September 3, 2014

Kettlebell Swings: Dangerous and Stupid

I take exception to a lot of the silly and needless exercises I see personal trainers directing people to do every day in the gym. (No, this is not a rant against personal trainers – I’ll clarify my thoughts there in a future post).

The one exercise I see day in and day out that royally pisses me off is the kettlebell swing, the latest craze in the fitness world. Perhaps you’ve seen it: Someone in the gym places a kettlebell on the floor, bends down to grasp it, then in one motion, swings the weight outward until they are standing upright with the weight extended out in front of them. Then back down, and repeat over and over.

If it were done as a slow, steady move, this would actually be a beneficial exercise. It would be a combination of deadlift and front raise, working much of the upper body and the legs effectively.

However, instead of teaching it as such, trainers are instructing people to do kettlebell swings as a form of cardio. All that silly advice about lifting a weight safely to avoid back injury goes out the window, and they tell you to swing it instead.

Am I really the only person who sees what’s wrong with this picture?

Well hey, I like hearing the good news first, and here’s the good news: If you’re an undecided college student, this ridiculous “exercise” is going to create lots of new work for chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons, just like the Atkins diet will make renal centers and kidney specialists rich.

Here’s why the kettlebell swing makes me cringe: I suffer from a chronic, permanent joint injury. I severely injured my left ankle running many years ago, and the damage is permanent. There’s no cure or fix for it either. I just have to live with it. And believe me, it hurts. On a good day I feel like I have a sprained ankle. On a bad day you’ll find me laying around the house with an ice pack on my ankle and half a bottle of Advil in my belly.

Believe me, you don’t want a joint or back injury. And kettlebell swings will give you both. I’m not a doctor,  I am fortunate to be one of the few people I know who never  has lower back pain. This is the result of knowing, identifying, and avoiding unsafe movements – and I put kettlebell swings at the top of the unsafe exercises list.

Comments

  1. Tony Tony says:

    Frank you clearly have no idea what a kettlebell swing is. For one it’s not a “cardio” exercise. It’s a ballistic exercise intended to strengthen the core and posterior chain. Your comment about it being more acceptable as a slow movement shows how little you know about athletic movements. Think of swinging a baseball bat, a golf club, etc. Think of Olympic lifters, judo players, wrestlers, etc. etc. etc. Athletic movements are often quick and explosive.

    The name “Swing” in and of itself is deceptive. The swing consists of:

    1) A flat back
    2) Driving through the heels to load the hamstrings and as the kettlebell swings upward…
    3) contracting your abs, glutes, hamstrings etc which makes the kettlebell weightless at the top.

    It is a highly technical move that should be learned (and ultimately internalized) under the tutelage of a reputable kettlebell trainer.

    My lower back was a DISASTER before discovering kettlebell swings. I’ve never had better posture and less back pain.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but it wouldn’t hurt you to actually understand what you’re talking about before having such a strong opinion on it.

  2. Actually Tony, the personal trainers at Spectrum gym where I work out now, and at Equinox in Newport Beach, CA where I used to live, both teach the kettlebell swing as a cardio exercise. In addition, it’s promoted as a cardio exercise in last month’s issue of Men’s Health, and you’ll find the same all over the internet.

    Personally I’ve never found a personal trainer who knows what they’re doing. Most are of the “mail order” variety, or they work in a gym like Spectrum and had to complete a 5-hour online course or something similar. Few to none know anything about physiology.

    If the swing is comparable to a golf swing or baseball swing, then one should do serious rotator cuff training (something I’m doing right now) before going near a kettlebell. I know a few people, including my next door neighbor, who have had rotator cuff surgery due to years of golf and/or baseball without proper rotator cuff strengthening beforehand, and it’s not fun – it’s painful and has a very long recovery period. While recovering, you won’t be able to train and will lose any progress you’d previously made in the gym.

    I’ll take your word that reputable kettlebell trainers exist, and I would hope that they put people through proper strengthening training before exposing them to a ballistic move.

    As for me, I abandoned all the ‘exotic’ stuff that trainers are teaching these days, went back to basics, and became very fit, very fast. I think if people knew how well the basics work when applied consistently, the personal training industry would be out of business (except for people who wouldn’t otherwise go to the gym without an appointment).

  3. Another good article on the dangers of kettlebell training, and the fact that it’s nothing more than the latest fitness fad for people unwilling to be dedicated and consistent in their training –

    http://www.bodysolutionsinc.com/option,com_fireboard/Itemid,44/func,view/id,8/catid,10/

  4. John Logan John Logan says:

    Hello Frank,
    My own experience with kettlebells came when I was 41 and had already clocked up 24 years of training myself, and sometimes training others. In those previous 24 years of weight training, bodyweight training, yoga, chi kung etc I had never been injured, and had never gotten anyone else injured by any exercise I passed on to them.
    At first, the kettlebell training seemed fine. I had never had any form of back trouble before. Then, after doing kettlebell swings, following the instructions on form very carefully, I started to get back pain for the first time.
    Unfortunately, I did not heed that warning. I was taking the standard kettlebell advice from the well-known books, DVDs, and web forum. For 9 months I continued doing sets of cleans and presses, 6 per arm, with a 24kg bell. I would also do sets of 8 snatches per arm with the kettlebell.
    I was 41, 210 pounds bodyweight, able to do full-range one-arm pushups etc, I thought I was very fit and strong. I cut out the swings and the back pain disappeared, continued with the snatches which gave no pain…the only warning in the kettlebell book I had said that you should watch out for pain or bruising in the forearm as a sign of bad form, but I did not have this, I was enjoying the training very much and thought it was working very well.
    Then one day I went into the garden to do a set of snatches like usual. First rep was fine. 2nd rep must have gone out of control in a way that never happened before, even though I had been doing snatches weekly for 9 months no problem. Anyway, that 2nd rep broke my arm.
    I had to get surgery and the radius bone was put back together by a steel plate and 6 screws.
    That was 9 months ago.
    I wish now I;d just stuck to the bodyweight training etc, that was all good stuff.
    When I reported the injury to the best known kettlebell forum, I thought they might at least be interested in the info, to stop the same thing happening to anyone else, but basically those guys and their leader just laughed in my face, called me an idiot for getting such an injury (I was certainly an idiot to trust those kettlebell books and dvds…and to pay for them!)…they also had no interest in losing business by warning others, they deleted my post about the injury from their website.
    It’ll take me a while to get strong again, maybe another year before I can get the steel plate taken out of my arm, then a year after that when I can’t train because there would be 6 holes through my bone where the screwholes are, they need time to fill in.
    But even just now with the plate in, I’m cleared by the docs to do heavy lifting after 9 months, got my chest back up to 48, arms 16 including the busted one…waist is at 38 inches at 219 bodyweight so I need to reduce that….but I can do 10 slow, full pushups touching the floor each time now….and half a pullup…
    I won’;t use a kettlebell again. Not because of the injury alone, but also because of the dangerous hype and B.S. I now know is associated with them.
    I used to do stuff like 18 one-arm pushups, touching the chest to floor each rep…that never got me injured….and was far superior strength training.
    But then the rotten hype about swinging that iron ball around got into my blood…I see it now like a kind of virus that is being spread around…just so some folk can make a lot of money.
    If I’m lucky I’ll get back to full strength in a couple of years, and then I will not let anyone con me like that again.
    If anyone wants the full detail of the injury just Google “kettlebell snatch broken arm”.
    You’re doing well to speak out on this, Frank, because the Kettlebell Militia as I call them…dressed up in their little matching combat fatigue outfits and that as they pretend to be counterintelligence opperatives or whatever the B.S. is…they flood the internet with their propaganda and if anyone coutners it their website usually gets a big attack from “the boys” who wade in acusing their detractors of “idiocy”…
    After my injury, I found it very hard to find info about other people’s similar experiences…I had to go back as far as 2003 to find the last few voices who were warning that this new kettlebell fad would hurt people…just as they believed the kettlebell had probably fallen out of favour around 1900 because…it had hurt a few people then. Not that lifting it would be bad…..I had only ever done controlled lifting of weights before and had never been hurt doing that…but this idea in the books and DVDs, telling you to swing a weight at speed…”ballistically”…that is stupid….that’s the rotten seed that is probably going to damage a lot of people before they realise it is happening.
    Anyway, enough…my point is made.
    cheers,
    John Logan

    .

  5. Wow John, that sucks, and very sorry to hear it.

    Interesting also that the kettlebell crowd are a bunch of ‘mall ninjas’ running around pretending to be Special Forces or something (who would never use Russian nonsense to train).

    About the only good thing that will come out of this craze will be plenty of employment for students going into chiropractics and orthopedics.

  6. Jason Jason says:

    Frank, thank you for this post. I hope people will read this and take what you are saying to heart. Kettlebells are a mediocre (and expensive) training tool at best.

    I think it’s important that people understand there isn’t a single benefit kettlebells offer that dumbbells don’t (and then some…) Maybe grip training but there are so many other ways to train grip strength. In fact, the kettlebell swings you mention are actually a poorly conceived (and less safe) imitation of the dumbbell swing.

    A few notes about dumbbell swings. They’re actually pretty safe when done correctly. The purpose of the move is primarily to generate explosive strength and power in the hips. The most important aspect of the move for safety is to maintain a neutral back, no rounding or bending over – Some people struggle with this because (a) they use too much weight or (b) they lack flexibility.

    The lower back should have little to do with this movement. The dumbbell should propel up from the power generated by the push and thrust of the legs and hips. As the arm swings down, you sit back (not down like most people do – which ultimately leads to bending over) and “catch” the weight at the bottom before thrusting back forward and up with the legs and hips. It’s a great training tool and I use it myself.

    About cardio: again thank you for pointing out the stupidity of trying to use swings for cardio. I saw the Men’s Health issue you referred to and cringed when I read it. Too many people are spewing this nonsense and potentially harming the unsuspecting public. What these trainers are doing a terrible job of explaining is the conditioning effect that can come from coupling movements like the swing into short circuits with other movements and doing moderate to high reps with little or no rest between movements.

    But doing swings (with a dumbbell or kettlebell) continuously for an extended period of time for “cardio” is ill-advised. As fatigue sets in your form will break down which will likely result in your lower back compensating and contributing to the movement. A recipe for disaster.

    Please, keep doing what you do.

  7. m m says:

    A “slow steady” deadlift-front raise compound lift would either be too light for an effective deadlift or too heavy to achieve the front raise at all. Even as an explosive movement KB swing, ( a 100 lb KB is elite, 175 lb’s the heaviest made), can’t develop the leg/hip/ back structure the way a 400 lb deadlift can. Do deadlifts, then rehearse your sport skills. KB lifting’s a sport. Is it -your- sport? If not, you’re developing a whole lot of useless skill, and less strength, than much simpler, much heavier, barbell work..

  8. m m says:

    As far as a neutral back, I’d agree with that for the cervical spine, but the rest of the back better off in a tight arch throughout the swing. A lot of guys don’t like to lift that way because it reveals their lack of flexibility, but in the end, swinging fully arched improves flexibility, while rounding the back at the bottom of the lift is less likely to fully work the hips, & may injure the back.

  9. Daniel Daniel says:

    Wow, you guys have no Idea what you are talking about.

    First a quote from who don’t remember:

    “Exercises [or euiptment] doesn’t injure people. People injure people.”

    You will hurt your back if you do it improperly (I see it all too often), but done correctly it is an amazing exercise.

    Yes it is a cardio exercise, but it is also strength training. Now you may say this is impossible, but if you had actually tried the kettlebell first, rather than going and ranting about how terrible it is with out any research or any knowledge maybe you would have learned something.

    The kettlebell swing is a dynamic posterior chain workout. It uses the same muscle groups in the same ways as olympic lifts or deadlifts, just with a much different centre of gravity. You use a sharp hip thrust to accelerate the bell up, and as it reaches chest level you tighten all your muscles (especially the lats to the stop the bell and glutes to protect your back) and thrown the bell down for the eccentric part of the lift. As it comes between your legs you have to stop the backwards momentum and create forwards momentum with the hips, making the movement even more effective.

    Done properly, a kettlebell is incredible for your back. You MUST clench the glutes at the top of the swing and keep total body tension. If the bell pulls you off your feet, you drop it. No need to pull your back, just drop it. You need room though, and this can be bad at a gym. Kettlebells are best done on hard grass in the park.

    I propose a challenge for you: Try 5 sets (20 reps) of swings (30s rest) with a 24kg (or 20/16 depending on your strength) kettlebell. They must be done hardstyle, with a sharp hip snap and tightening all your muscles at the top for the eccentric portion.

    I guarantee after setting that bell down, you will be a convert for sure.

    If you did them properly, your grip will be shot, your glutes, shoulders and thights will be screaming as your gasp for air feeling like you just sprinted 3 miles.

    I can get my HR to 240bpm with kettlebells. Show me ANY exercise in which you can get your HR so high? X-C skiing up hill, or all out sprint for your life are the only other things that can contend.

    But, on top of that, you muscles will have gotten an amazing workout too.

    Please, before you go ranting on something you know nothing about, do some research, TRY IT OUT.

    When in doubt, stay silent. (they we don’t have to know how much of an ignorant angry person you are)

  10. Mike Mike says:

    Kettlebells are terrible things!

    Do not use kettlebells because:

    1. Kettlebells will make you strong and tough.
    I like being strong and mentally tough. I like it so much that I don’t want to share the spotlight with anyone else, and definitely not with you. As long as you stick with dumbbells, treadmills, and bench presses, and one rep deadlifts (becuase they are useful exercises) . I can reasonably expect you to remain at the same weights forever while I move up and up and up. You will either quit going to your gym or work for the purpose of looking good only. You’ll turn to protein shakes, creatine and then steroids becuase your dissatisfied. But you won’t get strong, and that’s all good for me.

    If you start getting strong with kettlebells, I won’t be able to show off as well. I want to do 300+ kettlebell over head snatches in a row, you stick to your 4 sets of 10 reps, In between each set you’ll have enough time to download some new I tunes, update your facebook, text your mates, down a protien shake (doh!) and watch some rapper corforting round a big bottomed wench on the video screens. I’m a mean lean, fighting machine – you won’t want that ,trust me. I’ll kick your ass in any fitness challenge.

    2. Kettlebells will help fix your body
    We all have movement imbalances and asymmetries. Some of us have fewer than others, however. People who use kettlebells, for instance. I’m insecure and I want to be the most graceful person in the room. My body knows how to work as a unit, which makes me look like an elegant lion among people who have done too much upper body work and zero lower body work.

    The worse you move, the better I look. So don’t fix your body. Don’t use kettlebells as correctional tools. You wouldn’t like how good it feels to know that your body is working exactly how it was intended to. I move without pain.

    Trust me, it stinks.

    3. Kettlebells will make you look good
    If you’re like most people, you’re after “big guns,”You have to care about those things when you’re going after that awesome Frankenstein look. That look where you’ve trained every tiny body part so hard, for so long, that you look like a big pile of polygons.

    Kettlebells will not give you that look. Stay away. They will make you hard, lean, and fast. But not freaky huge. You want to be slow, like prey, not fast like preditor.

    4. Kettlebells force you to focus
    If you try to watch an aerobics class while working with a kettlebell, you’re probably going to smash your face in. You could take your eyes off the gyrating spandex for a moment and focus on your kettlebell work…or you could keep doing curls and talk into your Bluetooth at the same time—and still watch the class!

    It’s a no-brainer. The mind-muscle connection is all a bunch of crap. Muscle grows when it’s lifting something on autopilot, not when you focus on it. Stick with dumbbells. They’ll never get away from you.

    Isn’t it time for your dumb bell curls (ha ha) and bench pressing?

  11. Mike Eves Mike Eves says:

    It’s a myth that KB training is detrimental to your back. People who do kettlebells correctly don’t have bad backs and don’t have a paunch. In fact. quite the opposite, they have very strong backs. I’ve been actively fitness training for over thirty years and at the age of 43 I’ve never been fitter, stronger, leaner, more flexible and mentally tougher since I started using kettlebells over 2 years ago.

    No disrespect but unfortunately, your article is uninformed and getting equally uninformed people to add to this is absurd – and that includes members of the medical profession (afterall many of them smoke and drink). People who complain about them have either not used them or more importantly not sought out a certified instructor. If you did seek out a certified instructor and get some training with an open mind it may actually propel the fitness industry forward rather than holding it back. Telling people kettlebells are dangerous just promotes the “sit down push in one direction gyms” and “don’t do it at home gyms”.

    Saying things are dangerous makes the H & S the thing it is i.e. a system that will eventually grind society to a complete halt. “don’t go out running, you may fall over”, “Don’t cross the road you may get hit by a car”. Absolute Nonsense.
    Negative people who agree to saying it is dangerous only enhance their fragile self esteem. They want some significance in their lives, some people achieve this in a positive way others not so.

    If kettlebells are not for you, fine. Buy a rowing machine, be careful though, you a may get out of breath.

    Best wishes

    Mike

  12. Lots of good comments here. Lots of bad ones too, most containing profanity and cursing me out as some kind of moron… those are undoubtedly coming from the fake-tough-guy mall ninja type of personal trainers and/or gym rats.

    I think kettlebells are like anabolic steroids. Some people will endure the physical harm and the fact that they’ll pay dearly in the long term (liver & kidney damage, for one), in exchange for looking good in the short term. Kettlebells are no different. People who are after instant gratification and want to look hot today, with the mindset that “my horribly ruined lower back is a decade away”, will always exist in society and will always sell out their long-term wellness in exchange for short-term vanity.

    If you doubt this, consult the accounting books of any plastic surgeon.

  13. sean sean says:

    LOL at fake keyboard gangsters I’m so tough etc.

    You’ll soon be tired and old (sooner if you train like the jackass you pretend to be)

    Back in he real world kettle bells do nothing that callisthenics and running cannot do and they are safe.

    Leave kettle bells to the jack asses and stay safe.

  14. Couldn’t agree more, Sean!

    I love when the mall ninjas point out that kettlebells where invented by the Russians. These are the same people who can’t build a pickup truck that runs … LOL

  15. Steve Jenkins Steve Jenkins says:

    Sean

    Frank said has a permanent chronic joint injury – through running. I thought you said it was safe?

  16. John Logan John Logan says:

    http://skinnybulkup.com/kettlebells-are-inferior-to-dumbbells/

    Allow me to quote some excerpts from that page:

    I believe you’ve done a service to the fitness community through your testimonial, John. Best of luck,
    -Ben Reynolds
    Nevada, USA

    I have performed the apparently controversial snatch, and I can see how a heavy kettlebell such as the 24kg in question could break the arm, with or without proper form. I only use the equivalent to 16kg right now and I know I do not have proper form so I am not going to even attempt the exercise again until I meet some personal criteria in terms of swinging time as well as cleans and presses.
    Colt Chaffin

    It wasn’t John’s fault for getting hurt, nor do I think you were whining about your injury as another person had stated. I like kettlebells, and hopefully will never recieve an injury like john’s.
    Adam

    I agree here I’m 53 years old and have lifted, worked out w/ bodyweight and weights since being in the military soem 30 years ago, recently discovered kettlebells, they are very hard on the wrists and elbow joints no need to do high rep sets in swing or snatch. I have gone back to bodyweight pullups, handstand pushups , squats and lunges and some barbell clean & press.I have damage to my left hand and right wrist by going extreme with KB’s they are not good!
    Willie

    According to a friend who was in the UK’s SBS (Special Boat Service), KBs were allegedly banned years ago by the British military because of the risk of injury.
    If you’re able to use KBs injury free, I congratulate you. But, the truth is the Dragon Door forum is constantly filled with questions about injuries. Unfortunately, it is going to be 10 – 15 years before their efforts catch up with them and by then, it will be too late.
    As Dr. Doug McGuff, MD, recently wrote on his website with KBs it isn’t if but when an injury is going to happen when it comes to this exercise tool.
    Peter

    Right now I’m using rubber KBs, both for my 16kg and 24kg. I hope that means I have less of a chance of having the same injury you did. But thanks for letting kettlebell users know about this, because you’ve motivated me to be extra careful with the KB from now on.
    Ronald

    Snatching a heavy kettlebell is not “just like…any weight”. As Olympic lifters learned a century ago, there’s a big difference between lifting a weight under control (“focus”) to develop max strength, and lifting it explosively to develop athleticism.
    Early weight lifters abandoned fixed barbells (after many, many people broke their arms during the power clean and the snatch) in favor of Olympic-style barbells with rotating sleeves just as they abandoned kettlebells because of the danger, and because there were better alternatives.
    The “tool” is inferior. There’s no reason to use a kettlebell – even for a kettlebell-style workout – if you have dumbbells. And there are plenty of reasons to avoid kettlebells.
    Thomas

    http://www.tryingfitness.com/are-kettlebells-better-than-dumbbells/

    And allow me to quote 2 excerpts from the above webpage:

    Nathan March 13, 2010 at 12:34 am
    Thanks for all the info John. Made me want to stick with dumbbells.

    Definitely won’t be doing any kettlebell training too, looks like bad news to me.
    I sincerely hope you make some kind of recovery John.
    My prayers are with you.
    God bless
    Andy

  17. Richard McMahon Richard McMahon says:

    Kettlebell origins are not entirely clear but lifting weights to improve strength and fitness goes back as long as boys have wanted to show off . Kettlebells have been claimed by the Russians, Turks and Scots, Dumbells are just as old and apparently came from when people trained with small church bells – hence they are called ‘Dumb’ because they are no longer used as a bell. They are not fads or crazes – they have been around for many years.

    Whats more many osteopaths and back specialists are recommending them for recovery and rehabilitation from back injuries. So I’m not sure where you got the information from that they give you a bad back? Perhaps you made this up in the name of trying to make a story. No information on bad backs anywhere on the internet. Perhaps you can advise?

  18. Lorna B Lorna B says:

    Wowsers. Kettlebells are as bad for your back as squatting deep is bad for your knees. What we have here is a case of people misusing a piece of equipment or misunderstanding how it is used.

    If a trainer teaches everyone (regardless of fitness level or skill) to squat to parallel, it is that trainer who is wrong, not the squat. If a coach teaches you to run by slapping your heels on the ground instead of keeping a bouncy stance on your toes, it is that coach who is wrong, not the sport of running.

    Same thing with the kettlebell…it is not the kettlebell that is at fault but the user or trainer who is not using it as intended.

    So don’t knock something until you have tried it. The right way…Also what might seem to you to be cardio training might be something completely different.

    Nothing good comes out of issuing blanket statements or preaching personal opinions as gospel.

  19. Richard McMahon Richard McMahon says:

    I think you’ll find the quotes in mr Logan’s post are actually tongue in cheek.

    The ‘Andy’ quote actually said he was trying to take Nike to court over the fact that they sold him running shoes that gave him blisters! Read the full quote and you’ll see. The quote regarding the SBS – not true. I work for Landrover in Gaydon and we have customers from Hereford!

    The number one cause of back pain at a gym is sitting down and pushing weights. I say again osteopaths and back specialists are recommending them for recovery and rehabilitation from back injuries.(check them out). So far Mr Logan is the only person who has been injured using kettlebells – why? Because he never sought a trainer, he learnt from a book and a DVD!

    Opinions are not gospel – make your own mind up but consulting a certified instrutor and then getting some training with one.

    And if you crash you bike and break your neck – what are you going to do – blame the bike? Smash your head on a surf board (despite reading the manual and watching all the videos) what do you do? Blame the surf board? Mr Logan’s quotes are all over the internet – quotes from a very disturbed man.

    If you go extreme with anything you WILL hurt yourself – but that’ not down to the product, it’s down to the person. People have been KILLED bench pressing – do I recommend not doing it – of course not!

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