It’s 1999. I’m your coach. We meet at the track to run drills: ½ A march… A march…leg and foot drive…arm swing…breathing drills…thoracic and head carriage…dynamic autonomous alignment…the whole shebang. We’ve ran these before. It’s all familiar.
Then I tell you I’ve come across a tool that, when used correctly, can help with ground-up athletic explosiveness, low back resiliency, and cardiovascular capacity (aka VO2 max). But also has minimal impact on the wear and tear of running mechanics like shin splints, hip and pelvic floor pain and dysfunction, and even fatigue.
You have no idea what I’m talking about. But we have a trusting relationship. I step aside and there at our feet is a little iron kettle, but there’s no spout on it. You’re confused. But still going with it.
I reach down with both hands and grab onto the handle of this little kettle. I squat a bit. Take a couple steps back, so the kettle is still out in front, hands still hooked on the kettle’s handle. Now it’s looking a little like I’m going to play football with this thing. I know what you’re thinking, “Where is this going?...” You’re intrigued. Then I launch this little ball back between my knees and behind my butt. Just when you think it’s launching out the back, I stand up with it. It looks like a front raise. “Did she just launch squat then front raise this thing?!? It must be like five pounds….” Then I do it again: squat-launch, front raise-stand. Squat front raise. Squat front raise. 10 reps. 20 reps. Finally, the ball comes to a rest right where it started, front and center.
You’re still thinking body parts and gym-style workouts made popular at Venice Beach and by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s still the ‘90s after all. Which means you’re seeing it all wrong. You think you’re seeing a squat followed by a front raise. You’re definitely not seeing the connection between this bell and your run.
When you run, you know about the energy flow. The whole body is working. Drawing the energy up from the terrain, the heel strike, the knee flexion, the hip extension, the cross-over up into the lats, the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist, loose hand holds the pringle. Back down the flow goes: shoulder extension, lat flexion, crossing back down and across, pelvic floor, hip, knee, ankle, foot flow, earth. It’s all there; this interlimb neural coupling symphony you fell in love with when you discovered running.
But now we’re not running. We’re throwing? We’re swinging. A Kettle Bell?... It’ll all come together. Just like the word itself: kettlebell. One word. No cows.
Let’s break down what happened at our track meet in 1999. Fast forward to now. It’s 2021. Kettlebells are as easy to find as toilet paper. And I’ve got a few kids of my own: a pre-teen son and a daughter hot on his heels. I also grew up with your classic annoying big brother. Let’s say big brother has a new sling shot and his first target is little sister’s squirrel-nest of hair. (You know the type: fresh off a wrestling match with the pillowcase the night before and the kind to cause a good conflict when mom goes to tear through it so we all look like we have our act together in public.) So, is big brother going to pull his sling shot rubber band back a little, or a lot? You better believe he’s going to pull back with maximal tension on that band so this spit ball launches with the most furry, has the deepest impact into his target, and sister has a hard time finding his ammo in her hair-nest nonetheless digging it out!
This rubber band ready to launch is just like your hamstrings and glutes pulled back and your hips ever so slightly elevated at the set-up of a kettlebell swing! Maximal tension for maximal impact. It’s that high school physics lessons coming back into real-life action (finally!). The greater the potential energy loaded into your hamstrings and glutes, the greater the kinetic energy is released!
Just like your core is engaged in a yogi plank, you’ll want to condition and save your low back at the top of the swing by bracing for an imaginary punch to the guts. With the glutes cramped hard, the pelvic floor drawn, and the core engaged (ribs to hips), your low back will become resilient, not weak sore, or prone to injury. This acts as a nice strong, absorbent buffer on your endurance runs!
With a deeper understanding of what’s happening in the Russian kettlebell swing: (hinge instead of squat, lat activation instead of delt front raise, core and pelvic floor stability instead of leaning back at the top of a swing, constant energy flow from ground up and back down again), you now have clarification on how the swing relates to your run. This concept of perpetual springy, spiraling energy flow “up and out” to “in and down” is the same nuance that separates the athletes from the injured. The folks squatting kettlebells into front raises don’t understand the interconnected beauty of what it really means to move, be human, and to embrace the flow.
Watching a seasoned athlete practice their craft, is truly poetry in motion. All the work is happening internally. The intensity is there. But they have nothing to prove to the outside observer. There’s a placid calmness to their motion. It doesn’t matter if the athlete is a weekend warrior or a Stroller Warrior. The work is happening. And it’s making us better rep by rep.
There are tons of swing variations. The concept of form remains constant across swing variations: root with the heels, draw the energy up into the calves, pull up the quads, full extension with the hips and knees, pull up the pelvic floor, the bell swings up to chest level. Reverse momentum by throwing the bell back between your knees, keeping it high in the groin area, get it behind your glutes without rounding the low back or chest, keep the shoulders in the sockets (don’t let the bell pull them out, into distraction), weight stays on the heels at that furthest point back. Finish and start your sets with the bell out front and center. Soft landings are a must.
If you’re a lady, try a 15lb bell to start with; gents try a 35lb bell.
It’s best to practice your kettlebells outside, with no animals or people nearby, or property to damage.
Play around with variations. Have fun with your practice! Just keep your form impeccable.
Here’s a simple pyramid session you can practice with one bell:
10 2-hand swings
10 swings right hand only
10 swings left hand only
10 swings total alternating hands. *Make your hand switch at the top of the swing, when the bell is at chest level out front. Alternating/switching hands at the top of the swing is good for getting comfortable with the timing of the swing. You MUST have a complete hip and knee extension to maximize the float phase of the bell at the top. And you MUST keep the shoulder/s connected and in the socket. No need to chase your bell.
No rest between each style of swing.
Repeat for reps of 20 each.
Rest as needed before moving on to reps of 30 each.
Then work your way back down to 20 reps each.
Finish with 10 reps of each grip.
Sara Cheatham recently contributed to the SW community last month with her introduction piece about kettlebells :
We look forward to learning more about kettlebells with Sara over the next few months!