Back Pain After Kettlebell Training

Back pain during strength-training activities is common, and kettlebell athletes are not immune to this sort of injury.  What follows is a simple rundown of the number one cause of back issues as they relate to kettlebell workouts, and what you can do to reduce your exposure to the sorts of things that cause strains in the lower back during kettlebell training.

Are you in shape?

It’s hard to define ‘being in shape’.  But if you can work out at a fairly high level of intensity for a half-hour or so, you’re probably in better shape than most people.

Obviously, if you’re out of shape – with muscular endurance problems or noticeable strength imbalances – you have to work your way into shape.  This takes time and patience, and above all it takes the self discipline to avoid overdoing it.  With experience, you’ll learn how to exercise at a level that creates just the right amount of overload so your body is forced to adapt and improve.

Lifting overhead

The number one cause of kettlebell-related back pain is performing static overhead lifts without being properly prepared for this activity.

When you lift (and hold) a weight over head – whether it’s a kettlebell, a barbell, a dumbbell, or anything else – you put a lot of stress on the muscles supporting your spine.  These spinal stabilization muscles are often extremely weak and unprepared, even in folks who are otherwise in good shape.

So, for instance, if you’re performing kettlebell swings, and you let the kettlebell rise above the height of your shoulders, you switch from a momentum-assisted exercise to more of a static strength exercise.  Instead of simply adding impetus to the ‘bell, you’re now supporting its weight overhead.

To an untrained set of spinal stabilization muscles, this is a bit of a shock, to say the least.

Lifting overhead too frequently

Muscles recover from intense exercise at different rates.

Your calves, for instance, are designed to function all the time.  They recover from exercise very quickly.

The lower back spinal stabilization muscles, on the other hand, are not capable of recovering from hard, exhausting workouts at anywhere near the rate of some other muscles and muscle groups.  In fact, bodybuilding experts estimate that it can take up to a week for the lower-back muscles to fully recover from a workout that takes these muscles to the point of muscular failure.  Compare that to perhaps 2-3 days for ‘fast recovering’ muscles like the calves or biceps.

Therefore, if you work your lower back muscles to exhaustion (using heavy overhead kettlebell lifts, for example), you need to give your body time to rest and recover.

Doing intense overhead lifting more than twice a week may lead to a lack of full recovery in these muscles.  And that will cause pain and eventual injury.

Give your lower-back time to recover from your workouts.

Using the wrong weight kettlebell

The good thing about kettlebell training is also one of its major problems.

That is, you can use momentum to assist you in most of the common kettlebell lifts.

This is good because it allows us to have a one size fits all attitude towards kettlebell training.  That is, one kettlebell is suitable for most of our workout needs.

But this is also a problem when we switch from momentum-assisted kettlebell lifts to the more standard strength-training lifts like overhead presses.

When we do that, the one size fits all modality suddenly becomes counterproductive and dangerous.  In pure strength training, it’s important to be able to use the proper weight – a weight you are conditioned to be able to handle – rather than any old weight your kettlebell just happens to be.

That’s why adjustable kettlebells are so useful.  They let you dial in whatever weight you can handle, instead of forcing you to make do with an arbitrary weight that someone else picked for some unknown reason.

So my advice to anyone who experiences regular lower-back pain as a result of kettlebell activity is to get an adjustable kettlebell and make sure you’re not overdoing the frequency or intensity of your lower-back specific kettlebell lifts.