Can You Swing it?: High Repetition Kettlebell Swings

Quick Tips

The kettlebell swing is a fascinating exercise.

It’s hard to think up any other exercise that delivers so much benefit, in a single package.  The next best series of exercises that compete in the “all-around effectiveness category” are probably the deadlift or the squat-to-press, also known as “thrusters” in some circles.

Multiple birds are killed with one stone, that stone being the kettlebell swing.

Each of the aforementioned exercises (deadlift, squat, KB swing) have distinct advantages and disadvantages, rewards and risks.  There is an advantage to lifting heavy weight from the floor to a standing position (deadlift) and also disadvantages to such a movement.  There are risks to squatting and there are obvious tremendous rewards to squatting.

Despite what magazines and news media will tout, there really isn’t just one exercise that a person should base an entire workout program around.  It’s not fair to the exercise and it’s not fair to you, the trainee. Although, there are some programs that revolve around the kettlebell swing.  One that comes to mind is: The Swing!

If you’re a beginner that lacks total body strength and understanding of how to execute basic movements like push-ups, squats, crawling, vertical pulling exercises like pull-ups and chin-ups, etc… than you should definitely consider starting there first.

Now, if you have a handle on all of those movements, experience with lifting weight and you’re looking for a refreshing movement to throw into the mix, kettlebell swings are for you.  But still, could you train just one movement (and it’s variations) for weeks and weeks?  I could not.  I’m a dedicated individual, but boredom (and potential overuse) would overwhelm me eventually.

I guess my point is that there are so many great training tactics available, why pigeon-hole yourself by specializing with just one?  Use them all!  Move!

That being said, I do love the kettlebell swing.  I really do.  Since I was introduced to the swing 7+ years ago, it’s been a staple in my training regimen and I promote it enthusiastically to anyone seeking serious body change or performance enhancement.

For my own purposes, the kettlebell swing has been magic.

I haven’t found a tool (the kettlebell) or an exercise (the swing) that can maintain (or in many cases build) lean usable muscle without taking away from another aspect of my strength and conditioning endeavors.  Swings have stripped fat off of my body while serving as a valuable supplement to building higher levels of functional strength and cardiovascular conditioning.  High tempo sprint intervals will always be a great option to get a person in shape, but the kettlebell swing is unique because it’s you’re able to build power and conditioning at once.

Swinging kettlebells has improved my running, particularly the range of motion of my hips and the power that I am able to generate through this increased range of motion, which is great for powering up inclines during runs.  Exposing your body to elevation changes is fantastic for overall physical and mental conditioning.

However, I cannot say the same about running improving my kettlebell swing, at least not the slow/long duration outings.  It seems like any aerobic capacity benefit established from running is quickly cancelled out by the slow-twitch adaptations caused by running.  Whenever I train slow, which I do from time to time, I am reminded of my dislike for long distance running, cycling, etc.  I value the cardiovascular benefits but not the muscle atrophy that results from such activities.

Kettlebell swings are a total body activity that depend on fast-twitch muscle contraction for success.

Now sprinting… maybe… since sprinting success is largely determined by a person’s ability to put large amounts of force into the ground during each stride and also thrives off of fast-twitch muscle fibers.  Sprinting success is largely hip dominant in nature, where the glutes and hamstrings work to propel the body forward during extension.

Swinging kettlebells has also improved my ability to perform extended periods of intense work.  You could refer to this as my work capacity, or my conditioning.  The cardiovascular effect of resistance training is far more manageable since I’ve included swings into my workouts.  The amount of time I need to rest between an exercise like a pistol squat and a overhead press has decreased dramatically.  I feel fresh after exertion… faster.

This speed of recovery between bouts of exertion has great carryover to sports also.

A few years ago, I rarely swung my 28kg bell beyond the 15-20 rep mark.  In reflection, that was both stupid and smart on my part.

It was stupid because I was keeping my rep range low based on other people’s opinions, which mainly came from the strength and conditioning coach community.  There was a thought swirling around that high rep anything could be detrimental to an athlete’s performance, cause over-use type injuries, etc.  Some also believed that training with big weight was the only way, or it was the highway.

This was before I realized that the self-experimentation is the best form of evaluating exercises and programs.  Once I tested high rep swings on myself, I quickly realized that the average person could learn the exercise and use it to eliminate fat and build an athlete-like hip extension that was safer than attempting to learn highly technical drills like snatches and cleans.  The swing appealed to a larger population.

It was smart in that it gave me years to groove my swing technique using manageable weights at lower rep ranges.  Since the kettlebell swing is all about loading powerful hips (hip hinge transitioning into hip extension) and developing hip snap, spending valuable time practicing this motion worked wonders for my hockey and running stride, vertical jump and surprisingly, my squat.

But still, I continued to avoid working high rep swings into my regimen.  Dumb.

That was until I read a book from Bud Jefferies where he described how he burned loads of fat from his body without losing much strength (Bud is a strength athlete) using high rep kettlebell swing tactics.  I have to admit I really value the personal testimonies from guys and gals who experiment with “taboo” training methods.  You’ll never believe in something more until you experience for yourself.  I’m sure other people were swinging at high volumes in concentrated time frames before Bud, but his book turned me on to it, so I give credit where credit is due.

Since that time, I have explored the higher rep ranges of swings myself.

—> Here is a short list of my observations and findings during that time<—

1)  High rep kettlebell swings will expose any weaknesses in your grip endurance and make your forearms burn like crazy.

2)  Building off of #1, you may find that the limiting factor to higher rep swinging is in fact… your grip and your ability to hold on to the kettlebell.

3)  Soft tissue work on the forearms using a lacrosse ball, trigger point therapy ball or something similar is crucial to avoid the development of range of motion restrictions in your wrists.

4)  You’ll get lean quick… “quick” as in a matter of 3+ sessions you’ll notice drastic increases in your metabolism, hunger and visual changes in the mirror (think 2-3 weeks time for visual change).

5)  You’ll need to use a foam roller (or other soft tissue tool) to smash and iron out your low and mid back.  The eccentric and concentric stress placed on muscles (not the spine) is aggressive when swinging for high reps multiple days per week.  You’ll feel soreness after the early sessions and stiff over time if you don’t take time to roll and massage your back.

6)  Hip power, and the ability to repeated produce athletic-like hip extension increases dramatically in time.  This is ideal for success in any athletic endeavor.

7)  Work capacity increases significantly, and has great carry over other athletic activities.

8)  10-20 minute swing workouts are enough to provide a MED (minimum effective dose) response and initiate noticeable fat loss while retaining lean muscle.

9)  There is potential for overuse and injury if adequate rest, recovery and repair tactics are not employed.

Again, these are just observations.  I’m not here to broadcast kettlebell swings as the end all be all, and I think that my warnings in the 9-part bulleted list above show that.  Too much of anything can be bad.  I find that this old rule of thumb holds up in nearly every aspect of health and wellness.  Too many swings can be bad if you’re reckless in your approach.  But, so can too many glasses of water in a short period of time.  You’ll drown yourself internally.  Beer is good, but drink too much and you’ll find yourself drunk and impaired.

Structuring a workout, you’ve got several options.  First, I would consider “high rep swings” to be any quantity over 100+ in a single training session.  If you’ve never swung a kettlebell before and consider yourself a beginner,  40-50 swings might be considered high rep for your experience level.  If you’re advanced, 200+ might your ticket.  It just depends on your conditioning level and familiarity with swinging.

A classic benchmark swing workout for beginners and intermediate alike would be:

Baseline Kettlebell Swing Workout

(100 reps total)

A workout like this is deceptive.  The rest can make it feel like you’re hardly working, yet in the later rounds, you’ll find that the fatigue has snowballed and each swing becomes a challenge.  Again, in 10 minutes you’ve worked through 100 swings.  If you’ve chosen an appropriate weight for a workout like this, maybe a 24kg for men and a 16kg/20kg for women, you’re going to fatigue out during the session and feel in the days that follow.

This type of workout employs the traditional “work then rest, work then rest, work then rest”… training model.  It allows for adequate rest between bouts of swinging to promote good swing technique throughout the duration of the workout, as well as muscular and cardiovascular recovery.  If you have a heart rate monitor, you can gain some valuable insight into the training effect that the kettlebell swing has on your heart rate (max and recovery).  Try it, it’s interesting to track these things.  

Other workout structures that I have toyed around with, and had success and failures with can be found in this article right here.

The options to integrate high rep kettlebell swing workouts are seemingly endless.

In my personal opinion, I think that it is important to swing heavier bells if you want to maximize the training effect of each session.  Especially with 2-handed swings.  The hips are incredibly powerful and you’ll adapt to the loading of each size bell rather quickly.  Your swing efficiency will increase in a matter of weeks, so it will be important to continue to bump up in weight, swing longer, etc… to see body change.

It’s basic progression, the same kind of progression that you would use with more traditional strength training or cardiovascular training.

[Quick tip.  Don’t make the mistake of swinging a light bell to trick yourself into thinking that you’re working yourself hard.  Level up to a heavier bell and load your hips.  Most people should be swinging heavier bells that demand an aggressive hip snap to move the bell through its arc of motion.  Light bells can cause a “muscling” of the kettlebell, which misses the point of the ballistic exercise.  Powering out of the hip hinge at the bottom of the swing should be the initiator of the arc of motion, not your shoulder performing some kind of a ballistic shoulder raise.  Snap that baby!]

Once you bump up in weight, also realize that you may have to take a shot to the ego and decrease your reps.

For example, if you can swing a 24kg bell for 50 consecutive (“unbroken” if you’re a familiar with Cross-Fit lingo) reps no problem and you bump up to a 28kg/32kg bell for a challenge, don’t be surprised if you can hardly manage 30 reps.  It’s likely (as I stated in the 9 points above) that your grip will fail you before your hip extension will.

So, after all of that rambling… should you work high repetition kettlebell swings into your fitness endeavors?

The safe answer would be:  It depends on your abilities and your goals.

But I don’t want to take the safe road, so I will tell you that I endorse high repetition kettlebell swings.  If you can “swing it” (pun completely intended), they are fantastic.  Both from an body appearance (fat loss + lean muscle retention) and sports performance standpoint, kettlebell swings deliver.  There are advantages and disadvantages (as there are with everything in life), but at the end of the day, kettlebell swings are well worth the time investment to learn and practice.

If you swing right and eat right… you’ll lean out fast.

I wouldn’t feel right ending an article implying that kettlebell swings are the answer.  Swings are a valuable exercise that can be leveraged, but will be the equivalent of throwing rocks at a tank if losing body-fat is your goal.

The truth is that you can exponentially increase the visual impact (fat loss, lean muscle gain, “the shrink wrapping effect”) of your swing efforts if you adopt effective eating habits.

An ounce of nutritional effort, coupled with smart exercise, will result body fat elimination.  It’s almost automatic for those who pay closer attention the quality, quantity and timing of the food that they eat.  Fueling your workouts properly before will supply you with added energy during the workout, while replenishing valuable nutrients body after exerting yourself will ensure that your body heals itself, recovers, and delivers quality nutrients where they are needed.

Most people just don’t know where to start when it comes to nutrition, I know this because I was once floating hopelessly in that boat.  It sucked.  The information circulating around magazines, news channels and the internet is overwhelming and often times counterproductive to figuring out the proper eating plan that fits your unique needs, schedule, know-how, etc.

The key word here is UNIQUE.

Your eating doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s eating plan.  What worked for them might not work for you.  Not everyone buys the same car right?  Why would we assume that there’s only one right way to eat.  One look around the world shows that nutritional variations exist everywhere.

But if you want streamlined information from a reputable life based nutrition system, please enjoy checking out:

Precision Nutrition

 

Read their success stories.  Get a feel for the impact their making on people’s lives that have shown their ready for the shift.  It’s quite amazing the number of clients (all around the world) that they have guided to body transformation success.

 

 

Cheers to “swinging it”!

KG

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