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Jerry Answers Your Questions Part 2 - Tucson Personal Training Blog

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Jerry Answers Your Questions Part 2 - Tucson Personal Training Blog

Today’s post is part 2 of an ongoing series where I will be answering some of your questions. Here’s what we will be tackling this week…

“My kettlebell swings don’t look like the ones I see in videos, and I have a difficult time feeling my posterior chain working. I have a longer torso, shorter legs, and fairly tight hamstrings. So, whenever I try to get into a backswing with ‘proper form’ it hurts my back. Do you have any thoughts?”

Mark, 66  

First off, full disclosure; Mark is a student at our facility and has been for many years. I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge him for staying in the iron game during a time in his life where most people in his age cohort consider walking to be “exercise.” Mark works around injuries, physical limitations, and (of course) age, to ensure his quality of life keeps up with his quantity. Kudos!

I’ve been thinking a lot about your question, sir. I’ve also had others ask basically the same thing, so I thought I’d take some time to dive into it here.

This question opens a fairly large can, but I’ll do my best to keep it concise. Let’s answer the bigger question first, then get into your specific situation. The question that I see here is, “If my body is not shaped like my coach, classmates, or guy I saw on YouTube, how do I work to perfect my form.”

Master SFG instructor Mark Reifkind talks about developing a ‘coach’s eye’. In your coach’s eye, you can picture what ‘perfect’ looks like. There are many variables at play to make this determination, but the more detail in which our minds can draw this, the better. Next, there are three zones…

* “Green light” – This is when a particular lift looks EXACTLY like what you see in your mind’s eye. I feel like Officer Barbrady from South Park when I observe this lift, “Nothing to see here, move along.” I can think of several lifters I work with who exemplify this (they happen to all be great lifters), and it’s pretty awesome to see.

* “Yellow light” – Not absolutely spot-on like the green light, but nothing appears blatantly wrong or unsafe. Maybe you are coloring a bit outside the lines of green, but still able to perform the lift safely and effectively.

* “Red light” – This is coloring so far outside of the lines, that it appears unsafe and looks like someone may hurt themselves. This is where coaches have to step in, ask them to put the weight down, and see if we can make some course corrections.

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Now, with all of that said, the closer and closer one gets to max efforts (say a one-rep max deadlift), the less I am willing to tolerate something that is a little too far into the yellow light. In the example of a kettlebell swing, however, this is a lift that, by its very nature, is not designed to be done in one-rep max attempts. Therefore, my yellow light here is a little more relaxed. Can I nit-pick you to death? Sure. But, frankly, I just don’t see the purpose.

With that said, let’s now take a closer look at your specific question:

When you are standing, your center of gravity is right about at the halfway point of your foot (the middle of your shoelaces). Gravity always wins, Mark. So, when you bend over, whatever amount of ‘Mark’ goes in front of the COG, an equal amount of Mark must be behind it in order to keep Mark from tipping over. If you’re just bending over to pick up a pencil you dropped on the floor, your muscles can compensate for any oddities in the center of gravity.

(I will say, however, there is still benefit to bending properly regardless of load. Every time you move your body, you’re writing a software program in your brain. If you move with poor mechanics, you are writing a program with bugs in it, and therefore stand a greater risk of repeating those habits in scenarios involving heavier loads.)

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Once you start picking up things of substantial weight, these compensations can get really ugly, really fast. With that said, if you have a long torso and short stumpy legs, you will not be able to bend forward the same way in which someone with legs that start growing from their neck will.

So, what do we do in this situation? Well, we gotta dance with the one that brung ‘ya! In other words, you swing the bell in a way that keeps you safe, but still allows you to enjoy the benefits of the exercise. Regardless of one’s levers, there is a simple way to look at this movement. We all know that a squat is not a swing and swing is not a squat. A swing is the hinge pattern, and no matter how your levers are built, generally you can determine whether you are hinging or squatting by the angle of your shin.

In a hinge, the shin is either at, or near, vertical. In a squat, the shin angles forward. Again, use the green, yellow, red lights in this scenario. If the shin slips too far forward, you are now squatting. Another good indicator is that you feel lots of stretch through the hamstring in your backswing. If you fail to feel the loading up of hamstrings and hips in the backswing, one of two things are happening: One, you’ve either bent your knees too much (squatted). Or two, you’ve rounded your back. Both are bad, with the latter being worse.

In the following photo, I took a picture both you and I in the backswing. Our levers are very different, and in this photo, we can really see how the two different sets of levers act…

Using the traffic light analogy above, we can see that these are probably both ‘yellow light’ swings. Two 45-degree angles at the thigh and torso would be ideal, but unfortunately, although that may be optimal for some, it doesn’t appear to work for us. Your hamstrings are too tight, and my torso is too short. As far an engagement of the posterior chain goes, let’s say both of us are of similar strength; If you were picture us attempting to throw the bell back and toss it out in front of us for max horizontal distance, whose bell do you think will go farther forward? Yours looks like it may form a bit of an arch, while mine would probably make a straighter line forward. The more ‘up’ the bell would go, the more anterior chain muscles would be recruited. The more ‘forward’ the bell would go, the more posterior chain muscles would be recruited. This is actually a fun thing to try at a local park where you can toss the bells without harming anything/anyone. After one of those bell-tossing sessions, you may be surprised at how your hamstrings feel the next day.     

Your torso may be so long that, in order to get farther back in that good hinge pattern, too much of your body mass may end up going forward causing you to feel it in your back during the backswing. Ultimately, the best solution is continue working on the flexibility of your hamstrings. This may be a tall order for someone of your age. Using the ‘good morning’ as both a stretch as well as an exercise can help here as well. The non-ballistic nature of the movement will help you get a better idea of what your hamstrings are truly capable of, and learning how to safely load the exercise can help increase the range of motion. Another short-term solution here could be to slightly (SLIGHTLY!) widen your stance. This will help shorten the overall lever and help maintain the ideal shin angle without too much torso going in front of the COG. This is a very similar concept to deadlifting sumo vs conventional. I must warn you, however, that this can easily be overdone. At some point, your stance will be wide to the point where a proper hinge can get difficult (especially if your hips are as tight as your hams). Since your shin angle appears ok, this cue may or may not be a good fix, so you’ll need to play with it.  

I hope this helps!

Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached "Team Protocol" to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Marie and dog Sadie. To subscribe to his blog, click here.

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