How well do we—as humans—move? When we move are we trying to avoid or minimize pain? There seem to be three major areas of pain, have you wondered why these areas are so afflicted, even with people who are “in shape”?
The low back (lumbar region), the knees (distal femur, proximal tibia, fibula and patella) and the shoulders (glenohumeral and sterno-clavicular joints) are the pain points for many people. Why?
Two words need to be considered: stability and mobility. Certain joints of the body prefer stability and others favor mobility. Feet, knees, the low back and scapular regions favor stability. Ankles, hips, the thoracic spine (middle back) and glenohumeral joints (shoulders) flourish with mobility. The joints need to do what they are designed to do. If not, then asymmetries and injuries occur. And here’s the double whammy—not only will the misaligned joint be affected, the ones above and below it will too! For example, if a person has tight hips, their hip movement will be compromised. The movement will need to take place in other parts of the body, usually the knees and low back, both of which are stability-favoring joints above and below the hips. This creates instability in these joints, resulting in pain and anomalies.
Many people have low back pain. They might stretch their backs, get chiropractic adjustments, or take pain pills, but the issue will still not be addressed. The real issue be that the hips are tight and immobile, and/or the hamstrings are too tight. They may also have immobility issues if their thoracic spine (t-spine) is not strong enough or mobile enough to move safely. Are the erector spinea and the multifidi muscles (muscles that connect the vertebra) strong and engaged? Are the rhomboids, trapezius and other muscles of the scapula developed? Does the individual know how to keep them engaged? On many occasions, low back issues really lie in the areas above and below. Addressing the strength and flexibility of these major joints often significantly relieves back pain.
How do we address and avoid these issues? First, if you are not training, start. You’ll move better, feel better and live a longer (and often more productive) life. Next, consider that type of training, is it cardio, mobility or strength based? Are you getting the correct balance for optimal health? With your strength training or resistance training, are you using closed chain or open chain exercises? Closed chain movements involve more joints of the body and tend to be better for you. Open chain movements are more isolated and can have a shearing effect on the joint.
For example, let’s compare bodyweight squats and leg extensions. Bodyweight (or weighted for that matter) squats are a closed chain movement. The major joints and muscle groups addressed are the hips, knees and ankles, and the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and gastrocs (calves) are on the muscle side of the equation. Other muscles and stabilizers are involved at lesser degrees along with a good deal of core engagement for bracing. When performing squats, the feet are firmly planted and positive joint compression is employed. In contrast, leg extensions only address the quadriceps with concentric and eccentric contractions. The other leg muscles are virtually dormant and only the knee joint is involved. There is a shearing effect on the knee joint which may cause injury over time. In my estimation, this machine should be disassembled, melted down and repurposed as something useful, like a kettlebell! Just ask yourself, when you walk, run or jump, do you isolate a muscle or use your whole limbs and torso? In a rehabilitation situation or in bodybuilding, then muscle isolation may be appropriate, but otherwise multi-joint movements are superior.
There are many reasons why kettlebell training is my central mode of training. With kettlebells, all of the facets of fitness are addressed: strength, explosive power, flexibility, durability, muscular endurance, cardiovascular training, and mobility. Let’s consider mobility. Outsiders (I’m referring to those not acquainted with bonafide kettlebell training), only view kettlebell training as strength, explosive power and muscular endurance, but not necessarily promoting healthy mobility.
Along with the bo staff, freehand mobility and calisthenics I lead on a daily basis in my classes, there are three kettlebell based complexes we use to prepare for the rigors of the training session. We execute 10 repetitions of each movement on each side, or in each direction where applicable. The first complex is figure-8, then low, middle, and high halos. The second complex is bottoms-up crescent swings, kettlebell good mornings, and goblet squats. The third complex is the RKC armbar, lying side swings, and kettlebell pullovers.
Let’s discuss the third complex: the RKC armbar, lying side press and the kettlebell pullover. Generally, we do 10 repetitions of the armbar, 10 reps of the lying side press on both sides, and then 10 reps of the kettlebell pullover. Two sets of each.
The Armbar packs the shoulder and prepares the participant for overhead work. Lie on your side in the fetal position as if you were starting a get-up. Grasp the kettlebell by the handle, bring it to your shoulder, then roll onto your back. With two hands, press the kettlebell upward. Make sure that your wrist is straight, your elbow is locked, and your shoulder is packed. If the kettlebell is in your right hand, take your right leg and bring it to the other side of your body so that your hip is facing the floor and most of your anterior is in the prone position. Do all of this while maintaining a relaxed neck and while rotating kettlebell in space. Attempt to bring your right hip as close to the floor as possible as you keep your arm and wrist locked. Once you’ve settled into the bottom of this movement, bring your right leg across the body until you are supine with the kettlebell above. This movement needs to be performed slowly, to maximize the opening of the hips and packing of the shoulders. Relish the time under the kettlebell as your thoracic region savors the mobility!
The Lying Side Press is to be done as soon as you have completed the armbar. As you are on your side, press the kettlebell upward. It is imperative to maintain a straight wrist and vertical forearm throughout this exercise. Pull the kettlebell down so that your elbow is slightly behind your hip. Keep the kettlebell steady and feel your rhomboids working. If you feel stress in your anterior deltoid, you are doing the movement incorrectly and most likely not keeping your forearm vertical.
The Kettlebell Pullover is a movement that’s very easy to cheat! Don’t be “that guy” or “that girl”. The kettlebell is on the ground above your head as you lie in the supine position. Grasp the kettlebell in both hands at the horns and bring it overhead. Now, lock your arms. While you lower the kettlebell, remember the phrase “sometimes, always, never”. Sometimes your thoracic region comes off of the ground, Always have your head and cervical spine off of the ground and Never let your lumbar spine or hips come off of the ground. So, lower the bell with your head off of the mat and do not allow the kettlebell to touch the ground. As you keep the bottom of the kettlebell facing away from you, raise it so that it is perpendicular to the floor. Pause. Next, contract your abdominals as you bring the kettlebell straight upward while keeping your lumbar spine on the floor. Repeat this process for 10 repetitions.
If you have any questions regarding this RKC blog post or any other kettlebell or fitness related matter, please feel free to contact me.
Strength and Honor!
Phil Ross Master RKC, 8th Degree Black Belt, CK-FMS, PCC and ACE Certified. Author of Ferocious Fitness and Survival Strong, producer of The Kettlebell Workout Library. He is also the Chief Instructor at American Eagle MMA & Kettlebells