Kettlebell swings: How to do them, variations, and the benefits for building a strong body

Woman doing Kettlebell swing outside
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The kettlebell swing is an efficient full-body workout designed to strengthen most of your muscles including your posterior chain (the muscles along the back of your body). The exercise can also ramp up your heart rate and is a staple move in strength and conditioning programs. 

They target your legs, arms, and core muscles while giving your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings attention using a hip hinge movement similar to a deadlift. And if you're pulling together a quick home workout or don't have much time, this move can build muscle and strength all over. 

All you’ll need to do a kettlebell swing is one of the best kettlebells for weightlifting at home), and an exercise mat. Although they might sound pretty harmless, beginners and advanced exercisers can benefit. 

Below, we’ve rounded up how to do a kettlebell swing, plus the variations to try. But while the move builds back strength, if you’ve ever suffered from a herniated disk or a back injury, check with your doctor or personal trainer first.

How to do a kettlebell swing

The first thing to remember before doing a kettlebell swing is that the swing part of the movement comes from a hip hinge movement, not your arms. 

  • Start by standing on your exercise mat (we’ve got a list of the best yoga mats that double as exercise mats if you need suggestions) with your feet shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell in front of you
  • Bend your knees and grasp the kettlebell with two hands
  • Engaging your core, swing the kettlebell back between your legs. As you swing upwards, engage your glutes and your abs, and keep your arms outstretched as the kettlebell swings upward
  • Aim to raise the kettlebell to chest height, with your arms outstretched. Squeeze your glutes and snap your hips at the top of the movement
  • Let the kettlebell fall back down naturally, and swing it between your legs again for your next rep.

Remember, the movement in the kettlebell swing comes from your hips — you’re not lifting the weight with your arms. Think of your hips as the hinge in the movement — your lower body stays glued to the ground, with your weight back through your heels, and your torso moves forward and back to swing the weight. 

The major muscles worked are along the back of the body — this is not a squat and lift. Be careful not to bend your knees too much during this move (again, it’s not a squat), and avoid leaning back at the top of the movement, as you’ll put too much pressure on your lower back — keep your core engaged to avoid this. 

What are the benefits of a kettlebell swing?

As we’ve already mentioned, there are a number of benefits to this killer full-body move. Kettlebell swings are a weightlifting move, and one that targets the back, core, deltoids, traps, pecs, glutes and hamstrings. They are also a type of anaerobic activity, meaning you’ll get a killer workout in a short amount of time. In fact, a 2012 study found that people doing kettlebell swings had a similar average heart rate to those running on a treadmill. 

While weight loss should never be the sole reason you work out, if you are hoping to lose weight, kettlebell swings strengthen the muscles, and boost your cardiovascular fitness, helping you burn more calories than other strength-training exercises. 

Kettlebell swings also don’t require you to have a great deal of equipment, and can easily be done from home. Why not start by doing three sets of 20 kettlebell swings, then building up. You could also alternate between kettlebell swings and goblet squats or burpees for a killer workout. 

Finally, kettlebell swings are a brilliant exercise to do if you sit down all day, as they work your hips and your back muscles. We’ve found more of the best exercises to do if you sit down all day here. 

The best kettlebell swing variations to try

American swing: 

With an American kettlebell swing, instead of pausing when the kettlebell is at chest height, you swing the kettlebell up and above your head, before swinging it back down between your legs. It’s more advanced than the traditional version, as the range of movement is greater. Be sure you’ve mastered Russian kettlebell swings before trying this version. 

One-handed kettlebell swing: Again, this is one to try once you’ve mastered the original, but one-handed kettlebell swings challenge your stability, therefore making your core work harder. To do a one-arm kettlebell swing, hold the kettlebell in one arm as you swing it back and forth, keeping your other arm by your side when it’s not working. Be sure to alternate between arms to do the same number of reps on each side.

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Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.