I’ve noticed over the years that people who want to kick start with their training routine, the first thing they think of is running. Which is great. On the surface running. seem like a no-cost, low-entry level exercise that everyone can start doing. But is it really? In this article, I will compare two radically different forms of exercise – kettlebell swings and running.
Should you do kettlebell swings or running? Running is one of the most popular forms of physical activity. It leads to great cardiorespiratory benefits. However, research has shown that kettlebell swings training is a much more effective method of improving strength, power, body composition, and preserving a lean muscle mass.
The reason why I wrote this article is to inspire someone who is looking for the best solution to get started. When I was getting started, I didn’t have such resources available at my fingertips. And, if I knew back then what I know today, it would save me years of mistakes.
To make it clear, I won’t be giving you biased opinions. I spend over 10 years practicing exercise physiology, studying data, and getting people back into shape. And as much as I love data and scientific journals, the majority of my recommendations come from the trenches.
Should You Start Doing Kettlebell Swings Or Running?
This is a hard one. Because there are several reasons why you may want to get started with your workouts. So I don’t wanna be that guy who is all about just one method. Like this vegan hippie bro, you need to do it.
Everybody is different.
I had a client, Frances, who was training hard for 3-4 times a week. High-intensity, flipping the tires, boxing, burpees, running, squats, deadlifts, you name it, she did it. All with a massive smile on her face.
One day I caught her walking out of the local shop, carrying a bag of ice-creams. Busted!
We both laughed. But in my mind, I couldn’t understand why she busts her ass in the gym, and then she is eating like that.
And here’s the thing. Just because I follow some rules, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is gonna do it.
Kettlebell Swings vs Running on Body Composition
I did my first half marathon back in 2007. I think it was around 22 km in under 2-hour and 20-minutes. Before that, 2-3 times a week I’ve been running 10k. Religiously.
It was like therapy for me. Back then I lived close to the sea and jogging on the promenade, right outside of the beach felt like the best painkiller. But here’s the problem. I was still fat.
Body composition is about calorie deficit
So it is all about what you eat really. But you can be smart about how you choose your workouts, so it can support your goals. Let me explain.
Apart from making sure that you are in caloric deficit, the next best thing you can do for your results is to keep your muscle mass high. This will increase the basal metabolic rate (calories burned during the day).
One study that was done by Dr. Beat Knechtle from Bavaria in Germany assessed the effects of running on body composition and muscle mass. The group of ultra-endurance runners was measured before and after the 338 km run over the course of 5 days.
The results showed there were no changes in body fat mass. However, there was a significant decrease in skeletal muscle mass (source).
This means that high volume running doesn’t lead to changes in fat mass, but will lower your muscle mass. This process alone can slow down your results.
More lean mass = Better results
On the flip side, kettlebell swings training does burn your calories (not as much as running) but it’s been shown that it preserves, and even build muscle mass.
This study was done by Jason P Lake from the University of Chichester in the UK. It examined the effects of kettlebell swings and muscle strength improvements. After just 6-week of doing kettlebell swings program twice a week, the maximum strength improved by almost 10%, and explosive strength improved by almost 20% (source).
If your goal is to improve your body composition, then the kettlebell swings training program seems to have more profound effects. It doesn’t mean that cardio is useless. Quite the opposite.
Cardio is very important for health. However, if you are driven by the body composition results, just be aware that there are better, more effective methods. The best solution would be a combination of the two. Running and kettlebell swings.
Kettlebell Swings vs Running on Cardiorespiratory Effects
As much as I love science, the data can be misleading, especially if you are interpreting it incorrectly. Let me explain.
In this study done by Davide Greco from Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, they compared doing a 30-minute kettlebell swing workout with a 30-minute treadmill running.
The results showed much higher cardio and metabolic responses from kettlebell training, comparing to treadmill running. This shows that kettlebell swing is a very powerful method, even for cardio (source).
However, the studies been done on the elite kettlebell half-marathon athlete, who already was very experienced in doing as many reps as possible within a 30-minute time.
So the results would be totally different for me or you. Keep that in mind.
Running, on the other hand, is been proven over and over that can extremely beneficial for cardio health. Even if it’s done at a slow pace.
At Iowa State University, Duck-chul Lee, Ph.D., and his friends did a massive 15-year follow-up study. They examined 55,137 adults and the long-term effects of running on mortality (source).
Across the multiple groups, even 5-10 minute runs per day at slow speed resulted in 29%-50% lower risks of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.
So doesn’t matter how you cut it. It works.
Kettlebell Swings vs Running on Safety and Technique
Last thing before we wrap it up. Safety.
The kettlebell swing is one of those things that when is done wrong, can get you in trouble. But if is done right, it is a highly effective training method. In fact, it has been proven to be multifunctional. This means if you are good at kettlebell swings, you will get good at everything else.
A great example comes from Roger McCarthy, who completed 3000m unsupported row across the Atlantic ocean.
He said his secret weapon was a kettlebell swings training. Rowing is a hip hinge movement. As well as the kettlebell swing. So it makes a lot of sense that if you get stronger as swings, immediately this will improve your strength across all hip extension movements (squat, deadlift, lunge, spring).
But it doesn’t come easy. It is not a user-friendly move, especially if you’re getting started. But it’s worth doing.
So if there is gonna be just one thing for you to take away from this article – the form is everything. I’ve learned that hard way. That’ why I tell you that here, so then you won’t repeat the same mistakes that I did.
In fact, I got a whole piece about are kettlebell swings bad for your back, and how to perform them correctly. I explain the good and the bad.
In case you’re wondering how often you could do kettlebell swings, here in this article can I do 50 kettlebell swings a day I wrote a separate piece where I explain exactly how to include swings in the everyday routine. Feel free to check it out.
I won’t be persuading you to do one or another. I’m don’t wanna be that guy. With full transparency, I used to love running and how I felt after. But now I mainly do swings, and if done at a good intensity I can easily get out of breath as well.
Before you start any physical activity, always take into consideration what is your main goal. In other words, what is it that you training for?
Do you want to be stronger? Faster? Leaner? And then take it from there. Before you start any physical activity always consult with your doctor first.