Kettlebell training is an increasingly popular workout regimen that is widely promoted by many fitness influencers due to its versatility and overall body engagement. Kettlebell training involves both dynamic and static movements that combine elements of strength training, cardio, flexibility, and balance. Kettlebell exercises range from traditional swings, snatches, and shoulder presses to more complex movements such as the kettlebell goblet squat or Russian kettlebell swings.
Kettlebells can help you train many different body parts including arms, legs, shoulders, and back muscles. While fitness influencers and trainers commonly incorporate kettlebell training, many of them don’t seem to know how to use the tool optimally and they often fail to realize some obvious drawbacks, including rates of injury and lack of functional biomechanical integration (more on this later).
Although commonly purported as “safe” and “healthy” for joints, kettlebell training can be quite dangerous. Moving weights with momentum while putting joints through abnormally large ranges of motion, especially with bad form, is a recipe for injury. According to a Harvard Health article, “Lifting too much too soon or lifting a kettlebell the wrong way can lead to muscle strains, rotator cuff tears, and falls.” CrossFit kettlebell training, for example, is associated with high rates of injury due its abrasive style, large ranges of motion, and lack of relationship to the gait cycle.
The Turkish getup is an example of an arbitrary kettlebell exercise that commonly causes injury, especially to the shoulder. While kettlebell exercises certainly work the shoulder, they are neither the best way to build the shoulder, nor are they the safest.
Let’s break down the most popular kettlebell exercise and examine why it’s not the best choice for your workout. At the end of the article we will list a video that goes through some alternative kettlebell swings.
Problems with the kettlebell swing:
- Locking out the knees and hips
- Hyper extending the knees places additional stress on the joint and surrounding ligaments, which can increase the risk of injury. The knee joint is not designed to bear load while in a hyperextended position, which can lead to strains, sprains, and other forms of damage over time.
- Locking the knees can force the hips into a posterior tilt (your tailbone tucking under) and/or an anterior shift (relative forward shift of the hips), which can put excess pressure on the lumbar spine (lower back). This rounding or passive shift increases the risk of a disc injury and other lower back problems.
- By locking your knees, you're essentially removing the leg muscles from the movement equation, reducing the engagement of the quadriceps and hamstrings. This contradicts the intent of the kettlebell swing, which is meant to be a full-body exercise.
- Instead, keep a slight bend in your knees which allows for better power generation and weight transfer during the swing.
- Lack of arm line integration
- The arm lines include muscles and connective tissues running from the shoulders to the hands. Improper integration of the arm lines and the shoulder joint can lead to imbalance, improper movement patterns, and injury (particularly to the shoulder joint)
- The arm lines are designed to bend and spiral in a multitude of different ways (think about baseball or wrestling). Training the shoulder joint and shoulder muscles while keeping the elbows locked out and keeping the arm straight is not conducive for proper arm function and can lead to elbow, AC joint, and rotator cuff injuries.
- Lack of Rotational Components
- The kettlebell swings only trains the body in the sagittal plane (front to back). Humans on the other hand are contralateral reciprocators (our body rotates and moves in three dimensions)
- Humans evolved to walk and run. Kettlebell swings are not a unilateral exercise and they do not train us to rotate our ribs in conjunction with our hips. Kettlebell swings do not improve human movement, and can in fact, worsen human movement.
An alternative that you can use to traditional kettlebell swings is a contralateral kettlebell swing. Contralateral kettlebell swings are designed to train your body in a way that integrates all of your muscles in a way that relates to the gait cycle without putting additional strain on your joints.
Contralateral kettlebell swings are an example of an exercise that improves your mechanics while maintaining joint integrity.
Here is a video that goes over some basic Functional Patterns kettlebell exercises:
Listed below are 3 tips you can use to make your kettlebell training more functional.
- Unilateral Stance
- Start in a unilateral position (staggered stance), and rotate your ribs toward your front foot. A unilateral stance or staggered stance is a powerful athletic position that involves placing one foot in front of the other. Many athletic movements such as boxing, the set stance in track, or throwing a ball, begin in a unilateral stance. Incorporating a unilateral stance into your kettlebell training can help you improve your athleticism and movement.
- Weight Shift
- Shifting your weight efficiently is extremely important for improving your athleticism and eliminating pain. Creating exercises that simply incorporate a lateral weight shift from one foot to another is a good way to start making your kettlebell training more functional.
- Contralateral Reciprocation
- In the gait cycle, the arms and legs work in uniform opposition. When the left arm swings forward, the right leg steps forward. It’s important to consider how your limbs connect and reciprocate with one another. It is important to incorporate elements of rotation and contralateral reciprocation when performing a kettlebell swing so you can maximize the athleticism and efficacy of your workout. Working with a practitioner can help you ensure that you perform the exercises with the proper ratios without overextending any joints.
Kettlebell exercises that relate specifically to the gait cycle, throwing patterns, or other athletic movements are excellent ways to train. Unfortunately, traditional kettlebell exercises don’t improve people’s movement and often lead to injury. If a client has a previous history of pain, injuries, surgeries, or other diagnoses such as scoliosis or cerebral palsy, they should avoid kettlebell training unless working with an expert.
Finally, traditional kettlebell training takes few variables into account and is not geared toward improving the gait cycle. The next time you train, think about how you can adapt your kettlebell training to make it more sustainable and more applicable to your body’s primary functions of standing, walking, running, throwing, and even jumping.