Kettlebells are my favorite piece of training equipment.
Well, maybe barefoot running shoes come before that, but kettlebells are my number one choice as far as strength training tools are concerned.
Because they are incredibly versatile, take up little space, and can be taken outside. The training effects are numerous, and you can have a strength-focused training session and a purely aerobic conditioning session with them. That means you can get full-body strength and conditioning with one single tool.
Like most strength work, training with kettlebells also has some enormous benefits for running performance. And one exercise that every runner should include is the kettlebell swing.
Usually, the swing is the first movement you learn when you start kettlebell training.
It is the basis for most kettlebell work.
The move is relatively easy to understand, and you can find various instruction videos all around the interwebs. However, please make sure to have someone knowledgeable instruct you on this movement. I advise against learning it through youtube-university. Too many faulty demonstrations are floating around there. If you insist on learning it without hands-on instruction, be sure to refer to videos done by certified instructors.
So why is the swing such an excellent exercise for runners? Here are the top 3 reasons:
1. Kettlebell Swings Strengthen Almost Every Muscle Important For Running
First of all, kettlebell swings strengthen your entire posterior chain.
That means your glutes (butt), hamstrings (upper thigh muscles on the back), calves, and back all work during the swing. You will get some activation of your quads (upper thigh muscles on the front) but not as much as you would when squatting.
But why is strengthening your posterior chain essential when you are a runner?
Simple, because those are the muscles that propel you forward. Your back stabilizes the spine, and your glutes generate power. Having strong glutes and hamstrings makes you faster.
Ok, maybe you don’t care about being fast. However, you still need a muscular butt. Why? Because if you have a weak bum, you are more prone to “typical runner” injuries, such as runner’s knee. And you probably want to avoid those.
But not only strong glutes and hamstrings will improve your running but also a strong upper back.
Many people tend to run with a slouched posture that is all too common today in everyday life. This “hunchback-posture” is mostly the result of how we spend our time. Hunching over keyboards or smartphones. Driving cars. Doing things in front of us.
With strong upper back muscles, you stand and run more upright, your chest is open, allowing for deeper breathing. And guess what? More oxygen means better performance.
2. Kettlebell Swings Are An Excellent Cross-Training Exercise
Kettlebell swings can help you improve aerobic capacity without running more. For example, a study by Hulsey et al. (2012) suggests that kettlebell swings are an alternative to running when the goal is to increase aerobic capacity.
The authors of the study compared the rate of exertion and oxygen consumption between kettlebell swings and running and concluded that “on days when a subject wanted an alternative to […] running or stationary cycling, KB swings might be substituted to maintain cardiovascular training levels.”
Why Swings Over Cycling As Cross-Training?
I favor kettlebell swings over cycling because swings train the aerobic system and have the added benefit of improving your hip mobility and strengthening your posterior chain. On the other hand, cycling necessitates a sitting position, and most people already sit too much in their everyday lives.
Besides, riding a bike doesn’t give you the added benefit of simultaneously strengthening your backside muscles and your cardio-respiratory system.
3. The Risk Of Injury Is Comparatively Small
The one exercise the swing is most closely related to is the deadlift.
The barbell deadlift provides many of the benefits the swing does – It strengthens your posterior chain, improves your posture, and teaches you to hinge forward at the hips.
It is one of the best strength exercises a runner can do.
However, injuring yourself doing heavy deadlifts is probably more likely than when doing kettlebell swings. The chance of overloading the lower back is simply higher when picking up a heavy weight from the floor. Because the swing is dynamic, the loads used are usually much lower. Maybe most importantly, renowned back health expert Dr. Stuart Mc Gill found that kettlebell swings show a different pattern of compression and shear forces of the spine than the deadlift or squat.
This could be beneficial for some people with low back issues.
Power, Strength, Endurance – You Choose
Depending on the weight you use and your rest-pause scheme, you can decide to focus more on power, strength, or endurance.
That said, all swing sessions will train your explosive power because you are training your fast-twitch muscles during a properly executed (powerful) swing. Those fibers are responsible for generating explosive speed and power.
If you want to run fast, you need to train your fast-twitch fibers.
Training For Maximum Power
To train for maximum power, you can practice “dead-swings.”
Use a heavy bell, set up for the swing, and execute one powerful repetition. Set the bell in front of you and perform the next repetition from this “dead” stop. Do not stand up between repetitions. Do 3-5 sets and rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
Training For Strength
To train for strength, you use a heavy bell and execute 5 repetitions. Do 3 to 5 sets and rest 2-3 minutes between two sets.
Training For Endurance
If you want to go for a more endurance type workout, you will use a bell that you can swing for 10 – 20 repetitions with good form. Do 10-50 sets and take 30-60 seconds rest between two sets.
The Kettlebell Swing May Be The Only Exercise You Need
A swing session gives you a full-body training effect and develops power, strength, and endurance.
If I had to pick one and only one exercise for the rest of my life, I would choose the kettlebell swing.
And if I would have to pick a single movement to complement my running – you bet it would be the kettlebell swing.