and hip extensor muscles are engaged to create tension and allow the individual to pull the slack out of the bar. The weight is lifted by driving through the legs while keeping the barbell close to the body as the lifter stands up.
As the weight ascends, the chest must not be allowed to fall forward as in rounding the shoulders. When the lifter is upright at the top of the movement, the gluteal muscles are squeezed to drive the hips forward and lock-out. This position is held for a second before slowly lowering down the barbell to complete one repetition.
What to Avoid When Doing Kettlebell Swings
There are a few common mistakes that must be avoided in performing kettlebell swings and its alternatives as these may lead to injury and suboptimal outcomes. These mistakes include rounding of the back, lack of hip hinge, and using the arms to lift.
Rounding of the Back
Rounding of the back should be avoided in performing kettlebell swings and any of the alternatives discussed as this may injure the lower back. In order to correct this posture, the chest should be kept up and out, as if showing it off, while the back should be maintained in a straight line. Keeping these cues in mind will help in maintaining a neutral spine.
Lack of Hip Hinge
The kettlebell swing, broad jump, and cable pull through all require hinging of the hips. However, some individuals mistake the hip hinge for a squat which pushes the buttocks downward instead of backward. A proper hip hinge involves pushing the hips back while maintaining a neutral spine. In order to keep this in check, the individual should imagine a rope tied around the hips as if being pulled from the back.
Using the Arms to Lift
While the hands are used to grip the kettlebell, barbell, or cable handle, the arms are not the prime mover for the exercises discussed. The arms should not lift the weight in a kettlebell swing or any of its alternatives as it is the strength and power from the hips that drives the weight up. Using the arms will only lead to suboptimal gains for the lower body area while also possibly causing harm to the upper body.
The kettlebell swing is a great workout for enhancing lower body strength and power with primary attention to the gluteal muscles. The alternative exercises available are able to provide these same benefits while providing variety to workout routines. In order to execute these exercises safely and optimally, the common mistakes discussed must be avoided.