Workout of the week – Kettlebell swings + 400m run

Kettlebell swing seriesThis is another high intensity workout that delivers big gains in terms of fitness and fat loss for a relatively short amount of time. I like this workout because it combines strength and conditioning plus the explosiveness of the kettlebell swings with a high intensity 400m run.

Training with kettlebells

I have trained with kettlebells on and off for over 10 years now. I really love training with kettlebells because you can burn fat, gain strength, muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness with relatively short workouts. The kettlebell swing is the foundation of kettlebell training.

If you are not familiar with the kettlebell swing, this exercise involves standing with your feet parallel a shoulder width apart with the horn or handle of the kettlebell in both hands. To initiate the swing, you forcefully swing the kettlebell back between the legs by driving the hips backward then quickly reverse the direction by explosively extending the hips and knees, using this momentum to swing the kettlebell to chest level. The elbows and wrists are kept straight.

Studies into the effects of the kettlebell swing

As always, I had to look into the scientific literature to see if there have been any studies conducted on the kettlebell swing. It turns out there has! These studies are published mostly in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. One study was also published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. I loved reading these studies because they are totally outside of my field of bacterial pathogenesis. It seems that the kettlebell swing is actually a far more effective exercise than even I thought.

Most of the studies I looked at had the subjects perform the kettlebell swing training program known as “the US Department of Energy Man-Maker”. This program was developed by Pavel Tsatsouline, a former physical-trainer for the elite Soviet special-forces unit and the person who bought kettlebells to the United States, in his book Enter the Kettlebell! This program consists of 12 rounds of 30 seconds of swings separated by 30 seconds of rest. I tried this program myself and it certainly gets the heart rate up and makes you sweat in only 12 minutes.

An initial study into the kettlebell swing investigated the heart rate response and oxygen cost of performing the training program described above. This study involved 10 college-aged men using a 16kg kettlebell performing 2 handed swings. The findings were that during this 12 minute program, subjects maintained a heart rate and VO2 at an average of 87% and 65% of their maximum, respectively (1). The effect of the kettlebell swing training program described above on measures of maximum and explosive lower body strength was investigated in another study. Subjects performed the program twice a week for 6 weeks. The subjects were 12 men between the ages of 18 and 27 years who were involved in regular university-level sport. The results of this study clearly showed that this kettlebell swing training program provides a training stimulus sufficient to improve both maximum and explosive strength (2). What does this mean for you? By spending 12 minutes twice a week performing kettlebell swings you can elevate your heart rate, increase VO2 max, gain strength in the posterior chain (the thoracic, lumbar and hip extensor muscles), particularly the hamstrings, and increase explosive power, which is not only great for your overall fitness but will likely translate into improvements in other sports, such as running and cycling.

Another study looked at the hormonal response to the kettlebell swing in 10 recreationally resistance trained men. Again the men in this study performed 12 rounds of 30 seconds of kettlebell swings alternated with 30 seconds of rest using a 16kg kettlebell. Leading up to this session participants were refrained from eating or drinking anything except water for 12 hours, ingesting any alcohol for 48 hours, engaging in sexual activity for 24 hours and performing any resistance exercise or intense aerobic exercise for 72 hours prior. The heart rate of the participants increased significantly with each round of swings. It was also found that testosterone, growth hormone and cortisol all increased immediately following the 12 rounds of kettlebell swings. The conclusion was that the kettlebell swing, even when only performed for a short duration, 6 minutes of actual exercise in this study, is able to induce a neuroendocrine response (3). Why does this matter? Well studies have shown that this acute hormonal response to resistance training enhances strength and muscle building in response to training (4, 5). It should be noted that the increase in growth hormone in response to these rounds of kettlebell swings was relatively small compared to findings with heavy-resistance exercise protocols, but, as mentioned, the participants were performing swings for a total of only 6 minutes!

One study looked at muscle activation in different areas of the hamstring in elite female handball and soccer players using a series of 14 different strength and balance exercises including the kettlebell swing, Romanian deadlift, one leg side jumps and one leg curls. This study showed that the kettlebell swing caused the greatest activation of the semitendinosus muscle (ST) of the hamstring out of all of the exercises and showed the fourth greatest activation of the biceps femoris muscle caput longus (BFcl) (6). Why is this important? Well, the hamstrings are critical in providing knee joint stabilization during forceful dynamic movements, such as playing competitive sports, and in preventing excessive anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries (7, 8). By performing kettlebell swings on a regular basis, you can strengthen your hamstrings, thus assisting in the prevention of knee and ACL injuries.

And finally, one study assessed the back and hip muscle activation, motion and lower back loads resulting from a range of kettlebell exercises, including the kettlebell swing. This study found that the rapid acceleration of the kettlebell during the swing due to the motion of the hips and knees is accompanied by substantial activation of muscles in both the posterior chain and the abdominals (9).

Workout of the week

Now for the workout. I have a 16kg and 2 x 12kg kettlebells which I got from my favourite supermarket Aldi! I like to perform 4 – 6 sets of between 20 and 50 2-handed swings with a 16kg kettlebell followed by a 400m run. I have been trying to think of an exercise that could replicate the kettlebell swing without actually using a kettlebell but it is quite difficult. You could start with a 30 second plank, ensuring that the gluteal musculature (butt muscles) are actively contracted to bring about a posterior pelvic tilt, in other words, attempt to draw the pubic bone towards the belly button, and have the elbows spaced only 15cm apart. Performing a plank in this manner will work the abdominal muscles, the erector spinae musculature (the back muscles) and the hip extensors (gluteus maximum and hamstrings) (10), however, it does not have that explosive component that the kettlebell swing has. Until you are able to get yourself a kettlebell, start with the Beginner or Intermediate workouts below. Please refer to the Disclaimer on the About me page before embarking on any exercise program.

Beginner

4 sets of a 30 second plank (performed as described above) followed by a 200 – 400m run with 30 seconds rest in between.

Intermediate

6 sets of a 30 second plank (performed as described above) followed by a 400m run with 30 seconds rest in between.

Advanced

4 – 6 sets of 20 – 50 kettlebell swings followed by a 400m run with 10 – 30 seconds rest in between.

When it comes to training with kettlebells, technique is very important. If you are new to kettlebells, I suggest attending a class to get a foundation of the correct techniques. Sarah and Mike over at Without Limits Strength & Conditioning offer some great resources. Check out their Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Without-Limits-Strength-Conditioning/184129381635741?ref=profile

  1. Farrar, R., Mayhew, J. and Koch, A. (2010). Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. J Strength Cond Res. 24: 1034-36.
  2. Lake, J. and Lauder, M. (2012). Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. J Strength Cond Res. 26: 2228-33.
  3. Budnar, R. G. Jr, Duplanty, A., Hill, D., McFarlin, B. and Vingren, J. (2014). The acute hormonal response to the kettlebell swing exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 28: 2793-2800.
  4. Hansen, S, Kvorning, T, Kjaer, M, and Sjogaard, G. The effect of short-term strength training on human skeletal muscle: The importance of physiologically elevated hormone levels. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 11: 347–354, 2001.
  5. Ronnestad, BR, Nygaard, H, and Raastad, T. Physiological elevation of endogenous hormones results in superior strength training adaptation. Eur J Appl Physiol. 111: 2249–2259, 2011.
  6. Zebis, M., Skotte, J., Andersen, C., Mortensen, P., Petersen, H., Viskær, T., Jensen, T., Bencke, J., Andersen, L. (2013). Kettlebell swing targets semitendinosus and supine leg curl targets biceps femoris: an EMG study with rehabilitation implications. Br J Sports. 47:1192-
  7. Draganich, L. and Vahey, J. (1990). An in vitro study of anterior cruciate ligament strain induced by quadriceps and hamstrings forces. J Orthop Res. 8:57–63.
  8. More, R., Karras, B., Neiman R, et al. (1993). Hamstrings–an anterior cruciate ligament protagonist. An in vitro study. Am J Sports Med. 21:231–237.
  9. McGill, S. and Marshall, L. (2012). Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond Res. 26:16-27.
  10. B.,, Contreras, B., Tiryaki-Sonmez, G., Willardson, J. and Fontana, F. (2014). An electromyographic comparison of a modified version of the plank with a long lever and posterior tilt versus the traditional plank exercise. 13: 296-306.

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