Kettlebell Swings Vs Squats (Which one is better?)


Cannot decide between kettlebell swings and squats? No worries. In this article, I will explain to you the differences between kettlebell swings and squats, compare the pros and cons, as well as provide a personal experience so that you can decide whether to do one or another.

how to choose between kettlebell swings and squats

In general, kettlebell swings are better than squats if your goal is to have better body composition, conditioning, and power. On the other hand, squats allow using heavier weights, which helps to build muscle and elicit a greater anabolic hormonal response.

Here is the brief answer, but to know more details about the aforementioned benefits, keep reading.

Overview

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 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 to 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.

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 in 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 help with mobility

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.

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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 (and what amazes me the most was the results came after just 4-minutes).

Not 4 weeks or 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.

Another study done by Jeffrey M McBride from Appalachian State University, North Carolina, assessed how heavy-load squats affect sprinting in comparison with jumps.

  • The results showed that after heavy-squats participants ran 0.87% faster in the 40-meter sprint.

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

Kettlebell swings were not so great

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.

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 compared to 30 swings with 50-pound KB.

Body composition

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

One study, done by Brett Schreiber from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, compared doing 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.

Kettlebell training

Kettlebell TrainingTime
Kettlebell Swings12-minute

Full body workout with squats

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.

Of course, the best effect on body composition has a calorie deficit. Regardless of exercise.

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Building muscle

Hypertrophy, aka the building of 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 are better

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.

For a full-body workout, kettlebell swings

It can work on many other muscles that can get stronger. Especially the lower back. If you perform swings every day your arms, forearms, and 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).

Longevity

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

According to the internet, 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 come 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 is known to achieve better recovery.
  • This can turn into a 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 every day can lead to great results.

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

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

Conclusion

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