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What Muscles do Kettlebell Swings Work?

If you want to build muscle, burn fat, get stronger, or get fit, kettlebell training can help. Kettlebells are like cannonballs with handles and can be used singularly or in pairs. They’re popular in gyms, but a lot of people use them for their home workouts.

Kettlebells have been around for hundreds of years. It’s not clear where they were invented as Russia, Scotland, Ireland, and Iceland all lay claim to them. The one thing we do know is that since 2000 and the advent of CrossFit, kettlebells have become an indispensable and even more widely used fitness tool.

There are dozens of exercises you can do with kettlebells. Some, like rows and presses, can also be done with dumbbells. Other exercises are unique and can only be done using kettlebells, such as kettlebell halos, bottoms-up presses, and the kettlebell snatch.

One of the best kettlebell exercises is the swing. In fact, entire workouts have been built around this single move. But what muscles do kettlebell swings work?

It turns out that this, not an easy question to answer because kettlebell swings are a compound exercise that involves your lower and upper body working together. That said, it IS possible to identify the main muscles when you perform swings.

In this article, you will learn the muscles involved in kettlebell swings and a host of other useful kettlebell swing-related information!

What Muscles do Kettlebell Swings Work?

There are over 200 muscles in the human body, and many of them are involved in kettlebell swings. But, for simplicity, we’re just going to list the large, major muscles that directly benefit from this exercise.

Kettlebell swingsGluteus maximus – known as the glutes for short, and basically your butt, this muscle is located on the back of your hips. Its primary function is hip extension.

Hamstrings – working with your glutes to extend your hip, the hamstrings also flex your knees. Located on the back of your thigh, the three muscles that make up your hamstrings are the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.

Quadriceps – the quads play a small but essential role in kettlebell swings. Located on the front of your thigh, their primary function is knee extension. The four muscles that form the quadriceps are the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.

Erector spinae – this is the collective name for the muscles that make up the lower back. Their main job is the extension of the spine and, in the case of swings, stabilizing the lumbar vertebrae.

Core – the core muscles encircle your midsection to support and stabilize your lumbar spine. The muscles that make up the core include the rectus abdominus, obliques, transverse abdominus, and diaphragm.

Middle trapezius and rhomboids – located across and between the scapulae or shoulder blades, these muscles work to pull your shoulders back and together.

Deltoids – three deltoid muscles form the shoulders; anterior, medial, and posterior. Kettlebell swings involve all three, but the anterior or front deltoid is the most active.

Forearms – kettlebell swings require and develop a strong grip. There are lots of muscles in the forearm, and they are all involved in this exercise.

What Are the Benefits of Kettlebell Swings?

Kettlebell swings provide a lot of bang for your buck. After all, they work so many muscles that you could easily classify them as a full-body exercise. The benefits of kettlebell swings include:

Kettlebell SwingsIncreased posterior chain strength – the posterior chain is the collective name for the muscles on the back of your body. A strong posterior chain is important for sports performance and reduced back pain. Kettlebell swings are a very accessible and easy-to-learn posterior chain exercise.

Fat burning – a high-rep set of kettlebell swings will drive your heart rate through the roof, providing a great cardiovascular workout.

In addition, powering all those muscles will burn a lot of calories. This means that kettlebell swings are a useful exercise for fitness, fat burning, and weight loss.

Better posture – as well as strengthening your posterior chain, kettlebell swings also work the muscles between your shoulder blades. This combination is good for your posture and can help prevent the slouch that all too often accompanies long periods of sitting.

Increased athleticism – unlike many popular strength training exercises, kettlebell swings are performed with a lot of speed and power. Speed and power are critical factors in most sports. Doing kettlebell swings can help improve running, jumping, and kicking performance.

Build muscle – done with heavyweights, the kettlebell swing is a useful muscle-building exercise. It’s especially good for beefing up the glutes and legs.

How to Do Kettlebell Swings

There are two ways to do any exercise; the right way or the wrong way. The right way provides the greatest number of benefits and the lowest risk of injury. The wrong way is invariably less effective and more dangerous.

Kettlebell SwingEnjoy all the benefits kettlebell swings have to offer in safety by following these step-by-step instructions.

  1. Hold your kettlebell in front of your thighs and stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly for balance. Pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your abs.
  2. Push your butt back, lean forward from your hips, and lower the weight down between your knees. Do not round your lumbar spine.
  3. Drive your hips forward and swing the weight up to shoulder height. Keep your arms straight. Alternatively, you can swing up and overhead. This is called an American kettlebell swing.
  4. Contract your glutes as hard as possible at the top of each rep.
  5. Swing the weight back down and then repeat.
  6. Set a brisk pace and maintain it for the duration of your set. You should be able to do about 25-30 swings per minute.

Incorporating Kettlebell Swings into Your Workouts

Now you know how to swing a kettlebell safely, let’s take a look at a few of the ways you can incorporate this exercise into your training sessions.

As part of a circuit – use swings to work your posterior chain as part of a full-body circuit training workout, burning fat and building your fitness in the process.

Kettlebell SwingFor example:

  1. Kettlebell swings x 20
  2. Push-ups x 15
  3. Pull-ups x 10
  4. Lunges x 10 per leg
  5. Planks x 30 seconds
  6. Goblet squats x 20
  7. Dips x 10
  8. Jump rope x 100

Rest 1-2 minutes and then repeat for 2-4 laps.

For interval training – kettlebell swings are a very useful exercise for high-intensity interval training. In fact, with just this one exercise, you can have a great fat-burning and fitness-building workout. For example:

  1. 30 seconds swings/30 seconds rest x 10.
  2. 20 seconds swings/10 seconds rest x 8 (Tabatas).
  3. 15 swings on the minute, every minute for 15 minutes.
  4. 50, 40, 30, 30, 10 swings with 1-minute rest between each set.

As part of your usual strength training workout – you can do kettlebell swings as part of your usual lower body workout. For example:

  1. Squats – 3 sets of 12 reps
  2. Leg extensions – 3 sets of 12 reps
  3. Leg curls – 3 sets of 12 reps
  4. Kettlebell swings – 3 sets of 15 reps
  5. Calf raises – 3 sets of 10 reps

How Many Kettlebells Do I Need?

KettlebellsKettlebells can be expensive but, if you are serious about kettlebell training, you’ll probably need at least two different sizes. It’s hard to say exactly what sizes you should get, as your experience, age, and fitness level will determine the weight of the kettlebell that will suit you best.

That said, most men can get by with a 24kg and a 16kg kettlebell. The heavier weight is ideal for lower body exercises like swings and squats.

The lighter ‘bell is suitable for rows, presses, and other upper body exercises. For women, a 16kg and an 8kg kettlebell should suffice. Bear in mind that, as you get stronger, you’ll need to upgrade your kettlebells and get heavier ones.

If swings are the only exercise you are interested in, there are plate-loaded handles available that are much cheaper than fixed-weight kettlebells. As an added benefit, you can easily add more weight plates as you get stronger or remove plates if you want a more manageable, higher-rep workout.

Bottom Line

Kettlebell swings are a potent exercise. Whether you want to burn fat, build muscle, get stronger, or get fit, this mighty exercise can help. However, as effective as they are, they can also be risky. After all, swinging a heavyweight at high speed can put a lot of stress on your lower back and your shoulders.

Because of this, make sure you start light and spend a few workouts mastering this exercise before you increase the intensity of your workouts. Doing too much too soon could lead to injury.

However, once you’ve perfected your technique, the mighty kettlebell swing is one of the best full-body exercises you can do. Whatever your training goal is, kettlebell swings can help you reach it sooner.

Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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