It seems like the internet is always divided on the subject of kettlebell swings. On one hand you have the purists who see the perfect form of the swing with momentum ending at the shoulders, which has come to retroactively be called the “Russian” kettlebell swing, even though it’s really simply the kettlebell swing. On the other hand we have the “American” kettlebell swing, considered garbage by the Russian purists, which involves the kettlebell being swung past the shoulders to a complete overhead position.
Up until recently, I definitely fell into the Russian purist camp. The biggest problem with most beginning exercisers is that they have a tendency to overuse the arms and shoulders, using them to help lift the weight. In reality, the KB swing is a leg exercise, targeting the hamstrings, glutes, and low back if done properly. Half the reason we love the swing so much, and why it gets taught so often, is that it’s a great exercise to teach the hip hinge, and it helps strengthen weak and underused muscles in the less active. So why would you want to add in the arms at all? Better to focus on the basic swing and get that hip hinge down perfectly than to worry about adding arms in and getting the bell overhead.
Recently, however, I began training a few clients who had been working with another trainer before. This trainer had taught them the American swing, and they used it exclusively when doing swings. My initial impulse was to correct this, but here’s the revelation - the American KB swing, overall, is a harder exercise than the traditional. Trying to get these guys to go back to the Russian swing was garbage, because it was too easy for them. Without the added shoulder activation they saw in the American version, the exercise was easier and less taxing. This got me to thinking.
After all, if they’re already hip hinging properly, and using the legs to lift the weight, what’s the harm in then going a bit further? The additional distance the KB travels to get to overhead adds additional challenge per rep without significantly changing the form of the first (Russian) portion of the swing. Thus, for someone who has already been taught how to do the Russian version properly, progression into the American version is a good way to increase the challenge.
Ultimately, the problem with the use of arms in the swing shouldn’t be about forbidding them - rather, it should be about trying to prevent the person from putting the cart before the horse. A good swing begins with powerful hip extension, no matter which version you’re ending with - the only difference is, the American swing means adding in some shoulders afterwards. Trying to add in the shoulders before the hips is the problem, not the fact that we’re adding in the shoulders at all!
If you’re looking to add some challenge to your swings, consider trying the American swing. Just don’t try it (and don’t have your clients try it!) without first making sure you’ve got the Russian version down pat.