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Kettlebell Cold War: American Vs. Russian Swing

Kettlebell Cold War: American Vs. Russian Kettlebell Swing

December 27, 2019
Updated December 30, 2019

Is America on the verge of a new Cold War? Has a second Cold War already started? Is this the Cold War of a new generation?

The fact that we are asking such questions is far more important because it means that, regardless of which answer you choose, the situation has gotten bad for everyone.

What will happen when the average kettlebell enthusiast finally realizes that his whole life, his house, children, car and even his dentist, is under threat?

Things are not dark yet, but the world has apparently entered a sort of twilight state, limbo if you will. In fact, some experts would argue that a new Cold War between the American and Russian Swing could very well be more hazardous than the first.

One such expert is Stephen F. Cohen, who wrote in The Nation that…

“This Cold War, its epicenter on Russia’s borders; undertaken amid inflammatory American, Russian and Ukrainian media misinformation; and unfolding without the stabilizing practices that prevented disasters during the preceding Cold War, may be even more perilous.”

Hopefully, the great debate between the American and Russian Swing won’t come to that point.

But, on to the serious stuff. How should you swing kettlebells: American or Russian style?

How To Do The Russian Kettlebell Swing

The Russian Kettlebell Swing
The Russian Kettlebell Swing should start with the kettlebell just below the groin, or high on the triangle created by your groin and both knees. The kettlebell is then swung up to chest level, creating a 90-degree angle to your body.

This variation of the swing is quick and efficient. It is a hip hinge movement, with a little flexion at the knee, under 30 degrees. The power of the swing is generated from the hips while the spine is held perfectly stable and neutral.

At the apex of the swing, the kettlebell is at chest level, and the athlete’s glutes are contracted, quads are engaged, the stomach is rock solid and braced for impact, and lats are actively pulling the shoulders away from the ears.

The Russian swing should be performed with proper breathing. Filling the abdomen on the bottom motion of the swing and forcefully exhaling while bracing the stomach, at the top of the swing.

The Russian Swing is a great modality to teach athletes how to break at the abs, lats and glutes while using their bodies in a more efficient manner. More lat recruitment is also required at the apex of the swing in order to control the height of the swing.

If the goal of the kettlebell swing is to increase hip hinge power output, doesn’t it make sense to use the best weight to achieve the desired result?

If performing the American Swing requires you to use a lighter weight, and increases the time of the set performed, isn’t it logical to increase the weight of the kettlebell thereby causing the athlete to perform the Russian Style Kettlebell Swing and decreasing rep time?

If you were to superset that with an overhead shoulder mobility exercise aren’t you achieving the desired effect in the same time in a more efficient way?

Patrick Mccarty wrote a great article for Breaking Muscle about the benefits of the Russian Swing where he states:

“The reason you practice a deadlift is different than the reason you practice a snatch. You’re not just looking for the longest possible range of motion. Deadlifts can be trained as a piece of the snatch or as their own end-goal. There are multiple variations of a deadlift, all of which serve different and varied purposes. The goal is not always simply to “do more work.” And you’ll never convince a powerlifter deadlifting 750lbs that he is only doing a “half rep.”

Why not make up the alleged “loss of work” somewhere else? If the workout is kettlebells and burpees and you choose to do Russian swings but turn up the heat on the burpees – by resting less, going a little faster, or wearing a vest – can you, in theory, do as much “work” while keeping the swings from causing an uncomfortable shoulder impingement overhead? Yes.”

This is the perfect example of working smarter rather than harder. It is always best to prescribe your work based on the desired outcome.

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How To Do The American Kettlebell Swing

American Kettlebell SwingAmerican Kettlebell Swing
The American Kettlebell Swing only differs from the traditional Russian Swing in the top position. The movement pattern of the swing itself are identical, or at least should be.

The kettlebell should pass just under the groin, there should not be excessive flexion in the knees, the hips should generate the power, the glutes should contract hard, the quads should pull the knees up, and the stomach should be remain tight throughout the exercise.

In the American Swing, you allow the force produced on the kettlebell to carry it all the way overhead so that the bottom of the kettlebell is directly in line with the spine.

You should not be increasing the amount of knee flexion, nor should you be lifting the kettlebell with your shoulders to assist getting the kettlebell into the top position.

The force should still be generated solely by the hip drive, and if optimal force is produced by the hips, you will likely have to decelerate the kettlebell as it approaches its apex.

While the American version of the kettlebell swing moves the kettlebell through a greater range of motion, it places the shoulder joint, which is highly unstable,  in a compromised position at the top portion of the swing.

The shoulder joint is an extremely unstable joint in the human body and bearing a load overhead in a close grip position is not the safest position.

If the swing is brought overhead, the athlete must use a lighter kettlebell, which will likely lead to decreased force output, to make sure the kettlebell can be moved through the full range of motion to the overhead position.

This somewhat obvious point is actually even greater than one might think because once the arms and kettlebell are moved beyond parallel with the ground, the athlete is at a disadvantage.

The kettlebell slows quite a bit once it passes the chest on the upswing due to this disadvantage. If you have enough hip drive to get the kettlebell all the way to the overhead American position then you should increase the weight.

The other problem is that the time to complete the rep is much longer – which reduces the power output.

There are benefits to the American Swing if your shoulder mobility allows it. Everyone doesn’t have access to heavy or multiple kettlebells and not all fitness enthusiasts want to train for explosive hip drive.

If you are a trainer or a client of a bootcamp style training session, the American Swing is an excellent way to increase your work capacity.

If you only have access to a light kettlebell, bringing the swing all the way to the overhead position increases the amount of hip drive required to get the kettlebell overhead which, in turn, increases the work capacity of the exercise.

This extended swing also increases the rep time thereby increasing set time which also increases the workload.

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Conclusion

Much like the Cold War or a presidential election, both sides are right…at least, they think they are right. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and have the right to swing the way they prefer.

In the end, training all comes down to either A) What you enjoy doing or B) The most effective way to achieve your goal. Either way, it is your choice…the choice of a new generation.

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