What 10,000 KB Swings Taught Me

In January, a few of us undertook a KB swing challenge: 10,000 Swings in 30 days. You really can’t understand a movement until you do it 10,000 times. Kung fu practitioners and fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers rule will recognize this number.

The swing is king of the kettlebell power/endurance lifts. Few other patterns do so much for the body simultaneously:

My perfect swing form. There is no perfect swing form! But here are the major components and where I landed with them:

  1. The hinge or fold: the degree to which you bend forward from the hips. The more you fold your torso, the more back-of-body pulling muscles you engage (aka posterior chain, aka hamstrings, glutes, & back). If you have a tendency toward lower back pain, learning to lift with your hips is critical. Done right, it can also make the back stronger, more resilient, and make the hinge pattern more powerful and efficient. Competitive lifters use a lot of fold for its efficiency. Some even let their spine round. My 10,000 fold: I used both a shallow fold (with more knee bend) and a deep fold (with less knee bend), sometimes both in a longer set, but always with a long, neutral spine (no rounding). Most of the time, I found that grooving an in-between balance worked best for me and my back (which has seen serious athletic and lifting mileage).
  2. The knees: the degree to which you bend your knees. The more the knees bend, the more front of the leg is used (aka quads, thighs, knee extensors). More knee bend can save a tired back, and give the hamstrings a break. But it can also create a pattern where you use more back, not less. And each swing might demand more energy. My 10,000 knees: I used a deep knee bend infrequently. It just tuckered me out and felt like I was trying to push into a pulling movement. My knees held steady around a 120 degree bend. I’d probably use more knee bend if I were focused on swinging heavy weights for fewer reps, but I wasn’t.
  3. The stance: the amount of space between the feet. The wider you go, the more inner thigh (aka abductors) is used. A wide stance also demands more hip mobility if you want to use either a deeper knee bend or deeper fold, and can make it harder to find softness in the movement. But wider can provide a stronger base of support, up to a point. Wide stances are common among competitive lifters, but if you has S.I. joint issues, they can be problematic. My 10,000 stance: I kept my feet a little wider than shoulders, and they inched out a bit over the month. This was one part of the swing form that may have changed permanently for me. I previously kept a pretty narrow stance, but found going slightly wider helped keep my back healthy as long as I didn’t go so wide as to eliminate softness in the lift.
  4. The swing height: height of the kb at the top of the swing. The higher you want the bell to go (waist, chest, head, above head), the more hip drive you need, making a high-rep meditative groove harder to achieve. Higher also makes it easier to unroot and disconnect the movement from your feet. My 10,000 swing height: Shoulders/chin remains the sweet spot. Any higher and the lift disconnected. It also meant more tension and more energy to heave it up higher. Found shoulder height much more useful to maintain the feet to finger connection, and I still need to express vigorous strength to get it up but the majority of the lift remained very soft.
  5. Grip: When most people pick up something heavy (like a bar or a KB), they end up holding the weight on the fold of skin over the end of the metacarpal bones just before the fingers start. No surprise that this is the most common place for calluses to form.  But high repetitions with this will not feel great on that fold of skin. What to do? Pull with your fingers, not the fold. Imagine a chimp gripping a kettlebell and you’ll get the idea.

I also came up with a list of principles that apply to any swing form (and a couple to any movement practice). They’re derived with the following goals: to complete the challenge without overtraining and injury and do so in a way that supports increasing both health and ability for the long road.

  • Relaxation. Tension is the enemy of fluid movement. Use just enough tension to effectively absorb the momentum at the bottom of the lift and then drive the bell back upward. Most of the swing can be incredibly soft. A crunched up face or forced exhale is completely unnecessary and counterproductive to a smooth, high rep swing.
  • The wave: legs-back-arms/arms-back-legs. Rowers might know this. It was the mantra yelled at us while we learned to pull an oar correctly. The same pattern applies to the swing. From the bottom (or the catch for you recovering rowers!), the legs and hips initiate the drive into the feet (NB: more heel than ball), then the back extends, and finally the arms swing the weight away from the body just as the body extends to a soft but full stand. It should feel like a wave passing up through your body. The big hip drive/hip pop at the top commonly taught generates more tension and force than needed at the top of the swing. From the top, the arms drop first as gravity pulls the bell back down. As the arms make contact with the body (elbows against abdomen, wrists against pelvis), then the fold initiates and the hips sink down and back to absorb the descent of the bell into the heels (not the back!).
  • Breathe naturally. The 30 days changed the way I think about breathing with the swing. I’d always tried to use the anatomical breathing (in with the drive, out with return) as I do for the other dynamic KB lifts. But if you try to match your breath with the swing, either using force breathing (out with drive, in with return) or anatomical breathing you’ll run out of air on longer sets. Matched force breathing is also another tension cue, especially if you’ve done any conventional, power, or Olympic lifting–it will tell you body to use way more tension than necessary in this context. Instead, breathe easy, through the nose as long as possible, and let your breath find its own pattern like you would running or biking. Save the pattern breathing for the lifts where there are rest points, where you can control the tempo. For those who’ve never done longer sets (e.g. 50, 100, 200+ reps), this issue might never arise.
  • Less is more. The fewer movements you do, the better the workout. The more distractions you throw in, the less you gain and learn.

Lastly, I had my hunches before, but this provided good anecdotal evidence for lighter weights and powerful movement as part of the path for maximizing ability and resiliency. Conventional strength holds that going heavier, learning to produce more muscular tension, and building more muscle is the path. Tension is applied to everything kettlebells, machines, dumbbells, barbells, Pilates, running, even yoga. Pain is gain, feel the burn, and all the rest. Fitness hobbyists and intensity junkies rule the workout world, which is partly why the thoughtful set doesn’t want anything to do with exercise. If your body is in pain from a workout, or gathering chronic aches, how much you can deadlift or how fast your can do 100 pushups doesn’t matter when you spend more time managing pain, injury, and movement dysfunction than meeting life with ready ability every morning. Get lean and able now, but don’t get broken by huffing and puffing down the wrong path.

The best discovery of the month came the day after I did my 2nd longest single set (1100 swings with a 16kg). A storm dropped a bunch of snow and I spent 3.5 hours shoveling. Not only did I not pick up the shovel feeling workout soreness (yes, 1100 swings and no soreness), but I didn’t feel shoveling soreness the next day. That’s unheard of for me. There’s magic in the swing.

Last set of the month turned out to be my longest: one set, 75 minutes, 2400 swings. Not one grunt or lifter-face in the bunch. I felt as smooth at 2000 as I did at 200. But that night I ate like a horse and slept like a baby. I still woke up the next day ready and rearing to teach classes. My back was, and is, right on the money. The swing is king.