“That looks dangerous” is one of the most frequent comments I get when I am demonstrating for someone in my gym. It seems like just about everyone who walks in our doors knows someone who has gotten hurt exercising with kettlebells. I’d like to take a moment in this article to talk about kettlebell injuries–which are the most frequent I see, and how they can be avoided.
In fairness, that guy in the picture over there who may be seconds away from knocking his teeth out is not the type of injury I’m talking about. We’ll be discussing movements that put us in pain, and movements that can get us back out.
It is fun to do military presses with Russian kettlebells. Snatches, too. What do both of these movements have in common? They seem to be leading to the majority of shoulder pain I am helping my clients resolve. Too much volume, too much weight, too much too soon, but most importantly, these people are trying to press with the exact form they see in books and DVDs. The body of the client is not the body of the person demonstrating the exercise. In an effort to help people fit the movement to their needs, we perform various range of motion tests to determine what pressing or snatching set-up will give the greatest increase in ROM.
If they are trying to press exactly like Pavel in the Enter The Kettlebell DVD, they are eventually going to experience shoulder pain. Pavel may be pressing the way that is best for him, but if a refugee from a sedentary lifestyle suddenly shows up, and they haven’t lifted their arms above their heads in a year, I’m not going to insist that they practice “perfect” form. I’m going to see what they can do and meet them where they’re at.
With the biofeedback testing, it can be as simple as finding a different foot stance, a lunge position, pressing from the knees, or playing around with varying degrees of torso rotation.
Test test test.
Kettlebell swings and back pain
“But I thought I was supposed to do it like this,” the client will say, quoting me a sound-byte from a DVD or showing me a picture from Return of The Kettlebell.
“Does it feel good when you do it like that?” I ask.
“No, it hurts.”
“Did it hurt the way we just did it? The way that tested best?”
“No, it felt good. But I thought I was supposed to do it like this.”
It is easy to hurt your back doing a kettlebell swing, if you insist on there being one perfect way to do the swing, and then fitting your form into a sequence that may not be serving your physiological needs. If your hips or back or lats do not have the same size, shape, injury history, and memories of the hips and the back of the person who told you you “should” do it that way, I gently suggest not listening to anything but your own body.
If it hurts to do kettlebell swings in a particular way, run the tests and try another way. If it feels good, increases your range of motion, and allows you to get more work done than in your previous workouts, who is to say that you are doing anything wrong? Not me, not them.
We can each lead ourselves.
For the record, I do not believe in “perfect” form for kettlebell movements. I understand that in order to sell books, programs, and instructor certifications, people have to develop one-size-fits-all methods. I believe that is a great way to break your body. It may not happen soon, but I believe it will happen. So my goal as a trainer is to help people do the movements that they are able to do, and to have an idea of how to progress towards efficient form.
By efficiency I’m just talking about the path of the barbell or kettlebell when it is being moved during a lift. The shortest safe distance between two points may be a line, or an S curve, depending on the physiology of the person doing the lift.
If I am helping someone to press heavier, we test various paths as they press to lockout. If possible, we test the straight-up pattern because it is the most efficient, physics wise. If that tests poorly, we bring the arm out a ways from the body and retest. I mention this because in the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) method of pressing the arm is brought out to about 90 degrees, then the press part of the movement actually starts. This is sequential movement when simultaneous movement would be more efficient.
In my (anecdotal) evidence so far, if simultaneous movement tests best, it is less likely to lead to injury.
In closing, let me say that I am going on my own experience, and that of the clients I train. I do not coach world champions and I have not broken any world records. Having said that, I am also injury free, quite strong, and my clients get the results they want with less effort than they ever dreamed possible. My goal is quality of life. Injuries and pain are the opposite of that.
I’m not as happy as possible when I can’t lift, and I can’t lift when I hurt. The last time I suffered any sort of pain in the gym was when I was trying to do something according to someone else’s idea of technique.
Enjoy your lifting, enjoy your life. The less pain you have, the easier they both are!
Return to Strength Training for body and mind.