The Best Spinal Stability Exercise For The Kettlebell Swing

In my last post we saw that there were two reasons for back pain when performing Kettlebell Swings, according to Dr. McGill’s study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. They were:

  1. Poor technique, which we addressed with the video in the last post, and
  2. Actual lower back instability, which we’ll address in this post

What is lower back instability?

It’s simply your body’s inability to properly stabilize your spine under load – any load.

This means your body is unable to create “stiffness” in the muscles around the spine in a coordinated manner to protect the spine from the force of loading. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that, but I’m not really a “science guy” so if you want to know the in-depth details of the science, buy Dr. McGill’s book, Low Back Disorders for an in depth explanation.

Spinal instability often comes from daily prolonged postures, oh, like… sitting. All day. At your computer or desk or whatever. Sitting promotes a slumped posture which places the lumbar spine in flexion (the whole spine actually for most people) and in turn shuts off the deep abdominal and lower back stabilizers, effectively putting them to sleep (called sensorimotor amnesia) so your body no longer has immediate access to them. Your body then relies on prime movers – muscles designed to move, not stabilize – to stabilize the spine. That’s where bad things happen.

Anyway, there are a ton of resources on lower back pain, etc. for you to google, bing, yahoo or whatever and this post isn’t meant to be an in depth essay or primer on lower back pain, low back mechanics and the such.

What it is meant to be is a “hack” – something that strips away all the noise and gives you a high payoff action you can use immediately.

My favorite exercise for spinal stability to help fix your Kettlebell Swing

It’s really simple in theory but for many it’s very challenging to do.

It’s the Bird Dog.

With of course, my own modifications. (Because I just can’t leave well enough alone.)

Here’s a picture.

spine stability exercise extraordinaire - the Bird Dog

The Bird Dog

It’s quite simple to perform. (And yes, you’ll probably notice that this picture looks a little different from pictures of the Bird Dog you may have seen in other places – like there is no stick on my back, etc… I’ll get to that.)

Here’s how:

  • Assume a quadraped stance – on hands and knees
  • Lift your head up and look straight ahead, not down at the ground
  • Simultaneously lift one arm and the opposite leg
  • Push your heel as far away from your body as possible without rotating your hip
  • Reach as far as possible with your arm
  • Imagine there’s a string or a rope connecting your arm and your leg and you’re trying to lengthen the rope by pushing against it from both ends
  • Hold for a second or two to prove you’ve got control of the movement
  • Place the hand and the knee back back on the ground.
  • Repeat. Then switch sides.

I recommend working up to 3 sets of 20 reps per side, with about 60 seconds of rest between exercises. This builds strength endurance in the lumbar stabilizers and strength endurances has been shown to be a preventative mechanism against lower back injuries.

Now, about my exercise “tweaks.”

Depending on your education, you’ll notice that there’s no stick on my back. I don’t believe in using it. In my book, it’s an unnatural teaching cue that doesn’t necessarily produce the desired response – natural movement patterns. The body goes where the head and eyes take it – at least it’s supposed to: Eyes, then head, then body. It’s a natural reflex pattern or synchrony that many of us lose. So I train that along with the spinal stability. I find tucking the chin and pushing the back of the head into a stick while maintaining or trying to maintain the lumbar curves distracting and frustrating. You may disagree. That’s fine by me.

But some interesting things happen when you perform it the way I’m suggesting:

  1. You definitely feel your lumbar extensors working.
  2. The more you focus on lifting your head and reaching with your limbs, the more you’ll feel your deep abdominals contract reflexively. That’s the key – reflexively. Or automatically in response to the load/movement. And that’s exactly what we want.
  3. You’ll feel the glut and the hamstring contract.
  4. You’ll feel the muscles of your middle back contract to counterbalance the weight of your head and your arm – those pesky and hard-to-reach middle and lower trapezius muscles.
  5. By lifting the head and balancing on your knee, you are simultaneously creating space in your tight hips, which have been overstressing your lower back, and are creating stability as well. Stability and mobility in your hip with one exercise tied in with reflexive abdominal contraction. Sounds just like what we’re looking for. Nice.
  6. By keeping the head up, especially by focusing on lifting the crown (top) of your head to the sky, your lats reflexively contract and your shoulder are automatically packed.

So by working the Bird Dog the way I propose, you’re not just working lumbar stability. You’re working a whole lot more at the same time.

And make no mistake, this puppy is challenging for many and probably will be for you. Working up to sets of 20 strict reps, where there’s a pause of the limbs – the leg in extension and the arm in flexion, is seriously demanding. There were times in the past when both my clients and myself have been left huffing and puffing and dripping sweat. That’s because there’s way more going on with the Bird Dog than meets the eye.

Some exciting news you may not know…

By now, many are familiar with the concept of the body being “wired” as an “X”. Cool. But, by training the limbs contralaterally (opposite arm and leg – like the gait cycle), you actually do several things.

  1. You increase whole body coordination through increased synaptic connections between left and right hemispheres of the brain. You literally become smarter.
  2. You become stronger. Training / loading the body contralaterally naturally trains the core musculature (similar to the crawling/creeping pattern babies use).
  3. When you load the opposite hand and foot, you also load the core musculature and simultaneously train the vestibular system, a common and often overlooked place for movement dysfunction. (By actively pulling your foot into dorsiflexion and actively extending your fingers on the hand on the elevated arm and pressing your palm into the floor on the Bird Dog, you’re working your feet and hands.)
  4. Training the vestibular system improves your total body coordination by increasing your proprioceptive awareness, or your body’s perception of itself in time and space.

There are many other wonderful things about the body that we are only just rediscovering. And there’s a lot more information to be applied to our training as well.

Unfortunately, I just looked at the clock and I’ve run out of time so I’ll have to make this a topic of future blog posts.

In the meantime, get on that Bird Dog. Work up to 3 sets of 20 – that’s my recommendation.

And obviously, there are some caveats:

  1. If you currently have back pain while swinging a kettlebell and it’s not technique (the FOLD didn’t help you) make sure your doc says you’re good to go for the Bird Dog. (That’s my CYA – you like it?)
  2. If you’re currently under a Physical Therapist’s care, ask about doing it.
  3. Make sure the Bird Dog doesn’t cause pain while doing it.
  4. Make sure the Bird Dog relieves your pain while swinging. Check, recheck, right?

About #3 – you may have to reset using FOLD concepts, so revisit the video.

That’s it, gotta run. In the meantime, if you want to know or experience more about the whole “Body is an X” thing here’s something my buddy Tim and I are doing that will immediately improve your kettlebell lifting.

9 comments… add one
  • Gretchen Feb 18, 2012 @ 12:47

    Great advice! I’ve been doing Bird Dogs FMS style with bands with my trunk stability issue people and found that for some with low back issues, even that was too much. I put them on their backs instead and had them do the exercise that way, pressing their backs into the floor until they built up enough stability to go back to hands and knees. After reading this, I’m going to add your version of this exercise as an intermediary step between using the bands while laying on your back and FMS version with bands on hands and knees.

    • GEOFFN Feb 24, 2012 @ 21:06

      Gretchen – you should pattern these and all movements first before adding load, i.e. bands. Then add the bands if you didn’t already.

  • Nate Feb 18, 2012 @ 13:17

    Thanks Geoff! Any insight on recommended frequency of this exercise?

    • GEOFFN Feb 24, 2012 @ 21:05

      Nate – you can do it as “prep” before each training session. You can even do a set daily if you wish. It’s not that demanding on the nervous system but it has some powerful impact on it.

  • Adam Feb 24, 2012 @ 19:40

    Interesting take on the Bird-Dog and KB swing. I appreciate you adapting exercises to , something clients typically can’t appreciate. You and I think about things differently, but the only thing I’d say I generally disagree on are what I would consider cervical and lumbar hyperextension. For the purposes of feeling the activity in the lumbar extensors, I can see this working, though; I’ve done something similar with modified prone cobras.

    • GEOFFN Feb 24, 2012 @ 21:13

      Adam – Thanks for chiming in. We don’t have to agree with everything we all think. I’ve got A LOT of experience that led me to my conclusion, which is why I hold it. I understand yours, and used to hold the same view.

  • Sean Feb 29, 2012 @ 11:50


    Thanks for sharing these. What an efficient exercise. Busted out 2×40 last night with a nice pause per your advice and felt some stabilizers fire that might have fired for the first time ever.

    Left knee that’s been bugging me also felt pretty good after these, might have been the healthy flexing and extending going on in the hip and knee.


  • fat burning lemonade May 1, 2013 @ 20:36

    I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs
    really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back later on. All the best

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