Russian vs. American Kettlebell Swing: Which Is Best for You?

The kettlebell swing is a ballistic, explosive movement seen throughout strength and conditioning realms, functional fitness competitions, and everyday fitness. Two popular variations are the Russian and American kettlebell swing.

A photo posted by E D U A R D O P C (@edanpcdgo) on

In this article, we will look deeper at the Russian vs. American kettlebell swing to determine which one is best for you and your goals.

The Russian Swing

The Russian kettlebell swing starts with an athlete in a loaded position, similar to the deadlift. In this movement, powerful hip extension occurs, while simultaneously bracing the abdominals. This ballistic movement requires dynamic range of motion in the hips and hamstrings, while also patterning hip flexion and extension, which are both key components to jumping, running, pulling, squatting, and most human locomotion. Additionally, the cyclical fashion of this swing allows for proper breathing and bracing strategies for athletes while bending at the hips with a stable back. Lastly, when done explosively, Russian kettlebell swing allows for greater levels of loading intensities and higher power production than American swings, sometimes hundreds of pounds, which can play a large role in metabolic conditioning, muscle hypertrophy, and explosive performance.

Take a look at the demo below to learn how to perform the Russian kettlebell swing.

The American Swing

Unlike the Russian swing, the American swing requires a lifter to end with the weight in the overhead position, rather than stopping at chest/head level. The added overhead component requires a great deal of shoulder mobility and scapular stabilization, as well as potentially increased work capacity due to the additional overhead component. Increase cardiac output and hence higher heart rates are seen with overhead movements in general, so the argument can be made for American kettlebell swings for conditioning segments.

Take a look at the demo below to learn how to perform the American kettlebell swing.

Which Is Best for You?

Both kettlebell variations are viable training options if the intention and risks are assessed, analyzed, and clear. When determining which swing to select, coaches and athletes need ask themselves these questions to decide which kettlebell swing variation best fits their needs.

Risk of Injury

First and foremost, lifters need to be able to perform the Russian kettlebell swing before even attempting America swings. Without sound swinging mechanics, both can create injury. Secondly, lifters need to be able to have enough shoulder mobility and scapular stabilization to be in the overhead swing position. Unlike many overhead positions found in functional fitness sports and weightlifting, the American swing requires a lifter to take an extremely narrow grip width in the overhead position, increasing stress and mobility needs of an athlete.

Popularized by fitness competitions, American swings are often suspect to compensation patterns when lack of overhead mobility and stability are present, such as; excessive lumbar flexion, cervical flexion while forcing the head forward “under the kettlebell”, and instability in the shoulder complex. Additionally, American swings are often performed to induce some amount of fatigue or endurance, since power outputs tend to be lower than Russian variations, which increases the risk of dropping or releasing kettlebells on oneself or others.

Specificity to Sport

When it comes to sport specificity (force output, power production, application to human locomotion, etc), the Russian kettlebell reigns supreme, with the only exception being if your sport includes the specific movement of the American kettlebell swing, such as functional fitness WODs and other similarevents.

Power Output: Unlike the American swing, the Russian swing has a greater application to power sports due to increased loading and velocities via hip extension. Due to the overhead component of the American swing, speeds and loads often fall to allow athletes to perform them safely.

Practical Applications to Pulling Movements: Deadlifts, snatches, and cleans all require explosive hip extension and deceleration/bracing of the abdominals. The American version  tends to be performed at slower speeds, with less emphasis on hamstring and hip loading and more upper body stabilization.

Conditioning Purposes

The American kettlebell swing is often seen being performed in endurance and metabolic conditioning segments, thought to induce greater work capacity than the Russian swing. Although the added overhead component potentially increased work capacity, since distance travel affects that, lighter loading abilities of this swing may diminish the significance of the overhead overall effect on a lifter if compared to a lifter performing heavier Russian swings. Russian swings can also be used as a viable conditioning tool, while also minimizing potential injury in those with poor braking abilities, core control, and overhead mobility.

Final Thoughts

As strength coaches, we must understand the unique differences and applications of each swing to best suit the needs and abilities of our athletes. More often than not, individuals possess too little shoulder mobility and/or scapular stabilization in the overhead position, let alone during a ballistic movement; which is why I often opt to use Russian swings over American.

However, in the case of a specific event or functional fitness competition implementing the American swing as a required movement, athletes will need to be able to maintain sound overhead mechanics and bracing strategies while overhead swinging to ensure safety. While I am not against the American kettlebell swing, I do feel coaches and athletes should assess the readiness and abilities of an athlete’s similar to allowing them to snatch, jerk, and overhead squat to ensure safety.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured Image @edanpcdgo on Instagram