Kettlebell swing has become a popular exercise in the last several years. However, there is not much clear information available online about the safety of this movement, and its impact on the lower back. So I’ve decided to spend my morning going through the academic journals, publications, and meta-analysis to find this answer. Here’s what I find out.
Are kettlebell swings bad for your back? The kettlebell swing is proven to be therapeutic rather than detrimental for the lower back. It is a dynamic hip hinge movement that creates rapid muscle activation and relaxation cycles. Those cycles create compression that has a beneficial effect on the back muscles.
So technically, kettlebell swings can be used as a rehab exercise, if done correctly. Of course, you must ensure that you are doing a hip extension movement, not a lumbar flexion.
How To Do Kettlebell Swings Without Hurting Your Back?
According to Jay, Kenneth, et al. (2011) Kettlebell Training for Musculoskeletal and Cardiovascular Health, kettlebell swings training protocol not only lead to strengthening the back muscles of the participants. It also significantly reduced the pain in their lower back.
However, studies may not always reflect the real-life situation.
What if someone actually does have more pain after doing kettlebell swings? Showing off a scientific paper won’t fix the problem.
In this article, I will show you everything you need to know about kettlebell swings, what things you must pay attention to, and how to do them correctly to get the most benefits for your back, just like the participants did from the studies.
This may be dependent on your injury history, fitness level, applied load, and the actual form of exercise.
One of the most common mistakes people do with kettlebell swings is that they treat it like a football hike.
They bend their back when they lower the kettlebell.
This is an open door for injury.
And it usually happens with beginners. We focus on the quantity (think reps) and we don’t think of quality (think form).
And imagine if you use a heavy kettlebell. Not good.
Remember that if your spine goes under constant compression (contract-relax cycles), and you repeatedly bend it with a heavy load, this will lead to movement fault.
To fix that issue we need to first understand the cause of the problem. It can be either one of the two.
Cueing or flexibility.
Cueing is basically a move that you do to “get into the position”.
Chest up, knees out, squeeze your glutes, squeeze your shoulderblades.
Those are all cues that coaches give to make sure their clients are in a safe position.
So the number one cue to keeping your lumbar spine in a neutral position think of it like pushing your butt backward, not downwards. This is not a squat.
You want to push your chest up, and hinge on your hips, keeping the lower back straight.
Another problem can be caused by flexibility.
In this case, doesn’t matter how many cues you do, if your hamstrings and lower back are short, you won’t be able to perform this exercise safely.
I had many clients that were very strong, but they’re just missing some basic range of motion. This means they can do well on bench or leg press. But as soon as they do deadlift, squat or kettlebell swing, the movement flows start to come right up to the surface.
That’s why squat is sometimes used as a form of assessing range of motion. It helps to smoke out all the gaps.
My recommendation is to focus on your flexibility. Can you touch your toes? If not, then go hire a trainer to help you restore your range of motion before you put on any load.
Another common problem is the speed. Doing high volume reps as fast as possible.
We like the competition. So my form may be good with the first 10 reps. But as soon as I’m out of breath, and I hit that muscle exhaustion, I may start to compensate. So then I default to some weird banana shape form. Just to get those reps in.
This is also a very common problem if we do multiple exercises back to back.
If you are familiar with the CrossFit world, you know that doing compound movement (squats, jumps, rows, swings, etc.) straight after the fast run is normal. And keeping eye on the form is relatively easy at the beginning.
In the end – not necessarily.
Always think about the form. If you train in the group setting, ask someone to look at you and give you an honest opinion about your form.
Especially when you are almost at the finish line.
If you train on your own, reduce intensity.
Next one I call a squat fault. This basically means doing squat instead of swing. And usually people who are doing this exercise very first time may struggle with it.
They simply drive the kettlebell below the knee. So they lower their hips down, rather than pushing out.
With the squat, we go vertically down, bend the knees, and trying to maintain a straight back. Now with the swing is different.
Swing is like a pendulum.
Related article: Are Farmers Walk Bad For Your Knees?
One way to fix that is to keep the kettlebell above your knee level. This will keep your back in the nice, neutral spine position.
Properly executed swing requires keeping your knees only slightly bent.
Here in this video, you can see a perfect demonstration of a proper swing.
Also, another common fault is the head position.
You want to keep your head moving along with the swing.
But in a natural way. Many times people either “chase” the kettlebell all the way down to the floor, or they don’t move their heads at all.
This will cause a lot of tension, especially when you lower the kettlebell.
To fix that problem simply follow the kettlebell, but stop your head once you start to see your feet. And when you swing the bell up again, just look straight ahead.
This will keep you away from the trouble.
Here in this article, I wrote everything you need to know about can kettlebell swings cause neck pain, and how to fix this.
The last tip is to always squeeze your butt at the peak of the swing.
This is the whole point of doing the swing.
When you bring your bell to your shoulders level, this is when your spine should be perfectly straight, knees straight (but not locked), and your head is looking forward.
That’s when you want to peak squeeze your glutes.
This is gonna activate the muscle, and take the pressure from your lower back, into the hips.
Remember that swing is a hip movement.
Once you implement those cues, then your kettlebell swing training will transform from creating the pain in your lower back muscles to strengthening your muscles and lowering the pain.
Can Kettlebell Swings Help With Back Pain?
Some of the commonly known benefits that kettlebell swings offer are fat loss, explosiveness, conditioning, and improved posture.
But what about back health?
It turns out that kettlebells can be a great rehab tool, as well as a strength tool.
It’s simply because of the constant activation and relaxation cycles that happen in the lower back. Muscles rapidly contract and relax. This repeated compression of the spine is very therapeutic for the muscles.
And, because kettlebell swing is a hip movement, not a spine movement, it creates compression in the spine but it also allows the spine to stay in a neutral position during those contract-relax cycles.
The spine doesn’t get the load.
Hips get all of the load. And that is good. Here is a real-life example.
The IPF World Deadlift Champion, Brad Gillingham, experienced some devastating back injury.
He used to pull as much weight off the floor as he could for a single rep, as often as possible.
This approach led him to severe back issues. After 2 years and several failed rehabilitation attempts, he incorporated kettlebell swings into his training.
But you don’t need to be a world champion to benefit from the swings.
In this study, a group of healthy participants saw significant results from doing kettlebell swings with just 9 lbs.
That shows you don’t need to use a heavy load to get the rewards of this powerful exercise.
How Heavy Kettlebell Should I Use?
That is a great question, and it really depends on many different aspects.
The most important are your strength level, your age, your gender, etc.
Let me give you an example.
A few weeks back one of my clients asked me to recommend a kettlebell for her friend.
She said that her friend is “fit” because she hikes a lot.
But it turns out that her friend was a 70-year-old female, who was never doing any formal exercises with the weights in her life.
All she did was a pilates class. So I if wouldn’t investigate the subject further, then I would probably recommend something way too heavy for her.
So again, it depends.
But in general, I always recommend to go and try first.
In your local gym, in the sports shop. Try to assess what is available, and how you feel with that weight.
If you haven’t done any weight training at all, then I recommend hiring a trainer for a couple of sessions to make sure you are doing it right.
Related article: How To Use Kettlebell Swings For Golfers Elbow
But to reap the rewards from this great exercise you must first get confident that you are doing it the right way.
So before you buy anything, go to see yourself.
Also considering hiring a trainer for a couple of sessions, just to make sure you are doing it right.
How long does it takes for kettlebell swings to strengthen lower back?
It really depends on the type of problem. If you having some twitches due to bad form, or poor flexibility, then 3-6 weeks should be enough to see changes.
Can I do kettlebell swings for herniated disc?
First, you want to consult with your doctor. If your doctor gives you green light, then start by doing some lightweight swings and maybe hire a trainer to work with you on the form.