Regress to Progress—Why Patterning is the Key to Fixing Your Swing

by Matt Beecroft on October 28, 2015

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Matt Beecroft Swing Setup

Matt Beecroft demonstrates the incorrect (left) and correct (right) position for starting a kettlebell swing

Movement quality underpins any good strength training system. The RKC has never been just about the kettlebell, it’s always been about learning to move better. And the key to moving better is often knowing the right time to progress an exercise—and when to regress. It can be challenging to know when to increase the movement challenge, complexity or difficulty of an exercise if you don’t have an RKC instructor to coach you. Fortunately, the RKC system also includes an awesome system for teaching the movements progressively and safely.

Sure, you could go out and learn 17 different techniques in other one or two day workshops… But not only will your personal proficiency in those lifts be suspect (unless you are an athletic freak, like our own Master RKC, Max Shank) but more importantly your ability to communicate and teach the information to others will also be questionable. This is especially true when attempting to coach someone who is new to training efficiently, safely, and effectively.

Also, the skill set of an athlete and a coach are very different. Many of your clients aren’t really interested in your amazing athleticism, they are much more interested in how amazing you can make them. We all know great athletes who are terrible coaches and vice versa.

The intelligent progression of exercises which teach how to get from “point A” to “point B” is what sets the RKC apart. If someone is having trouble mastering the swing, you probably know by now that trying to correct it is difficult. Because swings are ballistic, they’re fast, so trying to correct a client (or yourself) during an exercise like a swing can be almost impossible.

The first thing I want to emphasize that you must be patient with the steps leading up to the kettlebell swing. You will know if you have successfully completed the steps if you finally pick up the kettlebell and swing it with some grace and efficiency. But, if you have sped through the progressions too quickly, your swing will be ugly and dangerous. And then more problems will arise when you progress to the clean and the snatch—which should look exactly like a swing in many ways since your arms simply guide the kettlebell to these other positions while your hips do all the work. These more sophisticated exercises will amplify and illuminate all the flaws with your kettlebell swing technique.

Many people speed through the progressions in various exercises thinking that if they have to be patient and spend the time mastering the basics (note: basic doesn’t mean easy) or need to regress the exercise, then they have somehow failed or gone backwards. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

A few things happen when people try to outsmart the process, or jump ahead in the progressions:

  1. They find out that their swing is terrible and have many things to troubleshoot.
  2. They get injured.
  3. All of the above.

Either way, they will end up spending much more time ironing out their kettlebell swing issues. Hopefully they will go to an RKC Workshop to learn the “a-ha drills” we teach to troubleshoot and save time. Otherwise, they risk getting sidelined by injury instead of patiently mastering the progressions and enjoying the journey. Speeding ahead with load and intensity usually causes limited or dysfunctional movement patterns, if adequate mobility and motor control (stability) aren’t achieved beforehand.

So, how should you fix your kettlebell swing?

Embrace the suck and regress to progress. One reason the swing is taught through a progression—at least in my opinion—is because of the patterning. In many respects, it’s similar to some of the ideas in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). By the time you pick up a kettlebell, after all the correct patterning you have practiced , it shouldn’t look like you are trying to hump the bell! Instead, your kettlebell swing will be a thing of power and beauty.

The general rule is to only use techniques that improve form, quality of movement, and quality practice while reducing compensations. Unfortunately, many trainers don’t have a system for teaching the swing, they just pick up the kettlebell any way they can and then try to get it to move!

The FMS and the RKC teach patterning in this order:

  1. No load, pattern assistance.
  2. No load, no pattern assistance.
  3. Load, with pattern assistance.
  4. Load, with no pattern assistance.

In the RKC, we begin by teaching the hinge unloaded. This is often assisted in a variety of ways – either the student uses the blades of their hands in their hips to help find the hip crease (sometimes coined “chopping and popping”), they might push their butt back towards a wall, or use a dowel touching three points along the spine (head, between the scapula, and the sacrum) to teach how to maintain a neutral spine.

Next we would aim to do this without load, but with no pattern assistance. Our goal is to remove the pattern assistance and do the movement unloaded with perfect form. If the form breaks down we can go back and return to the pattern assistance method (dowel, wall, etc.) until the right movement becomes what we do every time. Old strength coaches were renowned for not letting their athletes pick up a bar until they could first do the movements correctly with a dowel or a stick.

The third stage is load with pattern assistance. In the RKC curriculum, this is the kettlebell deadlift. Placing the kettlebell in line with the heels also places the shoulder blades over the kettlebell. This makes for a foolproof deadlift when we simply stand up with the bell. If you can’t do it slow then you probably can’t do it fast—this is what grinds like the deadlift are all about. Slow is smooth, smooth will become fast later. If the deadlift lacks stiffness or tension, we can use the static stomp deadlift or Hardstyle plank to link the body with tension and to keep midline stability and posture.

The next step is using the deadlift drag or pendulum swing to teach the backswing and the start of the swing—pattern assistance with load. At the final stage we will do dead swings or the proper two handed swing, which is the load with no pattern assistance. If we have adequately mastered the first three steps, the final stage, load with no pattern assistance, will be solid.

Every time I progress a client who isn’t ready, I find that I spend a lot of time trying to troubleshoot their swing. Regressing these clients back to one of the first three stages of patterning was the fastest way to actually help them master the swing.

So relax and enjoy the journey. Be patient in your progress and understand you don’t have to master everything immediately. Basic doesn’t mean “easy”. Spend more time on patterning and you will likely spend less time with the difficult task of troubleshooting swings at full speed. This approach also works with more advanced exercises, for example if your clean isn’t great, your one arm swing probably will need work. If your press isn’t great, your clean will need work. If your kettlebell snatch isn’t great, then your one arm swing, clean, and press probably all need work too.

If you find that your swing isn’t great, don’t think of regressing to an earlier step as failure, or that you’ve made a mistake. You are still traveling in the right direction. Regressing to progress is an amazing strategy that will still have you traveling in the right direction.

***

Matt Beecroft, RKC Team Leader, PCC Instructor is the director and head coach of Reality Self Defense & Conditioning in Adelaide, South Australia. He can be contacted through his website at realitysdc.com.au email: matt.beecroft@realitysdc.com.au or follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/MeetLifeHeadOn.

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  • Really like how you’ve summed up the progression here — and the generalized version which can be applied to just about anything! 🙂

  • Laurel

    Great blog post and a great reminder of regressions

  • Michelle Henry

    Just passed my RKC this past May. This is a great article that re-emphasizes the importance of not rushing the basics when teaching the swing. Thank you, Matt!

  • Pingback: Transform Your Kettlebell Swing with Two Simple Cues | RKC School of Strength()

  • Lisa Konoplisky Sfg I

    Such a great article! Thank you!

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