As a martial artist and instructor with decades under my belt, one of the hurdles I struggled with when I started training with kettlebells was my thoracic spine mobility, or rather, my lack thereof. Despite my mother telling me I was special, in this regard I am the rule among martial artists, not the exception.
As a martial artist and instructor with decades under my belt, one of the hurdles I struggled with when I started training with kettlebells was my thoracic spine mobility, or rather, my lack thereof. Despite my mother telling me I was special, in this regard I am the rule among martial artists, not the exception. Years upon years of training for hours and hours in a boxing or kickboxing stance had encouraged my back and shoulders to retain that tight, rounded, defensive position, even when not necessary during the rest of my day.
When you stress the body in a consistent way over time, it will adapt to that stress as the new normal, a concept enshrined in the SAID principle. In other words, if you sit or stand with poor posture (shoulders rounded forward, upper back slumped, head pushed in front of the shoulders) for extended periods of time, your body will adapt to that position.
Time to Call In a Pro
I’m not a medical professional, so let’s ask my good friend Dr. Ira Schneider what he thinks. Dr. Schneider is a former international-level athlete who has been a private practice chiropractor for 25 years, and works regularly with high-level athletes.
Dr. Schneider: Our basic human posture is indeed changing for the worse. Constant and unconscious use of cell phones is creating a forward and downward head position adding additional and unnatural load onto the neck, over-stretching the back and compressing the front. Add to that the use of computers, almost always in a seated position, creating a shortening of the muscles and fascia of the front of the body and often causing a forward glide of the neck, and you have the recipe for neck, upper back, shoulder, and low back pain, as well as headaches.
How can we address these existing and growing postural issues that already negatively affect so many people? Like most problems, there are a number of solutions: the foam roller, chiropractic treatment, and massage therapy are all good choices, depending on the issue and how you respond to the treatment. Brett Jones, the chief instructor for StrongFirst, uses some simple and remarkably effective bodyweight movements in his recent article on T-spine mobility and its impact on shoulder health.
Today, we will look at another outstanding method to correct postural issues of the upper back and shoulder: kettlebell corrective exercises. Dr. Schneider and I will explain the benefits that a few kettlebell exercises can provide in this arena.
Progress to the Bent Press
If you’re reading Breaking Muscle and have been around for more than five minutes, you have heard of the kettlebell and Pavel Tsatsouline, the man who introduced them to the West. Like most things in strength training, opinions are strong and varied. While I do my best to steer clear of politics (difficult in both martial arts and strength), I will stick to my personal experience with these exercises, as both an athlete and instructor.
Simply put, each and every one of us has seen exponential improvement in T-spine mobility from the movements below. This improved mobility invariably leads to better posture. Better posture leads to more efficient and natural movement of the body, and more important, a better mental attitude and outlook. And a better mental attitude and outlook lead to a better life. Suffice it to say, this handful of kettlebell exercises will fix your life. Really!
I learned this progression toward the bent press from David Whitley, who spent a lot of time studying this quintessential “old time strongman” lift. Arthur Saxon, the king of the bent press, could put 350lb overhead at a bodyweight of just 200lb! The bent press is still done today, albeit without the singlet and handlebar mustache.
The bent press is an amazing lift, no doubt about it. “But,” you ask, “with my upper back locked up after years of _______________ (fill in the blank: cycling, boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu jitsu, wing chun, sitting in front of a computer…), how can I safely execute a bent press without risking injury, due to compensation and/or poor form?”
I would answer that question with a question, “What do you do when a student can’t do a pull up?” Yelling at them to do a pull up isn’t going to magically get their chest to the bar. Naturally, you assist them, by hand or with a band, or you use a regression like ring rows. You find a way to require less strength until more strength can be generated.
That’s what we will do today. We will improve T-spine mobility with a progression of movements that are invaluable on their own, and can build up to a bent press down the road, should you choose to learn this amazing lift.
Kettlebell Corrective #1: The Arm Bar
Safety Tip: Do not take your eye off the bell during any of these exercises.
Dr. Schneider: The kettlebell arm bar, when done correctly, is a major shoulder girdle stabilizing exercise. The position and weight of the bell causes the contraction of muscles surrounding the arm and shoulder, creating coordination and strengthening of those muscles. That effect will benefit anyone doing this movement. Additionally, working the kettlebell into the right position also necessitates the opening of the chest in relation to the shoulders and biceps.
Kettlebell Corrective #2: Bent Arm Bar
Safety Tip: This is an awkward position to press from, so start light.
Dr. Schneider: The bent arm bar requires separate movements of the pelvis and thorax, and will create a coordinated contraction for the intercostal, paravertebral, and muscles of the lateral pelvis, among other intrinsic muscles. As you abduct the shoulder and extend the elbow, you contract the muscles of the upper arm. The biceps and triceps balance each other, as do the flexors and extensors of the forearm. Also, the shoulder stabilizers are put to use contracting at different rates to maintain balance of the weight. This means a large number of muscles are being used for both concentric and isometric contractions, first to move a weight, and then to hold it in place.
Kettlebell Corrective #3: Half-Kneeling Bent Arm Bar
Same safety tips apply.
Dr. Schneider: The additional points of contact with the ground that the half-kneeling bent arm bar requires challenges the balance differently. Sensory proprioception of the feet, hips, alternate arm, and thighs will now be involved in the movement of the kettlebell. The biggest difference between this exercise and the previous two will be in the core, as almost all the muscles will fire to keep the kettlebell controlled. The muscles of the lower leg of the foot on the floor will increase the stability at the ankle and knee, and the intrinsic muscles of the foot will gain strength and be less likely to break down under load. The muscles of the inner thigh of the leg on the ground will engage to keep the pelvis centered under the kettlebell. The isometric contraction of the muscles of the hand on the floor will involve musculature all the way up to the neck of that side. Now add the pressing of the kettlebell, and you have a controlled concentric and eccentric contraction from forearm down to the pelvis and grounded foot.
Kettlebell Rehab for a Better Life
Limited T-spine mobility is a widespread problem for vast numbers of people, athlete or not, with ramifications inside and outside of training. These three simple movements, the arm bar, bent arm bar, and half-kneeling bent arm bar, produce a powerful rehabilitative effect on the T-Spine, chest, and shoulders with only a light kettlebell. They have helped me and my students make tremendous progress in the area of spinal mobility, and I highly recommend you try them out so you can experience the same incredible benefits.