Master the Kettlebell Swing

Learn to hip hinge and you’ll automatically get better at deadlifts, squats and your sport. The secret? You gotta swing a kettlebell.

Hip Hinging for Strength and Fat Loss

The hip hinge is a crucial ingredient for pretty much every lower-body movement you’ll perform in the gym that doesn’t involve a machine or sitting down. Get it down now and it makes everything easier down the road.

The hip hinge is nothing more than any movement which involves flexion/extension originating at the hips and which also involves a posterior weight shift. Breaking it down more, it’s important to note that the hip hinge is in no way associated with a squat pattern.

  • Hip Hinge = maximal hip bend, minimal knee bend.
  • Squat = maximal hip bend, maximal knee bend.

While grooving both patterns is important, I’ll place more emphasis on the hip hinge because, well, most people move like shit and don’t perform it properly. As a coach, the sooner I can correct the pattern and get an athlete or weekend warrior to perform it right, the sooner I can introduce any exercise I want. The hip hinge makes the learning curve infinitely smaller.

Additionally, the hip hinge (and by extension the hip snap) serves as a precursor to everything I’m looking to improve as a coach, whether it pertains to athletic performance, improved strength in the weight room, improved body composition, or even better posture. About the only thing the hip hinge doesn’t help with is body odor or the inability to commit to a relationship.

Grooving the Hip Hinge

The hip hinge needs to be broken down and regressed so that people get it. Lifters with a history of back pain – in particular, flexion-intolerant back pain – will often be unable to hinge through the hips and often compensate by going into excessive lumbar flexion. People with extension-based back pain will still have a hard time hinging through the hips and prefer to crank through their lower back and cause harm to the facet joints and/or pars.

Those aren’t the only culprits. People with excessive laxity will have a hard time hinging and may prefer to go into excessive knee hyperextension – with no posterior weight shift – and give the illusion of a clean pattern because they’re able to touch their toes. And people who are just “tight” in general and have the movement quality of a pregnant turtle will do whatever-the-hell-it-is-they-do to get the job done. And it won’t look pretty.

Here are some of my favorite drills to help introduce the movement:

The Wall Hip Hinge

This is about as basic as it gets. The idea here is to lock the rib cage down (don’t allow it to flair out), brace the abs, and to think about “pushing” the butt back until it touches the wall.

Some people may have to start closer to the wall than others.

Rip Trainer Hip Hinge

This plays into a lot of what physical therapist Gray Cook says about loading the hip hinge. There’s just something that “clicks” when you add a light resistance and someone has to think about pulling themselves into position. The same rules apply, however: Lock the rib cage down, brace the abs, and don’t allow the lower back to hyperextend.

Behind the Head Hip Hinge

This drill is a bit more advanced in nature.

Placing a kettlebell or dumbbell behind the head, slowly think about pushing your hips back without allowing the lumbar spine to hyperextend. This is a fantastic exercise to drill home the point of extending through the hips and not the lower back.

Kettlebell Swing: The Ultimate Hip Hinge Movement

The kettlebell swing is the ultimate hip snap movement and as Dan John notes, “Learning to have symmetry in the movement can jumpstart you to an injury-free career. Do it fast and it’s the one-stop shop to fat-loss, power, and improved athletic ability.”

Swings are an under appreciated and underutilized exercise. The swing, when done correctly, helps groove a rock-solid hip hinge pattern. And as any competent strength coach will tell you, the deadlift requires a rock solid hip hinge pattern. This is non-negotiable.

Learning to push the hips back and engaging the posterior chain (namely hamstrings and glutes) during a swing will undoubtedly carry over well into the weight-room. It’s important to note, though, that the swing is a bit more complicated than just picking up “one of those cannonball looking thingamajiggies” and tossing it around.

The swing deserves some attention to detail. Above all: It’s not a squat swing, it’s a hip-snap swing.

Many lifters will make the mistake of breaking with their knees first and making it more of a squat pattern. This is wrong and will increase stress on the lower back. We want to hinge with the hips first, “attack the zipper,” and keep the kettlebell as close to the body as possible. If the bell itself is trekking below the knees, it’s a safe bet you’re not hinging and are instead squatting.

Another mistake many people make is allowing the kettlebell to drift away from the body. When we transition from the hike pass to the actual swing and end up with our arms fully extended out in front of us, it’s important not to let the bell itself “get away” and cause more shear load on the spine.

You’re going to snap/push your hips through and the arms are just along for the ride. When your arms are fully extended, the objective is not to be holding on for dear life; you’re going to “relax” for split second, and then pull the kettlebell back down towards the swing portion.

During the “relax” portion, however, you want to be fast (and loose) at the top, but not to the point where the kettlebell is going to jolt your spine (for lack of a better term). The video below tries to hit on both points above – not squatting the swing and not allowing the bell itself to drift away.

And before someone signs off on swings and takes the mindset they’re too wimpy or a waste of time, I’d argue they’re one of the best ways to train power and explosiveness. Yes, I agree, the Olympic lifts are undoubtedly are the alpha-dog in that regard, so relax, I’m not dissing them altogether. My only argument against the Olympic lifts is that they’re very technique-centric and require extensive coaching. Chances are those cleans you call “cleans” are just explosive biceps curls.

As Artemis Scantalides has mentioned, “The purpose of the kettlebell swing is maximal force production. Therefore, if the correct force is applied to an 18 pound kettlebell, that kettlebell can weigh up to 80 pounds. If an 18 pound kettlebell can weigh up to 80 pounds with the correct force applied, imagine how much a 53 pound kettlebell can weigh if the correct force is applied?”

As a result, using the kettlebell swing we can generate a ton of force with minimal loading on the system/body. This is an important consideration for those who are injured and/or have minimal access to weights. And you can bet this will have profound effects on deadlift and squat performance down the road.