Are Kettlebell Swings Better Than Squats?


how to choose between kettlebell swings and squats

In this article, I will explain to you the basics behind the kettlebell swings, in comparison to squats, so that you can decide either to do one or another.

In brief, kettlebell swings are better than squats if your goal is to have better body composition, conditioning, and power. They develop strong glutes, back, and arms. They target more muscle groups and are less taxing on the body than squats.

But there is so much more to it because squats can be a real powerhouse for your training program too.

And because they are two radically different exercises, it all boils down to your goals.

How To Decide Between Squats or Kettlebell Swings?

First, let’s talk about what is your training purpose. Because this will drive your decision. Are you training for mobility? And you need better mobility for golf, tennis, pickleball or squash?

Maybe you are an athlete who is looking for better performance? You need to have better speed, balance, or agility.

Or maybe you are training purely for body composition? You want to trim down, and you look for the best exercise to burn calories.

Maybe you want to build up on your muscle mass? And you look for a tool to get you bigger and stronger?

Or maybe you are not interested in any of these, and you just want train for longevity?

Thanks to science, we now know how to train our bodies to have a result that best fits our training goal. And as much as both kettlebell swings and squats are great exercises, they work in a slightly different way.

Related article: Can I Do 200 Kettlebell Swings a Day?

What Is The Best Exercise For Mobility?

Mobility is all about the range of motion.

Both squats and kettlebell swings can work on your mobility. But in a different way. The kettlebell swing is a hip extension movement. So it will improve your range of motion only on the hip joint.

The squat is about lowering your hips down below the knee level. Almost to the ground. So it’s got much more capacity to improve your hips, knees and ankles mobility to the end range. And there isn’t any exercise out there that can do the same.

But to get that benefit, you must be able to get down low. If you can’t go down below your knee, then start from a box squat. And as you get better, simply lower the starting (sitting) position.

Squats are the best mobility drill to improve your end range of motion for your hips, knees, and ankles.

One of the good ways to start is simply to find a space where you can hold on to something, and with just your body weight, go down to the end range and stay there for a couple of minutes per day.

This will help to open up your hips and improve ankle mobility.

Related article: Are Kettlebell Swings Better Than Cleans?

What Is The Best Exercise For Performance?

You see there is no one size fits all when it comes to the sport. A soccer player will have different goals than a judoka, right?

In the study done by Mike Yetter from the University of Pennsylvania, they assessed the effects of heavy back squats performed just 4 minutes before multiple 40-meters sprint trials.

The results showed a significant increase in speed (source).

And what amazes me the most was the results came after just 4-minutes.

Not 4 weeks. Not 4 days.
4 minutes.

Please note that it was done by highly trained athletes with almost maximum load. But still. For speed, squats are king.

So from a practical perspective, using heavy squats can be part of your main performance training, as well as a warm-up.

In another study done by Jeffrey M McBride from Appalachian State University, North Carolina, assessed how heavy-load squat affect sprinting in comparison with jumps. The results showed that after heavy-squats participants ran 0.87% faster in the 40-meter sprint (source).

Again, study done by elite football athletes with a maximum load.

What about kettlebell swings?

In this study, Kishen Kartages, from The University of Sydney, investigated the effects of kettlebell swings and sprinting. They have found that kettlebell swings done prior to sprinting had no effect (source).

But here’s the trick.

The entire study failed to show the weight of the kettlebells

If you do 30 swings with 5-pound KB this will have a totally different impact comparing to 30 swings with 50-pound KB.

What Is The Best Exercise For Body Composition?

what is better squats or KB swings

The best effect on body composition has a calorie deficit. Regardless of exercise.

There’s no secret that squat is a great functional and mobility exercise. But when it comes to metabolism, and calories burned during the workout, the kettlebell swing is the king.

One study, done by Brett Schreiber from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, compared doing a kettlebell swing training with a high-resistance circuit workout.

They compared a 12-minute kettlebell swing session with full-body circuit training, including squats and leg curls (source).

Here is the breakdown for kettlebell training.

Kettlebell TrainingTime
Kettlebell Swings12-minute

Here’s the breakdown for high-resistance circuit workout.

High-Resistance Circuit WorkoutRepsSets
Smith Machine Squats6 reps3 sets
Bench Press6 reps3 sets
Leg Curl6 reps3 sets
Lat Pull Down6 reps3 sets

Results?

The study shows that the kettlebell swing workout was perceptually harder, and had a higher sustained heart rate.

Related article: How To Use Kettlebell Swings For Hypertrophy

What Is The Best Exercise For Muscle Mass?

Hypertrophy, aka building of a muscle, is strongly dependent on progressive overload.

This means you need to not only lift heavy, but you must increase the weight as you go along.

So let’s compare squats and kettlebells, and which muscle do they predominantly use.

Squats are more anterior chain dominant. This means they work the most on the front of your legs (quadriceps).

Kettlebell swings are more posterior chain dominant, which means they work on the back of your legs (glutes), but also on your lower back (erector spinae), upper back (trapezius, levator scapulae), shoulders (deltoids), and forearms.

So which one will build more muscle?

For legs, squats. Just because you can squat with more weight. And it’s relatively easy to keep on progressing, and adding more weight. So to develop strong legs, squats are king.

But kettlebell swings are not just the legs. It’s a full-body workout. It can work on many other muscles that can get stronger. Especially the lower back. If you perform swings every day your arms, fore arms, and your shoulder will get much stronger, too.

So repetition and consistency is a key.

Plus, if you go heavy with the swings, you can also develop strong legs on the anterior chain (back side).

Related article: How To Use Kettlebell Swings For Golfers Elbow

What Is The Best Exercise For Longevity?

Lately this word has been getting a lot of attention. Longevity.

What is longevity?

According to Wikipedia, longevity means a typical length of life or even life expectancy. To be healthier, basically.

Also, lately there’s been a trend towards “anti-glycolytic” type of workouts. Many people claim huge benefits that comes from this type of approach. Especially in the kettlebell community.

High-intensity style training with a short rest time between the sets is famously known to produce a lot of lactate.

The premise of anti-glycolytic training is to exercise, without mass production of lactic acid.

There isn’t much research done in this area up to date, however this doesn’t mean this workout isn’t effective.

Long rest between the sets are known to achieve better recovery. This can turn into high frequency of exercise, with a lower volume. And, better health.

But doesn’t all exercises make us healthier, anyway?

They do. But there are some better ways than others. In other words, for health, less is more.

If you train hard for hours every day you will burn out. But if you train in a way that you feel better after each workout, then it’s a different story.

So comparing squats to kettlebell swings, from my own experience I can tell that doing swings, even everyday can lead to great results.

Where doing squats everyday can lead to a lot of muscle pain.

So when it comes to exercising for longevity, kettlebell swings are a king.

In colncusion

Squats and kettlebell swings can be a great way to improve physique, regardless of the type of goals you have. When it comes to longevity and body composition – kettlebell swings seem to cut it better.

But when it comes to building muscle mass, mobility, and performance – squats are better.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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