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Kettlebell Swings: Overhead or Traditional
Greg Everett

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I want to address the swing in response to an email I got about it. Those of you who pay attention to CrossFit are familiar with the practice of continuing the kettlebell swing overhead rather than the traditional level. The question I got was basically why do either, and is there any sort of injury risk or similar with the overhead swing?

Most of the time I prefer the traditional swing, and always with individuals new to the exercise. The point of the kettlebell swing is the explosive snap of the hips. You can get other things out of it, but this is the primary goal and if it's not there, you should probably be doing a different exercise for whatever you're trying to accomplish.

With a focus on this hip action, the KB will rise to chest or chin height easily with no work from the arms and shoulders. Again, this is the point - you shouldn't be muscling the bell up with your arms. Clients new to the exercise should only work at this level until they've mastered the hip action of the swing. Once that's done, overhead swings can be considered an option as long as the individual has adequate shoulder and thoracic spine mobility to achieve a sound overhead position, and adequate trunk stability to safely support the position.

The overhead swing should look identical to the traditional swing in the bottom range of motion - that is, the snappy hip action should not disappear. Once it's completed, you engage the back and shoulders to continue bringing the bell up and back and drive the hips in underneath it. This final movement overhead should be more of a follow-through using the momentum generated by the hips, not a direct lift of the bell with the arms.

There are a couple good things about the overhead swing. First, of course, you're involving more of the body in the movement, so it's a more complete exercise. Second, the greater height of the bell means you can easily generate more downward momentum going into the next rep; this means the hips and back must absorb more force and therefore and being trained harder (This of course can also be accomplished with a traditional swing by simply making the effort to accelerate the bell down after each rep, or with partner power bombs). Finally, if you're using the swing as a conditioning exercise, this means more work and consequently more gas necessary.

I have two basic concerns regarding the overhead swing. The first is for the safety of both the swinger and those around him or her. Tired clients tend to get squirrely, especially in an environment in which high volume overhead swinging in a fatigued state is encouraged. I have seen more than a few people lose control of a KB overhead and damn near make an ashtray in the top of their skulls. I have also seen people drop the bells from overhead or nearly overhead and almost take out a neighbor. And I've even seen a complete moron drop a KB from overhead onto cement and snap the handle right off (a few of you reading this know exactly who I'm talking about - his profession makes it even more embarrassing.).

My second concern is simply that often people get caught up in the effort to bring the bell overhead and their hip snap disappears. Instead we get a slow, soft hump with a big upper body effort. I'll say it again - this really defeats the purpose of the swing. And this is why I only like overhead swings for people who are able to do good traditional swings and maintain that hip action when going overhead.

So aside from traumatic head injury or getting sniped by a bouncing KB dropped by someone nearby, I don't see any injury concerns with the overhead swing.

Ultimately the traditional swing should be the exercise first taught and mastered, and should be the variation used most. It's an excellent exercise for conditioning the lower back, glutes and hamstrings to volume, improving lower back stamina and stability, and yes, even for cardio conditioning - a series of heavy swings to the chin will get you plenty exhausted without going overhead.

Do both if you want, but do them right, and don't drop them on your head.

Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.

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9 Comments
Chris 2011-01-15
"And I've even seen a complete moron drop a KB from overhead onto cement and snap the handle right off (a few of you reading this know exactly who I'm talking about - his profession makes it even more embarrassing.)." I was there too. Austin, TX. November 2009. "Stop dropping the f-ing kettlebell Dave!" Hilarious.
Jay 2011-02-10
You hit the nail on the head. The 'full range of motion' of the American Swing is unnecessary and pointless.
Kb girl 2011-03-05
You're so right. I've been learning sport style. I've been swing at a lower level for 3 months. Just now I've begun to swing up to my chest. Purpose is really to strengthen my grip and work on the downward swing portion when coming down from a snatch. Not something to do just for swinging.
Kdub 2011-12-04
Ok, what's his profession??
Kb trainer 2012-04-19
My question is who decided the point of a swing is hip snap only. Why not involve upper body if you chose. To many people repeat this line over and over and they are only repeating what they heard or read without using any creative thinking. As long as you use good form and stay within weights which are safe swinging a kettlebell overhead is a useful exercise.
jesse 2012-08-06
i have a feeling the overhead swing in crossfit is used mainly as an easier standard to maintain during competition. just a thought.
sheldon kramer 2014-06-21
An Airrost Dr.advised against because at the top of the overhead when zero gravity meets momentem down has a negative effect on the shoulder capsule. Not true?
Greg Everett 2014-06-21
Sheldon - The KB should never be free-falling from overhead, therefore there should never be any abrupt yanking on the shoulder capsule. So yes, that would not be good for the shoulders, but that would only be the result of doing it incorrectly.
Greg Everett 2014-06-24
Jesse - CrossFit was using the overhead swing at least 4 years prior to the first CrossFit Games, so that wasn't the reason originally.
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