The Great Debate: Russian vs. American Swings

I find the fitness industry so ridiculous sometimes it’s comical.

It doesn’t matter where you turn, there is some kind of controversy or drama.  It’s can be more cliquey than high school sometimes, I swear.

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How deep should you squat?  Is steady state cardio useless or not?  Are Olympic lifts really worth the trouble?  How much protein do you REALLY need? Crossfit or HIIT?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

There’s a shit ton of other ongoing debates that will never be resolved.

The problem is, everyone’s an “expert” and so quick to condemn anything that isn’t directly in line with their school of thought.

I, for one, like to think that I always see both sides of the coin before I make a decision.

To steal a couple of lines from Chris Rock “anyone that makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a fuckin’ fool!”

“I got some shit I’m liberal about and I got some shit I’m conservative about.”

The same thought process should be applied to training.  It’s not a one size fits all system.  If it was, we’d all be doing 135lb deadlifts for 3 sets of 10 followed by an 8oz chicken breast with steamed broccoli and that would be all we need to get in the best shape of our lives.

If only it were that simple.

The reality is there is more than one way to get shit done.

One of the most heavily debated exercises is the kettlebell swing.  Many are divided between it’s Russian and American variations.  Basically, should you swing that shit all the way overhead or not?

Before we get to the pros and cons, let’s look at the overall benefits the swing brings to the table regardless of where you sit.

Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell is an ancient training tool that the Russians popularized.  You could say that the kettlebell has been around since before exercise was even called exercise.

The main exercise the kettlebell is most famous for, the swing, has many benefits that are indisputable including:

  1. It will strengthen your posterior chain – You want to build titanium glutes and hammies?  The swing will deliver.  Outside of the deadlift, the swing might be your best bet to perfect your hip hinge and strengthen your back end.
  2. It will take your conditioning to the next level – Because the swing uses so many muscles, it places a high demand on your cardiovascular system.  Using high reps and intervals will make for a great firebreathing workout.
  3. It will strengthen your hip extension – If you are looking to jump higher, run faster, add more weight to your squat or deadlift, increase your speed in the Olympic lifts, or just get a hell of a lot better at anything that matters in the gym, then the swing is the perfect accessory exercise.  You see, all of the exercises I just mentioned all have one thing in common – EXPLOSIVE HIP EXTENSION.  The kettlebell swing trains that exact movement pattern making it a top choice for strength and athletic development.
  4. It will “kung-fu” your grip – Heavy or high rep swings, it doesn’t matter, the longer you hold on to that thing,  your grip will have no choice but to get stronger.
  5. It’s a full body workout – If you’re ever pressed for time and want a killer workout, swings will deliver a wicked full body workout.  Intervals are a great way to crank the intensity and melt the fat off.

As you can see, there are some pretty awesome gains to be made with the kettlebell swing.  And to blur the lines even more, all of these benefits come from both the Russian and American variations.

So what’s all the beef about, you ask? In the video below, I make things a little more clear (at least I hope).

Here’s the deal with the Russian Swing

With the Russian swing, the kettlebell only comes to about chest height at the top of the movement.  If you’re a novice, the Russian swing is definitely a better option.  This will allow you to learn the fundamentals of the movement with less risk of injury.

  • The focus is shifted more to the lower body.
  • An excellent way to emphasize powerful hip extension.
  • Easier to maintain neutral spine at the end range of the movement.

Here’s the deal with the American Swing

Here’s where it gets a little grey but I’m going to try to make things as clear as possible.  The American swing requires you to swing the kettlebell straight overhead with the arms locked out at the top.  This range of motion requires more control and mobility to be done correctly. There is also a greater full body emphasis.

American swings should only be performed under the following circumstances:

  • You have sufficient thoracic mobility to fully extend your arms overhead while maintaining a neutral position through the lower back.
  • You have enough midline stability to maintain neutral spine throughout the full range of motion.
  • You don’t have any neck or shoulder impingement issues that are aggravated by overhead movements.
  • You have enough strength and athleticism to swing heavy objects overhead – for some, it’s just a recipe for disaster!
  • You are a competitive Crossfit athlete – the American swing is usually the movement standard in most competitions because the end ranges of the movement are easier to measure which leaves you with very little choice in the matter.

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full range of motion at the shoulders without impingement

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neutral spine at full extension excess  

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excess lumbar extension at full extension

Another point of contention is that some argue that the swing is “complete” once your hips and knees have fully extended regardless of where your arms are suggesting that there isn’t any more work being done with the American variation.

I have to disagree.

From purely a physics standpoint, the American swing requires a greater range of motion and if force x distance = work, all else being equal the American swing is more work.

Try doing 20 unbroken American swings and then with the same weight try doing 20 unbroken Russian swings.

You tell me which one felt like more work.

I’m not here to advocate one over the other but to simply point out the main differences and help you make better choices based on your goals, current fitness level, and any limitations you may have.

I, personally, use both variations in my training.  I like to do Russian swings when I’m focusing on strengthening my posterior chain and I’ll usually go a bit heavier as well (32-40kg).

If I’m doing a conditioning workout, I’ll go a bit lighter (24-32kg) and opt for the American swing since that jacks my heart rate up faster and makes for a spicier workout.

Ultimately, the kettlebell swing is a great exercise and how high you swing it really just depends.  As long as you focus on a strong hip hinge, powerful hip extension, and maintaining your midline stability you can’t lose.

The key is to be smart about your training, know your body, and do what works for you.

Training is a democracy, don’t let the fitness Nazis tell you how to think and how to move.

Stay strong,

Isaac Payne

 

 

 

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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