Russia does some stupid things about every 20 minutes to piss off the world or endanger others but swinging a giant cannonball with a handle on it is not one of them. The Russian kettlebell swing is more effective than its ambitious American counterpart for multiple reasons. Let’s explain the difference for those googling what the hell a “kettleball” is. The kettlebell swing is one of the most potent exercises to train posterior chain activation and lumbar stability (easiest way to paraphrase the ambiguous word “core”) if it is performed correctly. If performed incorrectly, like any exercise, it can cause injury. The Russian swing is designed to be nothing more than a loaded hip hinge. Everything but the arms should look like a carbon copy of the deadlift. The height that the kettlebell travels in front is a fairly trivial benchmark because it is the momentum created from the glutes and hamstrings that create that weightless sensation as soon as the hips reach full extension. The height may be the belly button, sternum or eye level depending on the load and the amount of explosive power created from the posterior chain.
As Americans it is in our nature to “improve” on 300 year old technology that “works so well we stop doing it.” The American swing has very strict parameters and has been popularized in CrossFit competition. The complete American swing should look the same as the Russian swing except the movement isn’t finished until the kettlebell is all the way overhead and the bottom of the kettlebell is level enough for a leprechaun to do a jig on top of it. Coming from someone who fixes back pain for a living this makes my eyes bleed (and my pockets full). I haven’t met anyone with necessary stability or mobility to get weight with that narrow of a handle overhead without hyperextending the lower back like a crippled old donkey. Making matters worse, you have to have your feet outside your hips to have enough room to swing the kettlebell which requires more shoulder overhead mobility. Dave Castro may tap me on the shoulder in a straight billed hat and aviators and say, “Hey dude we are Americans and we do things with full range of motion and do more work (across broad times and modal domains…).” This extra 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock part of the swing is completed by all the wrong muscles. First you have to use your arms, which turns into looking like a kettlebell high pull (which looks oddly like how I test shoulders for impingement in my clinic). Secondly, when the low back goes into hyperextension a few things happen (none of them pretty). The pelvis tilts anteriorly and the hips never completely open up which means instead of glutes and hamstrings performing the movement it is low back extensors, quads and hip flexors. Instead of being an RX plus version of the Russian swing the American swing changes all the major prime movers of the exercise and predisposes our low back and shoulders to injury. Let’s say someone performs 100 American swings in a workout and they are hyperextending their low back in the overhead position and then loading the spine in the neutral position at the bottom (ideal scenario when people swing the kettlebell rather than letting the kettlebell swing THEM into a rounded low back position). This is like bending a paperclip or credit card 100 times (hint: they get hot and break). When you add load to this it makes my clinic busy fixing low back pain from kettlebell swings.
This may sound like a sneak attack on CrossFit, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a CrossFitter of 11 years myself (as well as working on the medical staff of the CrossFit games since 2012), I have yet to find another sector of fitness that creates communities of people excited about fitness, nutrition, goals and healthy life choices. Sometimes we just need to set the Kool Aid down and think about whether more is always better when it comes to range of motion, weight, reps, training sessions in a week or another year of three-a-days in attempt to compete in the “Open” against true professional athletes.
You may be reading and thinking how we test to see if you are one of the few mutant superhumans that the have the perfect balance between mobility and strength to do an American swing without trashing your back. First we need to test shoulder flexion. This can be done either on the floor or against the wall. Lay on the ground without the knees or hips flexed because the movement is completed with the knees and hips in extension and not flexed at 90 degrees. Put your hands together like you would grip a kettlebell. Press your whole back into the floor or the wall and raise your arms up as high as you can without lifting any part of your back off of the wall or floor. This is the height that you can effectively swing a bell with no fatigue or load without harming your low back or shoulders with your current range of motion.
Keep in mind the above pictures are done with no load or fatigue. I also have a frame of reference pushing my back into the floor that I would not have if I was standing during a workout. My limit with good mechanics would probably be around eye level if I was so tired I want to puke in a chalk bucket and have a 70 pound kettlebell in my hands doing hundreds of reps.
On the failed test position my anterior core muscles are lengthened and harder to contract and it is harder to use my glutes and hamstrings to finish the hip extension movement (since my hips are not technically in extension in the picture on the right). I also need to use all upper body muscles to compensate to pull the bell up past eye level because I have handicapped the lower body in this position.
Instead of taking a movement standard as gospel we need to test ourselves, our training clients and our patients to make sure we aren’t forcing a square peg into a round hole and increasing injury risks. Use that powerful thing between your ears to protect the rest of your body and live unbroken!