This is not an “I’m holier than thou” article, this article asks the right question about the American Kettlebell Swing, “should you do it?”.
The biggest difference between the American and Russian swing (AKA conventional kettlebell swing) is the height at which the kettlebell ends, the explosiveness required, and the involvement of the shoulders. There is also the fact that you simply shouldn’t do an American swing with a very heavy weight.
Note that CrossFit incorrectly calls it “The Kettlebell Swing”.
The Problem with the American Swing
The American swing gets a bad rap within the kettlebell community because of the fact that CrossFit athletes are not taught the conventional swing first. Without this foundation, it encourages the athlete to primarily use their shoulders to do a lot of pulling, rather than hip and leg drive to get the weight up with the swing, hence the reason it’s called American swing. When you consider that everything else in CrossFit when it comes to barbell work is pretty much pulling, it’s quite easy for athletes to mistakenly apply that concept to the swing. This becomes a recipe for disaster and injury, especially with high reps and an awkward overhead position.
The second problem is that one needs good shoulder and thoracic mobility before being able to put the kettlebell overhead with such a narrow grip, and most people don’t have this. Why force the shoulders into such an awkward position and a movement they are not ready for? You don’t grab the barbell and do overhead squats with a narrow grip straight away, do you? No, you need to work up to that, and once you’re able to do it, it becomes a show of mobility.
Context Is the Key
When it comes to programming, if you want to work the shoulders, throw some American swings in. Some people will say there are better ways to work the shoulders and this is true, but it’s not always about what’s better – we’d have some really boring programmes and clients would get bored quite quickly if it were.
I personally don’t program American swings, but I can see how it would fit in a double arm kettlebell complex, like 3 x goblet squat, 3 x conventional swing, 3 x high swing, and 3 x American swing. By the way, I don’t classify the high swing as an American swing; the high swing comes up just a bit higher than the conventional swing, in between shoulder height and above the head. I can also see the American swing as a progression to the KB snatch or regression for those who are injured.
If you want to swing really heavy, let’s say 32kg or over, you should not do American swings. Of course Greg Glassman would say, “Most of our guys can easily do an American swing with 32kg,” and in fact, I’d be really surprised if by “most of our guys” he was referring to most of the guys from all boxes across the world, because that sounds really unlikely and very dangerous for most of ‘his guys.’ The American swing movement standard requires the kettlebell to balance upside down above the head, with arms locked out. Do this with a heavy kettlebell, and you are gambling with injury upon each rep.
To be honest, I’m sick of the war between the American and Russian swing. Let’s stop trying to make one look better than the other; they’re both good after proper education and within the right context. The context you should consider when deciding to include one or both are:
The following is what Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, said about the American swing:
“On first being introduced to the kettlebell swing, our immediate response was, ‘why not go overhead?’ Generally, we endeavour, somewhat reflexively, to lengthen the line of travel of any movement. why?
There are two reasons. the first is somewhat intuitive. we don’t do half rep pull-ups; we don’t do half rep squats; and we don’t do half rep push-ups. If there is a natural range of motion to any movement, we like to complete it. To do otherwise seems unnatural. We would argue that partial reps are neurologically incomplete. The second reason deals with some fundamentals of physics and exercise physiology.
From physics we know that the higher we lift something, and the more it weighs, the more ‘work’ we are performing. Work is in fact equal to the weight lifted multiplied by the height we lift the object. Work performed divided by the time to completion is equal to the average ‘power’ expressed in the effort.
Power is exactly identical to the exercise physiologist’s ‘intensity’. Intensity, more than any other measurable factor, correlates to physiological response. So more work in less time, or more weight moved farther in less time, is largely a measure of an exercise’s potency.
When we swing the kettlebell to overhead, the American swing, we nearly double the range of motion compared to the Russian swing, and thereby double the work done each stroke. For any given time period, the power would be equivalent only if the Russian swing rate was twice the American swing rate.” – Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit
CrossFit made a huge mistake by focusing on the American swing for years, which I believe has been causing unnecessary injuries* and inefficiency†, not only in the swing, but also their kettlebell snatch, simply because the foundation for the snatch and American swing had not been laid properly.
I also think it’s a lot of bull to justify the American swing by saying it is more natural to complete the movement. If that is the case, why do deadlifts at all? Why not complete it with a clean or snatch? Hold on… just because I don’t agree with the above statement, does not mean I don’t like the American swing; I’m just saying the above is not sufficient to justify it.
“CrossFit is a great system, but they don’t utilise kettlebells well because of a lack of qualified kettlebell instruction.” ~ T.C., RKC
I did not make the above comment, but I do agree with it. CrossFit is a great system, but it’s not utilising kettlebells well due to the lack of qualified kettlebell instruction. This applies not just to CrossFit, but also to most gyms across the world. I also don’t think the comment only referred to the American swing but to general kettlebell exercises employed within CrossFit boxes.
If you’re doing Olympic lifting, you get Olympic lifting coaches for teaching; if you’re doing kettlebell training, you get…
The American swing is such a controversial topic in kettlebell training that I wanted to devote some time to it, and I’ve hopefully given you enough information to make a sound decision, and the ability to reply appropriately if ever caught in the American vs Russian swing war.
Just curious ? walking into the gym, seeing American Swings programmed you:
- Scream of joy
- Do my own thing
- Walk out
- Don’t care either way
*when mentioning injury, I can only refer to which I’ve been witness to. There is no research paper that mentions the number of injuries. Therefore, make your own judgment on whether you see a lot of injuries due to this exercise.
†when mentioning inefficiency, again, it’s based on what I’ve been witness to. There is no research paper that mentions the extent of inefficiency, nor whether there is any. Therefore, make your own judgment on whether you believe the foundation to make the exercises mentioned more efficient has been laid or not.