The weight rooms at most gyms are packed with all kinds of heavy equipment, from machines to dumbbells to battle ropes. But, one of the most powerful moves that you can do only takes one little piece of gear—a kettlebell. A simple kettlebell swing is an explosive exercise that strengthens your core, hips, and glutes in very few reps.
But, of course, that’s only if you’re doing it right. “A basic swing is actually a variation of a deadlift,” explains Kelvin Gary, owner and head coach of Body Space Fitness in New York City. “You want to make sure that you are using the right muscles and extending from your hips, using your glutes and not your back. Proper form during a swing will ensure that you get the full benefit of the moment, while reducing your risk of injury.”
Unfortunately, he says, it’s super-common to see people doing a kettlebell swing by powering it with their arms. This strains your shoulders. Or they do it bending over, rather than hinging from the hips. This places a lot of pressure on your back.
To get the biggest benefits from this powerhouse move—and sidestep any aches and pains—follow these five easy tips.
Choose the Correct Weight
If you pick up a kettlebell that’s too heavy, your form will break down. You might also wind up getting hurt. If it’s too light, you won’t get much out of it. Start on the lower end and work your way up until you find a weight that feels right. We recommend starting with a weight that equals the lightest dumbbell you can lift comfortably but that still challenges you. For some that might be 8 lbs. For others, that might be 15-20 lbs. Pay attention to how you feel to make sure that you didn’t go up too far. If you have any pain in your lower or upper back or shoulders, that’s a sign that you need to dial it down, says Gary.
Get in position.
Don’t begin the motion by standing with the weight already in your hands. You’ll likely have to power it up with your arms if you do. Start with the kettlebell on the floor in front of you and take one step back. Keeping your legs straight (but not locking your knees) and feet hip-width apart, hinge forward from your hips and reach down to hold the handle with both hands. “From that point, you pull the bell up and between your legs before thrusting your hips forward to start your swing,” says Gary. This simple adjustment helps you begin the movement with a little momentum.
Feel the power.
Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t rely on your arms to complete the movement. This is the number-one mistake that Gary sees people make when it comes to the kettlebell swing. Instead, focus a little farther down. “The power comes from your glutes, which you forcefully contract to propel your hips forward, transferring that force through your core to your hands, where the bell is attached,” says Gary. You shouldn’t feel much strain in your arms. The move is meant to strengthen your total core. After you reach the top of the arc (no higher than shoulder height), let momentum swing the weight back down between your legs as you hinge at the hips.
Doing your kettlebell swings in front of a full-length mirror can help you make sure that you’re moving with correct form. Even better: Record yourself doing them, suggests Gary. A view from the side will let you see whether you’re actually hinging forward from the hips and powering the movement from your glutes and hips.
Don’t forget to breathe.
Gary often sees gym goers hold their breath while working with weights. This makes the moves all the more difficult. Especially with a powerful motion like the kettlebell swing: “Forceful breathing not only contracts the core, helping to protect the spine, [but] it also helps with force transfer from your lower body to the kettlebell,” he says.