The question American kettlebell swing or Russian kettlebell swing? Has raged in kettlebell circles for years. There’s an ongoing argument over which is best and why. The truth is, it’ll NEVER be settled.
I’ver attended seminars and read internet debates where there’s been back and forth between coaches – oftentimes it descends into personal attacks, such is people’s attachment to an exercise. Frankly, I think it’s fucking ludicrous.
They’re exercises. Tools. That’s all they are.
I may be entering dodgy territory here, but I’m going to weigh in on the American kettlebell swing or Russian kettlebell swing debate. I’m going to do it from a few different viewpoints…
- As a certified kettlebell coach with over 20 years experience of using them
- As a personal trainer, who is paid to train people safely and effectively
- As a person with a sports science degree, adding a scientific and evidence-based angle to the debate
- As someone without a dog in this fight. I’m not married to a single approach, so there’s no bias.
- As someone who is willing to listen to both explanations as to why their exercise is better
So across the post I’ll lay out my thoughts. I’ll look at the pros and cons of both. I’ll explain the movements, the differences and how I program and use them both. I’ll share what different people say about them and leave you to make your own mind up.
To give you my fast thoughts… They’re both great when used properly.
So let’s look at the American kettlebell swing or Russian kettlebell swing question. We’ll start by outlining both movements…
Russian Kettlebell Swings
The OG kettlebell swing is the Russian one. It’s the standard swing that you’re likely to have seen on the internet, and it’s the one the purists favour.
It’s the snappy, powerful swing that takes a bell to chest height whilst keeping the back straight. The Russian kettlebell swing works on the posterior chain (the muscles running up the back of the body) and helps to strengthen the hip hinge movement. This leads to huge athletic carryover (sometimes referred to as the ‘what the hell’ effect!)
It looks like this…
It’s a great exercise. It’s a classic hinge movement, and the eccentric strength training benefits the hamstrings by both stretching and strengthening them. The ballistic, fast pace of it really helps to develop power too.
The American Kettlebell Swing
We have CrossFit to thank (or blame, depending on your opinion) for the American kettlebell swing.
To begin with both exercises are the same. They’re both a hinge pattern with an aggressive ‘snap’ through the hips. The difference between the two though is instead of stopping the movement when the kettlebell reaches chest height, with the American kettlebell swing you take the kettlebell over head height.
It looks like this…
Although the differences look relatively minor (on first glance it’s just an extension of the range of movement), the training effect is significantly different.
This is part of the reason CrossFit invented and adopted its wide scale use.
Pros and Cons of both…
For some reason in our binary world, lots of people assume you have to be ‘for’ one side and ‘against’ another.
I just don’t see it that way.
Exercises are tools, and all tools have a job. I use the Russian and American kettlebell swings differently, based on the training goals I’m trying to achieve. Here’s the fundamental differences and how I like to use them both…
Russian kettlebell swings…
- You can lift heavier – better for strength and power development
- Perfect warm up and accessory exercise for deadlifts and olympic weightlifting movements
- Ideal a? a stand alone exercise in a power program
- Further progression available
- Simpler exercise to learn
- More limited range of movement
- Heavier weights can lead to lower back injury
- You’ll need access to ever heavier kettlebells to really progress
American kettlebell swings…
- Better trunk activation – core engages to stabilise a weight overhead
- More shoulder recruitment
- Higher calorie burn
- Ideal in a circuit or metcon workout
- Higher risk of shoulder injury
- Less strength development potential
- More complex movement to learn
So why don’t some people like the American kettlebell swing?
I’ve looked at a lot of articles on the topic. I’ve listened to podcasts and I’ve watched YouTube videos. Whilst some make some very salient points on the topic, the common denominator that exists in them all is… opinion.
Not facts. Opinion.
There’s coaches who ‘know someone who have hurt their shoulders/back doing American kettlebell swings’.
There are coaches who make rational arguments around the dangers of the movement when it comes to the overhead element.
Then there are coaches who simply don’t like the movement because they’re ‘purists’.
Let me address these points one by one…
The first one – knowing someone who has hurt themselves doing American kettlebell swings.
So. Fucking. What?
I know people who have hurt themselves gardening. Is that off the list too? I know people who have fallen out of bed. Should we not sleep in beds any more? I slipped on a step once and landed on my fist, breaking my hand. Should I not walk down stairs any more?
For what it’s worth, I know plenty of people who have hurt themselves with the Russian kettlebell swing.
Knowing someone who has hurt themselves doing something is not justification in of itself to stop doing it. They might have had shitty technique. They might be lifting beyond their strength capabilities.
The second one – we’re not all capable of lifting well overhead.
That’s right. Some of us have previous shoulder injuries. We have compromised overhead mobility. We might have a stiff thoracic spine.
If that’s you… DON’T FUCKING DO AMERICAN KETTLEBELL SWINGS.
Can I make it clearer?
Honestly, since when has such a basic argument been taken seriously?
You can make that simpler even… ‘If doing something is going to hurt you, don’t do it’.
This silly argument can be used against any exercise. If you’ve got shoulder issues, don’t max out on the bench press. If you have disc issues in your back, don’t hit 1 rep max deadlifts. If you’ve just torn a hamstring, don’t do stiff leg deadlifts. Where do we stop?
If you’re healthy enough to perform American kettlebell swings, and you can execute the technique well, crack on.
The third one – the purists.
Nobody is forcing you to perform American kettlebell swings. You don’t have to like them, but not liking something is different to actively voicing your opinion on the internet.
You don’t need to invent reasons that they’re bad, just because you don’t like them.
Just take the approach I do when I see people doing things I don’t like (ridiculous ab exercise variations for example)… walk on by. Take little to no notice. Don’t get stressed about it. Let them do them. I’ll do me.
On the claim that American kettlebell swings are bad for the back…
Both the American and Russian swings are exactly the same up until chest height, so if one is bad, they’re both bad. The only difference in the movement is the overhead element. The argument exists that the lowering of the weight can cause undue stress – that’s potentially right, but if the strength and capability of the lifter exists to make it safe, then it’s fine.
The reality is that ALL exercise comes with risk if it is not performed safely and correctly. Perform exercises with good technique and appropriate weight and guess what?
The problem with opinions…
Ultimately the issue I have is that the opinions don’t really have substantial proof in the scientific literature. At least not yet anyway.
To my knowledge there is no in-depth study that shows American kettlebell swings are significantly more dangerous than Russian kettlebell swings. This may change of course, but at the time of writing I’m yet to find a study proving this to be the case.
It seems that people who don’t like the American swings have retrofitted an argument about why they don’t like them. The problem is, the opinions aren’t supported with evidence, and until that changes I’m going to give them respect, but not too much attention.
Best uses and practice of Russian and American kettlebell swings
As I’ve said at several points in this article, I’m a fan of both exercises and use them both every week. I haven’t nailed my colours to the mast either way. That’s no accident.
The Russian kettlebell swing is my favourite hinge exercise, in that it’s the purest. I deadlift, and I perform the Olympic lifts. They’re great movements, but they aren’t as accessible to many as the kettlebell swing. It’s less technically demanding than the olympic lifts, and you need a lot less equipment than you do for the deadlift.
I generally perform kettlebell swings in lower numbers but with heavier weights. I’ll typically hit sets of 12-25, with anything from 36kg to 60kg of kettlebells.
I don’t go any lighter unless I’m performing single arm swings as part of a warm up.
I use American kettlebell swings as part of my circuit training and metabolic conditioning work. I like the core engagement from the overhead work, and the additional work the shoulders do. It’s a much more demanding exercise from a calorie burn point of view.
I’ll usually do sets of 20-25 with 20kg to 24kg kettlebells when I’m doing American swings. This will be coupled with other exercises, or used in conjunction with shorter rest periods. The purpose is to increase range of movement and relative intensity of the exercise.
This largely adheres to the CrossFit rationale for using American kettlebell swings rather than Russian ones. They openly state in their journal on the American kettlebell swing that part of their rationale for exercise selection is intensity of exercise, and their (non-scientific) investigations seem to suggest it’s a more intense movement…
‘Consistent with our calculations and our athlete’s perceived exertion, the heart rates recorded while employing the American swing averaged nearly twenty five beats per minute higher than recorded employing the Russian swing‘.
Final thoughts on American kettlebell swing or Russian kettlebell swing? Which is best?
It’s about time the fitness and kettlebell community grew up.
I don’t think it’s a question about which type of swing is best, it’s a question of which is best for the job in hand.
Put the bias to one side and look at both exercises for what they are. The American kettlebell swing isn’t there to replace the Russian kettlebell swing. It’s an evolution. It has a different job. The front squat isn’t there to replace the back squat. The chin up isn’t there to replace the pull up.
Get my point?
If you want to build outright strength and power in the posterior chain, go with the Russian kettlebell swing. If you’re looking for something that’s more metabolically demanding with a greater core engagement, go with the American kettlebell swing.