What Do Kettlebell Swings Work? Kettlebell Swings Muscles Worked Guide

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The kettlebell swing exercise is primarily a hip hinge type of movement, so kettlebell swing workouts can help improve your performance for deadlifts, hip thrusts, and other hip hinge exercises.

Additionally, the kettlebell swing is said to be one of the best full-body exercises.

But what does the kettlebell swing work in terms of muscles? Are the kettlebell swings muscles worked truly all of the major muscles of the body for a full-body exercise?

In this kettlebell swings muscles worked exercise guide, we will discuss how to perform kettlebell swings and the muscles worked by kettlebell swings to help you maximize the benefits of your kettlebell training workouts.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Kettlebell Swing?
  • How To Perform A Kettlebell Swing
  • Kettlebell Swings Muscles Worked

Let’s dive in! 

Two people doing kettlebell swings.

What Is a Kettlebell Swing?

Before we look at the kettlebell muscles worked list, it helps to understand what a kettlebell swing is, and even a step back from that—what is a kettlebell?

As a strength training implement, kettlebells were actually originally created in Russia, where they are called girya, and many of the most popular kettlebell exercises for strength and power are taken from the Russian kettlebell training style using these implements.

Interestingly, although Russian kettlebell exercises have been mainstream in that culture for years, the kettlebell was originally used in Russia as a weight by which the relative weight of various goods was evaluated (like on a comparative balance scale to assess the weight of an unknown product vs kettlebell known weight).

Eventually, kettlebells worked their way into Russian strength competitions.

Now, kettlebell training is popular worldwide, particularly with CrossFit kettlebell exercises and CrossFit training programs, though other athletes also use kettlebells for power and strength exercises.

The kettlebell swing is a great total-body conditioning exercise and an excellent kettlebell exercise for metabolic conditioning (met-con) workouts and CrossFit workouts, and one of the most popular kettlebell exercises for all fitness levels.

Kettlebell swings, like any strength training exercise, can be used to increase strength in the various muscles worked by kettlebell swings, but they also can build power, burn calories, and improve cardiovascular fitness.

How To Perform A Kettlebell Swing

Understanding the proper kettlebell swing technique is paramount to preventing injuries and making sure you are targeting the right kettlebell swing muscles.

Here are the steps for how to do a kettlebell swing:

  1. Stand upright with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, gripping the side/top of the kettlebell handle with each hand (one hand around each “corner” or bend of the handle top).
  2. Your arms should be fully extended so the kettlebell is hanging down in front of your body.
  3. Keep your heels firmly planted, but allow a gentle knee bend.
  4. Engage your core and glutes as you press through your heels and explode through your hips to drive the kettlebell upward until it’s roughly chest height with your arms fully extended out in front of you.
  5. Control the kettlebell as it descends back down. Allow the weight to swing backward through the space between your legs. Keep your glutes and lower back tight.
  6. At the end of the arc of the swing, snap your hips forward again to drive the kettlebell back up to chest height.
  7. Move in a smooth and seamless pattern from rep to rep without stopping.
A kettlebell swing.

Kettlebell Swings Muscles Worked

Among the many benefits of kettlebell swings, one of the major draws of the kettlebell swing exercise is the fact that the list of kettlebell swings muscles worked is long and impressive.

In short, the kettlebell swing is essentially a full-body exercise, so the muscles worked by KB swings span the anterior side of the body, posterior side of the body, upper-body muscles, lower-body muscles, and core muscles.

That said, because the kettlebell swing is primarily a hip hinge movement like the deadlift, the primary muscles worked by kettlebell swings are the posterior chain muscles.

These include the erector spinae group in the lower back, the traps and rhomboids in the middle and upper back, the glutes in your butt, the hamstrings along the back of your thighs, and the calves.

According to a research study conducted by ACE Fitness, kettlebell swings are one of the most effective hamstring exercises, and studies have found that the kettlebell swing exercise is a highly effective movement for improving functional strength.

A kettlebell swing.

Kettlebell swings also work the posterior deltoids and rotator cuffs in the back of the shoulders, as well as the anterior deltoids and a bit of the middle deltoid on the front and center portion of the shoulder muscles.

As long as you are properly bracing your core when you perform a kettlebell swing, this full-body exercise also activates the abdominal muscles.

These include the rectus abdominis and the internal and external obliques on the sides of your abs to help provide a stable trunk and core and prevent rotation of the trunk.

The deep transversus abdominis core muscle should be another muscle worked by kettlebell swings as long as you are breathing properly and tightening your core throughout the duration of the exercise.

The benefit of performing dynamic exercises like the kettlebell swing to strengthen the core muscles—and the deep transversus abdominis, in particular—is that engaging the core muscles with such a dynamic, explosive exercise works the core muscles in a functional way.

The entire function of the core is to stabilize the spine and provide a reliable, stable base of support for the pelvis and shoulder girdle from which the legs and arms can either move or remain stationary.

A kettlebell swing.

With the kettlebell swing exercise, you have the opportunity to work your core muscles in exactly this way.

First of all, your entire spine is flexing and extending as the trunk swings forward like a pendulum.

Therefore, you have to engage the core muscles to keep the natural curves in the spine and a straight back.

You don’t want your back to round and your posture to crumble when the kettlebell drops down below your legs or behind your legs or hyperextend as the kettlebell is lifted up to chest height with the momentum of the kettlebell swing movement pattern.

The deep and more superficial core muscles worked by kettlebell swings also have to contract and engage to prevent rotation or lateral bending of the spine and to provide support and stability for the hips and pelvis.

Although the hips and legs move somewhat as you perform the hip hinge and pop your hips forward and back during the exercise with some amount of knee bend, your feet remain planted throughout the entire kettlebell swing movement.

A kettlebell swing.

This means that the core muscles, including the pelvic floor muscles and all of the small muscles of the hips and glutes, have to contract to keep your pelvis level and your hips stable despite the momentum of the weighted kettlebell swinging in front of and behind your body with explosive power.

The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles, which bookend the core, can also be considered KB swings muscles worked as they should be engaged along with the core. 

The pelvic floor muscles, as mentioned, stabilize the pelvis, while the diaphragm should be involved in how you breathe during KB swings.

If you’re bracing your core properly, the core muscles worked by KB swings should have some opportunity to contract concentrically (shortening), eccentrically (lengthening under tension), and isometrically (contracting to create tension but without shortening or lengthening).

In fact, studies have found that the kettlebell swing exercise is a highly effective movement for improving functional strength and decreasing the risk of low back pain.

This benefit of kettlebell swings is likely attributable to the core muscles strengthened by KB swings in a functional way.

A kettlebell swing.

In addition to the posterior chain and core muscles worked by kettlebell swings, another group of muscles worked are the grip muscles, such as the brachioradialis in the forearms and the wrist and finger flexor and extensor muscle groups.

Most people perform kettlebell swings with a heavy kettlebell, and you have to grip tightly onto the horn of the kettlebell with your hands to prevent the weight from slipping out of your grip and flying forward as you powerfully swing it around.

Long sets of kettlebell swings, such as trying to do 100 kettlebell swings a day, will build endurance in your grip strength muscles.

If you want to build strength in your grip strength muscles, you can target the grip strength kettlebell swing muscles worked with heavier kettlebells for fewer but very powerful and explosive reps of the exercise.

To further target the grip strength muscles worked with kettlebell swings, think about squeezing the horn of the kettlebell as tightly as possible, as if you are trying to melt the metal with the heat of your hand.

A kettlebell swing.

Even if the weight that you are using for kettlebell swings doesn’t necessitate such a tight squeeze on the kettlebell horn, using the mind-body connection and “over squeezing“ or really gripping the kettlebell handle will help increase the activation and workload on the grip strength muscles.

Finally, although the primary kettlebell swings muscles worked are the posterior chain muscles and core muscles, there is some activation of the anterior muscles, such as the quads and pectoralis major and minor muscles of the chest.

The quads are involved in kettlebell swings when you bend your knees into a mini squat and allow hip flexion when the kettlebell descends, particularly as it travels back behind the opening in your legs.

The muscles in your chest help drive the kettlebell upward and should be squeezed throughout the duration of the kettlebell swing because of the hand placement on the kettlebell.

You can learn more about the benefits and differences between kettlebells and dumbbells here.

A person holding the handle of a kettlebell.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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