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  • A Swing is not a hinge

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    Roger Parks

    A Swing is not a Hip Hinge

    That’s right, I said it. And I’ll say it again: A Swing is not a Hinge. The idea that a Swing is a Hip Hinge is perhaps the most repeated and entrenched piece of kettlebell dogma, yet that idea is wrong (at least sometimes) and can do as much harm as good. Though both movements require hip extension, Swings and Hinges differ in more ways than they are similar, and blending the two because they have similar joint actions confuses new kettlebellers. Further, the notion that a Swing should look just one way can either exclude someone from doing Swings who may benefit from them or force the square peg of rigid form into the round hole of incompatible anthropometry.

    If “hinge” describes a movement that uses hip extension, predominantly, to achieve an objective, then a Swing can be considered a type of Hinge, sometimes. Not all Swings are or can be hip-dominant, though. But if “Hinge” references an exercise and not a  joint action, then a Swing is not a Hinge. Sharing neither movement objectives, muscle actions, trajectory, speed, or range of motion, the notion that a Swing is a type of Hinge breaks down and misinforms, and hangs on similar joint motion, a superficial way to examine exercise. Just because one thing looks like another thing, kinda, doesn’t mean they are the same. This isn’t Sesame Street, and you will not be rewarded for pointing out ways in which one thing is like another.

    Why the confusion?

    As coaches, we evaluate joint actions and which muscles power those joints to understand what is working to achieve an objective. We then coach those joint actions or muscles to move in a particular sequence. We have also likely learned to teach complex movements by splitting them into simpler parts.  So we use Deadlifts to teach Swings and check lots of boxes at once. That seems efficient, right? One already has a kettlebell, presumably, and a Deadlift can teach movement through the hips while maintaining spinal neutral. Further, the hips and quads power both Swings and Deadlifts.  That seems reasonable, so far. But when we hear “you can’t do fast what you don’t do well slow,” and other comparisons between the two, a novice kettlebeller is led to believe that a Swing is an explosive Deadlift. In many cases, this statement is overt. The link between “Hinge” and “Deadlift” cannot be ignored, nor can the reality that many coaches use the two terms interchangeably.

    Though perhaps efficient in some ways, the use of the Deadlift does a few things: it gives the impression that a proper Swing should look a certain way, specifically that it should have lots of hip movement and little knee motion. By starting there, you begin to teach someone to move a particular way (hips only) and move load in a way that differs dramatically from the Swing.

    Even if the two are similar, theoretically, we must go beyond what these comparisons mean to us, as coaches, and examine what they DO. Though this comparison may be useful within a training taxonomy to make programming easier, does this comparison help us teach the Swing? I argue that it does not. To be clear, I do not mean that teaching a Deadlift before a Swing confuses kettlebellers. It’s not the act of teaching the Deadlift but the ideas one transmits in the teaching – the problem is the comparison, saying this is, or ought to be, like that. The Deadlift requires a subset of movement requirements that are presumed relevant but can’t apply to the Swing. As a result, trainees must sometimes unlearn more than they learn from the Deadlift, which is inefficient, confusing, and in some cases, dangerous. When we lump in a thing with a group, that thing absorbs properties of the group within which we include it, regardless of differences.

    Is this just semantic nonsense that makes no real impact on how one teaches kettlebells? It is not. After coaching many people and watching other coaches teach Swings, I think that the idea that a Swing is a Hinge is problematic and gives people a faulty frame of reference and unfair bias in favor of a position irrelevant to many Swingers.

    What’s the difference?

    Let me state this clearly and emphatically: I have no attachment to names. I have an attachment to outcomes. If we want better outcomes, we must stop training everyone with the same old script, the same process, and the same set of “standards” that display nicely in social media posts. They don’t work for everyone. As a secondary point, I find it alarming that some coaches who teach kettlebells professionally do not understand the stark and significant differences between the Swing and the Deadlift. There is more to a Swing than flexion and extension at the hip. Though jumping involves many of the same joint motions as a Squat, people are content to let a jump be a jump, and a Squat be a Squat. Perhaps you can use one to help train the other, but they don’t commonly blend as categories, which raises some questions. For example, how many ways must two things be similar before treating them by the same rules? Humans like to classify. It helps us understand. But sometimes the classification becomes the thing and not a convenient way to talk about that thing.

    To even begin this discussion, let’s stipulate that someone has ideal hinging proportions and hinges in a hip-dominant manner, with little knee contribution. Though this is not how many people perform the Hinge family of exercises, we need a context from which to work.

    A Hinge pattern uses hip flexion and extension to create motion. Though there is some knee motion, torque production at the knee is minimized by movement directives. A hinge movement may have (for the most part) a horizontal force vector, as the hips travel back and then forward. However, when you consider a Hinge exercise, a Deadlift, for example, we must look at the intention to move objects. Though the hips may generate horizontal force, the result of that force should move an object vertically.

    Movement is most relevant when it has an intention. Though you can see the squat pattern (as a configuration of joints) within a jump and a Squat, are they the same? They are not. Think through how different the intention is between jumping away from a snake coiled at your feet and squatting down to pick up a child (or set down a child on top of a snake, so you have time to get away). Labeling these configurations may facilitate conversation about a joint action, but the configuration is not the pattern, and a jump is not a squat.

    A Hinge seeks to move an object in a vertical line. A Swing’s intention is an arc. Though the kettlebell Swing ends up higher (relative to the ground) than a Deadlift and will result in more vertical displacement, the way that load moves is relevant. Swings must also consider the rules of rotation as they relate to the object, angular motion rather than just linear.

    Next, we must look at the start and finish of the two (for the sake of argument, let’s assume a kettlebell Deadlift, as a barbell Deadlift can only start in a limited number of places — it can’t pass through the shins without substantial pain). A “proper” kettlebell Deadlift should start between the ankles, come straight up, and then move back down to its starting point, which doesn’t perturb balance much. A kettlebell Swing, however, has a continually shifting (to a greater degree, anyway) center mass, and the balance demands increase significantly. A body will organize differently as load increases with either exercise, but the degree to which this happens will be more significant for the Swing. As load increases, the body will need to fold differently to stay over its base of support without losing balance. The heavier the load, the more it will pull someone forward and back, which is why Swings get more “squatty” as they get heavier. Too much horizontal motion creates too much instability at a certain loading level, so vertical work increases to facilitate a Swing. But it’s still a Swing – as an experiment, approach someone in the gym doing one-arm, 56kg Swings and explain how a proper Swing should be more “hingey.” Let me know how that goes.

    The last significant difference between the two movements (though there are more) is the nature of the muscular mechanism used to move the load. Though a Deadlifter will often get a pre-stretch before moving the weight, elasticity accounts for much more force production in the Swing (vs. more traditional ideas of muscle contraction, i.e., the sliding filament theory). Swings happen not only in front of but behind the body, extending the effective field of the exercise. Linear distance (the distance the load moves) is substantially greater in a Swing vs. a Hinge, allowing more speed, and more potential energy to capture with the stretch-shorten cycle to send it back the other way. The goal of a Deadlift is to lift the weight; the goal of a Swing is to launch the weight: different intentions that use different mechanisms designed for different goals.

    What about squatty Swings?

    Recall that context considered someone who has no problem with a hip-dominant Swing and Hinge. But what happens when someone is built to Squat and can’t Hinge deeply? Anthropometry is an inconvenient consideration for the a-Swing-is-a-Hinge idea. A notion peculiar to much of the kettlebell world is that a Swing or a Deadlift should only look one way: hip-dominant. Powerlifters use whatever form best meets their objective, to move as much weight as possible. They match their technique to their build. Kettlebellers, on the other hand, frequently ignore anatomical differences and pursue a particular form regardless of physical dimensions. Many kettlebell schools intentionally teach a hip-dominant Swing, though some understand that it’s an option. They realize that quad-dominant Swings exist. It’s a choice, just as a hardstyle Swing and a GS Swing are choices. Both are valid and have different technique points. Unfortunately, the idea that hip-dominant is a choice hasn’t made it into rank-and-file kettlebell culture. What’s left is a “hips good, quads bad” mentality that promotes a deep, torso-parallel-to-the-ground Swing, regardless of the ability of the human in question. These same proponents will justify this by saying, “that’s what I learned,” though it’s more likely what they misinterpreted.

    Different people have different limb lengths. How these people fold (as in a Squat or a Hinge) will depend on the lengths of their bones, their body mass, and the weight of the implement (Tom Purvis covers these ideas extensively, and I highly recommend you hear him speak).

    Simply put, some people will be great at hinging, and others will be bad. Some of us must use more quads and some more hips. Anthropometry makes this choice for us. We can defy anatomy and physics with compensations and unsafe form, but the way the body produces and redistributes force is biased from the start. Still, coaches push people into form they can’t support, and then blame back pain on one’s inability to “keep the core tight,” refusing to own the error as their own.

    One could argue that as long as one deadlifts with as much hip contribution as possible, then they should find the ideal degree of hip motion for the Swing. However, the force vector of the Swing complicates this notion. Contrast a bar that moves vertically with a kettlebell that moves through an arc. Whereas Deadlifts move an implement in front of the body, and one can use the weight of that implement to sit back more comfortably, the horizontal trajectory of the Swing can pull someone who hinges too much off balance. Although some may be able to deadlift just fine with their dimensions, once a kettlebell, or even more a heavy kettlebell, is introduced into the equation, a hinge becomes too risky. It isn’t just about limb length: it’s about bodyweight, kettlebell weight, and the incredible forces of a swinging kettlebell that one must accommodate. Some people, with some weights, must be squattier than others or not Swing kettlebells.

    I will anticipate an objection to this point: “But if it’s squatty, then it isn’t a Swing!” What a Swing is or isn’t is not easily defined. This shit is all made up. There are real influences we must consider, like gravity, limb length, and body weight. We can consider what a joint is likely to feel based on the individual swinging the bell, but we have no absolute definition of a Swing. Sure, most certifying bodies have arbitrary standards that define a Swing. Still, the best ones allow a range of variation, and their standards apply to situations, not people. A Swing is not a universally, objectively defined thing. I’m happy to hear your opinion about the influences of more hips or less, but I’m not interested in scripted notions of how a Swing must look for it be a Swing.

    One final point: Classifying the Swing as a type of Hinge or Deadlift begs the questions as to whether or not a Squat-based Swing is a legitimate means to Swing a kettlebell, the main difference being the amount of knee bend that contributes to the movement. Though most in the kettlebell community dismiss the squat-style Swing as incorrect, many cite a famous study by Stuart McGill to prove the safety of kettlebell training. The Swings in that study were explicitly “squat-style.” So either the squatty Swings are valid, and therefore a Swing is not necessarily just a Hinge, or the study does not prove the safety of the commonly used hip-dominant Swing. You can’t have it both ways. So either let go of the idea that a Swing can’t be squatty or relinquish your claims to Mr. McGill and his glorious mustache as the grand justifier of all things kettlebell.

    Practical considerations

    Some Swings are squattier than others, as dictated by anthropometry, the weight of the kettlebeller, and the weight of the bell.  Swings and Hinges don’t have the same intention, speed, or trajectory, use the same muscular mechanism, or even achieve the same goal. Does it still make sense to say that one is a version of the other? It does not. But why do we care?

    Our job as coaches is to promote safety and efficiency. We must expose people to ideal stimuli, but we can’t just use our words or ideas to teach people to move. Humans are great at learning and will likely learn despite bad coaching. A good coach is a curator of ideal positions and relevant context. We offer the good and purge the bad. How efficient are we, though, if we spend weeks teaching all conceivable points of a Deadlift, and then promptly need to teach a whole new set of habits because the lessons in the Deadlift don’t apply? Again, the Deadlift can teach movement lessons relevant to the Swing, so use it, emphasize what is essential, but move on.

    I’ve seen it dozens of times: the Deadlift is deemed satisfactory, and it’s time to Swing. Someone is instructed to do what they have been doing, just faster, and it’s all arms and vertical force projection. Why? Because you never taught the proper path of the kettlebell. Why are you so shocked when someone stands up quickly and does a shoulder raise? It’s what you taught that person to do! There is a necessary step missing, and that’s teaching the actual swinging motion and the proper force vector. We teach the Baby Swing for this reason (not done with actual babies). Coaches miss that extra step because they don’t realize the key differences between a Swing and a Hinge. If one thinks Swings and Hinges are the same, just different speeds, why spend time connecting dots thought to be already connected?

    Another problem can arise because Hinges teach no awareness of what happens behind the body. Sure, your backside works, but the implement never passes behind you. The Deadlift doesn’t prepare for this reality, which is another reason you are cueing lots of back and shoulder motion by tricking someone into believing the Swing is a fast Hinge. The necessary force needs to come from somewhere. As you’ve prepared someone to think that the Deadlift is all one needs to prepare for a Swing, they are going to look within the reference point you have offered, so the only options to increase force production are more back, more shoulder, and more quads.

    Because Swings rely, in part, on the stretch-shorten cycle to move the weight, they require elasticity: the bell must move back to move forward. But you only taught vertical force, not horizontal.

    Speaking of quads, you must use them for good Swings. When there is so much emphasis on hinging, people forget their quads. Though most Swings start with overuse of the quads, this insistence on “hingeing” can foster neglect of the quads. They are between the floor and the kettlebell, so use them. I’ve cleaned up quite a few veteran Swingers only by cueing knee extension. Knee extension has been forgotten, from their reporting, because there is so much emphasis on the hips. Some people must Swing with excessive hip extension because of anthropometrics, but not to the degree that it becomes inefficient, or it excludes knee extension. If your Swings bring your torso almost parallel with the ground, reevaluate your form. You are likely emphasizing too much Hinge.

    The final point that causes lots of trouble is arm position. Though you want your arms close during the Deadlift, there is no integration of the arms and the torso as during the Swing. For the shoulders to get over the bell in a proper deadlift, the arms can’t be in contact with the body. You are teaching motion without arm-to-body contact. Again, you can teach the necessary connection after the Deadlift, but it’s key to explain that the Deadlift only teaches motion through the hips with a neutral spine. Beyond that, leave the Deadlift alone – unless you are deadlifting.

    Coaching consderations

    Beyond the theoretical inaccuracies of classifying Hinges and Swings the same way, this faulty parallelism will also skew a coach’s eye. For those unable to perform the hip-dominant Swing, coaches are inclined to misperceive and misevaluate proper Swing form. Kettlebellers are frequently coerced into form that they can’t pull off. I’ve even seen coaches who think they have great Swing form not use much hip extension at all – these people have strong backs, and rather than explosive hip extension, they become adept at training explosive back extension. These movement flaws are often undetected because the motion happening at the spine is quick and subtle. The back itself doesn’t change shape much as it’s locked into a rigid arch. Movement usually happens higher up in the mid-back, where few people think to look, or further down with what looks like quick internal and external rotation at the hips (these people have a lot of lateral knee movement). These errors go undetected when coaches evaluate according to shape: does the kettlebeller look, in silhouette, as though they are hinging? If so, the movement is deemed “correct” regardless of significant flaws.

    Once you have determined the nature of how a kettlebeller must Swing, you can place that Swing within a training continuum or categorize it in a way that helps you manage stresses or balance movement. But this continuum is for you, as a coach, to make your job easier, and not something about which your client needs to know. Consider the situation from a trainee’s perspective. As a coach, you may understand the similarities and differences between the Swing and the Hinge, but what do you gain by explaining these similarities to someone learning the Swing? While it seems useful to say, “we will move through the hips in the Swing in a similar way to the Deadlift,” stating that these two movements are related beyond that is likely to be of little help. You are speaking from an experienced, even advanced position. Though it may seem simple to you, you ask a trainee to take one experience and compare it to another, who can’t likely distinguish the nuances between the two. Even if you think similar classification has merit, to teach similarity is self-indulgent, more confusing than elucidating, and in short, a bunch of trainer nonsense that screams “see how smart I am?!?!” without offering a benefit to a kettlebeller.

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