Written by Sarah Loogman
Although much of the fitness world has conceded that the kettlebell swing is a low back and shoulder exercise, proper understanding of the mechanics involved in swinging a kettlebell demonstrate that it should, in fact, be an exercise for the glutes and hamstrings while teaching rapid, athletic hip extension. To serve it’d proper purpose, this fundamental exercise must be done correctly in order to balance athletic training and to reduce risk of injury.
A common error of the kettlebell swing is to “squat” the movement by driving the knees forward and outward as the bell swings back. In this effort to maintain a more upright torso, what the athlete has actually done is to lock the position of the pelvis. As a result, the low back must rapidly pattern through aggressive flexion and extension in a way that it is not ideally designed to do. Resultantly, kettlebell swings performed in this manner often cause swelling of the low back. Regularly training a kettlebell swing in this manner may cause more harmful effects later on including spinal damage.
Fear of the damaging potential of this movement should not necessarily justify elimination of this exercise from an athletes programming. If trauma has been treated and an athlete is healthy to move, correct practice of this exercise will mean increased strength in the posterior chain and athletic development, both markers to maintain a strong and healthy body.
In contrast to the squat-like performance described above, a kettlebell swing performed correctly will allow the pelvis to tilt, or hinge, through the entire range of motion. When the hips are free to move, the hamstrings and glutes will serve their purpose in rapid hip extension and the low back will not be demanded to carry or move unnecessary load.
Some athletes may find the proprioception or mobility required to hinge a difficult task and should make sure that they are capable to perform the proper range of motion before performing heavy weight or high repetition kettlebell swings. Due to lifestyle choices or even genetics, a person may find that their hamstrings are too tight to allow a proper swing without defaulting to the low back.
Here are some mobility exercises that you can use to increase the mobility of your hamstrings in order to optimize your performance in the kettlebell swing and other hinging patterns:
Although this might just seem like another “exercise,” the use of a straight-leg or “Romanian” deadlift can actually be used as an active stretch for the hamstrings. These should only be performed to the end range of the individual and the intent is not necessarily to get the greatest range of motion possible by folding over, but to maintain spinal integrity and only move within a range that the pelvis and hamstrings will allow.
Banded Hip Distraction, Hamstring Floss
This will be a more static, or passive, stretch with the assistance of a band. Watch the video by Kelly Starrett below (exercise starts at 3:00) to see how to perform this movement correctly.
You can get creative with this exercise and make use of a double lacrosse ball, foam roller, barbell or even the handle of a kettlebell. Cross the tool of choice perpendicular to the fibers to the length of the hamstring and essentially “smash” the tissue. Moving slowly and deliberately will be the most effective and areas that are more painful or sensitive to pressure should be treated most thoroughly. Although it can be a physically grueling process, unlocking bound up musculature will help your body move more freely through hinging patterns.
The extended periods of sitting that mark our society today have resulted in an epidemic that started with tight hamstrings but is leading to low back pain and injury, even within the fitness realm. The kettlebell swing is an excellent tool of performance development that should be utilized correctly with a proper understanding of the mechanics involved and the individual restriction of an athlete. Free up your hamstrings to maximize your athletic performance and well-rounded fitness!