The American Swing: Is It Good or Is It Bad?

“All great truths begin as blasphemies” —George Bernard Shaw

The American swing (also known as the overhead swing, or OH swing): Is it good or is it bad? This is a tougher question to answer than it appears on the surface.

Often, this question leads to a larger, deeper set of feelings about more than a swing — it gets at CrossCit. Which may cause the answer to the original question to be more about which side of the riot line people fall on — either very pro OH swing (CrossFit is AWESOME!) or very con OH swing (CrossFit is ruining the world!).

Neither side actually looks at the OH swing for what it is — a MOVEMENT.

Once we accept it as a movement and not an emotional opinion about CrossFit, we need to apply movement principles. Are deep squats good or bad? Anyone who knows anything about movement knows the answer is, “Squats aren’t bad, but your squat may be bad.”

Gross generalizations about any movement are a sign of ignorance (regardless of whether you are pro or con). If we are going to apply movement principles, the top priority is movement quality. I don’t mean just do the OH swing correctly every time and all problems surrounding it are solved. I mean: what is your general movement quality?

American Swing vs Hardstyle Swing

FMS Requirements for the Swing (Either Swing)

The hard style swing (HS swing) has an FMS tie-in courtesy of Brett Jones and Gray Cook. Unless you are a 2 (or symmetrical 2s) on the following components of the FMS, the HS swing should temporarily be avoided:

  • ASLR (Active Straight Leg Raise)
  • DS (Deep Squat)

If we can agree that the movement of the OH swing is the same as the HS swing up the point where the bell is at shoulder height, we can safely make the same statements about the OH swing regarding FMS requirements.

Note: Remove your heels from the ground, I’m discussing the movement — not the teaching principles. If this already has you up in arms, it is a sign you are a little too emotionally-tied to your position — it’s not a significant other — and you really ought to remove yourself to a remote cave for the next month until you calm down.

Mobility and Stability Requirements for Going Overhead

Now we have to look at the overhead component, and this is where most of the con people base their argument. Putting anything (kettlebell, barbell, sandbag, rock, drunkard, etc.) overhead requires a significant amount of shoulder mobility and trunk stability.

Note: The shoulder mobility and trunk stability I’m referring to are FMS-based terms and are much broader than a mobile glenohumeral joint and a strong core. If you are unclear on this, I would suggest investing in your knowledge and getting Gray Cook’s book “Movement.” This is also the point at which the FMS requirements get a little less crystal-clear.

So, here are my recommendations of the FMS requirements needed to safely perform the OH swing variation:

  • 2/2 ASLR
  • 2 DS
  • 3 TSPU (Trunk Stability Push Up)
  • 3/3 SM (Shoulder Mobility)

Why the 3 and 3/3 requirements on the TSPU and the SM and not just a 2 or a 2/2? A 2 — or symmetrical 2s — is the minimum requirement for movement quality.

M-I-N-I-M-U-M.

If you want to put a kettlebell overhead ballistically with minimum movement quality — go for it! It will be your injury. You will at some point hurt yourself. This is not an “if,” but a “when.” It may begin as low back “tightness,” but it will progress to pain. Or it may begin as elbow discomfort, but it will progress to elbow pain. It will happen.

We can also take one of Pavel’s cornerstone tenets to training — look at the similarities of what the very successful people do. Those individuals who repeatedly and successfully put things over their heads — regardless of the manner in which they do it — all share the commonalities of thoracic mobility and trunk strength. Olympic weightlifters, gymnasts, old-school strict military pressers, and heavy bent pressers all approach how they get their loads overhead a bit differently, but share those mobility and stability commonalities.

If you meet these FMS requirements and have the desire to do the OH Swing — by all means do it. Learn the technique and go. If you don’t meet these requirements, then learning the technique isn’t an option — yet. You need to fix your movement quality issues first before layering on the movement capacity (volume, load, etc).

American Swing vs Hardstyle SwingDo You Even FMS, Bro?

If you are still with me, you have probably realized that I have managed to avoid answering the question about the American swing and have pointed my finger and the blame at the FMS. What if someone doesn’t know or administer the FMS? Simple — learn it and apply it.

Any fitness professional or healthcare provider (who lives in the world of movement — ATCs, PTs, ortho PAs, chiros, etc.) not up to speed with the FMS is woefully ill-equipped to adequately do his or her job. There are a lot of MDs out there who finished in the bottom of their class and still make a living as a doctor. I’m just saying I wouldn’t ever go to them.

There is no way to account for every single person’s level of education, but just like the OH swing and the FMS discussion, everyone needs a minimal level of education. The FMS is a minimal requirement if you want to discuss movement (with me) or fix movement problems — which are everything orthopedic in nature. Otherwise, we don’t speak the same language.

The Ability to Go Overhead Comes From Somewhere

Back to the point: If you have mobility issues in the thoracic spine and/or shoulder, then getting overhead easily and effortlessly is going to be limited – that extra motion will have to come from somewhere else.

  • Option 1: Enter lumbar spine hyper-extension (lordosis). As soon as the L-spine hyper-extends (which will allow the arms to appear to get overhead), the pelvic floor shuts down and the trunk cylinder (normally referred to as the “core”) loses its ability to stabilize. Nothing good happens here. Performance drops, injury likelihood increases, and competencies begin to pile up to accomplish the movement.
  • Option 2: Bend the elbows and chicken neck the head. While this doesn’t compromise the L-spine or affect the pelvic floor, it does put the shoulder into — in the words of Kelly Starrett — a “douchey” position. This strategy opens the door to shoulder impingement, elbow issues, wrist issues, neck pain, headaches, and a plethora of other bad things.

Doing swings of any style should be like the first line of the Nine Inch Nails’ song Hurt:

“I hurt myself today,
To see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real.”

Training will cause physical discomfort — pain is a problem. Joint pain after or during training, or a movement, is a sign of a problem. That is an entirely different article that I’ll leave alone for now because it gets into deep seeded psychosomatic issues that relate to the misconception of pain and progression.

What About Doing the Snatch Instead?

Then, there is the “if you want to swing overhead, just snatch instead” argument. This can be a very good point, and appropriate for those people that don’t meet the FMS OH swing requirements. Since the kettlebell snatch is a one-arm movement, there is a little more wiggle room when it comes to the mobility requirements — both hands aren’t fixed to the bell.

This is also a completely different movement pattern (even though they visibly appear the same) that is now very asymmetrical and introduces rotational forces into the system. This is important because it gives us a completely different stabilization strategy which is less reflective of the TSPU and more reflective to the Rotary Stability component of the FMS. The snatch probably is a more appropriate drill for more people — in general — but this doesn’t mean it is the only ballistic option to get an object overhead.

Wait, Is the American Swing Good or Bad?

In general, like anything else, you can’t say that OH swings are good or bad. For some people (2 DS, 2/2 ASLR, 3 TSPU, 3/3 SM), they are appropriate and beneficial. For others, they are just bad. It goes back to applying the right drill to the right person at the right time for the right reason.

I’m sure there is someone on the globe whocan benefit from the clam-shell exercise — even though my personal opinion is that about 527 exercises exist that are better and more efficient. Maybe in addition to New Kids on the Block and the Cosby Show, the 1980s gave us the greatest gluteus medius exercise ever – I’m just too jaded to admit it.

My point: No exercise, no matter how much we personally detest it or idolize it, is good or bad for everyone. Period!

Save your friends from their bad swings.

LEARN HOW TO TEACH HARD STYLE AT THE SFG.

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Brandon Hetzler
Senior SFG, SFL, SFB
Brandon Hetzler is a Certified Athletic Trainer who serves as the Manager for Mercy Sports Medicine in Springfield, Missouri, where he oversees the Sports Medicine program as well as the Sports Performance program. He helped to develop the curriculum for and teaches in the Masters of Athletic Training degree at Missouri State University. He is a StrongFirst Senior Instructor, SFG II, SFB, and SFL and holds several additional credentials in multiple training disciplines.

Brandon is the co-creator of Movement Restoration, LLC and the Athletic Development Institute, LLC. He has written a book titled Movement Restoration, which proves anyone with enough free time and persistence can write a book. He teaches several workshops every year and when he is not traveling to teach, he spends his time trying to keep his wife, son, and dog in line and going strong.
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22 thoughts on “The American Swing: Is It Good or Is It Bad?

  • if you want to create more force thru the hips what I have done is put a stretch band around my waist moved forward till theres tension than do hardstyle swings , the tension in the band shows you how to snap your hip on the upswing

  • Very impressive article, sir. In Korea, the issues between two swing styles were very passionated. Could I translate this article English into Korean, and introducing to Korean kettlebell trainee? I will must notice original writer of the article and post both language version. Would you give me a permission to me? Please mail to me about your decision, sir. Thank you. Very much 🙂

  • J. Peterson – The overhead swing actually develops more eccentric force than than the HS swing as well as comparable levels of concentric force. What happens though, is that the bell size increases with the OH swing, the forces stay relatively the same (which is odd). With the HS swing we see bell size greatly influence and the forces associated with the swing. The problem with the OH swing is not the OH swing – it is in the application and the programming of the OH swing.

    David – Movement principles dictate that in the presence of instabilities injuries occur. Shoulder impingement is one of many shoulder injuries that can occur when bad overhead position occurs. However, anything overhead can cause this – not just the OH Swing. I can make the same argument about snatches or presses. Again, it goes back to having the movement requisites before going into overheard work, be it the OH Swing, snatch, press, jerk, push press, bend press, windmill, etc. The problem is that shoulder impingement is a diagnosis that doesn’t shed light on the actual cause. Medical diagnosis is great for billing and documentation but does not shed light on the cause of the structural issues. Again, that is more of a programming and application issue that is applied to a someone not ready to be overhead in any capacity. I say that, and then say this – you are right, but only applying those statements to the OH swing is selling it a little short.

  • If it comes to the above pictures I would be more concerned about the domino like positioning of the crossfit guys. A flying piece of iron is even worse for your lumbar than your immobile thoracic spine.
    Be aware of your surroundings

  • With regards to CrossFit insisting that the so-called “American” swing is superior due to the “full range of motion,” I believe I’ve given a few of the adherents a moment of reflection when I suggested that by their own logic, they must certainly be shortchanging the motion on their beloved rowing machines, as well–I proceeded to demonstrate by rowing all the way back as normal, THEN continued to lay back while pulling the handle back up over myself when the seat had reached the end of the rail, until the process was suddenly arrested by my reaching the limit of the chain.

    Sort of a shame, really–had it let me continue, I’d have ended up in a position closely resembling the top of the OH swing, and looking only slightly sillier than the well-meaning folks who perform them.

  • Trent Reznor wrote “Hurt” for Downward Spiral released 1995. Cash covered it in 2002.

    Reznor: “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

      • Exactly. This is written in pretentious prose and he doesn’t even get it right about the song he uses as a metaphor. His cred is non existent. But he is so caught up in his own hype he won’t be phased by it. The better article would have been to discuss whether the risk of the OH worth any benefit.

  • So let me get this straight, the major concern is shoulder stability? I would’ve thought some discussion about shoulder impingement syndrome would be warranted since it occurs when the humerus is flexed and internally/medially rotated (both present to the extreme in the American/Overhead Swing). In case you don’t know shoulder impingement describes the pain in subacromial space when the humerus is elevated or internally rotated. When the humerus is flexed above the shoulder the supraspinatus tendon & bursa become entrapped between the anteroinferior corner of the acromion (and Coracoacromial ligament) & the greater tuberosity. This can also lead to attritional changes in the rotator cuff, leading to a rotator cuff tear. Add on top of that once the supraspinatus (and infraspinatus) tendon is disrupted there will often be further impingement and irritation which can lead to biceps tendonitis & a subsequent rupture. I think this is just as important since this is what I actually see in my practice from the American Swing. Especially from those who do this in combination w/Tracy Reifkind’s swing programming .

    • David,

      His bottom line concern is the movement quality of each peron, not only the shoulder stability. What he wants to say is, as a healthcare provider, fitness professional, or exercise enthusiast, we MUST know who can do what, how and when in order to maximize the potential each other has, so we don’t have to worry about getting hurt and just enjoy what we want to. As StrongFirst states, strength comes with the greater purpose. Hence it is our responsibility to make sue everyone is SAFE at the first place. So, we should make it sure if our comrades can move with the better quality in the orchestrated way. Power to you and us!!

  • I felt entertained by this article, not insulted. I liked the way it was written, humour is a great selling point, and I think it gave an appropriate view of the OH swing (this probably only means that I think similar to Brandon in this).

  • This is an aside, but recognize that in graduate education the difference between top quarter of the class and bottom quarter of the class may just be a few points.

  • My intent was never to insult the readers of the article.

    Gross generalizations about anything are rarely correct (though there is a bit of irony there, since that is a gross generalization.)

    If someone is training movement capacity without assessing movement quality, that is a problem. Maybe your movement assessment tool of choice is not the FMS – fine. But there has to be quality movement to build any kind of strength or work capacity on. If not, injuries will pile up.

    I don’t know why, but I’m always amazed at the emotions people develop from reading an article. My point with that last paragraph quoted above was arguing over an ’emotion’ (and anything related to CrossFit is always laced with emotion regardless of how one views CrossFit) is just arguing. Lets all take a step back and look at things for what they are, not what we feel about them.

    Regardless of who wrote the lyrics or the bass line, “Hurt” is awesome – either version.

    I don’s see the OH swing being a great drill for GPP. In fact, I would consider it (in the instance that I am writing about) in the CrossFit world as a CrossFit specific skill. This lends its application to be similar to any other specific skill associated with training for a competition. Is there a place for it – yes. But, I definitely don’t feel it is a skill someone can see and do in one setting without proper training. With that being said, I still stand by the Hardstyle swing as the cornerstone and foundation for many other drills.

  • Jeff Martine said that when he was in Russia with the Russian sport team they used the OH swing as a warmup with light KBs. For working weights they only did the normal swing.

  • Can you do the OH swing? Sure. I can also drive my car with my eyes closed. Simply because “I can” doesn’t mean it is a smart thing to do. Given the fact the that this exercise has far more risk than reward, the FMS eval should be mandatory before attempting it. If one is cleared, it would reduce the risk, but the benefits of doing it remains in question. I don’t know where or how this would fit into GPP.

  • Interesting article. I have some questions:

    1) Why do you include a 2 on the Deep Squat of the FMS as a necessary condition before swinging a kettlebell? When I attended the FMS cert, Gray Cook mentioned only a 2 on the ASL as needed before safely swinging a bell. Has Gray Cook stated that performing a Deep Squat with a 2 is also necessary?

    2) What is the advantage to an overhead swing? In other words, what does it accomplish that swings, snatches, and presses do not? I am not yet sold on WHY I should do an overhead swing.

  • OFFTOPIC: “Hurt” is originally NIN song from 1994 album Downward Spiral (Grammy nomination), Johny Cash didn´t even asked them about the copyright when he recorded the video years later. Aa an avid fan of NIN i couldn´t let this misinformation be haha.

  • “Gross generalizations about any movement are a sign of ignorance (regardless of whether you are Pro or Con). If we are going to apply movement principles, the top priority is movement quality. I don’t just mean just do the OH Swing correctly every time and all problems surrounding it are solved, I mean: what is your general movement quality?

    Translation: if you haven’t assessed movement quality (cough-FMS-cough) then now is the time to shut your mouth in this argument — you have brought a fake knife to a gunfight and are just going to sound like a blabbering idiot whose strategy is to just talk louder and louder.”

    “remove your heels from the ground, I’m discussing the movement — not the teaching principles. If this already has you up in arms it is a sign you are a little too emotionally-tied to your stance – it’s not a significant other — and you really ought to remove yourself to a remote cave for the next month until you calm down”

    Thanks for an article that insults the reader every other paragraph. Swing away!

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