Improving the Single Arm KB Swing (Without Actually Swinging)

I wasn't a quick convert to kettlebells. Coming from a background of barbells and dumbbells, only three kettlebell movements made sense to me - the get-up, two arm swings, and goblet squats. It was easy for me to see (and feel!) how these movements translated to everyday life and performance, even if I didn't know all the biomechanics at the time.


But the single arm swing? I avoided it. This was partly due to faults in my own swings (poor technique made them bug my elbows or my lower back). And it was also due to inertia - it's easier to remain myopic than think about how you could be wrong.

Man, what a difference five years makes.

I'm currently the only StrongFirst certified professional in Raleigh and most questions I'm asked are kettlebell related. And one of the most frequent questions I receive is: "How can I improve my single arm swing?" We've come full circle.

Joking aside, the demands of the single arm swing are distinct from the two arm swing. In the two arm swing, we work primarily in one plane of motion. But the unilateral element of the single arm swing helps our body experience and resist movement in all three planes of motion. This increases the demand on our rotary stability because our obliques, lats, and glutes must work harder and be in an optimal position to perform. This is the primary reason most people should include single arm swings in their program. It allows you to work in reciprocal and alternating movements.*

*And yes, this is different than drinking coffee in one hand and checking Instagram in the other.

Without the aid of our other hand, grip also can become an issue on a single arm swing.  Because the swing loads the grip in a very "plyometric" manner - it's not a balanced force throughout the movement - it often forces people to "overgrip" the kettlebell the entire time. This overgripping leads to callouses and blisters that didn't occur with the two handed variety, and keeping a "death grip" on the bell is very fatiguing on the body.

The solution to both of these problems? An underutilized but foundational movement - the single arm deadlift. 

Here are a few tips to help you with this lift:

  • To address the anti-rotational component of the swing, ensure your shoulders are completely square on the set-up and they remain that way for the rest of the lift. This position will force you to engage both obliques, but with a harder contraction on the "working" side. It will also allow you to feel the engagement of your lat on the working side, and the engagement of your glute on the opposite side.  
  • People will often lift the shoulder of the free hand, making for a very asymmetrical-looking lift. Your body will thank you for keeping your shoulder square.
  • With the grip, hold the bell only as tightly as you need. By using a looser grip, this will translate over to the swing and eventually help you avoid blisters. Too often the "overgripping" starts on foundational kettlebell movements, and avoiding it early helps prevent bad habits later on.

Beyond that - and not to be completely lame and self-serving - your best bet is to contact a certified StrongFirst instructor. They will be the best person to critique your technique, give you the proper cues, and ensure your safety.