I'm getting a lot of emails, Facebook messages, and even new clients, who are CrossFitting with a fat loss goal. So I want to address some points that I always cover with my clients who CrossFit also, the first being the overhead kettlebell swing.
And to reiterate, this is a blog about fat loss, not athletic performance. If you are reading this, my assumption is that fat loss is your primary workout goal right now. And if fat loss is your goal, you should definitely make some major changes to the way CrossFit is traditionally done. The first big change to address is the kettlebell swing.
The overhead kettlebell swing (which CrossFitters sometimes call the "American Swing") mutes hip extension in favor of shoulder flexion.
More shoulders and less hips would be fine if it was a shoulder exercise... But it's not... It's a hip extension exercise.
If you google 'crossfit kettlebell swing,' 'overhead kettlebell swing,' or 'american kettlebell swing,' what you'll find is that most people making one (or more) of the three and a half terrible mistakes.
The Three and a Half Terrible Mistakes of the Overhead Swing:
1.) Hips don't extend all of the way
2.) Knees don't extend
3.) Low back arches
3.5) Head jutts forward
Just look at the google snap below. You can tell with a glance that the swings where the kettlebell goes full overhead have less hip extension and more low back arching. The low back arching at the top is bad for business, the low back should be solid and neutral like "plank" the entire time.
On the pictures with the kettlebell overhead, it almost looks like people are sticking thier butt out. In the biz we call this "anterior pelvic tilt", and it's literally the opposite of what you want in a kettlebell swing.
Of the three mistakes, the one that is most unforgivable is that the hips don't full extend. That's the entire point of the exercise.
The knees not fully extending is just a symptom of the hips not extending.
The low back arching means two things: First: It means that you aren't using your hips and butt, so you're compensating with your low back—a terrible idea for your low back. Second: Low back arching means that your core isn't engaged, you're leaking stability and power by going loose in your abs. Third: It usually accompanies not having enough shoulder range of motion to effectively go overhead on any exercise.
*You can always tell if someone is pulling with their shoulders and low back if the kettlebell is below their hands on the way up.
**Done correctly, with a snappy powerful hip extension, it's reversed — the kettlebell pulls your hands up. The kettlebell should be in line with or above your hands on the way up.
The neck jutting forward is a re-enforcement of computer posture, a good way to hurt your neck, and a good indication that your body is going into fight or flight mode. Head forward posture is the universal symbol of bad form on any exercise. It's literally the opposite of athleticism.
In yoga, they call it "really crappy alignment."
For Twice As Much Work, Use Two Kettlebells
Watch StrongFirst's technique standsrds video for the swing: http://youtu.be/l5qB0nILpko?t=2m56s
You'll notice that for kettlebell instructors, the swing is with two kettlebells.
I have clients who are doing their interval training with two 32kg kettlebells — that's 140 pounds of swings — and get plenty of metabolic work done without going overhead.
You'll notice that a good kettlebell swing includes:
1.) Full hip extension at the top
2.) Knees "zip up" at the top
3.) Abs and glutes visably brace at the top
4.) Shoulders stay back and down, and head stays in line with the body
5.) The kettlebells are above the knees at the bottom
5.5) Two kettlebells
Ultimately, by keeping the kettlebells to shoulder height or below, you get a bigger emphasis on hip extension, and you eliminate all of the problems.
If You're Dead Set on Going Overhead, Then Snatch
The kettlebell snatch eliminates all of the problems of the overhead swing, because you finish in a solid "military press" position:
1.) Shoulders pulled back and down
2.) Abs braced and ribcage "connected" to the pelvis—like a plank
3.) Glutes flexed and hips fully extended, and a slight posterior pelvic tilt—like a plank
The only time you run into problems on a snatch are when people don't have the technical proficiency to do the snatch. Or when people don't have the shoulder mobility to finish in the proper shoulder and low back position.
If people can't do snatches correctly, don't do them in a metabolic workout. Yep, skip them! Please, please, please don't do them. Instead, do double swings.
I know lots of people, even instructors, who do swings year-round. Then, when they have an instructor certification coming up, they switch the snatches 2-3 weeks ahead of time. Because they have amazing hip extension power from doing swings, snatches are always right there.
If You're In The CrossFit Games
If you're in the CrossFit games, you should practice overhead swings sometimes. Kind of like how if you're a professional boxer, you need to know what it's like to get punched in the face.
And you'll know you're in the CrossFit games when you see yourself on ESPN.
If you don't see yourself on ESPN, then you know you don't have any reason to do overhead swings.
I'm being a little extreme to prove a point: If you're not getting paid like a pro-athlete, there's no reason to put yourself in any kind of risk in your workouts.
Here is the smart way to manage it for the recreational CrossFitter: it's like the example above with kettlebell snatches. You can do double swings all year to build your hip extension power, then 2-3 weeks before The Open, you can switch to overhead swings.
A Hardcore Metabolic Asskicking
If you want to get your ass kicked, try out using double swings (that's with two kettlebells) in your next metabolic workout.
In both the SFG and the RKC Kettlebell Instructor Certifications, the guys use two 24kg (that's two 53 pound) kettlebells
Ladies 123 pounds and under use two 12kg (that's two 26 pound) kettlebells
Ladies 124 pounds and over use two 16kg (that's two 35 pound) kettlebells
And for anyone who's concerned that they aren't getting enough work done by not going overhead, those are great places to start.
Of course I have clients who use more weight or less weight than that, depending on their experience level. It's always smart to scale as appropriate. I might start a lady off with using two 8kg kettlebells, and I might have an advanced lady using two 24kg kettlebells.
Be smart, and work your way up over time. You'll find you can get all the metabolic ass-kicking you want.
Ultimately, the — two kettlebell — shoulder height swing is about more power and more safety.
by Josh Hillis
Author of the upcoming Fat Loss Happens on Monday, with Dan John
Head Coach at PowerHour Group Personal Training in Denver.
P.S. I noticed that my previous CrossFit post is trending, and figured that means that people interested in how CrossFit might be used in a fat loss program, so here we go. This might be the first in a series. Other posts to come might be about strict pullups instead of kipping (hint: It's about more strength and more safety), or why you should never met-con more than twice per week (hint: It's about more strength and more safety).
P.P.S. Metabolic conditioning is way over-hyped for fat loss. In reality, smart fat loss workouts are 90% periodized strength training and 10% metabolic conditioning. Less is more with the workouts; focus on food instead.
P.P.P.S. Right now there are a lot of really smart people trying to minimize the stupid parts of canonical orthodox CrossFit. If you CrossFit, you should check out some really smart posts by well known CrossFitters:
The Great Kettlebell Swing Debate, by CJ Martin
Why CrossFitters Shouldn't Do Isabel and Other Blasphemies, by Patrick McCarty
CrossFit Competitions: When a Good Idea Goes Wrong, by Patrick McCarty
A Different Version of CrossFit: How I Made My Training Sustainable and Injury Free, by Andy Petranek
The Seven Most Overrated CrossFit Exercises, by Ken Crowder
The Seven Most Undderrated CrossFit Exercises, by Ken Crowder