How I Cured My Bad Back with Kettlebells

Yes, my low back hurt.

Like about 70% of you out there.

At the worst of it — just a few years ago — to rollover in bed at night I had to wake up, grab the headboard with both hands, and carefully change position. I was like that for months.

Traditional Exercises for Low Back Pain Didn’t Help

I researched every book that exists on back pain. One just happened to be based on a massive 10 year study by Harvard Medical School that proved exercise was the BEST treatment for long term success for almost every cause of low back pain, when compared to surgery and many other approaches.

Other books had back exercises as well. So, I started on the back exercises. Later on, I realized the problem with most of these books was that the exercises focus on the low back. And in a way that makes sense: if it hurts, that’s where the problem is. Right? Or isn’t it?

Unfortunately, those back exercises helped only a little.

Another thing the Harvard study concluded was that those who walked the most had less frequent episodes with their back pain. So, I started walking to work. I lived close enough to make it in 30 minutes. In the summer I arrived at work soaked in sweat — so you can imagine: I stayed in my office and everyone else stayed OUT of my office (I am grateful I wasn’t hassled about that).

The walking helped. I was better. No pain — as long as I lived a very sedated life.

But how could walking help?

What does walking have to do with the low back? The book had an answer to that. It’s the improved circulation and the gentle massaging motion of the gait on the low back, or so they said. However, since then I’ve learned they were wrong. Yes, walking does help. Just not for the reasons those doctors suggested.

There were so many books. Digressing a bit, but rounding out this story: one of the books was by Sarno. A doctor who cured his bad back patients by having them attend 4 lectures, one each week. By the end of the month, 80% of them were cured. Regardless, whether it was herniated discs or sciatica or whatever. The bottomline: back pain was all in their heads. Forgive my crude description. Really, the book is worth reading.

Also, I learned that most healthy people have MRI’s with horrible stuff on it. A majority of pain-free people have herniated discs (like me). The question is: why do only a smaller percentage of them have pain?

I kept reading.

The First Improvement Came With Squats

I came across a book that included squatting with the back exercises. That was different. So I added in squats. (I had a problem. I had to try everything!)

And I started to get much better!

What I did was, every time I went into the bathroom — either to brush my teeth or… you know… I would squat down 5 times, holding onto the counter so I wouldn’t fall over backwards. I may have started at 2 or 3 repetitions. My legs were pretty weak, even with all the walking. Over the course of a day, I probably squatted 25—50 times.

After a few weeks of squatting, I could tie my shoes much easier. Even get dressed without sitting down. I could roll over in bed at night (slowly). I think I was even happier, knowing every step wasn’t such a threat. I had a long way to go, but there was a big improvement in my daily life.

Does that sound odd to you?

How could squatting have anything to do with fixing my low back? There I am — again — exercising my legs to make the low back feel better.

Pavel Woke Me Up

What happened next is called ‘serendipity’ by some and ‘divine guidance’ by others. Checking the library shelves for any back exercise books I might have missed, a book title caught my eye: The Naked Warrior.

Maybe I’m weird, but I just had to pull it down to see what it was about.

Flipping through it, I could see it was about using just two body-weight exercises to stay strong. In other words, so that a tough guy can stay tough without weights or a gym, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. The writing had a tongue-in-cheek humor that was entertaining. And that little inner voice said this is important, so I took it home.

This was like nothing else. In reading the book, I discovered revelations about exercise, strength training, and the human body that were completely untouched in all the other books I had read. I was fascinated and amazed. And with my own results in squatting and discoveries with my strength imbalances, it took me into brand new, unexplored territory.

The Naked Warrior is by Pavel Tsatsouline. The same Russian fellow who brought kettlebells to the attention of the American people. With the kettlebells has come his knowledge of Soviet sports science, which is still little known in the West. The same methods and research that had the Soviets dominating the Olympics for decades. He brought his practical experience as a trainer of the elite Soviet military commandos. Even better, Pavel’s razor sharp intellect is able to digest massive amounts of research, pull out the nitty-gritty that really works, and present it in a no-nonsense fashion focused on practical results. What is complex, he makes simple. In a few words, he can express what others take pages and pages to get across. The mark of a master.

That book was like reading secrets. No one else knew this. Rare stuff.

Enter the Kettlebell

I just had to get his other books, one of which was The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. The evidence in his first kettlebell book was convincing: kettlebells can cure bad backs. And he explained why — something completely different from any other book I had read. It made perfect sense after my own discoveries. I had to try it.

Here’s another challenge: try to read Pavel’s book Enter the Kettlebell and NOT want to try it!

Read further to learn how I ‘improvised’ my kettlebell exercises and why it finally cured my bad back.

Why Exercise With a Kettlebell Can Cure a Bad Back

Strangely enough, the answer is the same for the following questions:

  • Why are kettlebells responsible for dramatic improvements with athletes in their sport?
  • Why do the Russian military — and recently some elite US military units — favor kettlebell training?

I’m getting to that.

Also, my interest became more than just curing my bad back. At this point, I was very curious to see if what Pavel had to say was really true. I wanted the proof, in my own experience.

I wondered: what might my life be like if I had some of the ‘super-power’ that kettlebells seem to give to top athletes and elite military operatives?

Anyone would have said to me, “Dream on, buddy. The heaviest thing you can carry is a bag of groceries!”

Talk about faith and mustard seeds. I had a long way to go.

Good-bye Back Pain!

Those kettlebells looked awfully hard. Big, black, and heavy. And sort of expensive. So, I needed another idea. What else could I swing and lift kettlebell style.

I got a milk jug and filled it half-full of water. About 4 pounds I figured. That’s what I started with.

The basic, foundation exercise is the swing. It’s a repetitious, ballistic movement. As the weight of your kettlebell swings between your legs, you are folding at the hips (not squatting, completely different) and letting the weight of the kettlebell load your hip muscles to a stop. Then you explode your hips forward again, and the kettlebell swings up again on your loose arms. That’s the basic idea at least.

I started with just 10 or 20 swings a day. Even that had me sucking wind — I told you I was in bad shape.

When I started, there wasn’t that much ‘snap’ to my hips. I tried to follow all the directions carefully —– and easily. Done wrong, I knew my back would be out for a few days.

A little scarey, maybe, yet I felt a little better in my low back right away.

It exercised the right muscles somehow that made my back more secure, safer. That’s how it felt anyhow.

In 3 or 4 weeks, I had that milk jug full of water (about 8 pounds). And I could rollover in bed at night without even noticing it.

I kept swinging.

At the end of 3 months, I had the milk jug full of sand. By then, I was getting out of bed in the morning without any stiffness at all. I could bend over and touch my toes — no problem. I could bend over to pull grocery bags out of the trunk of the car — no problem. I could do things I hadn’t done in more than a dozen years. In fact, I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to do that was inhibited by the condition of my back.

Good-bye, back pain.

I pronounced by back problems cured!

NOTE: If your back hurts worse from swinging a kettelbell, then you are doing it wrong. Don’t blame the kettlebell. Just get some qualified instruction. That’s okay. You CANNOT see yourself perform, so there is no way you can see what you’re doing wrong.

The Next Step

That’s also when I invested in my first real kettlebell. It weighed 25 pounds. Whew! That thing was heavy coming out of the box (but it didn’t bother my back!). About 20 swings later, my chest was heaving, trying to get in enough air.

And let me be clear here: the point of kettlebell training the way Pavel teaches is not to kill yourself. It’s not even to get sore. Pavel often says, “Train as often as you can, while staying as fresh as you can.” In other words, don’t get sore, or beat down. It’s counterproductive. That’s a radical idea in our American ‘no pain, no gain’ mindset.

The book recommended the average man get the 35 pound kettlebell. I thought about it. I LIKE to think of myself as at least average, but in fact, I’m in the cusp of middle age. I’ve never really exercised. I’ve never been athletic. And I had a herniated disc, for heaven’s sake. The 25 pounder, like I got, was recommended for strong ladies (how embarrassing! and I probably should have ordered the 18 pounder).

Back to the beginning again. I did just a few swings every day with that new heavy kettlebell.

I didn’t become superman overnight. (Yeah, I checked in the mirror every morning to see, just in case.) Yet, month by month, I was getting stronger.

When I could swing for 30 seconds straight — I set my sights on swinging for a whole minute. Then I set my eye on that next 15 second increment. Minute and a half. Two minutes. Three minutes.

The Rest of the Story

I’ve kept swinging — and back pain has never returned. Now, I’m curious how strong can I get?

Today, I regularly workout with a 70 pound kettlebell. You can bet your life savings, my back doesn’t bother me today. Not a bit.

There are many improvements to my body and my life for which I credit kettlebells. One I’m particularly fond of is my improved posture and shoulders. I had the typical humped over, rounded shoulders from sitting at a desk all day — and perhaps being a little depressed about it. Kettlebells fixed that up as well. Now I stand pretty straight, shoulders effortless back and down. Every step I take feels good. It’s a pleasure being in this body.

In fact, kettlebells are famous for curing bad shoulders, just like they cured my bad back. These athletes and martial artists with years of punishment to their shoulders are finding a renewed life with kettlebell training. Their shoulders become better than new. I hear about it all the time. I tell my bad back story; they tell their bad shoulder story. Someone else tells some other ‘how the heck did that happen’ story attributed to kettlebells. Ask around, you’ll get plenty of these stories.

But Why Do Kettlebell Exercises Cure Back Pain?

But, I never answered why. Here are some thoughts on that.

Most important, I immediately felt better. After swinging the kettlebell, just walking around the house felt good. Everything from the neck down just felt more solid, more connected. I seemed to move differently in some way that not only felt good, but barely — or not at all — threatened my low back.

Pavel has identified 5 reasons in his writings why kettlebells are so good for backs.

1. Kettlebells Train The Glutes

Professor Vladimir Janda, a Cxech scientist, discovered a very high level of correlation between elite athletes that had small glutes and those who suffered lower back pain. That’s right, small butt = likely low back pain.

The glutes and all the hip muscles are strongly emphasized by kettlebell training. Not only do they get much stronger, they wake up and start participating in your movement. Mechanically, if you’re not firing your glutes when you lift or extend your hip, you are compensating by overusing your lower back muscles. The low back muscles were NOT intended to do the job of your glutes, one of the largest muscles in your body.

In other words, your body learns a more correct, much more powerful movement pattern that helps everything you do. For a chiropractor’s explanation of the same thing, see this article on Janda’s Lower Cross Syndrome. Kettlebells cured the chiropractor’s back!

2. Kettlebells Improve Hip Flexibility

Kettlebell exercises loosen up the hip flexors, ‘second to none’ according to Pavel. And that’s important for your low back. Let me try to explain. The hip flexors are on the front of your hips, and if they are tight, then the muscles on the back of your hips — the big glutes! — are inhibited. It’s like driving with the brakes on!

How is that?

It’s called Sherrington’s law in physiology. Here’s an example. When you bend your arm and make the bicep (front of the arm) bulge, the triceps (on the back of the arm) have to relax and let go. If the muscles on the back of the arm didn’t release, then the muscles on the front of the arm couldn’t move the arm. This happens by reflex —– automatically, without conscious control.

So, your tight hip flexors are like the bulging biceps in this example. The hip flexors are bulging (shortened) and the muscles on the back (the glutes) HAVE to release and go weak. In other words, the largest, most powerful muscles of your body — the glutes — are de-activated by your tense hip flexors.

But are your hip flexor’s tight? If you live in America, it’s pretty much a chronic condition. The typical answer is that we sit so much, which shortens the hip muscles that bend your body on the front. And those muscles adapt in that way. They get very, very good at sitting!

The kettlebell swing not only stretches those hip flexors, it gets your glutes and hip muscles working together like they are supposed to. Voila! Your low back can get back to doing what it was designed to do —– without complaints (pain).

These are the primary reasons, in my mind, why the kettlebell swing makes such a difference with low backs. But there’s more.

3. Kettlebells Strengthen Your Core

The RKC system teaches proper bracing of the abdominal cavity. Instead of sucking in your stomach, like some tell you to do to protect your back, you will learn to ‘brace’ your mid-section as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach. This internal pressure created by your breath and abdominal wall supports your back, and strangely enough, makes you stronger in every way.

Again, without you thinking much about it, your body learns a better movement pattern. In other words, you will naturally do things around the house in a way that protects your back and mid-section. This bracing is also why the kettlbell swing is also a good ab or ‘core’ workout.

4. Kettlebell Training Increases Indurance

Also, research has shown that low back strength surprisingly does NOT appear to reduce the odds of back problems, however, muscular endurance does. The high-repetition nature of kettlebell swings is perfect for the job.

5. Kettlebells Strengthen Joints and Ligaments

Last, but not least, repetitive loading of your joints, as it’s done with kettlebell swings and snatches, is actually highly beneficial for your joints. In Supertraining, Mel Siff states, “joints subjected to heavy impact are relatively free of osteoarthritis in old age and those subjected to much lower loading experience a greater incidence of osteoarthritis . . . Thus, joint cartilage subjected to regular repetitive loading remains healthy and copes very well with impulsive loads, whereas cartilage that is heavily loaded infrequently softens. . . .” In other words, good for your spine!

A lot of us like to wonder why. But after you spend a few days swinging a kettlebell, you will know it works, regardless of what anyone else says. You will feel the difference.

If you’re struggling with low back pain, if back pain is limiting what you want to do with your life, I hope you’ll try the kettlebell swing as I did.

The Big Secret

Key Point: the magic isn’t in the kettlebell.

The kettlebell is just a hunk of iron. Proper movement is the key. Pavel’s RKC system of kettlebell training teaches your body to move better, not just stronger.

My back hurt (complained) because I was moving poorly — using my body poorly. Once you learn to move properly, the added weight of the kettlebell just increases your level of challenge. So, learn to move with a kettlebell correctly. That’s the secret.

Actually, any kind of strength training would do it — that is, if you learned to move properly.

Pavel says, ‘Strength is a skill.’

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