Why Do Kettlebell Swings Hurt My Back?

By Ann Wendel
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We love kettlebell swings around here—and love hearing about how much you love them!

What we don't love is hearing that some of you experience some back pain when you swing.

I commonly see patients who have exercise-related low back pain, and they aren’t sure what is causing it. Watching them perform a kettlebell swing gives me a lot of information. While I don’t have the benefit of watching each of you train, if you're feeling back pain when you do kettlebell swings, I can make some educated guesses based on common mistakes I see over and over.

Kettlebell training has been steadily increasing in popularity since 2001, when Dragon Door Publications and Pavel Tsatsouline developed the first instructor certification program in the USA, the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge).

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Many coaches, personal trainers, and commercial gyms have started offering private and group kettlebell training. The design of the kettlebell, with the center of mass extended beyond the hand, facilitates ballistic and swinging movements. Done correctly, the exercises integrate the full body and breath to stabilize and produce power.

Like any other type of exercise equipment, when used incorrectly, kettlebells can lead to injury.

Kettlebell exercises build strength and endurance, particularly in the lower back, legs, and shoulders (posterior chain), and increase grip strength. The basic movements engage the entire body at once in a way that mimics functional movements performed in real life situations. kettlebells can even be a very useful rehabilitation tool for treating hip, knee, and back pain patients.

One of the most common kettlebell exercises utilized is the kettlebell swing. This exercise has many benefits including, but not limited to:

  • Teaching the hip hinge with spinal alignment
  • Developing strength in the posterior chain
  • Teaching clients to use their legs and hips to drive lifting motions rather than using their arms
  • Integration of the diaphragm and pelvic floor with lifting objects
  • Development of cardiorespiratory endurance
  • Development of grip strength

It is vital to receive proper instruction and coaching in the swing prior to adding it to your workouts. Unfortunately, many people see the swing in a video or watch someone else performing it at the gym, and decide that it doesn’t look that hard. They jump in, adding it to their program without understanding the mechanics.

badswingform-450x301The most common mistake I see when clients perform the swing is that they don’t have the hip hinge fully integrated into their motor planning. They tend to flex their lumbar spine as they perform the “hike pass” phase of the swing, and then they hyperextend their lumbar spine at the top (lock out) phase of the swing.

This causes irritation in the low back, and when performed incorrectly over and over, can lead to pain. Done correctly, the head and spine stay in alignment throughout the swing. The hips hinge back allowing the hike pass and then the power comes from the hips driving forward to float the bell up.

At the top of the swing, the hips lock out with the lumbar spine in neutral (imagine being in a plank position at the top of the swing). Done incorrectly, the person leans back at the top of the swing, missing the hip extension and instead hyperextending the low back to feel like they are locking out. This not only irritates the back, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the firing of the glutes through the full range of motion.

This same issue can sometimes be seen in clients during the deadlift (which utilizes the same hip hinge movement). They don't finish the last bit of hip extension at the top of the deadlift, and compensate by hyperextending the low back, they may get pain.

If you feel back pain when swinging a kettlebell or deadlifting, film yourself performing the swing and deadlift. This can be very useful, as you can monitor your progress toward proper form.

ann-kb-swing-350x375One other comment on the swing: please stick with the Russian swing, which focuses on the hip hinge and hip drive to "float" the bell up to the point where it naturally begins to descend again (usually at or below shoulder height).

When I ask clients to show me their swing and they perform an American swing (the bell ends up overhead), I cringe as I look at the compensations they're using to accomplish this task. In order to get the bell overhead, most people hyperextend their lumbar spine and stick their head forward, which leads to neck and back pain.

As always, these are just suggestions for possible causes and solutions to training related pain. If pain continues, it's best to consult with a physical therapist for a thorough evaluation and treatment of low back pain.

You can find a physical therapist near you by looking on the American Physical Therapy Association website.

In the following video, I will demonstrate the basics of the kettlebell swing to help you better understand how the swing is safely performed.

For more on the kettlebell swing, check out this article by Karen Smith, with more videos, too.

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About the author:  Ann Wendel

Ann Wendel is an internationally-recognized women's health Physical Therapist (PT), a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), and a Certified Myofascial Trigger Point Therapist (CMTPT). In addition to owning and operating Prana Physical Therapy in Alexandria, VA, Ann writes, travels, speaks, and consults with other physical therapists and business owners. You can connect with Ann on Facebook and Twitter.

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