Kettlebell Swings vs Back Squat, Fight!

How do the demands of a kettlebell swing differ from a back squat? Are kettlebells an effective tool for increasing maximal strength? Researchers set out to answer those questions in today’s study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The study asked 16 men to perform kettlebell swings with kettlebells from 16 to 32 kilograms. Then they all participated in a massive bro-session to find their 1RM back squat. Finally, they performed back squats at 20-80% of 1RM. Researchers measured the forces applied to the ground for each exercise.

What did this reveal? It seems that kettlebell swings require more power while heavy back squats require more maximal force. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of both exercises. Swings with even the smallest 16 kg kettlebell showed a greater power output than even the heaviest back squat at 80% 1RM. Swings with the 32 kg kettlebell showed the greatest power output of all.

But in maximal force, the back squat was the clear winner. Almost all of the back squat loads produced more force than any of the kettlebell swings. Interestingly, the 20% 1RM back squat produced almost exactly the same maximal force as a 32 kg kettlebell swing. It took the heaviest of kettlebell swings to equal the lightest of back squats in producing maximal force. The heavier back squats went on to pummel the kettlebell swings in force production.

My conclusion: Kettlebell swings and back squats are both integral parts of a strength and conditioning program. Heavy back squats train maximal strength undeniably better than kettlebell swings. I think Louie Simmons once said, “You cannot exert maximal force against a submaximal load.” If you want to build maximal strength, especially in the legs, you need heavy back squats. This may explain why kettlebell expert Pavel Tsatsouline is never photographed in shorts.

Conversely, kettlebell swings are undeniably better than back squats for training power production. Kettlebell swings also stress the spine in the opposite direction of back squats, making them an excellent companion to back squats for spine health.

Which should be a part of your program, kettlebell swings or back squats? The answer is “both.”

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