MYTH: Kettlebell Swings Make Me Look Bulky (Explained)


One of the most common misconceptions about doing weight training (especially from the women’s side) is that it will make them look bulky. The same with kettlebell swings.

Today it’s time to dust off my keyboard and explain everything there is to know about kettlebell swings, and the impact they have on your physique.

I will explain how does the kettlebell swings doesn't build bulky muscles

As a whole, doing kettlebell swings won’t make you look bulky. It’s true that lifting heavy weights with a high amount of training volume promotes hypertrophy in muscles leading to a size increase. However, the rate of hypertrophy is not enough to make you look bigger. One of the factors that do make you look bigger is eating more calories.

Here you have my brief answer but to know more details on why some people who lift weights look bulky while others don’t, keep reading.

Doing kettlebell swings does not make you bulky

In general, the kettlebell swings do not make you look bulky, as long as you don’t eat more calories, or use anabolic enhancement drugs. Multiple studies have shown that lifting weights improves body composition by increasing lean mass and reducing fat percentage.

There is a stereotype from the 70s and 80s that lifting weights will make us big and bulky (especially among females). You see a big man lifting heavy weights, and unconsciously, it creates the belief that big weight equals big muscle.

It’s not the rule. It’s the perception.

  • It’s kind of like the belief, that people who wear glasses are smarter.
  • Or that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

The reality is different.

Perception of bulky muscles vs reality

Here’s the recipe for how perception can become reality.

  • We see images, pictures, and videos of huge guys lifting tons of weight.
  • To make it stick, we need to see it over and over. Sometimes even for decades.

If you see something over and over again, you began to trust that message, and therefore, believe it.

So let me quickly explain some key concepts that will help you really grasp the science of bulking on muscle.

Things that make your muscles grow

#1 Muscle protein synthesis

One of the things that influence muscle growth is muscle protein synthesis. However, eating the recommended amount of protein each day does not mean you will look like a bodybuilder.

Our body needs protein every day to rebuild itself.

Let’s use nails as an example.

  • Your nails regrowth every day.
  • And, from time to time, you must get those clippers and trim them.
  • This growing process is possible because of protein synthesis (building process).
  • We eat proteins, and our cells use them to re-grow.
  • We cannot “manufacture” protein in the body. This means we can only get them from the diet.

The same goes for muscles.

  • Every time when you train hard and eat enough proteins, it’s kind of like you signal to your body to build more muscle.
  • Progressive overload (lifting more weight) and a high-protein diet stimulate muscle protein synthesis even more.

However.

  • Even if you train hard by doing “progressive overload” (increasing the number of sets, reps, or weight each month), but don’t have enough protein in your diet, this will lead to muscle protein breakdown (muscle loss).
  • Without a surplus of protein in the diet, you cannot build more muscle.

So what does it mean?

This means that even if you do kettlebell swings every day, as long as you stay moderate with your proteins, you won’t bulk up on muscle.

You will be stronger, and fitter, but you won’t increase in size.

In the picture below, you see my own results from doing kettlebell swings in combination with intermittent fasting for 4 months.

my before and after picture from doing 200 kettlebell swings a day for 4 months
4 months difference of doing kettlebell workouts together with intermittent fasting
  • I was doing kettlebell swings every day.
  • I was eating moderate proteins (To be honest, looking back at this picture, I don’t think I was eating enough food in general).

Key Takeaway
The way you look is more dependent from the amount of food you eat, not the type of exercise you do.

Related article: You can learn more about how effective is doing “200 kettlebell swings a day” in my article here.

#2 Eating more calories and being in a calorie surplus

Another thing that will dictate how much muscle you put on and how you look is the calories. You may stay moderate on your daily protein, but if you eat too much food in general, you will put on weight.

Here’s what I’ve discovered after spending years of training others, and working out myself.

  • The more intense workouts I did (high-intensity interval training), the more hungry I felt.
  • The more training volume I did (more workouts sessions per week), I would get hungry and eat more, too.

On the other hand.

  • The less intense workouts I did (moderate intensity with enough recovery) the less hungry I felt.
  • The less training volume I did (fewer workouts per week or shorter sessions) the more energy I had during the day.

Here is my point.

  • Training harder led to eating more calories. Eating more calories led to weight gain and a bulky look.
  • Less intense daily weight training allowed me to control my hunger better than daily high-intensity training.

Only when I switch to less intense workouts, I was able to control my hunger better, lower my food intake, and stay lean for longer.

Key Takeaway
Even if you choose to do kettlebell swings every day, but stay at an optimum calorie level, you won’t look bulky.

Related article: You can read more about how to do calorie deficit and stay lean, even without working out in my article “calorie deficit without exercise

#3 Gender differences and hormonal status

Another thing that will dictate how weights impact your physique is your gender and hormonal levels.

For example, many studies confirmed that muscle protein synthesis is strongly dependent on the amount of testosterone in the body.

  • Robert C. Griggs, M.D. from the University of Rochester, documented over 30 years ago that testosterone increases muscle mass by increasing muscle protein synthesis.
  • According to David J Handelsman, Ph.D., a testicular function and androgen physiology expert, men have 15 to 20-fold greater circulating testosterone than women at any age.

This means females (who have much more estrogen than males in general) will have a much harder time building muscles.

  • If you take males and females, and they will do the same high-protein diet, and the same hard training, males will develop significantly more muscle, compared to females.

That’s just how it works.

How to do kettlebell swings without getting bulky

Add more full-body exercises

  • In the beginning, it’s ok to do only kettlebell swings.
  • In the long-term, it’s better to add other exercises.
  • Focus on kettlebell swings but feel free to add more full-body exercises like squats, deadlifts, cleans, shoulder presses, and rows.
  • Kettlebell swings work mainly on the posterior chain muscle groups, and they can create asymmetry so adding more exercise variety help to create balance.

The posterior chain means the muscle of your back, back of your legs, and glutes. If you skip doing any anterior chain exercises (chest, shoulder, quads) it will create some imbalance.

The kettlebell workout plan

Squats (kettlebell between my legs)6-8 reps3-4 sets3 minutes rest
Single-arm row6-8 reps3-4 sets3 minutes rest
Goblet squat6-8 reps3-4 sets3 minutes rest
Biceps curls12 reps3-4 sets3 minutes rest
Push-ups (without KB)10 reps3-4 sets3 minutes rest
Single-arm overhead press5 reps3-4 sets3 minutes rest
Kettlebell Swings20 reps5-8 sets3-4 minutes rest
My full body workout

This is a very long workout (it usually takes 90-minute to 2 hours).

Don’t do the same workout over and over

  • Doing the same workout makes things boring and it’s unsustainable.
  • It’s kind of like saying I will just eat eggs for the rest of my life (don’t do that. It will lead to some nutrient deficiency).

I did plenty of kettlebell swings on their own, and I’m still doing it. However, I look at it as a challenge, not as the only way to train.

Related article: Here you can learn about the pros and cons of “doing only kettlebell swings“.

Stay productive during your rest time

  • If you’re doing swings at home, you can always do something else to make yourself more productive and save time.
  • Cooking or meal prepping in the middle of the rest.
  • Vacuum cleaning, doing laundry, or washing the dishes.
  • Listening to music, calling friends and family.

Always start from the warm-up

  • For a warm-up, you can do bodyweight squats, a few push-ups, and stretches.
  • Add some mobility workouts before your main training. Moving for around 5-10 minutes can help you prep your body for more challenges, and help you prevent injuries.

Make your workouts challenging

  • Look at the workout as a challenge and opportunity to be better than before
  • Keep things simple and strive to improve your numbers.
  • In my typical “kettlebell-swings-only” workout, I do around two hundred reps, all broken down in sets of 20-25.

Do something every day

  • Keep your sets and training volume moderate so you can do something every day. You don’t have to train every day at the maximum intensity.

Here’s how it works.

Let’s compare the typical “leg day” to a full-body, everyday approach.

Full-body kettlebell workout.

  • In the full body, I do just 3-4 sets of one exercise for 7 days.
  • This will give me a minimum of 21 sets in a week.
  • 7 days x 4 sets = 28 sets

Leg day (once a week).

  • On the leg day, I would probably need to do at least 4-5 exercises. Let’s say I do 4 sets each.
  • 1 day x 5 exercises x 4 sets = 20 sets

As you can see, doing a light kettlebell workout every day gives you 8 sets more in just one week.

Then, multiply that for 26 weeks (6 months), and you will end up with 208 sets more!

So that’s the math behind it. But I don’t do it for the numbers. It just feels right for me.

Be patient

  • How fast you will see your results will depend on how much work you’ve put in.
  • If you want better body composition, then 12 weeks of kettlebell swings, together with a good diet should be a good start.
  • If you want to see progress in performance, it is strongly depending on your current fitness level.
  • Beginners usually have faster results compared to advanced lifters.

Conclusion

  • Kettlebell swings do not make you bulky, as long as you keep the calories in check.
  • Eating an optimum amount of protein can help you to maintain muscle protein synthesis.
  • For the kettlebell weight, I recommend going anywhere from 16kg – 24kg (for males).
  • For my female clients, I recommend going for 8kg – 12 kg.
  • If you have an injury, or you’ve never exercised with weight, and you believe that this range is way too much, then bring it down.

The kettlebell I was using at home was from the company called Kettlebell Kings available on Amazon. Details here.

(if you buy through links on this page, I may earn a small commission).

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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