The kettlebell swing is a very common exercise performed by athletes and active individuals. It requires minimal equipment, can be performed basically anywhere, and can provide a great training stimulus for developing athleticism, power, and general fitness. I used to program kettlebell swings often for my runners and triathletes as a way to improve power, but I have gone away from it the past few years. While I still feel they are a great exercise for many people, I wanted to highlight why I don’t program them for my clients and the thought process I go through when determining what should or should not be included in an endurance athlete’s strength routine.
Choosing Exercises for Runners
Every athlete I train has a unique program. Their individual anatomy, injury history, and personal preferences play a big role in figuring out what might be best in each session. When I write programming for an athlete, there are three questions I need to answer to justify each element we are including in the program.
Will this exercise help a runner tolerate training and racing better?
Is there a better option for getting the desired outcome?
Is this exercise the most efficient way to spend our time?
The goal of these questions is to make sure the exercises we choose are the most helpful and time-conscious options for runners.
I think most runners should have some type of squatting movement in their programming. That could be bodyweight squats, front squats, splits squats, or a few other variations depending on the individual. What type of squat we choose is important because we are most likely only choosing one squat movement per training session. When we choose to perform any one squat-type exercise, we are choosing not to perform all the other squat exercises available. This means we should choose the exercise option that will get us the most desired outcome from the session.
When we lift weights, we break down the tissues of our body and hopefully provide the right recovery environment for those tissues to recover stronger. We need some time between performing a specific exercise to allow our body to recover. This is why you should not bench press seven days a week. It’s the same reason you do not run a track session seven days a week. The body needs time to recover and build itself back up fitter and stronger.
To me, having a bunch of different variations of the same type of exercises in a session means we probably should choose one variation and make it heavier, faster, or just go home for the day. The exercise options we have are endless, but putting more into a session does not necessarily mean a better training outcome. When your trainer, coach, PT, or whoever else says we are going to “blast your glutes” with 17 hip exercises we kind of lose the intent behind those exercises.
The last thing most runners need is more things that just make them tired or sore. If we include five types of squat in a training session, my guess is we should have just picked one really good option instead of five mediocre options. The purpose of strength training and accessory work is to drive a positive adaptation that will help with training and racing. It is not to just make you tired or take up most of your day.
What is the goal with a kettlebell swing?
We can take any exercise and perform them in a number of different ways for a number of different reasons. Adjusting our sets, rep schemes and intensity impacts what benefit we get out of the exercise.
More weight. Less weight. Faster movements. Lots of dials we can tweak.
Kettlebell swings are meant to be performed quickly using our lower body to aggressively drive the kettlebell away from our body. The unique movement of a swing is designed to improve power, or the rate at which we do something, not strength. Strength and power are two different things. When the goal is to get stronger we want to simply complete the sets and reps of the specific exercises at the determined intensity. When the intent is to become more powerful we want the repetitions in every exercise to be completed quickly. Whether you like box jumps or not, the intent behind that exercise is to improve power and the movement should be performed quickly otherwise you might fall on your face. Box jumps and kettlebell swings are a little similar in that we can’t really “slow down” swings otherwise it turns into a shoulder exercise. Since these exercises need to be performed quickly, we can’t add a lot of additional weight to the movement. This limits the ability of them to be used to build strength because the additional resistance would slow the movement down.
The nature of the “swing” movement pigeonholes the exercise into being a power and not a strength exercise. When incorporating power-type movements into a runner’s programming, I think there are a lot better options specifically for runners. If you want to improve power for running you should run fast and run up inclines. Progressively more intense interval running, eventually getting to sprinting, does the best job at getting you better at running fast. We can do things in the weight room that help prep our body to deal with those strenuous sessions better, but if you want to be faster and more powerful as a runner you need to run fast.
Will this Help with Running?
Let’s go back to the question at the beginning of the article.
Will this exercise help a distance runner tolerate training and racing better?
We can perform big movements like squats and deadlifts that help our muscles, bones, and tendons get stronger. We can do specific drills like side planks and calf raises that strengthen areas we know have to work a lot when we run. Those two types of exercises do not necessarily “look” like running, but the positive benefits we get from them should help us with running. Lastly, we can add in coordination drills that help work on things like moving fluidly, improving our control with single leg tasks, and the ability to maintain an upright posture. Those three things are important for a “rhythm” based sport like running. Drills like marching variations, step-ups, and carry variations check all three of those boxes and are easy drills for runners to incorporate.
When we look at the kettlebell swing we see that it is a hip dominant exercise meaning most of the motion happens from the hip joint. We could include exercises like deadlifts and bridge variations in this category too. If we had to classify running, we would call it knee or ankle dominant as that is where the largest changes in joint motion occur. That difference is important because the swing movement you are becoming more powerful in is very different than what you are doing when you run. Swings cycle your hips through a large range of motion throughout the drills, something that is not required to be able to run unless you are a hurdler or steeplechaser. The idea that swings does not put your body through the same positions as running is a big reason why I don’t think they are very helpful to improve your running abilities. You can’t load them as well as a deadlift variation to improve strength and they do not translate as well to the specifics of running gait as simply having someone run at higher intensities.
Everything we do does not have to look exactly like the sport we play. Sometimes we want to work on a specific quality that we believe will transfer over to another activity. For example, a hang clean does not necessarily look like running, but it can be a great drill for a runner that has a history of low bone mineral density. Progressing them to olympic lifting can help drive some positive adaptations to their skeleton better than running alone. Even though I think more “running-specific” plyometrics that target the calf muscle complex would be a better way to work on power, we may be able to drive some specific tissue adaptations from an exercise that does not look like running.
Choosing to Do Nothing
Once we can justify the exercise will help us with training and racing we have to ask if it fits in the runner’s overall life. This is a question we should be asking with all aspects of training. There are a lot of things that MIGHT be beneficial for a runner to work on. I put stretching, foam rolling, soft tissue guns, and a lot of other “iffy” type interventions into this category. They might provide a benefit, but the benefit is most likely extremely small. What we have to balance is if this potentially, extremely small benefit is worth the time invested in performing it. Very rarely over the last decade have I had a client that had all the time in the world to train. For 99.9% of the population, it is a big challenge to incorporate training, lifting, work, and everything else in life. If you are crunched for time, we want to pick the types of exercises and interventions with the most potential benefit. There are many times when the best intervention for a runner at the end of a session is to go home, eat lunch, and be mentally and physically done with training for the day.
Let’s Come to a Verdict on the Swing
Do kettlebell swings challenge our body in a similar manner to running? No.
Are kettlebell swings the best way to build strength throughout our hips and posterior chain? Probably not.
Are kettlebell swings the most time-efficient way to develop power for distance running? In my opinion, no.
When Would I Use a Swing?
I’ve dogged on the kettlebell swing enough. Here are a couple of situations where I think kettlebell swings might be a good addition for a runner.
Higher velocity movements can help us get stronger bones. If a runner has low bone mineral density in their lower back, hips, and pelvis, a kettlebell swing could potentially load those areas to make the skeleton stronger. To get the most “bone benefit” from our swings we would want to program low reps and sets with a challenging weight.
There are a lot of exercises that probably don’t help us get better at dealing with the demands of running. I would put bicep curls in that category. That does not mean runners should never curl a dumbbell. If you love to pump your biceps and have the time to add them into your program without it negatively impacting your training, go for it. Just make sure we are tailoring the overall plan to the demands of running and make sure adding in another exercise is not going to affect our recovery or overall plan.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read and have a great rest of your day!
Nathan Carlson DPT, USATF