Kettlebell Swing Lower Back Pain: 8 Possible Reasons

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 2, 2022

Kettlebell swings are one of the best workouts to strengthen the posterior chain which includes the structures in the lower back area. Power, endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility training are all possible with kettlebells. They're also an adaptable method to alter exercise routines and challenge different muscle groups.

However, the performance of swings with inappropriate techniques could easily lead to injury. When working out with kettlebells, a person with back pain should also take extreme caution; unequipped with the proper technique, the risk of causing further harm rises.

Low back pain associated with kettlebell swings is typically attributed to faulty form or improper technique. However, there are a number of possible explanations.

What is the Kettlebell Swing?

The kettlebell swing is a low-impact exercise to increase heart rate and build lean mass. It is a high-intensity exercise that is effective in burning calories and increasing strength, thus often used to improve an individual’s cardiovascular health and unwanted weight. This can be performed either with a single hand or two.

How to Perform

Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold the kettlebell by the handle with both hands so that it rests between both legs. Bend forward at the hips while keeping the back in neutral extension until you feel a stretch in the back of the legs around the hamstrings.

russian kettlebell swing

Swing the kettlebell backward to gain momentum before lifting it to shoulder level. The individual stands back straight as the kettlebells are swung forward, thrusting the hips forward while extending the knees. Repeat this motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set.

Muscles Worked

This is a challenging workout that works multiple muscle groups at once. The glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and upper back muscles are the primary muscles used in this exercise. The movement also aids in the improvement of flexibility and mobility.

the kettlebell single arm swing

Despite its appearance as an upper-extremity exercise, the kettlebell swing is a workout that targets and strengthens the posterior chain, specifically the gluteal muscles. Because this exercise necessitates a significant amount of hip extension, the gluteus maximus is the primary mover, assisted by the hamstrings.

Kettlebell Swing Common Mistakes That Cause Low Back Pain

Lower back pain affects approximately 7.5% of the world's population according to the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), based on a Global Burden of Disease study.

Degenerative bone or disc degeneration, arthritis, and stenosis are among the conditions that can affect the lumbar spine. Even though there are many treatment options for lower back pain and discomfort, strengthening the lower back and associated muscles with stretches and exercises such as kettlebell swings can help lessen the symptoms of these disorders.

In addition to being used to prevent and cure lower back discomfort, advanced weightlifters employ kettlebell exercises to expand their range of motion, improve core strength and balance, and build movement fluidity in squats or deadlifts.

However, it is not uncommon to experience lower back pain after or during kettlebell swing performance. Lower back pain associated with kettlebell swings is largely attributed to faulty form or improper technique.

1. Going Too Heavy Too Soon

The kettlebell swing is a dynamic movement that warrants a forward and upward swinging movement of the kettlebell. When selecting the right weight for this workout caution must be applied as a weight that is too heavy risks overloading the muscles, tendons, and ligaments and on the other hand, one that is too light may not be able to offer results. 

An individual may think that if it is within their capabilities to lift a dumbbell heavier than 16kg then they may also do the same for the kettlebell, but the kettlebell requires more effort to control the acceleration and especially the deceleration which will put more tension on the soft tissues as compared to traditional weights. 

It is recommended to always start with a kettlebell that is not too light nor too heavy and then move up from there to avoid any unnecessary injuries to the muscles, joints, and ligaments, required in the movement, especially in the low back area.

2. Squatting Instead of Hinging

Kettlebell swings require a forward and backward hip movement instead of an upward and downward movement. This is because the swing is powered through by the hips. To be able to swing the bell, the hips are thrust forward.

If a squat is assumed instead of a hip hinge, the body moves up and down instead of producing the force needed to initiate the swing. Then, in order to move the kettlebell forward and upward, the arms and back muscles will be overworked.

PVC hinge example

To fix this, the hip hinge must be mastered prior to doing kettlebell swings. As the torso is tilted forward at the hips, shift the body weight to the heels and drive the hips backward. Consider extending the glutes behind you. Keep the spine in neutral extension throughout the movement.

Tilt the torso forward until the torso is almost parallel to the ground. Both throughout the downhill and upward phases, maintain a modest bend in the knees. To get back to the beginning posture, reverse the motion by tightening the glutes and thrusting the hips forward.

3. Hinging But Not Bending the Knees

When there is no bend in the knees and the swinging is done it will require the hamstrings to exert all the power which will cause the upper limbs and back to compensate. This type of execution of the kettlebell swing will take away the engagement of the glutes which is where most of the power needs to come from. Without slight knee flexion, the quads are not engaged as well.

When doing kettlebell swings, a bend of the knees is required for its proper execution. This better engages the gluteal muscles and lessens the shear forces imposed on the lower back. 

4. Rounding the Upper Back

The kettlebell swing is performed through the movements of a hip hinge and so rounding the upper back is not proper during its execution.

Keep in mind that the spine should always be in a neutral posture by constantly maintaining the back straight, even if the rounding of the upper back happens unintentionally.

5. Using the Arms to Swing

When performing the swing, a common problem is using the arms and shoulders to swing the kettlebell rather than pushing explosively from the hips. It is incorrect to think that one can lift the kettlebell with their arms because while they do assist in gripping the kettlebell, all of the force necessary to make the kettlebell swing comes from the hips.

The usual causes of shoulder overuse are an inability to bend the hips properly and a lack of hip drive. Overusing the arms affects the mid and upper back because they bear the weight of all the labor, which is too much for the arms to bear alone.

The arms and shoulders are just there to lead the kettlebell. Allow the hips to perform all the effort while keeping the shoulders engaged just enough to control the height of the kettlebell ascent.

This can be remedied by concentrating on the hip thrust and relaxing the arms. Employ the hip extensors to thrust the kettlebell forward by projecting the hip force into the arms while briefly allowing it to float in the air. Due to physical limitations, using a heavier kettlebell will need more effort from the hips.

6. The Timing is Off

When performing kettlebell swings, timing is crucial. As the kettlebell is traversing downward, it will wreak havoc on the lower back if the hinge is assumed too soon. The bell pulls the hips downward instead of backward, producing a squat rather than a hinge at the hips. Aversion to the kettlebell is usually the source of this issue. 

hip hinge

It is important to practice holding off on hinging until the kettlebell is almost touching the thighs and the arms are touching the body. Wait until the very last second of the downswing to guide the bell back between the knees or until the forearms impact the upper thighs.

7. Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Any sort of deadlift movement pattern requires precise pelvic control. Anterior pelvic tilt happens when the pelvis rotates forward causing the lumbar spine to arch. This may be due to tight hip flexors and weak core muscles, resulting in an arched lower back. The lumbar spine's intricate structure might be tampered with by an excessive arch in the lower back or lordosis.

anterior pelvic tilt

There are quite a number of methods to fix anterior tilting of the pelvis when doing kettlebell swings. Improving hip flexor and quadriceps flexibility through static stretches, and strengthening the core muscles can help remedy this problem. 

8. Excessive Back Extension/Leaning Too Far Backwards

One common mistake that happens during the kettlebell swing is the over-extension or leaning of the back too far, the kettlebell swing is done properly when the individual stops leaning at an upright position as if there is a wall behind the individual. Excessive leaning causes additional stress to the lower back which may lead to an injury.

This is usually due to a lack of explosive strength, weakness of the core muscles, and bad proprioception (sense of location and action of the body part).

To correct this, the person should tighten their glutes and abs at the peak of the swing to keep their back from swaying off the center line. The engagement of both muscle groups keeps the trunk from overextending to prevent unnecessary tension on the lower back structures. 

How to Recover from a Kettlebell Back Injury

Short-term back injuries usually last only a few days to approximately 6 weeks to heal, depending on the severity of it. The individual should approach a professional to better examine the condition of the injury and whether it is safe for them to attempt the exercise again or rest more. If suffering from a kettlebell back injury, it is better to avoid further execution of this particular exercise in the meantime. 

It is recommended to rest, and apply cold and/or hot compression on the back to stimulate blood flow and improve the healing process. Perform exercises that strengthen the abdominal muscles if able to tolerate them. With the supervision of a professional, it is also recommendable to do stretches and strengthening exercises for the back during the healing process. 

Whether the individual needs to use and wear appropriate protective equipment is determined by the type and severity of the injury. 

Final Thoughts

The kettlebell swing is a great workout that is entertaining and has numerous advantages. Kettlebell swings, when done properly, will assist to strengthen the core and guard against back problems.

However, it is common to perform the swing incorrectly and suffer from back issues, notably lower back discomfort. The first step in preventing this is comprehending the right swing mechanics.

References

1. Hayden JA, Van Tulder MW, Malmivaara AV, Koes BW. Meta-analysis: exercise therapy for nonspecific low back pain. Annals of internal medicine. 2005 May 3;142(9):765-75.

2. Jay K, Frisch D, Hansen K, Zebis MK, Andersen CH, Mortensen OS, Andersen LL. Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health: a randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health. 2011 May 1:196-203.

3. Erbes DA. The effect of kettlebell training on body composition, flexibility, balance, and core strength (Doctoral dissertation).

4. Williamson O, Cameron P. The global burden of low back pain. International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP). 2021 July 9.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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