I had an interesting question the other day from one of the Lunchtime Fitness members.
First of all, I love it when my guys ask me questions, it’s one of the things that makes my job special. When questions come in, either face to face on the training floor or via the internet it challenges me to give the best answer I can, it reminds me that I have an intelligent and curious group of people training with me and that it is my duty to furnish these questions with the best answers I can.
And if I can’t answer, then it highlights a hole in my knowledge that needs plugged.
This particular question comes from a relatively new member to the lunchtime session. He’s a smart lad with a passion for running. He was recommended to take up the kettlebell training to supplement his endurance work.
This particular day I had him performing hand to hand kettlebell swings. As he’s still fairly new, single hand swings are fairly new to him as I like to ensure people have adequate ability with a 2 handed swing before progressing them to the far more valuable single hand versions.
After his set he asks me an excellent question that I feel worthy of sharing:
“See when I’m doing swings with one hand, how do I stop the core from twisting?”
Alright, I paraphrased that a little, but essentially he’s asking how to avoid rotating his spine during single handed swings.
As with most things I try to relate my answers to something the asker is familiar with. In this case running.
When I told him that rotation is actually something we should encourage, his interest was piqued. I can assume he’s been doing his homework and has been reading about core stability and how the abdominals are really designed in order to prevent movement and provide stiffness and not to create movement.
But if this is truly the case, how would we:
- Open doors
- Swing across monkey bars
- Swim with Front Crawl
- Swim using Back Stroke
- or any number of other activities?
You see when we do most of these things we find that our hips and shoulders work in opposition. In other words as our right leg moves forward, rotating our pelvis to the left, then our left arm swings forwards rotating our shoulders towards the right.
In other words the top part of our spine is moving clockwise and the bottom part is moving anti clockwise. The whole thing is being rotated.
But that’s not all.
As that right leg swings forwards, the hip must lift. When the right hip lifts, the right shoulder drops flexing our entire spine to the right.
But, but, but, but, but…….. I read EVERYWHERE on the internet that of my spine flexes and rotates, it’ll explode!!!!
No, it won’t.
Yes, if I’m stupid and take my spine through to its mechanical end range of motion either too fast or with too much load, then yes, it probably will.
If my body is out of alignment already and my spine is unable to move efficiently, then the risks go up.
But if your healthy and build up in a gradual, progressive manner, then training in a manner that encourages rotation in the spine is perfectly healthy. In stead of viewing the core muscles as needing to prevent motion, why not think of them as arresting movement. But if they’re never shown a movement, how can they know when to fire to protect the spine?
If we look at the sport of kettlebell lifting where we have men Snatching 32kg kettlebells and women snatching 24kg bells, one handed for max reps. In competition they’re only allowed one hand change on a ten minute time limit, yet they manage from 150 to 240 reps in that time.
Think of the training volume they must put in doing one handed swings and snatch with a variety of weights. Each swing and snatch involving flexion, extension AND rotation of the spine on every rep, yet the injury rate is incredibly low.
Their mobility is astonishing, their strength tremendous and their endurance the stuff of legends.
But according to the text books, they ought to be crippled.
As the kettlebell passes through several stages of the swing our spine will also move through several stages.
Lets start a the to of the swing, the theoretical end point. For arguments sake, and as we’re using the swing in the context of general fitness, not specific to developing out snatch, we will take the end point as the arm is out parallel to the floor, the bell at chest height.
At this point we are stood tall, the spine extended. Now depending on how far along you are in your kettlebell journey, you will either be standing square with no rotation or if your more advanced, you’ll be rotating towards the bell as your waist and weight bearing shoulder pull back to further accelerate and control the arc.
OK, not the best illustration i know, but you can see the shoulders turning. I’ll post a short video of my swinging a heavy bell later today!
As the bell drops, we maintain an extended spine until the arm makes contact with the body. At this point we hinge at the hip and follow the bell as it swings through the legs.
Again how you move will depend on how far you are along your kettlebell journey. A beginner will let their shoulders turn slightly here to allow the bell to pass through the legs and load the hamstrings. There will be a twist in the spine caused by the shoulder coming forwards. More advanced lifters will really turn, swing their unloaded hand back resulting in a larger rotation of the spine coupled with a degree of flexion through the upper back.
This all reverses then with the spine extending and rotating back to its start point.
That’s a lot of movement.
This is a good thing and more movement, means more muscles are involved. We’ve a stack of muscle that controls the spine, from the big obvious ones like the lats and abs, to the wee ones like the multifidus. By allowing the spine to move, all these muscles are stimulated to fire, to strengthen, to coordinate and to become more effective.
Yes, being silly with a swing and firing a massive weight back through the legs with sloppy form is going to destroy you. But if you build up gradually, you’ll find that you will naturally swing with less and less conscious control as the body learns to control the load.
In the long run our backs become bullet proofed. It understands its limits, it knows how to rotate, flex and extend while being subjected to some sort of load. It knows where it’s limits lie and to stay just shy of them.
But if you never train to go near these limits, you’ll never know where they are.
This is why the kettlebell has picked up such a reputation for creating bulletproof athletes, guys who are incredibly resistant to injury, who can demonstrate incredible strength and turn their hand to almost anything despite only training with these relatively light weights.
As always, approach with caution and build up slowly.
My personal journey into kettlebell lifting began when I’d blown out my SI joint and a lumbar disk with a linear barbel lift. It was learning the kettlebell lifts and slowly building them up that brought me back to fitness. That was several years ago, since then I’ve competed in several kettlebell sports competitions and also walked a mile whilst swing a 24kg kettlebell hand to hand, that’s approx 1800 consecutive swings non stop!
So you could say I’m a firm believer in training with the bells and allowing the spine to move naturally, but in a safe and progressive manner.