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Can kettlebell swings hurt my back? [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Nov 13, 2017 10:00:00 AM

Can kettlebell swings hurt my back

 
The short answer is yes they can. In this article, I will walk you through why you should not be afraid of getting hurt a little, how to avoid getting hurt and in case it does happen, how to help yourself to get better and when to see the doctor. I have tried a lot in the gym and I have yet to find a better tool for general strength and endurance which is as much fun as the kettlebell.
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The short answer is yes, kettlebell swings can hurt your back

 
Let's get straight to the point, yes kettlebell swings can hurt your back. Now that that is out of the way is it really that much of a big deal? You can die when you walk out of your house. Does this mean you should stay at home all day? Your children can get hurt when they start to learn how to cycle or potentially drown when they learn how to swim. Does that mean they should not learn these essential skills? The world is a terrifying place and you will get hurt exploring it. How bad or if you get hurt usually goes back to these three things:
 
  • How well you are prepared for what is coming
  • How much respect you pay to the situation and stay calm
  • How well you listen to your gut when you get to a tight spot
 
This is true for all things in life I have faced so far. Whenever I did not prepare, did not respect the situation and failed to listen to my gut I got hurt. Kettlebell's swings are no different but that is no reason to not do them. In addition, if you are not a fan of thirty-something-year-old men dishing out life wisdom there are also some statistics from 2011 on back pain which will put your mind to rest:
 
  • One in five Americans will experience back pain
  • The injuries reach from muscle strains to disc herniation
  • Half of back pain is resolved in two weeks
  • 90 percent of back pain resolves in three months
 
In addition, you have to distinguish between delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and whether you really have something a bit more substantial than that. This is especially true when you are just starting with an exercise that you are not used to. DOMS sets in about 24 to 48 hours after exercise and is a direct reaction to the stimulus of exercising. This effect is more pronounced for movement patterns you are not used to or known movement patterns which are being done under a heavier load than usual. DOMS is the reason why your legs hurt so bad two days after squat day. Same applies to the areas the kettlebell swing addresses. 
 
So even if you were to get back pain from kettlebell swings, guess what, it is most likely to go away, unless you are blatantly stupid. Let us go through how you can avoid to put yourself in harm's way when doing kettlebell swings and it ain't that complex.
 

Too much too soon

 
There are three things which put you in high danger.
 
  • Using things which you are not able to use
  • Using things for a purpose they are not designed for 
  • Using things which you just acquired like an expert
 
Remember the point about respect? All of what I mentioned now is showing disrespect to the situation. This is what you have to keep in mind when you start with the kettlebell swing and other complex movements which are being loaded. If you use a gun without knowing what you are doing you might shoot yourself in the foot or hurt the people close to you. If you use a microwave to dry your cat, do not be surprised that your little darling might die because the microwave has been designed to heat up food, not for drying cats. Last, but not least, when you just passed your driver's license it is probably wise to not enter the Indy 500 or formula 1. Technically you can drive, fortunately, because of lack of skill, you will be deselected in the process before you can hurt yourself entering professional racing.
 
Again, same principles apply to kettlebell training. You should first learn how to use the kettlebell properly by getting instructions from a Strongfirst certified coach or go through the RKC program under supervision. Once you know how to use the kettlebell you start with a weight which you have full control over and not the other way around. Finally, you will master the double-handed kettlebell swing before you move on to more complex movements like the snatch, jerk or one arm kettlebell swing. 
 
 

Your Body's range of motion

 
When you are just starting out with exercises you might have mobility issues you are not even aware of. Even if you have progressed very far there still can be things which need to be fixed because of bad habits which have crept in over time. Here are the most common areas for which people make mistakes and hurt themselves in the process on the kettlebell swing.
 
A lack of shoulder mobility will make it hard for you to swing the kettlebell freely and with ease. Depending on what causes the limited range of motion in your shoulder there are different fixes. First, you have to analyze whether the mobility issues are caused by a muscle imbalance or shortened tendons. Depending on what the cause is you either strengthen other areas to balance the entire system out or stretch accordingly to get more range of motion. These are some examples of things you can do:
 
Stretching:
 
Strengthening
 
  • Pull-aparts with bands
  • Pull-ups
  • Kettlebell rows
  • Cable Pulls
 
 
If your hip is tight you can not develop the full explosiveness and power from the hip to shoot the kettlebell up and avoid using other parts of your body to transfer energy. Again you can either have imbalances in your hip in terms of strength or flexibility which cause you to perform sub par. To loosen up the hips there is a multitude of drills which you can perform. Here are my favorites:
 
Stretches
  • Face the wall squats
  • 90/90 Stretch
  • Paused Goblet squat with light kettlebell
Strength
  • Cossack squats
  • Overhead squats
  • Front squats
 
What often happens is that experienced athletes or gym rats only use the back squat to progress in their strength. If there is little variation and ingrained weaknesses these get magnified over time especially if you only do one form of the squat for a long time. Some variation every quarter to half a year can help to build a more balanced physique. Hip mobility can also suffer from poor hamstring and/or ankle mobility as everything is connected.
 
Ankle mobility itself is the one I personally struggle the most with. I have shortened Achilles heels from birth which does not help the area. Ankle mobility can be worked on with the stretches and movements I already mentioned for the hips. In addition, you will also find stretches like pulling your toes up helpful. A 15 to 20-minute yoga routine can work wonders in these areas. 
 
To minimize mobility issues and maximize your output it helps to warm up slowly and stretch before you start your kettlebell routine. I personally make use of the one outlined in the book simple and sinister and added the face the wall squat which I learned from the book Deadlift Dynamite. So my warm-up routine is:
 
3 rounds of
 
5 kettlebell halos in each direction
5 paused goblet squats
5 hardstyle glute bridges
5 face the wall squats with bands

which takes me about 10 to fifteen minutes to complete and loosens me up very good. If you have more time or are even tighter than me here is another alternative I found
 
A1: Foam roll hip, T-spine extensions
B1: Partner mobility rolls with the Big Stick-upper traps, lats x50-70
C1: T-spine mobility push/pulls and rib cage openers x 3-5 L/R
D1: Wall Squats x 10|
E1: Scorpion x 10
F1: Goblet Squats  (with 2 sec pause) x 10  x 1-3 sets
G1: Arm Bar x 1-5 reps L/R, hold for 5-20 belly breath
H1: Halos x 10 L/R
 
Although I would consider this more of a light workout in itself rather than just a warm-up. The choice is yours. 
 

The kettlebell's range of motion

 
It is important to consider that the kettlebell also has a certain path on which it is supposed to travel. When you teach yourself the kettlebell swing from videos on YouTube or others in the gym it is very likely that you learn it the wrong way. It happened to me too and I still have some brave people walking up to me correcting my form. Brave because they care and speak up. Every time someone gives a damn you should be thankful. 
 
One of the best sources for kettlebell instructions is StrongFirst. This is based on the reason that the program is run by Pavel Tsatsoulin, one man who probably has invested more time in the kettlebell than you have spent sleeping in your life. I have read a couple of his books and also will take his certificates soon. The most common mistakes are
 
  • Hyperextension of the back at the top of the swing
  • Squatting the swing
  • Muscling the swing with your arms
  • Performing an American swing instead of the Russian swing
  • Chasing the bell
  • Lack of tension
 
The Hyperextension at the back is often seen as people do not swing from the hips in a hinge motion but do all kinds of other things to move the metal ball. Your spine is supposed to be in line with your feet and head at the top of the swing. You should stand ramrod straight when the kettlebell reaches the apex of the swing and not lean backward. Leaning backward puts unnecessary pressure on the spine and can lead to injury long term.
 
Squatting is like Hyperextending at the bottom of the lift. As you are not supposed to go to the extreme and look at the ceiling at the top you should also not look through your legs or get your ass down to the ground at the bottom of the swing. The kettlebell is a hinge, not a squat, just like the deadlift. The hip should only move and keep the butt almost on the same level. Squatting the swing is a sign of poor technique or weakness as the tool becomes the master of the user.
 
Another common mistake is to muscle the swing with your arms. The kettlebell swing uses the arms merely as hooks to hang the weight from. Imagine the wrecking ball in the Miley Cyrus video of the song with the same name. Your kettlebell should "come in like a wrecking ball" not like an elevator. There is no pulling motion of the arms involved in swinging.
 
The American swing is the version of the kettlebell swing which goes overhead. Often beginners do this as they think it is cooler and gets more work done in less time. This movement is only for advanced athletes and also does not really add a lot of value. Keep it simple and stick to the Russian swing to focus on building ballistic power. If you can smash in a wall with the kettlebell you are powerful. If you can balance it on your head you look like a clown.
 
The American swing makes the next phenomenon a lot more likely to happen which is chasing the bell. If your kettlebell is too heavy for you the kettlebell will not follow your body, but your body will follow the kettlebell. This leads to more jerk movements, tension on your skeleton and muscles and finally, injury. You have to be the one in charge, not the equipment.
 
Lack of tension is a general problem among layman who does not look into the theory of things. You can pick up kettlebells without even paying attention to how to get your body as hard as a brick. This topic is often not debated and deserves its own chapter as more fitness enthusiasts need to know this concept in detail.

Your body is a rock

 
This concept is one that you have to get used to and which I overlooked in the beginning. This makes it likely that you did too as it is not taught in the booklets and handouts you usually find. A crucial component of strength training is to acquire the skill of building tension in your body. When your body is as hard as a rock it is a lot less likely for you to get injured. When you are like spaghetti the weights will dominate your movements and not vice versa as it should be. Pavel Tsatsoulin describes the concept of tension as "hardstyle" if you want to read more about it. The best professional weightlifters and powerlifters have perfected the art of building tension to minimize power leaks and gain maximum performance. Applied to the kettlebell here are the areas to watch out for
 
  • Flex your butt
  • Plank at the top
  • Neutral spine
  • Grip
 
The first area to pay attention to is to flex your butt as if you want to crack a walnut. Glute bridges are an excellent tool to train how to flex your butt in a way that it supports lifting. You really want to squeeze the cheeks together at the top of the lift and get from the lowest point of the swing to the highest through the hip hinge to the squeeze. I have left many horsepowers behind by not doing it. Try it and you see how much more control you will get over the movement once mastered.
 
The top of the swing is a plank. You apply the principle of the butt also to your abs. You get as tight as you can as if someone is about to throw a punch to your stomach when the kettlebell floats in front of you. You stand ramrod straight and your arms, butt, and abs lock-in. If you perform the kettlebell swing like this you will not be able to perform sets of twenty anymore.
 
It is also important to keep a neutral spine. To achieve this practice the hike pass and locking your elbows in when you pick the kettlebell off the ground. Your trainer or gym buddy should be able to place a broomstick on your back and your spine should keep in line with it and not round. This is achieved by locking the elbows in, pulling your shoulder blades towards each other and initiating the first swing. If you do not pay detailed attention to the opening swing, you usually find that the spine is all over the place during the set.
 
Last but not least the grip. You want a firm grip on the kettlebell, but not a hardstyle one. Compared to the bench press where you squeeze the barbell as hard as you can to derive some extra power in the swing you focus more on "bending the handle like a horseshoe" rather than squeezing it. This ensures that the kettlebell is locked in while not pulling from the arms or upper back which is likely to happen if you apply too stiff a grip.
 

Recovery from back pain

 
Inevitably there will be back pain if you train hard and with the purpose to progress to get stronger and healthier. The longer you train the better you will get at judging whether the pain is DOMS, growth pains, a pulled muscle or something sinister. When I hurt my back in 2016 on Wendler 531 I immediately knew when I pulled the weight up that there was something bad going on. Took me six months to recover. In the beginning, err on the side of caution and stop in time and get checked more often by a chiropractor, general practitioner or physician. If you are a hypochondriac and afraid of everything that might hurt you, free weights might not be for you. Go with Yoga instead to strengthen your back and be healthy. (I love yoga). If you experience something nagging you here are some strategies to help yourself:
  • Foam rolling
  • Ice
  • Heating pads
  • Ibuprofen
  • Voltaren
Foam rolling has gained a lot of popularity lately. A great book on the topic and mobility, in general, is Supple Leopard. Get some proper instructions for foam rolling as it can also be counterproductive if done wrong. If you want to get to the deeper tissue you might want to use something with a bit more bang like a boomstick or a lacrosse ball. For most mere mortals foam rolling for ten to twenty minutes at home to reduce pain usually works.
 
Ice packs are good to numb immediate pain and recover faster. Especially if you are very prone to experience pain because your skin and body makeup just seems to bruise easier than most people ice is a good go to. Be careful to use ice only to suppress and relieve immediate pain. If it goes chronic go to the doctor rather than stacking your freezer with 24/7 ice pack supplies. Frozen vodka bottles also do the trick and usually end in disaster later in the evening.
 
Heating pads do the same as ice packs for me. I personally like them as an overnight recovery for severe cases after I have applied ice. A tip from granny here: hot water bottles do the same thing as heating pads and are reusable. You can also put them in funny costumes and look silly so that your wife/partner/husband loves you even more for being such a fool chastising yourself in the gym.
 
Ibuprofen and Voltaren are over the counter substances which help to relieve pain. If it gets really bad you can apply this to the affected area to get better when everything else did not work. In my Judo times, we used Voltaren a lot for all kinds of muscle aches all over the body. Very effective in my opinion. However, if you now your pain patterns well and you have to go to the last resort a visit to your doctor is due. If I have to apply any type of cream or take disprin/aspirin to relieve pain that stems from exercising my next hand movement is hitting the buttons on my smartphone to make an appointment.
 

Conclusion

 
Kettlebell swings can hurt your back if you do not take them seriously and educate yourself. This goes without saying and still in the fitness industry there is a lot of "Oh this looks easy let's do it" mentality. Read up about how to do it in the books I mentioned, get one or two sessions with a Strongfirst instructor near you in, be humble with your progression and your kettlebell swings will make your more healthy and not worse. In addition, you can feel badass swinging a cannonball with a handle around like a boss. 
 

Further reading 

 
 
 

Topics: Lift stronger, Kettlebell