Using Kettlebells to Rehabilitate and Correct Posture

rehab exercise posture

How Can Exercising With Kettlebells Correct Your Posture?

Our posture is an expression of every human movement we make. What we decide to lift and how we decide to lift it affects posture dramatically.  Lots is written on how to fix our posture once we’re hurt – it’s a big industry.  But this article will deal with how to avoid getting into poor posture in the first place. Many start exercising kind of believing that it will improve posture, which is true. But many are only worsening their already poor posture by refusing to ever change their protocols or not knowing enough about their routine as it interacts with their unique posture and biomechanics. As Coaches we see this more commonly than most anything else. Kettlebells…those things that everyone walks past in the gym as many don’t know how to use them, naturally force your body into good posture. We should just call them “Posture Bells”. It’s practically impossible for one  to exercise correctly with Kettlebells and not improve posture.  

“These principal Russian Kettlebell exercises, the Getup, Goblet Squat, and the Military Press among others incorporate dynamic stretching within the exercise itself, allowing one to perform corrective work and mobility training within the strength training routine, without changing the tool.”

The modern human shoulder, which when rolled forward all day, every day from desk work or just work period, cause the back to slump over (known as kyphosis). Kyphotic posture is what we get into closer to the end of our lives – they express old age, disfunction, immobility. Slumping earlier in life has implications to consider both now and later on down the line. When we’re leaned over a desk or anything else with our shoulders rolled forward for 10 hours per day, our shoulders tend to stay rolled forward all the time as they get frozen into this position.  Someone with shoulders that are rolled forward essentially has muscles and tendons that have been relengthened to accommodate this unhealthy posture, and it will take some work and determination by the individual working with a team of professionals (Physio/Chiro, Personal Trainer) to change this and to get back to correct posture. That being said, this is very doable, and the body is extremely elastic.  We can be put back into good posture the same exact way we got into bad posture – by changing the way we move, this time for the better. From kyphotic backs to lower back pain, to folks who have twisted shoulders or tweaked hips – these problems are 100% fixable in most cases – it’s a matter of whether or not one is willing to do the corrective work.

Kyphosis/rolled shoulders and slumped back, shifts our center of gravity forward in front of the spine increasing the load the spine must support, which increases its’ curvature. This places our upper spine in a position that it’s supporting muscular structure, the back and shoulder muscles, wasn’t designed to handle, and at great risk of herniating a disk or even worse. The upper back muscles along with the shoulder and neck muscles fatigue under the added stress, our body reacting to this fatigue and expressing it by slumping, or kyphotic posture. Even slight or partial kyphosis puts undue pressure on our heart, lungs and organs, sometimes referred to as “Total Peripherial Resistance”. Slumping over puts forward and downward pressure onto the rib cage, often pushing ribs out of alignment and stretching out the muscles in our upper back and at the rear of our shoulders and neck. Slumping over puts added downward pressure on every organ located inside of our chest cavity starting with the heart and lungs. It affects our breathing, the stroke volume of our heart (volume of  blood pumped per stroke), as well as our diastolic blood pressure and cardiac output.( 1) Imagine yourself constantly squeezing a Bagpipe bag against your gut, but instead, squeezing your very own organs.

                                “Don’t add strength to disfunction Grey Cook, World Renowned Physiotherapist

Not sure how good or bad your posture and movement is? With all of the time you (you who exercise) spend working on your bodies, you owe it to yourself to go through a ten minute movement screen administered by a professional.  A ten minute FMS screen, used widely in college and professional sports is what I recommend. This gives one a score for how well your body moves in each of its’ regions (shoulders, back, hips, spine etc.), and specific exercises to correct your issues. Armed with this knowledge, one can plan workouts with a focus on improved movement and postural correction. Once good function is back, strength goes back to the top of the priority list, but not until then.  Adding strength to disfunction will hurt you worse.  If you have a truck and the gears grind, you had better take care of that before installing a turbocharger or pay the hefty consequences. Your body’s the same. Besides avoiding injury and feeling your pain subside, once your machine is re-aligned and corrected, your goals become more easily reachable, be it strength, weight loss or athleticism. What I’m saying isn’t really that novel.  As with any machine that’s well oiled, aligned and it’s gears change smoothly and optimally, optimizing movement and posture leads to optimized performance.   

I’ll never forget about what a Physiotherapist said in an article I read years ago I wish I’d saved…..”Ten minutes with your arms overhead each day is what you need to improve shoulder health”. I like to work with many of my athletes with this approach…it’s simple and it works. In Kettlebell training, one simply does a lot of overhead work, more than with any other type of resistance training.  There are a number of ways in which doing overhead work improves posture. Between the Clean and Press, the Military Press, and the Waiters Walk, some of the most widely used exercises in the sport, ten minutes of overhead work is easily attained in an average session. Shoulder mechanics are improved dramatically by simply changing the tool.

These principal Russian Kettlebell exercises, the Getup, Goblet Squat, and the Military Press among others incorporate dynamic stretching within the exercise itself, allowing one to perform corrective work and mobility training within the strength training routine without changing the tool. Each of these exercises has it’s own corrective properties going up and down the kinetic chain.  Today we’ll cover the Military Press. When a single kettlebell is pressed overhead as in the Military Press, the glutes are squeezed to brace and strengthen the lower back, the knees are locked out, the entire body is braced and the chest is held down and not extended to encourage proper diaphragmatic breathing as well as proper core bracing. Athletes performing this lift must retrain the lats to activate and become a foundation for the prime movers/muscles pressing the load overhead. The kettlebell is brought from a slightly lower position than the barbell due to the difference in the way the triceps are positioned. The working arm is brought through it’s full range of motion in overhead extension, the elbow is locked out at the top as the kettlebell allows one to turn the arms freely to their arm’s specific and unique movement pattern. Neither side is permitted to transfer a strength discrepancy or imbalance from one side of the body to the other via a barbell. Rather, the body is forced to support and move the load with proper form regardless of existing muscular imbalances or synergistic dominance. At the top position the arm is locked out and the bicep should touch the head behind the ear. The bell is gripped in the hand and hangs behind the lifter, who is forced to create stability through the dynamic coordination of the back and shoulder muscles, buttocks, chest, neck, and entire kinetic chain. With each rep, the shoulder and upper back muscles are contracted with high intensity, further shortening the very muscles that have been lengthened/damaged more with each rep and with each workout. The pectoral muscles are both stretched and contracted at the same time with each rep which effectively lengthens them, allowing the shoulders to sit back behind the chest once again. When the previously shortened pectoralis minor is stretched, the shoulder blade where it attaches at the caracoid process, can relax from pulled forward position, finally letting the humerus (upper arm) sit back properly into the shoulder socket (glenoid fossa). This causes the shoulders to sink further back to their natural position with every rep. The entire body is braced, knees locked out and glutes are held firm as a rock. The main movement is with the shoulders, while proper full body tension and bracing are trained with each rep, stretching and retraining our human facia which connects every muscle in the human body.  

Shifting the imbalanced shoulder weight back over the spine again corrects one’s center of gravity and let’s the spine stand tall again. Retraining the spines’ supporting musculature will help make sure you stay this way (the step most “forget”). Many will have some corrective work to do before performing this lift effectively and properly, as many of us have been robbed of the ability to extend arms overhead straight without hyperextending the lumbar and thoracic spine to avoid shoulder pain. This exercise, when trained correctly and with proper mobility work will bring this ability back. The strength and athletic gains one receives from correcting spinal posture will be very apparent and long term.  

Reference:

(1) Frey MA1, Tomaselli CM, Hoffler WG. Cardiovascular responses to postural changes: differences with age for women and men. Biomedical Operations and Research Office, Kennedy Space Center, Florida. 1994 May;34(5):394-402.

By Dan Piper, CPT, RKC, FMS

Rehab and Sports Medicine at Dan’s Kettlebell & Barbell Club, Alameda, California

Dan Piper grew up in San Diego, CA playing every sport imaginable including Surfing and Soccer, and loves climbing very high mountains in other countries.  As a Coach, his primary focus is on bringing high quality Corrective and Strength work to the masses.  Based on Alameda Island near Oakland, Dan’s Kettlebell Club is like nothing else offered in the Bay Area, fusing FMS with workouts he sometimes borrows from his fellow RKCs, Olympic Coach Dan John, and Taylor Lewis, CK-FMS.  He can be reached by emailing him at dan@workout4results.com .  

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