Ask Bret Contreras (ABC): Why Swings Over Jump Squats and Oly Lifts?

Hey folks, today I got an article published on TNation on kettlebell swings. Actually, on “Heavy-Ass Kettlebell Swings” (HAKS). Click HERE to read the article. One coach asked me a question on Facebook and I thought it would be nice to answer here on the blog.

Bret, nice article. You said you like the swing better than Olympic lifts and squat jumps for football players. Besides possibly being easier on the joints, what kinds of performance enhancements might we see with the swing over the other said ballistic movements? Do we know of any results/data/case studies that in fact reflect this? – Aaron

Hi Aaron,

I have no results/data/case studies to support my proposal. This answer is purely theoretical as I’m currently not training football players – right now I train a bunch of bikini models out of my condo.

Let me state up front that I think that Oly lifts and jump squats rock and I’m definitely not a “hater.” However, as you know, there are so many great exercises and coaches simply cannot perform all of them. I’d like to mention that I wouldn’t expect for my approach to be significantly superior to other approaches, but whatever you can do for that “extra inch” helps, right?

If I’m a football coach, I’d of course have my guys doing plyos and sprints. We’d also be squatting – probably front squatting. I’d want at least one explosive lift to help bridge the gap between high force and high velocity movements, and Oly lifts, jump squats, and kb swings are each good options. However, since we’d already be doing squats and plyos, I’d nix the jump squats. And I feel that while Oly lifts are excellent power moves, I think the heavy kb swing is easiest to teach/learn, and also the most effective of the bunch for the hips. So the Oly lifts would be nixed too, in favor of the heavy kb swing. This doesn’t mean that we’d never jump squat or Oly lift (or back squat), but the majority of the time we’d probably front squat and heavy kb swing.

- One of Glenn Pendlay‘s guys swinging the 203 pounder -

I actually think that heavy kb swings do pose a fair amount of risk in terms of injury, so it would be very important to provide quality instruction to the athletes. Therefore I wouldn’t expect to see greater of lesser injury rates compared to jump squats and Oly variations. I would predict that Oly lifts and jump squats on their own would be better movements for vertical jump transfer and axial power, but I would predict that heavy swings by themselves would be the best movement for sprinting transfer and anteroposterior power.

However, it’s the combination of lifts that matter, and the combined adaptations imposed from heavy squatting and swinging along with plyos and sprints would be optimal for jumping and sprinting performance in my opinion. But the swings would be heavy and the athletes would learn to swing well.

If a coach went with any combination of back squat/front squat along with power clean/power snatch/heavy kb swing (and tossed in some posterior chain work such as hip thrusts, back extensions, American deadlifts, and glute ham raises), I can’t see him going wrong. As previously mentioned, I don’t think the results using the combo I proposed would be incredibly different than other good combos, for example back squats and power cleans. But personally, I’d probably go with the front squat and heavy kb swing and I’d hypothesize that this approach would lead to slightly greater speed adaptations due to slightly superior hip extension power (with no losses in jumping ability).

Just my two cents! Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m wrong :)

- BC

38 thoughts on “Ask Bret Contreras (ABC): Why Swings Over Jump Squats and Oly Lifts?

    1. Bret Post author

      Santiago, read the TNation article and check out the references at the end, they contain links. But I got the heaviest one on eBay…type in “Monster Kettlebell” on Google. The link you posted was to a Skorcher. I made that. I don’t manufacture them, sorry!

      Reply
  1. Sven

    Hi,
    Could you please explain why you’d go with the front squat rather than back squat?
    Also, forgive me if this is a silly question, but how far can you get with dumbbell swings?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Hi Sven, it’s just harder to screw up! You don’t see “squat mornings” with front squats. The db swings are okay, especially if you have longer arms. But they’re a bit awkward to hold. I haven’t done them in years, but once upon a time a did 120 pound db swings with no problem, so I suppose you could go as heavy as your gym allowed (usually 120′s).

      Reply
      1. Sven

        Thank you. I agree about the front squats, and, I’m going to try dumbbell swings (no kettlebells at the gym, but heaviest db is 135lbs, cheers!

        Reply
  2. Jesse

    @santiago no need to buy a heavy (and very expensive) kettlebell that you’ll likely never use for anything but swings. look here : http://www.strongergrip.com/modular-plateau-buster/ A much more cost effective option to be sure. There are also plans floating around for homemade kettlebell handles made of steel pipe and fittings, iirc Bud Jeffries had some plans on his website…

    Reply
  3. martin

    Hi Bret

    this is a comment on the t-nation article. it was beyond excellent. When the day comes that physical exercise becomes an official religon, they would need a conon of scriptures, a bible, if you will. This article would be one of the scriptures in that bible.
    i would like to comment on a guest post on training frequencey. frankly, i was disappointed. it was the best of broscience. by that i dont mean to be disrespectful to the author, but it was about experience, not science. experience is good, but to the true affacionado experience is like the bikini on a pretty girl, it makes you want to see what is behind it.
    contrast that with the bret contreras we know and love.
    the bret contreras who would stand on a force plate and swing a 200lb heavy ass kettlebell to tell us what forces it produces.
    the bret contreras who has such confidance in his masculinity that he would wear black tights and stick electrodes on his butt to tell us about glute activation.
    Please, Bret, this topic of frequency begs for comments on Brian Haycock’s position supporting high frequency because of 36hrs of protein synthesis, pavel’s ‘grease the groove” and martin berkhans low frequency. where is the science? we need you, bret. please YOU do an article on frequency.

    martin

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Martin, that’s one hell of a compliment! Thanks man! I will definitely write about HFT in the future. I have a bunch of thoughts and notes on the topic but need to find time to put it together. There is some literature on the topic, but the practical advice I have to share is even better IMO. Cheers! BC

      Reply
    2. Jae

      I’m 32 and this is my first time EVER commenting online I’ve been a big fan of ur work from the start and have helped many woman with ur information but to Martin’s request for body comp other than diet there’s nothing more important than this frequency question so what is it papa???

      Reply
  4. Aaron Schwenzfeier

    Thanks for your answer Bret. So being a matter of opinion, mine would be that Olympic lifts trump swings.

    Trying to think this through (because of minimal data)… it seems as though a swing creates a much greater horizontal force component than vertical force (otherwise we would see the athletes feet leave the ground). During absolute sprinting (point in which horizontal force MAY become a slight factor) the velocity of hip extension would far exceed that of a 90+kg kettlebell swing, making it a bit irrelevant in faster sprinting… ??? My take is that at absolute speed, the majority of the force work of overcoming inertia has been taken care of, so my guess then is that if the swing were at all effective, lighter loads would be equally, or more effective, than heavy-ass kettlebells. Yet a clean creates a tremendous amount of vertical force, effective in assisting the acceleration phase… ??? So, at least the clean effects some component of sprinting (acceleration), plus many other abilities that require handling vertical forces in relation to the body.

    This is probably an old Elitetrack.com discussion so I apologize for the redundancy.

    I guess my next question would be what number of reps are we talkinig about for swings. Most American football demands are ATP-PC in nature, doesn’t swings for reps exceed this specific demand, or at least the maximal peaks of explosive movements. Or can one swing close to a 1 rep max to create this type of stimulus?

    And… my guess is that an athlete that can clean 150kg, could probably swing a 90kg kettlebell; but an athlete that can swing a 90 kg kettlebell doesn’t mean they can clean 150kg.

    Something tells me that a heavy clean/snatch does more for the entire organism of an athlete than a heavy KB swing… just my opinion.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Carl

      Good points. When the combine has 4.1 performances from 90 kilo KB work then, regardless of vectors and muscle recruitment factors I will going to dragon door. Even if we do see better performances we need to have it be repeatable, not because they deloaded from a SEC powerhouse with bodies forced by more conventional methods.

      Reply
      1. Bret Post author

        Carl, have you ever performed a heavy kb swing? I think you’d like them. Much different than lighter kb swings. Give them a try and see if you like them.

        Reply
        1. Carl

          I have done heavy KB swings and found them great for fitness but wouldn’t use them to develop fitness. The heaviest I have gone was 100lbs and it was ok but nothing that would entice me to give up other methods.

          I like them on my joints better than Squat Jumps but I am not an athlete anymore so it’s hard to compare. I think Zumba is great for people trying to loose weight but mixing fitness and performance isn’t always a fair mix.

          Reply
    2. Bret Post author

      Aaron,

      These are good questions. I wonder what the forces would be with Oly lifts compared to heavy kb swings. I have studies on power cleans, and the vertical forces are around 3,000 N for collegiate athletes I believe, can’t remember what the average weight of the subjects was (probably 185ish). So the heavy kb swing would probably create 70% of the vertical force of a power clean but it would have a much greater horizontal component.

      And sure the hip angular velocity is much greater in sprinting, but this doesn’t mean that slower velocities don’t positively impact sprint speed (we know that squats and Oly lifts enhance sprint speed as does towing).

      This is a good study idea as I don’t think I’ve seen any research on it – how much force is dissipated during each stride (or better yet, how much horizontal force is lost at max speed and therefore how much must the body produce in order to avoid slowing down)? Are you aware of any such research?

      And despite the vertical vs. horizontal forces argument, would you agree that the hip must produce sufficient joint torque at ground contact (to produce vertical force in addition to absorbing braking and reproducing propulsive forces)? And is this phase (ground contact) more important than the flight phase? If so, what is the hip joint angles associated with force production (maybe 30 degrees of flexion to around neutral)?

      And what are the joint torques at these ROMs in a heavy kb swing vs. Oly lifts? Is one better than the other? My guess would be that the kb swing is greater.

      Which muscles are activated better? I’d say glutes and hammies a bit higher in the kb swing, but quads, calves, and erectors a bit higher in the Oly lifts. But again, if you’re squatting and doing plyos, maybe the swing is more important?

      Again, I wouldn’t believe there would be a tremendous difference, and any respectable coach with experience knows this. But the swing is much easier to teach and may lead to less injuries (and beginner athletes could get a much better stimulus from swings since most of them initially suck at Oly variations).

      Can someone get good at heavy kb swings? Hell yes. I can do 5 reps and feel totally wiped out. Of course, it’ll never be a max effort (1RM) type of lift, but I don’t think that matters too much. But this is an excellent question and I’d expect for it to take time for athletes to build up this type of coordination/strength/power/etc.

      I agree – the heavy clean/snatch does more for the entire organism of an athlete than a heavy kb swing. But I believe the combo of squat plus heavy swing may be better than the combo of squat plus Oly variation.

      We’d need a training study for me to feel confident about that, but until that happens it’s okay to formulate educated opinions. Thanks for the great discussion!

      Reply
  5. Aaron Schwenzfeier

    Clarification: in terms of vertical force for acceleration, I meant in reference to the body, not the ground – as I understand that acceleration is more horizontal in acceleration and vertical at top speeds, when in reference to the ground.

    Reply
  6. Frank

    Hey just looking at some of these swings. Just a dang awesome exercise. Some thoughts: the arc of the swing is an application of the brachistochrone problem, as such there’s no sense in swinging the kettlebell above chest level. Over the course of a swinging workout, you can do more chest level swings than trying to hit forehead or higher. Even as low as 70lbs seems to keep me in deadlifting condition. This is the best hip website

    Reply
  7. Antonio

    Can swings be performed post squats or do you have to completly fresh? Also for max benefits for a sprinter substituting deads with swings what rep range would u use?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Of course they can be done post squats. Deads are an unbelievable exercise but many sprint coaches feel that Oly lifts (and in my case swings) are ideal as they can really drain the sprinters. If only one lift could be performed in a session, then I’d go with the deadlift for sprinters (a la Barry Ross’s approach). But if you do more, other combos may be better.

      Now, speed deads against bands might be optimal. 3-5 sets of 3 reps perhaps…

      Reply
      1. Antonio

        So, i have no access to a reverse hyper machine….I am doing these on a table and attatching plates to my ankles. Also which is best? strict or with using rebound at the bottom?

        Reply
  8. Dogan Tekin

    Hi guys,

    First of all, I must say this is a very interesting topic. I’ve been following your blogs for a while now Bret and i must say thank you for posting such interesting things which you atleast always (try) back up with facts. This case allthough is different. Like you said, it’s mainly theoratical.

    I think for sprinting and accelerating, (mainly) vertical force is superior to horizontal force like Aaron said. Thats why I myself would prefer cleans and squat variations over a high load of kb swing. I would use the KB swing, but not for the same reasons. Sprinting in my opinion is also a very difficult neurologicall thing. To know when to thighten and when to relax your muscles. The perfect form of these two will help you increase your sprinting aswell, therefore a KB swing would be very usefull. My thoughts, KB swings are very usefull but not superior…

    Thoughts?

    Ps. Sorry for my English, I’m giving the best i can here from Holland.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Disagree about vertical force. But as for the contraction/relaxation aspect of sprinting, if any resistance exercise can help improve it, it would indeed be the kb swing. You only know this once you get good at it as there’s a considerable explosion/relaxation hip snap. Great idea….I don’t know how you’d measure/study this though!

      Reply
      1. Carl

        The switch times are 5 x longer with KB swings than sprinting. Sometimes doing more of the specific work is better than attempts to mimic or do special exercises. Too much specific work has it’s risks as well so it’s all carefully balanced.

        Reply
        1. Dogan

          You dont have to mimic. I dont think it is necessary to use the same switch time. It’s important to know how to control your body in any excersize.
          To know and to realise when to relax and tighten your muscles in all types of excersizes. Like when you do cleans.. It’s also a different switch time.. But very usefull for your neurological control. I feel that this part is very important and much forgotten by trainers. Total body control to be more effective and efficiënt in the things you do.. Dont you think?

          Reply
  9. Carl

    The likelihood of a KB swing fixing sprinting technique is the same as a hurricane wind blowing through a junkyard and creating a jumbo jet. It could happen I would not bet money Dogan. KB swings are high rep activities and forcing loads isn’t going to happen. Even if you have a 85 Kilo swing it’s not the same and while it has some benefit I don’t see 150kilo Kbs to match the basic need of overload.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Carl, you’d need an analysis of joint torques in order to make a proper decision, and this has yet to be done. I suspect the heavy kb swing leads to higher hip (but less knee, ankle, and spinal) torques than Oly lifts. Your first sentence, however, might be true.

      Reply
      1. Carl

        Specific strength work has transfer limits. I do agree that differences exist, but that washes out when a complete program is used. As the lifting gets general it saves the specific work for track work. Sometimes muscle groups are lagging and then do catch up work if needed.

        Reply
  10. Andy...

    What bugs me is, I’m still yet to see any video’s, documentaries etc (and I’ve seen a lot) of World class sprinters performing any kind of anteroposterior exercises in the gym but masses amount of axial extension (squats, Olympic lifts, lunges) etc. I wonder if it be better to stick to the tried & tested?.

    Surely your going to be needing an awful amount of vertical lift if your going to try & contend with somebody like Bolt’s stride length or the upcoming promising Jamaican Kemar Bailey-Cole who stands at 6’4?.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Nothing wrong with sticking to tried and tested methods – they’ve been shown to work.

      I don’t believe you need much vertical lift to sprint at max speeds. You’re not trying to maximize them – they top out at 70% of speed.

      Also nothing wrong with experimenting. Lots of coaches, athletes, and sprinters have emailed me reporting success with anteroposterior methods. We need a series of studies (that are repeated like Carl said) before we can be confident. Until then, all we can do is hypothesize based on logic/science/available evidence/anecdotes/etc.

      You won’t be seeing 50% better results with one method vs. the other, a good program will have sprints along with varying levels of vert and horiz plyos, towing, axial hip ext lifts, and anteroposterior hip ext lifts. That’s just my opinion.

      Reply
  11. Anjuli

    Hi Bret, I just wanted to say thank you for the great article and options for making homemade Kettlebell. I did KB swings (with an actual KB) for the first time few days ago and absolutely loved it. I am doing it as part of my metabolic workout 3x per week. Since, KBs are very expensive, we bought the stuff from the hardware store to make our own and tonight will be my first time trying it with the T handle. Not sure if I’ll use a smaller pipe or regular one cuz, I’m only 5′ tall. Anyhow, just wanted to say thank you for the several ideas at the end as not many people do that.

    Reply
  12. Derrick Blanton

    Hey everyone, another budget option is to buy a spin lock dumbbell, and a couple of handle grip standard plates.

    Actually depending on how heavy you plan on going, you only NEED one handle grip plate, like a 5 or a 10, and then you can load up the other side with any type of plate. I’ve loaded over 100-lbs. using moderately sized 25′s, with great results. No need to go any heavier at this point, as I am a “swinging beginner”.

    Very inexpensive, and easy to progressively load. It works great!

    These swings are as much fun as I’ve had training in a long time!

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Kettlebell Swings: Go Heavier for Greater Glute and Hamstring Activation | Bret Contreras

  14. Pingback: Kettlebell Swings: Go Heavier for Greater Glute and Hamstring Activation | Entrenador Ricardo

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