Are the swing and snatch interchangeable? Or do you have to do both?
David Whitley, former StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor quipped that “a snatch is a swing that ends up overhead” and a study by Brandon Hetzler, former StrongFirst Certified Senior Instructor, and colleagues confirmed it. The researchers found a similar mechanical output in both exercises and suggested “using kettlebell snatch and 2-handed swing exercise interchangeably for the ballistic component of athlete strength and conditioning programs.” In other words, if you are after power, either drill delivers.
If you are a runner and have to pick one or the other, the swing might be a better choice. The above study observed that it has a greater “horizontal mechanical output” than the snatch. Here is why it matters.
Quad vs. Hamstring Strength in Runners
Russians measured the quad and hamstring strength of middle-distance runners of different levels. They learned that while the hamstring strength keeps growing until the runner reaches the elite level, the quad strength grows until the CMS level (high intermediate)—and then drops way down. Among the reasons identified by the researcher: less experienced runners jump up and down overusing their quads and the elite do not waste their energy vertically and “paw” the ground instead to propel themselves straight forward. (Myakinchenko, 1983)
What you have here is less of a “swing versus snatch” discussion and more of a “hinge versus squat.” Certainly, it is best to do both, but usually there is a justifiable bias for one or the other. For sprinters, focusing on the hinge also makes sense. Consider that the best 100m and 200m sprinters have predominantly fast hamstrings—as you would expect—but their quads tend to be intermediate. (Selouyanov, 2010). Although this reflects natural selection rather than training, it suggests that, to a sprinter, the hinge is more important than the squat.
Swing Versus Snatch: Muscle Development
The swing dominates the snatch in lower-body strength development and hypertrophy, simply because one can swing a lot more weight. Ladies who get on a regular diet of two-handed swings with 32-48kg never fail to develop spectacular curves. And once a gent can confidently swing a pair of 32s—as opposed to being swung by them—posterior chain strength is no longer his #1 priority.
Both pulls are powerful developers of the upper back and the traps.
The one-arm swing rules in the midsection and glute training department. The abs contract powerfully when you perform a “kime” on the top of each rep. The obliques lock down to prevent you from being twisted and pulled forward by the heavy kettlebell. The glutes cramp to put you in a “standing plank.” In the snatch, your abs “open up” as the arm goes overhead which prevents the kime. The obliques do not have to work as hard, as the kettlebell stays close to your body and eventually stacks on top of it.
The snatch scores a win when it comes to burning fat. Geoff Neupert, former StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, prefers it to the swing because the snatch works the arms and shoulder girdle harder. More muscle groups involved should translate to greater fat burning. In addition, Hetzler’s research shows that the kettlebell travels twice as far in a snatch rep than in a swing rep. He explains, “All things being equal—the same person swinging and snatching the same size kettlebell with the hard style approach—the snatch will accomplish more work… From a fat loss standpoint, snatches have a noticeable advantage.”
The snatch also has an edge in grip development. A long semi-vertical drop from an overhead lockout—or even a throw with a lighter kettlebell—loads the grip in a very “plyometric” manner. Such ballistic eccentric loading builds strength exceptionally well. And given the high number of total reps a snatching girevik will do each week, it builds Popeye forearms too.
The big strike against the snatch is a serious thoracic and shoulder mobility it demands—above what a typical Western gym rat and even an athlete possess.
The Final Score in the Swing Versus the Snatch
In summary, it is a tie:
- Both exercises are equally effective in building power.
- Both are equally effective in upper back development.
- The swing is superior for posterior chain and midsection development and strength.
- Per rep, the snatch burns more fat than the swing.
- The snatch has an advantage over the swing in grip development.
- The snatch demands great thoracic and shoulder mobility.
Provided mobility is not an issue and you are skilled in both, which one should you choose?
A good analogy is the barbell squat and deadlift. Both exercises work more or less the same muscle groups, yet each has its own edge. One can choose to do both to get the most benefits—at the expense of more complex programming. Or go minimalist, select one lift and polish it to perfection.
Swing, snatch, or both, you cannot go wrong.