CrossFit® loves the American kettlebell swing. The movement is similar to a traditional Russian swing except the athlete keeps the kettlebell closer to the body and takes it all the way overhead whereas a Russian swing stops at chest height. The rationale for the American swing is that it moves the kettlebell a greater distance, thus making it more work and a better exercise. I’m not sure that’s entirely true since the vast majority of the power needed to get the kettlebell overhead is generated by the same movement used in the Russian swing. The momentum of the kettlebell is utilized differently. I’m sure the American swing creates a little more work for the athlete, but probably not as much as it gets credit for. In my opinion it is utilized so much in CrossFit for two reasons. It’s a dynamic, cool-looking movement and it’s easier to judge an American swing rep in a competition.
The movement definitely has some downsides, though, that a lot of athletes may not be aware of. American swings require a ton of shoulder flexion to get the kettlebell perfectly into the vertical plane. Even people with pretty good shoulder mobility can have trouble in the American swing because of the very narrow grip (as opposed to the super wide grip of a barbell snatch, for example). Also, if people don’t know how to do a Russian swing well to begin with, they add insult to injury by heaving the kettlebell overhead using the shoulders and back. Ouch!
If you can lie on your back and put both arms with the elbows locked straight overhead, touching the floor, without your ribcage moving, then you have enough shoulder flexion for the movement. If not, then your low back and shoulders are going to get trashed by the American swing. If that’s the case, there is still hope. While you’re working on your trunk stability and shoulder mobility, learn how to do a good kettlebell snatch. It’s a great skill, you’re still moving the kettlebell overhead, and as an added bonus you’re doing it one-handed, instead of two-handed, so it’s more forgiving on your shoulders and it creates even more work than the American swing.
Snatches are an advanced kettlebell movement but with good coaching you can learn to do them well relatively quickly. As you build up your calluses you can use RockTape and our hand-taping method to protect your palms. If you’re doing high-rep sets of kettlebell snatches, which I highly recommend building up to, then use a product like Monkey Butt powder to keep your palms dry and slippery. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but your grip isn’t compromised by that product and it allows the kettlebell handle to spin much more easily.