Few exercises build muscle and develop power and strength in your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back like the kettlebell swing. But make any of the following errors and the move will be utterly useless—or, worse yet, end up injuring you.
We asked Mike Stehle, owner of Training Room Online, what common mistakes he sees athletes of all experience levels making—and how to avoid them.
1. You squat the weight up
Think of the swing as a deadlift, in which you drive with your hips. When you bend your knees, the quads take over, and this eliminates the main benefits of the swing. However, there is a carryover to the squat, as a proper swing loosens up your hips.
2. Your setup is wrong
Don’t pick up the bell and start swinging. To set up, begin with the KB about a foot in front of you, grab it, and then throw your arms back as if you were hiking a football.
3. You’re not going heavy enough
Using a kettlebell that’s too light usually results in an overhead swing. This engages the wrong muscles, wastes energy, and is a telltale sign you should be using a heavier KB. If you want to lift something overhead, snatch or press the weight instead.
4. You bend your arms
Keeping your arms tucked in at your sides as you swing eliminates tension from your body and will result in a “soft” swing—meaning, it’s not done with enough force. Your arms should be fully extended at the top of your swing with the bell reaching eye-level.
5. You’re too weak
If you can’t hold a plank (which tests your core) or do a kettlebell deadlift (which tests your ability to hinge) with proper technique, then don’t attempt the swing. There are inefficiencies in your body that won’t allow you to safely swing the bell. Instead, focus on perfecting those two exercises first.
6. You’re not following proper movement progression
Too many people attempt exercises they’re not prepared to properly execute. The most common area at risk is usually the back. For example: The kettlebell swing shouldn’t be performed until the deadlift is mastered. Be patient with your training and progress slowly. Take up sessions with a coach or trainer to develop a solid, progressive plan.
7. You’re not maintaining a neutral spine
A neutral spine establishes the correct alignment. This must be kept in mind when performing swings, high pulls, cleans, or snatches. Keep a straight line from your hips to your head. You should be able to lay a broomstick along your entire spine.
8. You’re assuming too wide a stance
All stances are not created equal. Overly extended stances during swings leave several areas—like your hips, knees, and lower back—vulnerable to injury. To avoid injury, take an athletic stance. Stand with feet hip-width apart, bend your knees, and hinge back at your hips.
9. You’re muscling the bell with your upper body
Overemphasis of upper-body muscles during ballistic movements deteriorates exercise flow and can place strain on vulnerable areas like your neck, shoulders, and lower back. Instead, relax your upper body, use a hip snap, and lock your knees out with each rep.
10. You’re training to muscle failure
Training to failure with kettlebells is asking for trouble, and whatever area you push to failure is at risk. Ultimately, your form will suffer and lead to injury, so make sure you stop several reps short of failure.
11. You’re attempting to rescue a bad repetition
If something doesn’t feel right, there’s a good chance it’s not. Stop, and put the bell down before paying the price in your lower back. Make sure you don’t try to force reps. Be conscious of your form and the quality of the reps.
12. You’re trying to get too fancy
Attempting to invent new movements outside of the basics won’t provide a reward worth the risk. The areas at risk are mostly the spine, but many things can go wrong when you do wacky things with a kettlebell.
13. You’re using too tight a grip
Death-gripping a KB is pointless and dangerous with ballistic movements. Make sure you relax your grip and hold the bell in the hook of your fingers, rather than the meat of your hand.
14. You’re smashing your forearms
Kettlebell cleans and snatches change the bell’s position during a movement—stay in control of the motion so the bell doesn’t fall down and smash into your forearms. To avoid making this mistake, punch the kettlebell upwards instead of swinging it while relaxing the grip and allowing the bell to gently catch against your forearm.
15. You’re wearing improper footwear
Running shoes are for running, not for kettlebells. Running shoes raise the heal and can push the knee forward during squats or swing, which could possibly contribute to knee injury. Make sure to train in flat-soled shoes or even go barefoot—you’ll be more stable.