This is a personal story for me. Not that long ago, I was in my mid-thirties—300lbs with a 50-inch waist, and suffering from chronic back pain for 20 years. Like so many, I had been through the rounds with physical therapists, massage therapists, over 20 chiropractors, and seen some of the top spine surgeons in this country… all to no avail. Actually, if I am honest, some of them made my condition worse. The journey can be very draining on your pocketbook, time and your mindset; when your back hurts, everything is a struggle and it’s often challenging to find relief. I tried NSAIDS for the first time at the recommendation of a spinal surgeon—six months later, I suffered severe side effects that almost took my life. NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Aleve, etc…) can have devastating consequences on your GI tract and often lead to Leaky Gut, which is extremely dangerous and carries over to every aspect of your health. Health begins in your gut! If you have ever Googled “NSAIDSs side effects,” it’s pretty shocking stuff. They are believed to kill over 10,000 people every year, more than AIDS. Approaching 40, after my mother was diagnosed with Cancer, I realized I was blowing my chance at a full, healthy life and turned to more natural methods.
Within two years, I lost 130lbs and shrank my waist line from 50 inches to 30 inches. With the elimination of inflammatory foods and losing the excess weight off my frame, my back pain improved but was still there—stealing my energy and crushing my spirit on a daily basis. I was training in the standard style that many do at the gym, bodybuilding type isolation and a mix of some heavier power lifting modalities at the time. Most of us when we go to the gym, we shut our minds off and simply mock what we see all the fit looking people doing, this is often a mistake and I was missing out on some amazing ways of training you rarely see in many big box gyms. My body was changing, but my mobility and functional strength were not. I discovered Kettlebell training though some martial arts friends of mine, it literally changed my life forever and I’m going to give you a primer on how it can change yours too.
There are many great Kettlebell exercises we are going to focus on two of the most “bang for your buck” movements; Kettlebell Swings and Goblet Squats. Both of these movements teach fundamental, functional movement patterns that carry over to everyday life, strengthen the core in a 360-degree plane, and teach proper breathing and bracing. To do this properly, you will need to learn two very important movement patterns we lose as we age; the hip hinge and the knee extension with squat. You get old when your hips and knees get old these movements must be maintained and drilled to keep old man father time at bay and keep your body grooving the patterns that carry over to everyday life while keeping a nice tight core that resists torque and activates the proper motor units.
Preparation: First things first, let’s prepare you for your workout. If you do not go into your training session without the proper mobility, you will not get the most out of the session. We “activate/release” then “mobilize” the structures that we will be working. Grab a foam roller and roll the rotators of your glutes, hip flexors, and hip extensors for 20 rolls over the main areas (Editor’s note: I can insert a quick video here to demonstrate the rolling). Do not roll the bony protrusions, but focus on the soft tissue, seeking out any trouble spots. If an area feels like it needs more attention, focus on that while breathing deeply; in through the nose, out through the mouth. Your exhalations should be around twice as long as your inhalations.
Now, we mobilize: Place your leg behind you on a bench or something sturdy, and do 10-20 pulses in and out, leaning into the stretch and back. After the pulses, hold for 30 seconds, squeezing your glutes and if mobility allows, placing your heal against your glute. This is an amazing stretch for your hip flexors and with many; this stretch alone can work wonders to relieve back pain. Do this stretch daily, up to three times a day to see best results. Make sure to make time for it pre and post workout as well. So much back pain is caused by tight hip flexors as it throws your entire body mechanics off and can lead to a very tight back that attempts to compensate. As a culture, we sit entirely too much, and this can lead to chronically tight hip flexors. Just stretching randomly here and there will not suffice, you must get serious about making a change and make time for it daily for it to stick and for you reap the rewards.
Next up, we release some of the rotators of the hip complex. Be careful with this; many are extremely tight in this area, so be smart, go easy and work your way up to it, you should not feel this in your knee, but rather on your hip, and possibly your leg. Place your leg in front of you on a bench, or sturdy surface with your leg bent at approximately 90 degrees. If you can, pulse in and out by leaning forward and having your torso upright; 10-20 pulses followed by a 30-second hold. Once your knee can naturally rest on the bench, you have loosened up enough to go for 60-second holds. Do this up to 3 times a day, and be certain to do it pre and post workout after foam rolling. This stretch is a game changer for many, make time for it and do not worry if it seems impossible at first, play the long game and listen to your body. The structures will relax over time and the tension in your back will lessen.
Kettlebell Swing: Now our body is primed to do the Kettlebell swing. The swing is a ballistic hip hinge pattern. So many lose this ability to hinge at the hip as we age, and some, were never taught properly to do this at all. There is nothing like it in most conventional, bodybuilding-type programs. There are many ways to swing; this is a great method to begin with.
Place the bell approximately foot in front of you and take a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance with your toes slightly pointing out and in line with your knees. Reach down with both hands, grab the bell tightly, and forcefully use your lats to drive the bell between your legs keeping a chest up posture with a straight or neutral spine. Sit back into the swing; your knees should bend a bit but not extend over your toes. This is a hip extension pattern, not a knee extension. Think like you are sitting back and down as you do when you take a seat vs. bending over to pick something up. As the bell goes between your legs, use the explosive nature of your hips to drive the bell forward with stiff arms and a tight core. The bell should come no higher than head high. As you reach the top of the movement you should be standing tall, with your glutes tight, your legs straight and looking straight ahead with a tight core. Forcefully exhale at the top, as the bell tracks down, inhale through your diaphragm. (Note on “tight core”) Many do not understand what a “tight core” feels like; by squeezing your glutes forcefully at the top, it ties your entire core together and will keep you safe. Think about bracing your abs as if someone is going to strike you in the belly, not sucking in your abs. You should not feel any fatigue in your arms at all, or you are not doing the movement correctly; it’s a swing, not an arm raise, think of your arms like a pendulum. “Attack the zipper” at the bottom and be sure to be driving with your hips, not raising the bell with your arms. Go for 3-4 sets of 20 reps with a lighter bell until you get the hang of it. Have a professional coach review your form, or at the least, video yourself with your phone to check your form, bracing, and breathing. The Kettlebell swing is not just an exercise, but a skill that can take more than one session to get right. Put the reps in and you will get it.
The Goblet Squat: Kettlebell swings pair fantastically well with goblet squats. Swings are a hip dominant movement and goblet squats are a knee dominant movement and both work your posterior chain, and strengthen your back/core to help bulletproof you from injury. Hold the bell close to your body at chest level Make sure the bell is as close to your body as possible; it should touch your chest or almost touch your chest throughout the entire movement. This keeps the bell close to your center of gravity, keeps the tension where we want it and keeps you safe. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Keeping an upright posture, squat as far down as you can while keeping your heels on the ground. Some will be able to go into a full squat with the back of your legs covering your calf as shown in this photo, and others will not be able to go down that far without their heals coming up. The goal is to at least get your hips flexed at 90 degrees with your toes tracking over your knees and keeping your chest up with a neutral spine. Drive through your heels, and stand up forcefully exhaling as you do so. Squeeze your glutes tight at the top; ensure you are standing tall with your body in a straight line and a tight core looking straight ahead. Use a lighter bell, and go for 3-4 sets of 15 reps paired with your swings.
A1: 4 sets of 20-25 swings
A2: 4 sets of 10-15 goblet squats
So, do a set of swings, rest 10 seconds then transition to your goblet squats. Rest 2 minutes and repeat for 3-4 rounds. As you progress, shorten the rest periods and raise the number of swings and goblets. In general, once you can do 50 swings with a bell, it’s time to go for a heavier bell and start back at 20-25 swings. A good long-term goal for women is to be able to do sets of 50 swings with a 35lb Kettlebell, for men, 50 swings with a 55lb Kettlebell. Keep in mind everyone’s journey is unique, listen to your body and do not sacrifice quality reps to chase a number. Once you can do high reps swings and goblets squats, your cardio will have improved drastically along with all the health benefits of a superior cardiorespiratory system, your core will have strengthened and your mobility increased. If you pair this with an effective diet strategy and weight loss is your goal, this is also a fantastic fat loss method of training that absolutely helped me lose my 130lbs and helped eliminate my lifelong back pain.
If I was somehow trapped on a desert island with only one workout implement to use, it would undoubtedly be a Kettlebell; it’s incredibly versatile, effective and is a way to get in some cardio and strength training. Make Kettlebell swings and goblets squats a part of your training and reap the benefits of a functional, strong core. They have changed my life, and I know they can absolutely be a great tool to have in your arsenal against back pain and old age. And remember, it’s a JOURNEY… Change takes time, stick with it and you will reach your goals of a pain-free back and functional core.
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