08 Jun Reader Questions: Will Kettlebells Hurt My Back?

KettlebellsI’ve been getting slammed with emails these days and I’ve had some really great questions.

It’s been challenging to keep up, but many of the emails have been such good questions that I thought others could benefit from reading the responses.

I always do my best to individually respond to readers, but I want to start posting some of these great questions and my responses here on RdellaTraining.

Here’s a recent question from Dan who wrote this:

“One of the things that kettlebell training is revealing is how poor the strength and mobility is in my thoracic spine. Goblet squats make this especially evident.

This of particular concern to me because I’m in the unfortunate group of people who have been diagnosed with an L4/L5 bulging disc. 99% of the time I’m asymptomatic, but from time to time my back will go out and I’ll have sciatic nerve pain.

I’ve got a friend who is SFG Kettlebell Level II Certified. He is keeping a close eye on me as I learn the Turkish get up, goblet squat, and kettlebell swing.

I know that my lack of thoracic mobility puts more pressure on my lumbar discs. This leads me to 2 questions.

1. How do I know that my back is healthy enough to do swings? I’ve been pain free so far, but I’m paranoid about my back going out while doing a swings.

2. What is the number one exercise/stretch you’d recommend for increased thoracic strength and mobility.”

First of all, great questions Dan!

You’re doing the most important thing to prevent injury and that’s getting qualified instruction.

That’s the critical 1st step in kettlebell training, barbell training, or any type of serious fitness and performance.

Getting not only a qualified coach, but a great coach and teacher is a must for training successes and minimizing the risk for injury.

Let’s talk about your back, specifically your low back (the L4/L5 disc bulge) and the concern you have there.

Hopefully, you’ve seen your doc and you’re cleared to exercise, of course.

Speaking as a former physical therapist and back patient (I had a major injury and an L4/L5 discectomy many years ago), I will tell you that the spine is nothing to fool around with.

In regards to kettlebell swings, the swing is a hip hinge pattern and the reality is there should be no pain when performing a proper kettlebell swing with a normal, healthy back.

If there is pain, it’s either a mechanical problem that needs to be addressed or you’re technique is not correct.

If the technique is not correct, that will be an easy fix with proper coaching.

If it’s a mechanical problem (meaning the structures involved are causing the pain with movement) that’s a different and needs to be addressed medically or otherwise.

One thing to know about the kettlebells swing is that there is not a significant amount of compressive force during the swing (compared to a deadlift or barbell squat, for example), but there is an increase in shear force at certain points.

The increase in shear force has been shown to be problematic in a very small subset of people with a certain spinal disorder known as spondylolisthesis, which is an entirely different back problem.

Because of your lumbar disc bulge, I totally understand the concern and there is no way to say that an injury won’t occur during an exercise because “weird” things happen sometimes.

But, the properly performed hard style kettebell swing is one of the best exercises to strengthen the back and ultimately reduce the chance for injury.

Personally, I’ve found the kettlebell swing to be outstanding for total back health because of the hip hinge pattern, which maintains the spine in a neutral position the entire duration of the exercise and puts the spine in minimal compromise, as a result of the forces I mentioned.

The key is performing a near flawless hip hinge pattern.

Another important, but overlooked part of the exercise is simply starting and finishing the kettlebell swing.

It is absolutely essential to start and begin the exercise with safe and proper biomechanics.

That means keeping the spine in proper alignment when you hike the kettlebell back to begin, as well as on the final rep when you place the kettlebell back down safely on the ground in front of you.

It’s really important to start, maintain, and finish a good kettlebell swing.

Since there is no pain with the exercise, I’d would say the exercise is safe to do, as long as it is performed with absolute proper technique.

A gradual increase in swing volume (reps and sets) will greatly contribute to strengthening the spine and hip musculature and preventing injury.

I’ve felt for many years now the the kettlebell swing is a major contributor to keeping my back healthy and strong.

Pain is the signal to stop any exercise, until the symptoms are resolved and the exercise can be performed pain free.

There’s really no way to not be “paranoid” about doing an exercise when you have an existing diagnosis, other than to make absolutely certain that your technique is rock solid.

Having the right technique does incredible things for building confidence and alleviating any mental barriers with training.

As far as the thoracic mobility and strength, there’s many great exercises to improve strength and mobility.

Let’s not forget that the kettlebell swing is also a great exercise for the entire spinal stabilizers and musculature, including the thoracic spine.

And, some of my favorites that come immediately to mind are:

  • Halo’s
  • Kettlebells armbars
  • Static overhead walks with a kettlebell (waiter’s walks)
  • Foam roller mobilizations for flexion and extension
  • Lacrosse ball segmental mobilizations
  • “Bat wings” performed with kettlebells
  • Tubing or band scapular retraction exercises
  • And, many different variations of stretching for the thoracic spine

Additionally, a recent article on the SOTS press has many more details and specific guidance to improve thoracic strength and mobility, as well.

The big recommendation I would give is to pick one exercise or mobilization at a time for the thoracic spine.

Pick one and test it to see if it makes a difference.

Eventually, you will find one great exercise or mobilization that is really effective for you.

That’s the one you would do as part of your regular program.

Hope this information helps.

If you have question you’d like me to answer, contact me through the site and I may be able to write it up as a helpful post for others.

Scott Iardella writes about strength training methods to optimize health and performance. If you enjoyed this article, join a strong and growing community of passionate fitness enthusiasts and subscribe below to get a ton of cool, free stuff!

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  • Jean-Francois Salvadori
    Posted at 03:23h, 10 June Reply

    Great post once again, Scott ! I have been myself exposed to severe back injuries in the past, mainly around L5/S1 and L4/L5: bulging and heavily damaged discs leading to chronic sciatica and eventually right leg paralysis for a few days, back in 2000 (I was 27 at that time).
    I did not undergo surgery, but had a couple of cortizone shots to reduce the inflamation , and worked a long way with a rumatologist and a physical therapist to recover. Even though I was back at work (with crutches) a week and a half after, it took me 4 month to get back to regular Judo training.
    Since then, I got interested in alternative medicine and alternative strentgh and conditionning technique, cross training becaming my way to prepare myself, including swimming, bike riding and so on, but hardly no weight until I deeply dove into KB training.
    I feel stronger and somewhat fitter now in my 40ies than when I was 30, and I am way less prone to back injuries, most probably thanks to KB training, always focusing on good form first.

    • Scott
      Posted at 21:22h, 19 June Reply

      Great to hear JF!
      Sounds like you are doing very well and you certainly can relate to the back issues.
      The important thing is to focus on the technique, move well, and train smart so that nothing like that happens again.
      Safe, smart training is what’s all about!
      Keep on progressing, my friend!

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