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.
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 pulling the bell up and back and drive the hips in underneath it.
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.