How to Do a Kettlebell Swing for Total-Body Strength and Cardio

caucasian man doing kettlebell swing outside in front of a concrete wall
The kettlebell swing is a functional exercise that can help build all-over strength and cardio, as long as you do it with good form.
Image Credit: AzmanJaka/E+/GettyImages

The kettlebell swing is a versatile strength and conditioning move with tons of benefits — if you do it correctly.

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Although it's widely used and praised for strengthening your butt, legs and core, the swing is a pretty technical compound movement that's easy to mess up. You need to have a good grasp of proper KB swing form to safely perform the movement and stay injury-free.

Here, you'll learn how to do the kettlebell swing properly and safely fire up your whole body.

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  • What is the kettlebell swing?​ Also known as the "Russian kettlebell swing," this ballistic exercise involves swinging a KB between your legs and using the power of your hips to "float" the weight straight in front of you.
  • What muscles does it work?​ Do it properly, and it will light up most of the major muscles in your body. In particular, it works your abdominals, glutes, hamstrings and shoulders. I also builds grip-focused muscles in your wrists and forearms.
  • What are the benefits?​ It does it all: improves strength, power and cardiovascular endurance.
  • Who can do the kettlebell swing?​ "Most people can do swings if they're taught to do them properly," says KB specialist Karen Smith, a StrongFirst master instructor. The only people who may want to pause on the swings are those with existing back issues. If that's you, talk with your doctor or physical therapist before attempting to swing.

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Warning

Pregnancy isn’t a good time to learn the swing. However, if you’ve done swings for a while already and you’ve gotten your doctor’s OK, there’s no reason you can’t continue kettlebell swings during pregnancy. Just don’t try swinging a super heavy bell or tackle any 100-swings-a-day challenges, Smith says.

How to Do a Kettlebell Swing With Proper Form

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Skill Level Intermediate
  1. Begin with the KB on the floor. Stand directly in front of it with your feet together, toes touching the bell.
  2. To find your starting position, keep your heels together and push your toes out. Then, keep your toes in place while you push your heels out. Finally, push your toes out.
  3. From there, hinge your hips back and grip the handle with both hands.
  4. Hike the weigh back between your legs. As you swing the bell back, sink deeper into your hips.
  5. Drive through your hips to straighten your legs. Forcefully contract your glutes and legs to swing the weight in front of your torso. You should end in a vertical plank.
  6. Use the bell’s momentum to swing it back between your legs. Continue for time or reps.

Tip

Your power should come from your legs and hips, not your shoulders, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Watch the Full KB Swing Tutorial

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The 6 Phases of a Perfect Swing

Phase 1: Setup

This is foundation of any good KB swing. Start by hinging your hips back into an athletic stance (shoulders above hips and hips above knees) and gripping the bell while it rests on the floor in front of you.

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Then, pin your shoulder blades down and back. This will engage the powerful lat muscles in your back and tilt the kettlebell toward you on its edge. In this position, the bell and your arms will form one straight line to your shoulders.

Phase 2: Hike

Now that you're set up, swing the bell straight back through your legs. Keep your arms straight.

Phase 3: Hip Drive

Here's where your hips do their part. As soon as the bell shoots behind you, snap your hips and forcefully contract your glutes and legs to stand up. This will swing the bell forward.

Phase 4: Float

As your hips reach full extension, allow the bell to "float" until it reaches peak height (usually around chest-height). Your arms don't have to do any pulling or lifting here; they simply connect the kettlebell to your body.

You should end in a vertical plank position.

Phase 5: Hinge

After the bell reaches peak height, it will naturally stat to fall. Hang on and let it. As your arms get closer to your body, hinge your hips back behind you so that the bell swings through your legs.

From here, you'll move back and forth between phases 3 and 4 to complete all of your reps.

Phase 6: Return

When you've done all of your reps, it's time to return the bell back the ground. Hinge back into the hike position, then keep your body low as the bell swings forward to rest on the ground in front of you.

3 Tips for Better Swings

1. Pick the Right Weight

A big part of safely mastering the swing is choosing a weight that's comfortable and safe for you, especially if you're new working out with kettlebells.

Start with a lighter weight, but something that's still heavy enough that you can't easily pick it up with one hand, says Maillard Howell, founder of The Beta Way.

"The bell should feel slightly challenging to raise from waist to shoulder height using just your arms," he says. "I like to start newbies with a maximum of a 25-pound kettlebell, or 35 pounds if they have strength trained in the past."

You should be able to perform a set of 8 to 10 swings with this weight pretty comfortably.

Note: If the kettlebell floats much than your face during your reps, that's a sign may you need to pick a heavier weight.

2. Choose Your Rep Scheme

Once you've found the appropriate weight for your fitness level, get comfortable performing 8 to 10 consecutive swings. Continue building up slowly and when you can finish 20 to 30 reps in a set, you can start to tailor the exercise to your goals, Howell says.

For example, if your goal is to gain strength, stick to 8 reps per set with a heavier KB.

Or, if you want to focus on cardio, use a lower weight and go for time instead of reps. Swing for 30 seconds, followed by a 30-second rest and increase your work intervals as your endurance grows.

3. Focus on Your Form

This dynamic exercise works multiple muscle groups at once, which makes fatigue inevitable. However, fatigue makes it harder to maintain good form.

Be sure to stop before your form starts to slip. Otherwise, you may miss out on all the benefits of kettlebell swings — and even risk hurting yourself — according to the ACE.

4 Kettlebell Swing Benefits

1. Lower-Body Power

The explosive move is especially good for building power in the posterior (back-body) muscles like the glutes and hamstrings. Power in these muscles is essential for performing well in many sports like basketball, powerlifting and sprinting.

With each snap of the hips, you're basically doing a deadlift or hip thrust.

2. Calorie Burn

Any exercise that uses several major muscles is bound to gobble up energy (read: calories). And the kettlebell swing exercise is no exception.

3. Core Strength

It might not look like it, but the KB swing puts your core strength to the test. It's the sole link between your lower and upper body, and it's responsible for keeping your torso in a strong and safe position at all times.

To keep it working, focus on tucking your tailbone just slightly to minimize any arch in your lower back. Hold that position at all times.

4. Cardio

Swinging a weight around will get your heart and lungs working hard in no time. And because your feet never leave the floor, swings can be a great low-impact cardio option for people who can't run.

Make sure to take enough rest between sets that you heart rate is able to come down and you're no longer huffing and puffing. And, as always, breathe through your reps.

4 Kettlebell Swing Variations

Move 1: Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing

Using one arm instead of two turns the move into an anti-rotation core exercise. Don't let the bell pull you in one direction.

"You want your hips, knees and shoulders to be squared-off, versus rotating in your backswing," Smith says. Your abs will feel especially fiery after a few sets of this variation.

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Skill Level Intermediate
  1. Begin with the KB on the floor. Stand directly in front of it with your feet together, toes touching the bell.
  2. To find your starting position, keep your heels together and push your toes out. Then, keep your toes in place while you push your heels out. Finally, push your toes out.
  3. From there, hinge your hips back and grip the handle with one hand.
  4. Hike the bell back between your legs. As you swing the bell back, sink deeper into your hips.
  5. Drive through your hips to straighten your legs. Forcefully contract your glutes and legs to swing the weight in front of your torso. You should end in a vertical plank.
  6. Use the bell’s momentum to swing it back between your legs.
  7. As you swing, resist the urge to rotate your torso toward your non-working arm.
  8. Continue for time or reps. Switch arms.

Move 2: Double Kettlebell Swing

Double kettlebell exercises are an advanced way to load your hips with more weight.

"The double bell takes it up notch as far as difficulty because you have to brace differently and make sure that the bells move at the same rate," Smith says.

Start out with lighter weights and progress gradually, always prioritizing good form.

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Skill Level Advanced
  1. Begin with the KBs on the floor. Stand directly in front of them with your feet together, toes touching the bells.
  2. To find your starting position, keep your heels together and push your toes out. Then, keep your toes in place while you push your heels out. Finally, push your toes out.
  3. From there, hinge your hips back and grip one handle with each hand.
  4. Hike the bells back between your legs. As you swing the bells back, sink deeper into your hips and rotate the handles in to create a “V” shape, with your thumbs pointing behind you.
  5. Drive through your hips to straighten your legs. Forcefully contract your glutes and legs to swing the weights in front of your torso. As you do, rotate the handles so your wrists are neutral again. You should end in a vertical plank.
  6. Use the momentum of the bells to swing them back between your legs, rotating the handles to create that “V” shape again. Continue for time or reps.

Move 3: American Kettlebell Swing

Few exercises are as hotly debated as the American swing, and the debate over the Russian swing vs. American swing is strong.

"Most kettlebell instructors prefer the Russian swing," says Katie Prendergast, CPT, a certified personal trainer and CrossFit athlete in Denver.

After all, the Russian swing is typically safer, as many gym-goers struggle with overhead mobility — a must for doing the American-style swing.

"Think about how much thoracic spine and shoulder mobility you need to have both arms locked out over your head, holding onto a skinny handle," Smith says.

People who don't have the mobility they need to lock out their elbows in that narrow position tend to push their head forward and hyperextend their lower back, which then transfers the pressure into the low back, Smith explains.

However, if you have the shoulder mobility to get the kettlebell into that overhead position, American swings may help you build core and shoulder strength, Prendergast say.

Also, American KB swings are the go-to swing variation in CrossFit workouts. So, if you're interested in doing CrossFit workouts "as prescribed," you may want to work on your American swing, she says.

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Skill Level Advanced
  1. Begin with the bell on the floor. Stand directly in front of it with your feet together, toes touching the bell.
  2. To find your starting position, keep your heels together and push your toes out. Then, keep your toes in place while you push your heels out. Finally, push your toes out.
  3. From there, hinge your hips back and grip the handle with both hands. Hike the bell back between your legs. As you swing it back, sink deeper into your hips.
  4. Drive through your hips to straighten your legs. Forcefully contract your glutes and legs to swing the weight overhead until your biceps are in line with your ears.
  5. Use the bell’s momentum to swing it back between your legs. Continue for time or reps.

Move 4: Dumbbell Swing

If you don't have access to kettlebells, a dumbbell will work just fine. Gripping and swinging a dumbbell may feel awkward at first, but rest assured you'll get the hang of it.

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Skill Level Intermediate
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell by one end with both hands.
  2. Keeping your back flat, bend your knees slightly and push your hips back to swing the weight between your legs.
  3. Drive through your hips to straighten your legs. Forcefully contract your glutes and legs to swing the weight in front of your torso. You should end in a vertical plank.
  4. Use the momentum of the dumbbell to swing the weight back between your legs. Continue for time or reps.

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