Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kettlebells for Back Pain

Recently the New York Times put up a blog about a Danish study of using kettlebells to ease back pain.

Turning to Kettlebells to Ease Back Pain

The article has some of the usual errors - it describes a press as an isolation exercise. Er, no. There is no press I can think of that's an isolation exercise, they all involve multiple joints. Nevermind the "kettlebell press" is one of the keystone kettlebell exercises, so even if it was "isolation" it wouldn't be unique to non-kettlebell weights to do it. It also fails to mention that there are plenty of swinging dumbbell exercises too, although it is correct that people don't do them very often.

The article turns into a bit of a commercial for kettlebell classes, but it gets a lot right - weights, under proper supervision and done while standing and moving, are healthy and functional ways to exercise.


  1. All I can say is that whenever someone with "desk back" begins progressive resistance training, it hurts less than it did before. Deadlifts, slow cable rows and so on seem to help.

    And if the back or upper back/shoulder area is feeling stiff, some light KB snatches really make a difference.

    1. Yes, that's my experience as well. If they're saying Group A does nothing and doesn't feel better, and Group B does kettlebells and feels better, then sure, kettlebells are effective in reducing pain. However there is always that subtle implication that it's the only thing that would have worked, which isn't actually true.

      The real question that is hard to answer is, are kettlebell classes better than free weight classes for reducing back pain in previously sedentary populations. I'd expect them to even out over time, but I don't think that's being compared here.

      It's cool though that the answer to "it hurts when I move my back" is "move it better" instead of "don't move it."

  2. What I've found is that the slow lifts do not relieve pain, but by strengthening and loosening joints they prevent pain. The quick and whole-body lifts will be better at relieving pain.

    For example, if someone presents with desk posture, I know that a few weeks of deadlifts and reverse pullups will make their back hurt less often. But when I have a client whose back hurts today, they can't deadlift today, they'll be better off with some light snatches, or a lumberjack lift (load a barbell on one end only, lift up like a log, a sort of squat-pull-press, usually with a single step as they press).

    Obviously this doesn't apply to acute injuries, but just the general soreness lots have here and there.

    1. Generally I just make sure to move any sore or achy body parts through a full range of motion, with low resistance and low perceived intensity. That seems to clear up a lot of pain and DOMS, or at least reduce it. I'll have to try your tools, too, and see how that works.

      When you say reverse pullups, do you mean supinated grip or a different exercise entirely?

  3. It sounds like we do essentially the same thing. When the person moves their whole body in a lumberjack lift, they're using a full range of motion - but it needn't be a low weight and perceived intensity, the real challenge is the pressout, though they can basically just walk it forward, so long as they don't have an acute shoulder injury it'll be fine even if their whole back has frozen up from a day at the desk. The whole body movement nature of it tends to get them puffing, though. Despite the fatigue the exercise is still safe, it has a good slop factor.

    I meant inverted rows, sometimes called bodyweight rows or horizontal rows. I just call them reverse pullups because the computer system we use for making people's programmes calls them that. Whack the smith machine bar to knee height, lie underneath, pull yourself up, knees bent for easy version, legs straight for harder version. You'll find that last inch or two before they bring the bar to the chest is the hardest for them, that's where the rhomboids are really brought in, like Dan John's "bat wings."

    Most people have to begin with knees bent and a pronated grip. Once they can do ~10 I introduce a supinated grip for variety. When they can do ~15 with knees bent they can usually go to doing a few with legs straight; it's equivalent to going from knee pushups to pushups from toes. After that, feet on bench.

    The bodyweight row is actually not often seen in most gyms, I find it a good basic exercise to give people that makes them go "wow, this trainer is giving me things I never did before," but which at the same time they're confident in doing themselves, it's not difficult to learn, quite accessible. Makes them feel both challenged and competent.

    It can then lead to fancier stuff like the plank row, where you get a TRX or a dual adjustable cable with the peg on the bottom of the stack, lean back with arm straight forward and body at about 45 degrees, just row yourself up to the handle. Body planks up like nobody's business, and shoulder gets packed back very well, quite useful for those desk workers.

    You should fire me an email sometime, we can talk both lifting and gaming.


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