“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?
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.
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).
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.