The Art of Kettlebell Recycling

Backswing for hardstyle Swing, Clean and Snatch

What is kettlebell recycling?

It is efficiently recreating identical reps (e.g. of deadlift, squat, swing, press, clean, snatch) one after another without movement quality deteriorating and without wasting excess energy. 

Your ability to recycle well determines not only how long you can last in a training set, or how well you perform in any activity or sport, but how long your joints (knees, shoulders, spine) will last you in real life.

But before we tackle the best way to recycle our reps, we need to understand muscle contractions.

Concentric, Eccentric, Isometric – the three types of contractions.

When you stand UP during the Kettlebell Swing, your main mover muscles (glutes, hamstrings) contract and shorten against resistance. This phase is called a Concentric Contraction. This is the most effortful phase of the movement because you are moving in direct opposition to the force of resistance (in this case, gravity)

When you hinge BACK into the backswing, your main muscles (hamstrings, glutes) have to lengthen against resistance. This is called an Eccentric Contraction and it might feel less effortful because you are going WITH gravity. However, it is actually a more challenging maneuver for your muscles and nervous system. I’ll explain later why exactly that is.

Finally, when you momentarily pause at the bottom and at the top of the swing, your hamstrings and glutes don’t lengthen nor do they shorten. Instead they stay contracted while maintaining the same length (fully lengthened at the bottom, and fully shortened at the top). This is called Isometric Contraction and it is physiologically the easiest of the three to execute against resistance. However, of course it is not that easy.

So, why is it not easy to perform Eccentric Contraction (lengthen against resistance)?

Think about it, on the backswing (when you’re hinging down), your hamstrings are still contracting WHILE lengthening with gravity. You might be thinking, why do my muscles need to contract while lengthening with gravity? Wouldn’t it be easier for them to just relax and let the gravity pull me down? 

No. That would be a disaster actually.

To better understand this, picture the act of bungee jumping. The bungee cord lengthens while resisting gravity as it allows you to gradually slow down your descent before you rebound back up. If the bungee wasn’t there, you would die. If the bungee was just relaxed, you would still hit the ground with full force. If the bungee was a normal rope that couldn’t stretch, you would experience a whiplash when the rope reaches full length, or the rope would tear under the sudden strain and you would fall. The bungee absorbs the pressure of gravity by gradually lengthening and slowing your descent down before you stop and reverse course.

Your hamstrings and glutes do the same job as a bungee cord when you hinge your hips into the backswing. They slow down and control your descent, which means they prevent themselves from reaching full length at top speed, which would tear them and lead you to crash head-first into the ground. By doing that, they also greatly improve their tensile strength and elastic capacity, because unlike a bungee cord your muscles and tissues are living material that gets stronger as it gets used. That’s why exercise is so important to a human body. Your body is an antifragile entity, which means it gets stronger by overcoming manageable stress. (for a better understanding of the term ‘Antifragile’ applied to more than bodies, read Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile’)

When applying the three types of muscle contraction to training, you can emphasise one of them more than others.

Emphasising Concentric contraction (the UP phase of the swing) is great for training speed and power. This is the sport of Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting and kettlebell ballistics (however, kettlebell ballistics – Swing, Clean, Snatch – use more eccentric contraction that Olympic Lifting, which is very good news for your body, because… see below).

Emphasising Eccentric contraction (the bungee jumping phase) is great for:

– increasing strength, 

– building muscle, 

– improving the health of ligaments, 

– injury prevention and rehabilitation

– improving active flexibility.

Most of strength and functional training, bodybuilding, rehab. 

Emphasising the Isometric Contraction is great for:

  • Teaching muscular control
  • Achieving full body tension
  • Activating dormant muscles
  • Safest form of training

This is done in the first stages of rehabilitation, gymnastics poses (e.g. the iron cross, the planche), yoga, pilates and kettlebell mobility.

Kettlebell Recycling is an Eccentric contraction performed at high speeds, akin to bungee jumping. 

The Recycle

The multiple recycling of a ballistic movement (Swing, Snatch, Clean, Jerk), aka the essentric phase, is what makes kettlebell training so uniquely potent. 

Then why is it often neglected in technique practice? For the same reason it is avoided altogether in Olympic Lifting – because the lifting up is the ‘sexy’ part. It’s the ‘look how strong I am’ bit. The lowering phase is when nobody is looking, right?

Wrong.

The recycle is where the magic happens. Just as your biggest, strongest and most functionally useful muscles (butt, back and hamstrings) are NOT the ones you see in the mirror, so the phase of the lift that best builds those powerful muscles is the one you are most tempted to ignore – the lowering phase aka the eccentric contraction, aka the Recycle.

The recycle makes us stronger, healthier, more flexible and less injury-prone.

The Art of Kettlebell Recycling.

The principles of recycling the kettlebell are as follows: 

1) Maximize the use of big strong muscle groups and minimize the use of small, easily exhausted muscle groups. 

2) Plug up energy leaks.

3) Move around the kettlebell, don’t make it move around you. 

4) Commit to good technique. 

Let’s break it down:

1) Maximize the use of big strong muscle groups and minimize the use of small, easily exhausted muscle groups. 

You are only as strong as your weakest link, so preventing the unnecessary exhaustion of smallest muscles is the name of the game with kettlebell recycling, and in any physical activity in general.

While the kettlebell at the top of the swing is ‘floating weightless’, the falling kettlebell at the bottom of the backswing is 2-6 times the weight of a stationary one. This means if you have just snatched a 16kg kettlebell, it’ll be at least a 32 kg kettlebell that you are catching in the backswing. That’s a lot of loading on the body. That’s where the gold is, but that’s also where the dragon lies. As Professor of Clinical Psychology Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto says: ‘to get the gold, you must slay the dragon’.

Remember that Concentric – moving against gravity – is where you are weakest, Essentric – moving with gravity – is where you are moderately strong, and Isometric – not moving at all – is where you are strongest, you would want to use the largest muscles in the concentric and eccentric fashion (shortening and lenthening) and smallest muscles in Isometric fashion (staying put).

Your largest muscle groups are glutes, hamstings and lats.

Your smaller muscle groups are traps, rotator cuff, shoulders, biceps, triceps, spinal erectors, neck erectors, forearms.

So, to recycle efficiently, you want only your glutes, hamastings and lats to shorten and lengthen under load. All the other working muscles should maintain as much an isometric contraction as possible, which is the least energy/demanding contraction. 

This means that:

a) Keep your back straight and neutral at all times. 

Keep all back and core muscles statically contracted. Not only will this decrease the risk of back injury, but it will also increase your continuous power output. Spinal erectors are small postural muscles and must stay in an isometric contraction throughout all heavy lifting and everyday living.

b) Keep your shoulder packed into the socket at all times. Not only will this decrease the risk of shoulder injury, but also increase your continuous power output. The rotator cuff are a group of small postural muscles which must stay in an isometric contraction throughout all heavy lifting, and pretty much throughout life too.

c) Keep your midsection braced continuously. 

There is a lot of attention on ‘visibly bracing the midsection’ at the top of the swing, snatch, clean etc. And it’s correct. The bracing of the midsection at the top of the movement prevents you from bending over backwards under the load and injuring your lumbar spine. However, it is during the backswing that the lower back is in most danger, especially at the very bottom of the swing. The kettlebell exerts tremendous forces on your spine at that moment, and there is no butt to save you – your glutes are not doing much in the hinged position (don’t believe me? Try hinging your hips back and squeezing your butt at the same time. Can’t do it? There is a good reason why ‘bending over’ means ‘assuming a vulnerable position’). So, in the absence of the stabilizing power of the glutes, it is the bracing of your midsection that prevents the lower back from being overloaded during the backswing. Brace your midsection at all times, and especially on the backswing. 

d) ‘Butt Commitment’. 

At the top of the swing, once you have squeezed your glutes, keep them squeezed, and don’t begin hinging back until your upper arm is in touch with your torso. Hinging means that your butt is no longer active, and you want to delay that moment as long as possible. Otherwise you will be putting an unnecessary strain on your midsection and lower back. In my YouTube video about the Seven Deadly Swinging Sins I call this error Butt Commitment Phobia. Don’t commit this error if you want to be a kettlebell ninja. 

Remember, small muscles groups like the lower back fatigue first, and if you want to have the most efficient and lasting power output, it is best to save those muscles any unnecessary work.

e) Keep your elbow straight on the backswing.

The elbow doesn’t exist in deadlifts and it doesn’t exist in the backswing either. The arm is just a rope attaching a kettlebell to the body. The biceps is a tiny group of muscles. If you engage the biceps by bending the elbow on the backswing, when the kettlebell is at its heaviest, you will either injure your biceps muscles and ligaments, or your body will severely curtail its power output so as not to injure its biceps. Don’t do it.

e) keep your kettlebell arm connected to your torso all through the backswing. 

When you go hiking in the mountains, do you carry a) a suitcase or b) a backpack? 

When you carry a heavy object like a small child, do you a) hold it close to your body or b) hold it out in front of you in outstretched arms?

In both cases, the correct answer is b). 

Wearing the backpack keeps the weight close to your centre of mass (the torso) which makes it much easier to control and move with. Conversely, holding the weight out makes it difficult to manage.

During the backswing in the Swing, Clean and Snatch, the arm must be made ‘one’ with the torso. You do that by ‘squeezing your armpits’ and pulling the arm into the torso using your lats (biggest muscle in the upper body). Without the lats, you will have to rely only on your small rotator cuff muscles (back of the shoulder) and once they cook, on upper traps (neck) to support the kettlebell. This leads to weaker consecutive reps plus, if habitually practiced, gives you headaches and shoulder problems due to overuse of upper traps, which destabilize your shoulders and pinch the flow of blood to your brain. 

Moral of the story? Make the kettlebell part of your torso on the downswing by connecting the upper arm to the torso before beginning to hinge back. Make the strongest muscles do all the heavy lifting and leave the little guys to do their supporting jobs. 

2) Plug up energy leaks

The more joints the action requires to participate, the less powerful the action will be. 

That’s because you have a finite amount of power and that power needs to travel from the source (the hips) to the objective (the kettlebell) with minimal dilution. Every unstable or misaligned joint that the stream of power encounters on the way – spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists – is a potential power leak. 

All sport performance and human functionality can be reduced to a powerful hip hinge and stable surrounding structures. Therefore, in a movement that trains the hip hinge (kettlebell swing) the hip is the primary joint that is moving. All other joints are secondary.

Limit moving joints to the essentials. Do not move any joints unnecessarily.

This means that you want to:

– Keep your pelvis neutral at all times. Avoid tilting your pelvis in either direction. Don’t be the Elvis Pelvis. Move from the hips, not the pelvis.

– Pack your shoulders. Unpacking your shoulders – aka poor posture – is the biggest energy leak after Elvis Pelvis.

– Keep your neck neutral. Craning the neck might be okay in the slow sports like Powerlifting (even though I would argue it is not the best practice for life-long health) but in the high-repetition world of kettlebell swings and snatches, performing 100s of rapid whiplash ‘nods’ with your head in the space of 10 minutes is not conducive to a healthy spine.

3) Move around the kettlebell, don’t make it move around you. 

What is the shortest distance between two points? 

A straight line.

When lifting and lowering a heavy weight, and especially doing so at speed, you want to have that weight travel in as straight a line aka the shortest possible distance between point A and point B.

When recycling the kettlebell, you want to keep it as close to the centerline of your body (the vertical ‘stack’ of ankles-knees-hips-shoulders-elbows) as possible.

What does this mean for recycling the clean? 

To initiate the drop, lean slightly back as you let the kettlebell fall – close to your body – and pull it into the backswing, where your arm is connected with your torso. What you DON’T want to do is stand ramrod straight and throw the kettlebell forward as if you are casting a fishing line. That doubles the path of the kettlebell, not to mention throws off your balance taking your weight from heels to toes and disengaging your posterior chain.

What does this mean for recycling the Jerk? 

Drop the kettlebell into the rack in as straight a line as possible, neatly folding your elbows through the front of your body and into your torso. What you don’t want to do is flare your elbows out to the sides. You’d think this is simple, but try and perform a few jerks in front of a mirror, or better yet film yourself in slow motion. Most people find out that they are flaring their elbows and having their kettlebells travel in an arc rather than a straight line. You want the bells to drop straight down into the rack, rather than sending them on a scenic route and wasting valuable energy that you could be using for your next rep.*

NOTE: in non-ballistic movements aka grinds, like the Overhead Press, even though you will not be dropping the kettlebells into the rack, you still want to practice an efficient return. The kettlebell travels the same path but it does that slowly. This will build strength in your triceps – a vitally important muscle that ensures shoulder health and upper body strength but is vastly underused in the modern public, not least because of questionable technique allowed to proliferate in gyms and fitness classes (e.g. flared elbows during push ups).

Finally, what does this mean for recycling the Snatch? 

Same as in the Clean, having snatched the weight up, you will initiate the recycle by leaning slightly back as you flip the bell over (note, this doesn’t mean arching your back and stickig your ribs out. Instead it means leaning your entire body back a fraction, literally shifting your weight to accommodate the shift in the kettlebell position), and allowing the kettlebell to descend as close to your body as practically possible, pulling it into the backswing.*

*NOTE you must actively pull the kettlebell into the backswing using your lats. Just having it drop down will yank on your arm, wasting energy, overusing your rotator cuff and neck, and potentially rip the skin of your palms. Use your lats to pull the kettlebell into backswing. You’re the boss of it, keep it tamed.

4) Commit to good technique.

It takes 500 hours to acquire a new movement habit aka make the motor pattern unconscious. It takes 20, 000-30,000 reps to break a bad movement habit.

But here’s the catch: during those 500 hours, you don’t want to have too many bad reps. Every time you have a bad rep, your body learns a different movement pattern.

It takes 20,000 – 30,000 reps to unlearn a bad habit. Habits are hard to break.This is why it is so much easier to train a brand new novice to kettlebell excellence rather than somebody who has learned wrong and has ingrained those bad habits over the years. 

Learning right from the beginning is the best, but do not despair if you have acquired some bad habits, we all have some of those. Simply commit to not doing that again and only using the right technique from now on. Don’t count the reps done with bad technique. Make every rep look the same as your first one. If your technique even hints at deteriorating – correct course or stop and recover. 

What would serve you well is prioritizing good form over any of the following – intensity, heavier kettlebell size, faster speed, working off frustration or showing off. The body understands only reps. It will automate whatever you do repeatedly. It doesn’t know whether it is automating bad technique or good technique, that’s not its job. It’s your brain’s job. 

This is also the best use of a coach, to teach you the difference between good reps and bad reps. Have your coach not count bad reps and only count good ones and watch yourself learn at an accelerated rate. The body and brain hate wasted effort and using this technique in our school produces stellar results.

What part of kettlebell recycling do you find most challenging?  

As always, please place your questions and comments below.

Kat Tabakova

October 2020

Published by Kat's Kettlebell Dojo

Kettlebell Dojo is a philosophy that is about making your training time-efficient and maximally effective by consistently performing high-quality functional movements. In addition to being a bookworm, Kat is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Strong First SFG Level II Instructor, Girevoy coach, Nutrition coach, Jump Rope, and Crossfit Gymnastics coach.

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