There is a big difference between swinging a kettlebell around and executing a powerful kettlebell swing. The first is common with kettlebell beginners who often start by mimicking what they think they are supposed to do. But learning where and how to focus their efforts, and what that power feels like, well, it leads to a lot of ‘aha’ moments. And we never get bored of those. Read on to explore two cues that might help you or your students get that feeling.
If you’re here, you probably already know that kettlebells can be pretty powerful tools for change. The first part of this article talks a little about how the kettlebell (particularly the swing, Turkish get-up, and goblet squat) changed the quality of my movement (and life). Part two includes a couple of tips that I think can vastly improve the quality of your swing in a hurry.
Part 1: My Story—How Kettlebells Improved my Posture and Injury-Proofed by Body
Almost a decade ago I purchased my first set of kettlebells. I was playing a lot of football (soccer) and touch football (like rugby league, not gridiron), but I wasn’t strong and nagging hamstring issues hampered my performance. I wanted to get stronger.
I decided against joining a gym. Instead, I allocated two years’ worth of membership fees towards setting one up at home with a power rack and weights. I was satisfied. But then I got an email. It made wild claims about kettlebell training—android-like work capacity, back like iron, etc. I thought if these things are even half as good as they say, I’ll be pretty happy.
I got the bells, gave them a try, and… was rather disappointed. They were ok, but I wasn’t getting anywhere near the promised outcomes.
Then I heard that an expert instructor was coming to Brisbane to teach a kettlebell course. I thought, why not, I might as well learn to do it properly before I dismiss it.
We covered three movements, the Turkish get-up, swing, and goblet squat. It only took me a few weeks of mindful technique practice before discovering that my posture had improved, my performance improved—I was scoring ludicrous numbers in both football and touch football—and my hamstring issues had all but disappeared. From “only” three skills. Now I was excited.
My gains encouraged me to develop more skills. First from Master SFG Shaun Cairns, and then later, from Pavel himself in St. Paul, MN. I traveled there multiple times to learn as much as I could.
I believe a few key factors contributed to my transformation from weak, nerd body to relatively strong, useful human body. One of them was the kettlebell swing.
The swing is crazy powerful. But people, especially kettlebell beginners, often miss out on some of its benefits because they fail to realise its power as a full body exercise. The swing is an amazingly comprehensive exercise because it strengthens so much: grip, glutes, hamstrings, quads, lats, and abs.
I’m constantly seeking ways to help my students to feel that power so they get the most out of their swings. What follows are two cues I have found equally helpful for beginners and seasoned swingers alike. Beginners because they don’t know what a good swing feels like yet. Seasoned swingers because once you get good at something, you don’t have to think so much and therefore, can zone out. Have a read, have a play, and leave questions or comments below or on our StrongFirst online forum.
Part 2: Two Cues to Get a Lot More out of Your Swing
You may not know this, but there are multiple muscles in our posterior assets—our glutes (visual inspection of your nearest human will confirm this, but there are actually more than two). When we swing, we want to stay as tall as possible and fire off as much of this musculature (as well as the rest of your posterior chain) as we can, ensuring a good, tight pelvic lock. This helps to generate power in a way that benefits our lower backs (especially relevant for those who sit a lot, don’t walk much, and generally behave like 21st-century humans).
Through the years teaching our system, I’ve used a variety of cues—“squeeze your butt,” “crack a walnut,” “mint a coin,” “try and touch your pelvis to your belly button,” and so on. Because not every cue works for every student, finding the perfect one to help them connect with this incredibly powerful position could be a long process. Since I want people to grasp things quickly, particularly when it’s going to be as beneficial as the swing, I knew something in my toolbox was missing. So when I heard this next cue, I was pretty stoked to add the new language to my coaching kit. Not just because it worked with almost everyone, but also because it boosted my own swing power.
Currently, your pelvis is likely resting on a chair (if not, imagine it is). If you are sitting up straight, the patch of skin between your ‘sit bones’ resting on the seat is called your perineum. At the top of your swing, if you can maximise your muscular contraction around this area, you’ll notice a significant boost to the force of your glute contraction.
Essentially, I cue my clients to get their glutei to ‘hug’ or compress down around their pelvic floor. Once you’ve contracted the musculature around there, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that your pelvis has situated itself in a full, powerful lock position.
Something else that can de-power the swing is when students don’t fully understand the shoulder packing cue, so they keep their shoulders cemented back and down all the time. Shoulder “packing” is often the victim of “good cue gone wrong.” There is a huge difference between connected and cemented. Keeping your shoulders packed to avoid shrugging or arms hanging off of soft tissues is a good thing. Packing that restricts the natural movement of your scapulae is not. A misplaced emphasis on keeping an incredibly closed position can lead to cranky shoulders.
Ultimately, there is so much going on in a person’s swing that to get their lats active (critical in so many movements) without restricting the rest of their back’s ability to perform beautiful movement is a challenge. So what cue do I use here?
It turns out that the beauty of irradiation means that I can have active lats without compromising the surrounding musculature’s movements. My cue is to focus instead on actively holding their rhomboids (not crushing them, just actively engaging them).
Where are your rhomboids? The point that I identify for my clients to ‘squeeze’ (done correctly, very little on your back will move, you’ll just feel this area become tight) is directly between the bottom of their scapulae. Follow the line of the shoulder blade until its lowest point, and then run a straight line until you’re almost at the spine—like where you’d attach a heart rate monitor strap. This is the spot that you want to get active. It’s great because it should remain fairly constantly active throughout the movement, and doesn’t have any of the moving parts directly attached to it.
By cueing this spot instead of anywhere else, I’ve noticed that people find it easier to retain their posture at the bottom of the swing, and that they don’t tend to have as much ‘chicken necking’ at the top—both things that seem to greatly impair power production. If I can kill two power-stealing habits with one cue, that’s a big win.
Cues in Action: Your Turn
Hopefully, these cues are simple and clear enough that you can give them a try. Try them out and let me know how they go for you. Also, have a think about the first one and see if you have a more delicate way to describe it, so that my daughter doesn’t die a little inside as she gets older and hears me yelling about people’s ‘perineum’ across the room. While I believe these are great starting points, they are just that—the start. If you want to get the most out of your kettlebell, you would benefit from taking a StrongFirst kettlebell course or by learning from a StrongFirst certified instructor near you—expert eyes and personalized coaching to get you moving well quickly. These cues are a good place to start before you get there.