Posture, Scapular Stability, and Kettlbells

Poor Posture and Kettlebell Training

To put it simply, mixing poor posture and kettlebell training (especially swings and snatches) is a really bad idea. Unfortunately, our lifestyles (sitting at desks, in cars, and slouching on couches for extended periods of time) promote poor posture. Here you are with all this kettlebell knowledge and a willing client, but should they swing a kettlebell? This article is dedicated to help you identify who is qualified and disqualified to work with kettlebells.

Upper Crossed Syndrome

Upper-Crossed Syndrome (UCS) is tightness of the Upper “Traps” and “Levators” crossed with tightness of the Pectoralis Major and Minor. Additionally, there is weakness of the cervical flexors crossed with weakness of the middle and lower trapezius. These patterns of imbalances create significant dysfunction in the cervical spine, thoracic spine, and shoulder joint. The result of these imbalances can be seen in postural changes including forward head posture, elevated and protracted shoulders, and an exaggeration of the natural curves in the Cervical and Thoracic Spine (increased Cervical Lordosis and thoracic kyphosis). These postural changes result in significantly decreased shoulder stability. To put this in another way, UCS can (and often does) result in scapular instability).

Now that UCS has been defined the next step is being able to identify it. While it is obvious in extreme cases, not all cases are so easy to identify. Here’s a simple way of evaluating a client. Have your client stand next to a wall with a straight vertical line (you can a draw line, put up tape, use a door frame, etc.) with their left shoulder just an inch away from this wall. From this position evaluation the position of their head, shoulders, and upper back. If your client’s posture is way outside the “norm” (i.e. head jetting forward, shoulders significantly rounded and/or elevated) significant corrective work must be done before you consider having them touch a kettlebell. If there are only minor deviations then you might be able to acutely “fix” their posture with the right corrective exercises and train with kettlebells that very day.

Now let’s say you respectfully disagree with our (Fit EDU’s) opinion as it relates to the client with significant Scapular Instability (has UCS) and that client being disqualified from performing kettlebell swings. You have decided that today is the day to teach the swing to your client and they will perform around 100 swings as an “introduction”. Will there be any real repercussion? Well here’s your answer…

When an individual has UCS and/or Scapular Instability their shoulders are protracted and elevated. In this position, anterior muscles such as the Pectoralis Major and Minor are overactive while many of the muscles in your upper back (Middle Trapezius, Rhomboid Major, etc.) are inhibited. Even more significantly contracting your Latisimus Dorsi (Lat) and keeping it contacted is very difficult. If you don’t already know … Glutes are the king of the kettlebell swing and Lats are the queen so… we have a real problem here. The Lat attaches to the spine all the way from T7 down to L5. When it is Isometrically contracted that entire segment of your spine is stabilized. In other words, no engagement of your Lats means little to no rigidity in that portion of your spine. Therefore, you are likely to flex and/or rotation that portion of your spine when swinging, snatching, etc.

Here are some more common issues with poor upper body posture and kettlebell swings:

  • An inability to keep the head and upper back in a neutral position throughout the movement
    • This will put significant stress on the Cervical and Thoracic spine
  • An inability to maintain depressed and retracted shoulders
    • This will put significant stress on the “shoulder (Glenohumeral) joint” and increase the chances of suffering a variety of injuries

Now that you buy into the premise of poor posture disqualifying a client from doing kettlebell swings (and a variety of other exercises for that matter) here are some drills/exercises that with the right coaching will help improve posture and postural control.

  1. Breathing Drills
  2. Bracing Sequence
  3. Farmer’s Carry (progressing to Waiter’s Carry)
  4. High Tension Plank
  5. Any and all kneeling, half kneeling, or standing anti-rotation band exercises

Still looking for more information on how to identify and fix this issue? Attend Fit EDU’s Level 1 Certified Kettlebell Instructor (CKI) to learn more on how posture, breathing, and basic movement quality affect a client’s ability to perform swings, goblet squats, cleans, and press.


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