You will start to think about how to transition to one-handed swings as you gain strength and capability in the two-handed swings. The progression phase is an important part of advancing in kettlebell swing strength. A solid transition to the one-handed swing, without making jumps too large, sets the stage for a longer run of injury-free training.
The longer you take to get to a higher level of strength, the longer you will stay there. This is a good thing. Strength training is not just about handling more weight. It is also about learning to handle the same load better. You can gain strength using the same weight over a period of time because of your continued adaptation to the movement. In the time frame of a lifetime, you can think of progressions in terms of months and even years.
The move from two-handed to one-handed swings can be applied to many different areas of life, both in and outside of strength training. Before you advance in kettlebell weight, you advance in technique and master the one-handed swing. In any skill involving tools or a set of knowledge, you can obtain longevity at a high degree of performance by first mastering a level before attempting to step into the next level.
Indications for Advancement
You’ll need to recognize when it’s time to move on to the next level. Every size of kettlebell you use will bring you through similar phases of instability and struggle before mastery. This is also true for the progression from two-handed to one-handed swings.
The first sign that you are ready to transition from two-handed swings to one-handed swings is a feeling that you are rock solid on the ground doing the two-handed swing. Your feet are rooted and your legs are as stable as tree trunks. Your shoulders and arms can transition smoothly between tight and loose in an instant. You no longer feel that the weight is yanking you around. Instead, you are now the center around which the iron orbits.
At this stage of development, you have full and easy control of the kettlebell as it pulls you forward at the top of the swing. There is little effort in keeping it back, or “taming the arc” as Pavel Tsatsouline puts it. You can consistently “pop” the weight at the top so that it floats at the apex. You find that you can let go of the handle and readjust your grip in that moment of weightlessness.
You can instantly engage your lats as you guide the kettelbell back down through your legs. It feels as though the kettlebell were stationary at the top – gone are they days of catching up to the bell as it drops.
You are confident in your grip. There’s no question about whether you can keep the handle secured, at any stage of the swing. You’ve learned to time your swing to maximize the centripetal force on your fingers and to minimize slippage.
You can’t force any of this. It will come naturally with practice. If you do not feel this level of ease with your training load, that’s called normal. Continue on your path, swinging with two hands, until you not only begin to feel some of these elements of increased strength, but you notice them daily in every part of your swings.
Not only should you feel ease with the swings, but you should feel comfort and familiarity with the kettlebell. The iron ball is your old friend, your trusted teacher, and your unwavering implement of physical justice. Train until you become intimately familiar with how it behaves. Stay with the weight until you are a master of controlling its direction and speed, with two hands and then with one. You’ll find that this takes a mix of brute strength and skill. As your skill increases, you can use less brute strength. Aside from paying attention to form and technique, there is nothing you can do to get to this level except to continue with the same weight. Let it feel hard at first, and find that it becomes easier. Put in the time and accept the lessons.
We’re not talking weeks here. For most people, a natural progression of strength with one kettlebell can take months and years. This was as true for me training with the 16kg as it is now training with the 32kg kettlebell. The heavier the bell, the exponentially longer the progressions took. Without forcing myself to progress to one handed swings, I naturally learned over a few months on the 16kg, and over two years on the 32kg.
The First Rep
Once you are ready for the one-handed swing, start with single practice reps for each side. Commit to doing a full single rep with one hand, and park the bell. It will better prepare you to cleanly execute the movement.
The very first one handed swing will require absolute focus on form and a great deal of tension. As with a heavy deadlift, keep everything tight. Plant the feet and spread the floor, knees pulling outward and keeping torque in the pelvis. Keep your belly tight. The loaded shoulder needs to be packed in its socket, back and down.
Be ready to withstand a very heavy, twisting pull downward as you hike back the bell with one hand. Even though the weight is the same, the load is much greater held in just one hand. There is also going to be a twist on your spine. Keep your torso as straight as possible, but realize that your torso will twist to some extent.
Hike back the kettlebell hard, feeling the backs of your legs and butt stretch with the momentum. Bring it all the way back, until your forearm stops against your inner thigh. Let the iron naturally pendulum forward.
Suck in air through your nose during the bottom phase of the swing. Hold your breath in until you swing up.
On the upswing, all power comes from your hips. Your arm is simply there to keep the weight from flying away. Come to a tall stand, driving your hips all the way forward with an explosive snap. You want to make the kettlebell float at the top from your momentum.
As the kettlebell pulls your arm forward, pull back on it from your shoulder blade.
You’ll need to angle your arm in to keep the kettlebell between your legs on the down swing. At first this will feel like a great effort, but gradually it will become second nature. Don’t worry about hitting your knee or leg on the way down. Just focus on pulling the kettlebell back through your legs, and you’ll be fine. Over the last several years I’ve done at least one hundred thousand swings, and for every single one I brought the iron back cleanly through the legs.
Practice one rep in this manner until you are able to muster the power to thrust the bell to a pop at the top. The kettlebell doesn’t have to swing above your belly button. Even if it stops at pelvis level, that’s okay. Do not pull the kettlebell higher with your arm or by bending your torso backward. Actively use your arm and your lat for the down swing, which at this stage will simply be to guide the kettlebell back. Let gravity pull the kettlebell down, with a small amount of additional force from your lat.
Infuse One-Handed Swings into Your Sets
The next step is to incorporate one-handed swings into a couple of your two-handed swing sets. Start with sets 5 and 6, which is the third set for each hand. Do the first two swings one-handed, and finish the set two-handed. Here’s how.
Start the set with one-handed swings. Pop the kettlebell at the top of the second swing, square your shoulders, and grip the handle with the other hand so you have both hands on the kettlebell. Don’t worry about getting a perfect grip with the other hand – just good enough to stay on the bell and swing it back down. Guide the kettlebell between your legs with an inhale and explode back up with a two-handed swing. You can adjust your grip at the top of this swing. Finish your set two-handed. The reps will look like this:
Set 5: R, R, T, T, T, T, T, T, T, T
Set 6: L, L, T, T, T, T, T, T, T, T
Depending on your coordination, this may take a couple of tries to get right. If you fail to grip up with the other hand, you have two options. If you still have a good grip with one hand and a good stance, swing the bell back and then park it. If your stance or grip is compromised, let the bell fly safely in front of you. Do not reach or bend forward to try to catch it. This could end your short kettlebell career with a back injury.
Once you become comfortable with the switch to two-handed swings mid-set, you can slowly progress to more reps one-handed. Increase by no more than one per training session. So when you feel strong with the first swing one-handed and then the rest of the nine swings two-handed, the next day increase to two swings one-handed and the latter eight swings two-handed.
Measure your strength over both sides. Wait on progressing to five one-handed swings on the right side if your left side is still mastering four. Remember, the progression phase itself is building your strength. No matter how many training sessions you clock in with the same weight and the same number of one-handed swings, you are getting stronger.
Depending on the kettlebell and your strength, the progression to all ten swing sets, one-handed, can take a couple of weeks or several months. Once you’re able to strongly perform four sets on each side, and have started to do the final fifth set one-handed, it’s time to work toward mastery of the one-handed swing.