The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Kettlebells Without Spine Injury

Reader Dan wrote:
"Hello, I'm writing as someone who has incurred a training-related lower back injury and who has great interest in your words on hyperlordosis. I am hoping that you might shed some insight on how to achieve a neutral spine while doing "kettlebell swings." This is the exercise that has caused me back pain, and I would love to return to working out with kettlebells, but am not sure how to do so without creating too much lordosis. Any ideas? I appreciate any assistance you can provide and thank you for your contributions! Take care,
Dan L"

Kettle bells (also called kettle balls and many other names) are usually ball-shaped weights with a handle. A variety of sizes is shown in the photo, above, along with a medicine ball for comparison.

Kettle bells were long used in various martial arts and cultural festivals and contests before being rediscovered for modern weight lifting. In general, you lift, swing, and move them to do various weight lifting exercises. Kettle bells are weights. Benefits of kettlebells are the same as lifting and swinging other kinds of weights. Throughout history, people have lifted and swung weights of all kinds of shapes. Recent kettlebell devotees have made a small set of lifts and swings. However, a wider range of movement and more function can be trained.

The photos above, of spine position that is injurious (left) and healthy neutral (right) while swinging a heavy medicine ball overhead, are from the book Healthy Martial Arts. My black belt student Christopher demonstrates. This is a similar motion as swinging kettle bells overhead by the handle. Although some kettlebell devotees limit swings to mostly vertical swings between the legs, great benefits are possible using weights with handles for functional core stability training, as above.

In the left photo, Christopher demonstrates a posture that compresses the lower spine and is a major cause of lower back pain. He allows the hip to tilt forward in front and out in back, and his upper body tilts backward relative to the lower spine. The posture is called swayback, overarching, and hyperlordosis. In the right photo, he reduces the overarching to neutral spine. The belt line changes from tipped downward in front to level.

Keep neutral spine when lifting and swinging kettlebells, and any other weight overhead (right photo). Prevent the slouch of leaning your upper body backward and tilting the pelvis (left photo). Leaning backward and allowing the hip to tilt are often mistakenly done to "balance the weight" and make the lift easier. Leaning the upper body back and tilting the pelvis are not necessary to balance a load - your own muscles can hold the load, and in fact, that is the point of lifting the weights.

Overarching increases the small normal small inward curve (normal small lordosis) to a large curve (hyperlordosis). Hyperlordosis increases compression on the joints (facets) and soft tissue of the lower spine. The same overarching is the hidden cause of back pain in women who lean back and/or tilt the hip trying to offset the load of a pregnancy - Back Pain in Pregnancy - and Why Men Can Get It. Leaning backward and overarching are not helpful adaptations as sometime thought, are not unavoidable, and are not limited to pregnant women. Overarching (hyperlordosis) is a common bad posture, and an often missed source of back pain. It can be easily prevented by using your muscles to hold neutral spine. The post Prevent Back Surgery shows photos of hyperlordosis compared to neutral spine during many activities.

Bending over forward to swing kettlebells between the legs is another exercise where injury and back pain frequently occur. Good squatting technique reduces the problem. Often weight lifters spend much time learning and debating good squat posture, then bend over (injurious bad bending) to pick up and put down their kettlebells.

Neutral spine while exercising with kettle bells is the same as neutral spine during anything else - just hold your spine position. Neutral spine is not done by tightening or clenching any muscles. It is done by moving your hip and lower spine the same way you move your arm to scratch your nose - without tightening, just moving it to where you want it. Holding neutral spine is the same as not slouching your shoulders or not letting your mouth hang open - a voluntary use of your own muscles - built-in exercise.

Keep breathing, Have fun. You can swing weights of any kind in any variety of ways, to be stronger and healthier, without injury.

Learn neutral spine swinging kettlebells, babies, and all other fun weightlifting:


Kettlebell collection photo by maryspics
Photo of swinging medicine ball © by Dr, Bookspan of Christopher Emmolo from the book Healthy Martial Arts

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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.