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Kettlebell Swing and Lumbar Loads

Kettlebell Swing and Lumbar Loads

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Published by: rearickstrength_com on Apr 06, 2012
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, S
M. M
W. M
Spine Biomechanics Laboratories, Department of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada 
McGill, SM, and Marshall, LW. Kettlebell swing, snatch, andbottoms-up carry: Back and hip muscle activation, motion,and low back loads.
J Strength Cond Res
26(1): 16–27,2012—The intent of this study was to quantify spine loadingduring different kettlebell swings and carries. No previouslypublished studies of tissue loads during kettlebell exercisescould be found. Given the popularity of kettlebells, this studywas designed to provide an insight into the resulting jointloads. Seven male subjects participated in this investigation.In addition, a single case study of the kettlebell swing wasperformed on an accomplished kettlebell master. Electromyog-raphy, ground reaction forces (GRFs), and 3D kinematic datawere recorded during exercises using a 16-kg kettlebell. Thesevariableswereinputintoananatomicallydetailedbiomechanicalmodel that used normalized muscle activation; GRF; andspine, hip, and knee motion to calculate spine compression andshear loads. It was found that kettlebell swings create a hip-hinge squat pattern characterized by rapid muscle activation-relaxationcyclesofsubstantialmagnitudes(
50%ofamaximalvoluntary contraction [MVC] for the low back extensors and80% MVC for the gluteal muscles with a 16-kg kettlebell)resultinginabout3,200 Nof lowbackcompression.Abdominalmuscular pulses together with the muscle bracing associatedwith carries create kettlebell-specific training opportunities.Some unique loading patterns discovered during the kettlebellswing included the posterior shear of the L4 vertebra on L5,whichisoppositeinpolaritytoatraditionallift.Thus,quantitativeanalysis provides an insight into why many individuals creditkettlebell swings with restoring and enhancing back health andfunction, although a few find that they irritate tissues.
kettlebells, stability, muscle activation, coreexercises, lumbar spine, snatch, swing, load carry
ettlebells have become a popular tool for resis-tancetraining.Asfarasweareaware,therearenostudies that have quantified the mechanics andback loading during kettlebell exercises. Anec-dotal remarks and perceptions from some very accomplishedweightlifters, powerlifters, and other types of athletes rangefrom that ‘‘kettlebell swings and snatches are therapeutic andenhance athleticism’’ to ‘‘I have no pain while lifting a bar butkettlebell swings are one thing that causes back discomfort.’’Clearly,severalpatientswithbackpainattributeacomponentof their success to Kettlebell swings. For example, BradGillingham (World IPF Deadlift Champion) stated (personalcommunication, 2011): ‘‘I started incorporating Kettlebellswings into my training after suffering a back injury 2 yearsago
After several frustrating rehabilitation attempts Iincorporated kettlebell swings and was able to competewithin a couple of months
Further I have found thismovement to be beneficial in increasing my hip extensionstrength.’’ Currently, there is no quantitative data to help givecontext to such anecdotal remarks. This curiosity motivatedthis study to better understand the mechanics of kettlebellexercises, specifically the swing and swing to snatch, togetherwith bottoms-up and racked-style carries, with the hope of assisting exercise prescription.Only a few studies exist that have quantified the effectsof kettlebell usage, and these have assessed physiologicalvariables. For example Jay et al. (9) conducted a clinical trialon workers susceptible to pain and noted less pain aftera kettlebell-based training regimen together with a highertorso extensor strength, although their aerobic fitnessremained unchanged. In contrast, Farrar et al. (5) suggestedthat the metabolic challenges of kettlebell exercise could besufficient to stimulate cardiovascular change. Obviously, theintensity and workload would matter greatly in this regard.Nonetheless, the dearth of studies on the biomechanicalaspects of kettlebell usage and technique hinder the design of evidence-informed training programs in which kettlebellsmay be considered.Occasionally, scientific hypotheses are generated toassess the scientific veracity and applied usefulness of ‘‘streetwisdom’’ and urban myth. A popular kettlebell exercise is the
Address correspondence to S.M. McGill, mcgill@healthy.uwaterloo.ca.
26(1)/16–27 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
2012 National Strength and Conditioning Association 
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
Coriht © National Strenth and Conditionin Association Unauthorized reroduction of this article is rohibited.
swing, characterized by rapid acceleration of the kettlebelland what appears to be substantial knee and hip extensionwith full extensor muscle chain challenge. A progressiveversion is the swing performed with ‘‘kime.’’ This form of theexercise is attributed to the martial artist Bruce Lee. Thisinvolves a brief muscular ‘‘pulsing’’ at the top of the swing inan attempt to train rapid muscle contraction-relaxation,which was the foundation for his ‘‘1 in. punch.’’ Lee stated,‘‘I relax until I bring every muscle of my body into play, andthen concentrate all the force in my fist. To generate greatpower you must first totally relax and gather your strength,and then concentrate your mind and all your strength onhitting the target.’’ (Lee as quoted in Lee and Little
).More perspective onthe unique technique is obtained fromthemartialartistandactorJohnSaxon,Lee’scostarinthefilm‘‘Enter the Dragon.’’ Upon meeting Bruce Lee for the firsttime in Hong Kong and visiting the gymnasium, Saxondescribed the setup Lee had at his home:‘‘
He had a whole gym setup
including kettlebells
One of the exercises he used them for was like a swing witha punch at the end of it. He’d hold the punch out for a fewmoments with the arm and the bell motionless before helowered it.’’ (as quoted in Hardstyle Magazine
).Saxon himself is another athlete who credits kettlebells inrestoring his strength and athleticism at age 71, in particularhis lumbar spine and hips after hip replacement surgery (8).Such anecdotes and subsequent propositions are interest-ing given the recent findings of McGill. (15) that documentedthe ‘‘double pulse’’ of muscle activity associated with theelite striking of accomplished Ultimate Fighting Champion-ship (UFC) mixed martial arts athletes. Rapid contractionfollowed with equally rapid relaxation enhanced the closing velocity of the fist or foot to the target, followed by a finalpulse to enhance ‘‘effective mass’’ upon the strike. Lee’s muchearlier qualitative insight into this later quantified mecha-nism, and the fact that he used a kettlebell, suggests thata better understanding of the mechanism of kettlebell usagemay enhance athletic development.Recent work by McGill et al. (12) reported the uniqueability of asymmetric carries to train the quadratus lumborumand abdominal obliques that are essential for athletic chal-lenge while being supported on 1 leg—the act of running andcutting is such an example. This ability is not trained byconventional lifting and pulling exercises performed in theweight room with both feet planted on the ground. Thisperspective motivated the quantification of some of thesubjects performing bottoms-up and racked kettlebell carriesin this study.Given the several rationales, obtained from both quanti-tative study and qualitative observation, developed in theprevious paragraphs, the intent of this study was to quantifyspine loading during kettlebell swings, swings with Kime,swing to a snatch position, and bottoms-up and rackedkettlebell carries. This information will help guide exerciseprogram design. Specific questions investigated in this studywere (a) ‘‘Is there a unique feature of the kettlebell swing lowback loading that may be perceived as therapeutic by someyet causing discomfort in others?’’ (b) ‘‘What effects doesthe ‘‘Kime’’ performed at the top of the swing have onmuscle activation and joint loading?’’ (c) ‘‘Do the bottoms-upor racked styles of kettlebell carries create a unique muscleactivationprofilefortraining?’’.Itwashypothesizedthattherewill be differences in muscle activity between the differentforms of kettlebell exercise; that low back loading will bedifferent between different forms of the kettlebell swing exercises; and finally that the bottoms-up carry will createdifferent muscle activation profiles than the carry of thekettlebell in the racked position.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
Seven participants practiced and then performed onearmed swings, swings with Kime, and snatches with a 16-kg kettlebell (RCK model, Dragon Door Inc., Minneapolis,MN, USA). Torso muscle activation was recordedtogether with 3D body segment kinematics, and groundreaction forces, which were input to an anatomically detailedbiomechanical model of the torso that determinedspine loading. Five participants also carried the kettlebellracked on the backside of the forearm and in the bottoms-upstyle. The form of the exercise (swing, swing with kime,kettlebell carry racked, carry bottoms-up) formed theindependent variables, whereas muscle activity, lowerextremity joint angles, and spine load formed the dependentvariables.
For the swing and snatch portion of the study, 7 healthymale participants with an average age 25.6 years (
3.4),height 1.76 m (
0.06), and weight 82.8 kg (
12.1) wererecruited from the University population forming a conve-nience sample. The participants were excluded from thestudy if they reported any previous or current low back painor injury. They were found to be fit, and most had experiencein training with a kettlebell. All the participants read andsigned a consent form before data collection. This studywas reviewed by, and received ethics clearance through, theUniversity Office of Research Ethics.Five healthy male participants with an average age 26years (
3.8), height 1.75 m (
0.05), and weight 83.6 kg (
11.9) were assessed from the original pool of 7subjects for the portion of the study that evaluated kettlebellcarries.A single case study was also performed on a recognizedand accomplished kettlebell master, Russian Master of Sport: Pavel Tsatsouline (permission was obtained fromMr. Tsatsouline to mention his name and include a scientificdescription of his kettlebell use in this publication).
 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
Coriht © National Strenth and Conditionin Association Unauthorized reroduction of this article is rohibited.
Exercise Description.
Each par-ticipant was provided coaching from research personnel re-garding the proper techniquebefore collecting any of thekettlebell trials. Data were notcollected until the participanthad sufficient practice and feltcomfortable performing theexercise and were able to com-plete the exercise using theproper technique. Each partic-ipant performed a kettlebellswing, kettlebell swing withKime (abdominal pulse at thetop of the swing), and kettlebellswing to snatch, and 5 of the 7participants performed the ket-tlebell carrying trials (racked onthe back of the arm and in thebottoms-up style). (Note: the16-kg kettlebell [Dragon Doormodel] was chosen for its‘‘heavy horn,’’ which results inthe thick handle and a balancepoint higher in the ball part of the bell.) The participants alsowalked without any weight intheir hands for comparisonpurposes.The kettlebell swing wasinitiated with the participantinasquatpositionwithaneutralspine and the kettlebell in theright hand. The participantwas cued to initiate the swing through the sagittal plane bysimultaneously extending theirhips, knees, and ankles and touse the momentum to swing the kettlebell to chest level andreturn to their initial starting position. The right elbow andwrist was to be kept straightduring the entire swing. Thekettlebell swing with Kime wasperformed in the same way asthe kettlebell swing was withthe addition of a ‘‘pulse-like’contraction of the abdominalswhen the kettlebell reachedchest height (Figure 1). Thekettlebell swing to snatch wasinitiated with the participant in
Figure 1.
The swing (left) begins with the kettlebell in the right hand and with hip and knee extension is swung toastandingposturewiththearmoutstretched.‘‘Kime’’isaddedwithamuscularpulseatthetopoftheswingwiththeintent of training rapid muscle activation and relaxation. The swing to snatch (right) begins in the same fashion asdoes the swing, but it finishes with the kettlebell snatched overhead.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
Kettlebell Swing and Snatch
Coriht © National Strenth and Conditionin Association Unauthorized reroduction of this article is rohibited.

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