Feel Good Guide to Kettlebell Lifting

Understanding how the human body responds to kettlebell lifting is something I take very seriously. Over the last five years, my gym has been a virtual laboratory of kettlebell lifting technique development, teaching hundreds of average people a sophisticated process - and we've learned a lot. I'm prepared to share that unique understanding with you in my new series of learning modules I call Kettlebell Lifting and Human Movement. This is a complimentary sample of a multi-volume release that will soon be available both as a live class and online.

The Feel Good Guide to Kettlebell Lifting
Exercise, of any kind, has potential to produce pain or even injury. But as a Kettlebell Lifter, should we "push past the pain", or utilize it as a signal that something needs to be corrected? Let's take a look at some of the more common aches and pains, and how to use minor pain as a barometer for technique refinement.  

Not all pain is a warning sign that something is wrong. When you take your body to the limit, it can hurt. So how do you differentiate between good and bad pain?  As a rule of thumb, wrist, shoulder, back, knee, elbow pain (or any joint pain) is typically never good. Pain that persists, or worsens, after a set ends is another indication of underlying injury that needs to be addressed. Severe discomfort in the local muscles, or even systemically, should dissipate almost immediately upon setting the bell(s) down. On the other hand, lingering pain or sensation should always be addressed.

Here's a short list of the more common aches and pains and what they could possibly be telling you about your kettlebell lifting.

1. Elbow Pain
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, afflicts many tennis players, and it can occur when your first start to lift kettlebells. It is, by definition, an inflammation (or tendinopathy) or pain in tendons of the elbow joint, where the forearm muscles connect. Categorized as an overuse injury, it can easily be avoided with some simple technique adjustments.

Cause: Bad timing when dropping the bell from rack in the clean or from lockout in snatch. Swinging, cleaning, or snatching while keeping the elbow joint slightly bent is another culprit.

Fix: The drop, from clean or snatch, needs to be seamless, without a noticeable tug or pull on the arm when the bell is caught. The hand, the bell, and the torso, all need to be moving at the same speed when the weight of the bell is transferred to the hand. At the point of transfer, the elbow is completely straight and the muscles of the arm are as relaxed as possible (no bend in the elbow joint). When dropping the bell from the rack position, start the movement with the torso rolling forward and the bell falling, instead of pitching the kettlebell way out in front of you.

2. Low Back Pain
Back injuries can have many causes, but most will be aggravated by improper swinging, cleaning, and snatching, where too much back and not enough leg muscles are used. 

Cause: Not getting enough legs muscle (knee extension) into swing, cleaning or snatching. 

Fix A: In all 3 movements (Swing, Clean, Snatch) the kettlebell is dropped and allowed to swing back between the legs. Knee bending (flexion) here is secondary to the hip hinge (flexion). But as the bell swings forward, the legs (quads) become the primary movers. This is accomplished with a small but deliberate knee bend and straighten (extension) at just the right moment during the forward swing of the kettlebell.

Fix B:Keeping the kettlebell closer to the body during the swing, clean, and snatch, versus pitching it way out in front of you, is another way to lessen the impact on low back muscles whenever the bell is dropped.

3. Forearm Pain
From time to time a kettlebell lifter will complain of forearm pain, for which there are 2 main causes.

Pain in Forearm Muscles 
Cause A: The lifter could be holding tension in the wrist and hand, contracting the forearm muscles to rack or lockout the bell. The pain in this situation would be from too much muscle tension, pressing against the weight of the bell, instead of balancing the bell on the hip of the palm. 

Fix A: Find a way to comfortably relax the wrist and efficiently rack the kettlebell. The wrist remains relaxed with the bell sitting on its perch, the hip of the palm. 

Pain In Top of Forearm
Cause B: When the bell is cleaned or dropped from the lockout to rack, there could be a timing issue, causing the bell to physically slam into the forearm, bruising soft tissue and possibly bone. The same slam occurs when the bell is improperly snatched (another timing issue). When snatching, the kettlebell and hand need to arrive at lockout simultaneously. Anything else will result in a rough landing, and a crash of the bell and forearm. Over time this continuous slam can cause severe soreness and bruising.

Fix B: The answer is to work light and improve timing, so the bell and hand arrive together (in both lockout and rack). When dropping the kettlebell from lockout, the forearm should not bare the brunt of the drop. Rather, the shoulder, upper arm, chest should act as a runway, providing friction for the decceleration of the kettlebell. Proper drop technique (absorbing with the hips, knees, and ankles) will also lessen overall impact.

Not relaxing the wrist in either the rack or lockout can also promote too much pressure on the lower forearm, just above the wrist. A relaxed wrist allows the kettlebell to angle down, contacting the forearm at a point closer to the elbow joint where much more muscle is found.  

4. Knee Pain
The knee joint is a simple hinge, but most athletes experience some knee issues. Kettlebell lifting exploits knee extension in almost every lift. We call upon the quads and patellar tendon to explosively generate enough force to swing, jerk and snatch.

Cause: Pain in the knee could be a sign that your general stance is either too wide or to narrow, or that the feet are not pointed properly for your unique posture or gate.

Fix A: Reexamine your stance. Stand with feet about hip width apart or slightly wider as a start. Now prepare to jump and take note how you line up. Normally, that natural stance you take in preparation to jump is optimal. It's not unusual for your stance to change and your body gets strong or more flexible.

Fix B: Also pay attention to your first dip in the jerk. Do your knees track over your toes as you dip and pop back up? This is more about rotation of the femur bone as it leaves the hip joint, but it is actually controlled by the level of turn in or turn out of the feet. There is no one set position that's correct, as it's all dependent on your individual posture.

5. Groin Pain
Pain in the adductor muscles (inner thigh) or groin itself can be a sure sign the stance is too wide.

Cause: Wide stance during clean and or jerk usually to accommodate cleaning two kettlebells.

Fix A: If the problem is two arm long cycle, the fix is to find the optimal way to narrow your stance and still be able to clean two bells between your legs. The first thing to try is pointing the thumbs forward on the clean, as this makes it easier to keep the bells really closer together without clanging into one another. Perfect timing and consistent repetitions will also allow your to bring the legs in a bit.

Fix B:If the issue is not related to cleans, it's simply a matter of readjusting the jerk stance for pure piston like efficiency.

6. Shoulder Pain
The shoulder, or glenohumeral joint, can be prone to injury if not respected. Fortunately, kettlebell lifting has been a kind of shoulder rehab for many of my members, and if approached correctly, kettlebell lifting can help open up and stabilize the vulnerable shoulder joint.

Cause: Shoulder pain, by far the most common complaint among weight lifters, is rare in kettlebell lifting. Our full body approach avoids the tension found in most other resistance exercise. But without adequate shoulder flexibility or stability, kettlebell lifting needs to be approached slowly, with light weight and focus on building better and better technique.
Fix A: If stability is the issue, the shoulders need some strength. Many times I'll see this with the non dominant arm of even relatively strong people. A few weeks of comparably light weight with a focus on push press, or press can do wonders for a weak, unstable shoulder.

Fix B: If stiffness or lack of flexibility is the culprit, slow paced, light weight press, push press, or jerk sets, with extra emphasis on fixation and proper lockout is the answer. Moving at a slower pace allows the lockout position to be utilized as a dynamic stretch that can really help open the shoulders if approached in short (not more than four minutes), light, slow paced sets (as slow as six reps per minute). Another great shoulder opening is a simple arm hand from a chin up bar or rings, as well as an exercise known as the Wall Stand. We also use a move we call a Standing Pullover to open tight shoulders.

DISCLAIMER: See your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Advice found in this article is solely for information purposes only, based on my experiences with hundreds of kettlebell lifters, and not meant to replace a medical consultation or care. All injuries, aches, or pains should be brought to the attention of your health care professional.