Olympic weightlifting derivatives have long been hailed as the apex exercises for power training in strength and conditioning. There’s now evidence that’s probably wrong. For most people, most of the time, a simple kettlebell swing is a better power movement than any Olympic lift derivative.
Sport Happens in Full Hip Extension
Sprinting, punching, throwing and swinging a club or bat are all powered by your hips with full, powerful hip extension. Full hip extension is the part of lower body movements where you’re approaching and reaching fully stood up, fully extended.
In Olympic lifts, you have to catch the bar. Beginners and intermediate lifters almost never get to a full hip extension because they’re already preparing to dip again to catch the bar. In a kettlebell swing, it’s easy to get a full, snappy, powerful extension, even with beginners.
If you look at the finish position of each rep in the video you’ll see the body position mimics the drive phase of a log clean or stone load in strongman too, where you powerfully drive your pelvis forwards under the implement.
In the Swing, You ‘Catch’ the Weight With Your Hamstrings
One of the biggest injury risks in sport is tearing a hamstring. Recent research has shown that developing stronger and longer hamstrings are a way to minimize that injury risk.1
In the swing video above, you see the kettlebell come backward and I decelerate it, ending the catch phase in a position where the hamstrings are on a stretch.
This loads the hamstring as it’s getting stretched, simultaneously strengthening and lengthening the muscle, exactly what has been shown to reduce hamstring tear risk. It’s also a movement that strengthens the inner hamstring more than the outer hamstring2 which might also reduce hamstring tear risk.3
No Olympic lift derivative has this weighted hamstring stretch benefit, so no Olympic lifting variation helps reduce hamstring injury risk whilst also training power like the kettlebell swing.
Swings have an obvious horizontal drive aspect that Olympic lifts do not. In a swing, you powerfully drive the kettlebell forwards, away from you in a way you can’t with the bar in Oly lifts. If you did you wouldn’t be able to catch the bar and finish the lift.
This horizontal aspect is important for sports as it’s the same way the hips work in sprinting, punching, swinging, throwing, etc. There’s evidence that training horizontal strength movements instead of vertical strength movements is more effective to improve sprinting.4
This research compared barbell thrusters to barbell squats and the thrusters were more effective. It has been suggested the horizontal nature and the greater hip extension range of the thrusters may be the reasons why the thruster was more effective.
The implication to the kettlebell swing, as opposed to Olympic lifts, is that kettlebell swings have these horizontal and greater hip extension attributes in an explosive lift, suggesting they will have better carryover to sprinting and horizontal sporting movements than a vertical power lift like the Olympic lifts.
Kettlebells Are Easier to Learn
Anyone who has ever tried to teach the Olympic lifts to novices will be able to tell you how difficult it is. Those of us who have tried Olympic lifting can all attest to how technically demanding it is.
That can be great fun and rewarding as its own sport, but unfortunately, it massively diminishes the value of the Olympic lifts for strength and conditioning. A kettlebell swing is fairly simple and easy to learn to a level you unlock the benefits.
When directly compared in a study using participants with over a year of lifting experience kettlebell swings performed well in comparison to power cleans and high pulls.5
Even though much lighter loads were used by the kettlebell group their vertical jump and power clean improved at the end of the study as much as the group who trained the power clean!
Not only that, the barbell group barbell squatted, and the kettlebell group goblet squatted, so the barbell group got stronger from doing a heavier strength movement.
This begs the question if the barbell group squatted heavier and got stronger, yet the kettlebell group still improved as much at vertical jumping and power cleans in spite of being weaker and not practicing the power clean, how much more effective for power development was the kettlebell swing than the power clean and the high pull?! The kettlebell group got more power out of less strength, so that’s relatively greater power!
I think the relatively greater power benefits from the kettlebell group were down to how much easier it is to learn and train the kettlebell swing in order to get physiological benefits whilst the barbell group was still trying to master the technical aspects of the Oly lift derivatives.
The overall implication from the study is that a heavy barbell strength movement combined with a kettlebell power movement might be the optimum combination for strength and conditioning purposes.
The Reduced Risk of Injury
If you’re preparing yourself or a team to perform better in a sport then that’s your focus, not the tools you use for strength and conditioning themselves. Nobody cares how good your clean and jerk is if you’re a boxer who gets knocked out every fight.
A major drawback to Olympic lifts is the injury risk they have themselves. Even the simpler, power variations upset a lot of athletes’ wrists if nothing else.
Sometimes the injury risks we have from gym work are risked on purpose to condition the athlete against injury in sport. Unfortunately, some of the risks with Olympic lifting don’t cross over to much else, so just detract from their value as strength and conditioning tools.
Kettlebell swings have no such issues. As already discussed, the loaded stretching they create through the hamstrings is beneficial for most sports and they put no odd stresses through the wrists.
Less injury risk from the lifts themselves, greater injury reduction potential, and greater return from less time invested all combine to make it a no-brainer to choose kettlebell swings as your strength and conditioning power exercise.
When it comes to integrating the kettlebell swing into your training I have a couple of favored options. Explosive exercises may have a PAP effect,6 which means they ‘awaken’ your nervous system and make it easier to recruit muscle fibers.
That makes kettlebell swings a nice choice to slot between general warm-ups and your first main lift. If you do this go low volume. Work up through the weights with sets of 5 or 6 reps as fast and snappy as possible. When you get to a weight that slows you down, that doesn’t feel snappy anymore, stop there and move onto your primary lift for the day.
The other way that I particularly like is to take a kettlebell with you to wherever you’re doing your primary lower body lift. Whether it’s squats, deadlifts, thrusters, or trap bar lifts, as soon as your set is done, without rest bang out a set of kettlebell swings.
The weight doesn’t have to be massively heavy, so long as it’s heavy enough you feel you have to work to try to move it fast. Then rest as normal before the next set. This is contrast training.
However, you incorporate kettlebell swings it should be clear from this combination of research they’re no fad. A simple and effective movement that can help your hard-earned strength cross over into powerful sporting movements can’t be ignored. Swing to win!