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Strength Training with Back Pain

back pain kettlebell pain relief Mar 24, 2021

Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.


Confession: I hurt my back doing kettlebell swings.


In my defense, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing at the time, and I was doing hundreds (if not thousands) of them in a workout. But, as my soap box is KETTLEBELLS ARE SAFE! I feel it’s important to start here.


What I did wrong (other than poor form): I often kept doing the same thing I’d been doing, gritting my teeth and hoping it would eventually stop if I worked hard enough.


What I did right : I kept moving, other times choosing to do a completely different type of workout that DIDN’T hurt, because I knew how much better I’d feel after a workout. 


Here’s the thing: 


Movement is a proven way (READ ARTICLE HERE to reduce back pain. Stopping your strength training practice simply reinforces the pattern in your brain that movement is scary (PAIN OR INJURY HERE), leading to continued (or increased!) pain and immobility… and starting the loop all over again!



Way back in the day, had I known a little better, I would have followed the steps to dealing with my back pain a little differently than I did (crying, then doing more swings.) 


Here’s how we approach strength training with our runners, kettlebell athletes, postpartum moms of all ages … and pretty much anyone:


  1. Find ways to continue to increase strength, mobility and endurance within the parameters that your brain finds safe, so that we reinforce the “movement is safe!” message.
  2. Move on to assessing and dealing with the imbalances, weaknesses or brain “safety mechanisms” that caused the pain in the first place. 
  3. Re-train what were once painful movements in a new and strong way, slowly adding load (weight or volume) to create change in the body and brain.


Here are 5 steps you can take on your own to continue safely strength training when you’re experiencing back pain! (Obviously check with your doctor or PT…)


    1. Move in ways that don’t hurt. Experiment safely and gently with bodyweight, upper body, seated or supine (laying down) exercises that don’t recreate the pain experience. Once you find a few things you can do, just build a circuit! I love seated kettlebell presses, resistance band work, 


  • Remember the big three: eyes, core, breath. Where are you looking when you prepare? When you lift? Is your midline aligned with your pelvis and engaged? Are you breathing with your diaphragm / through your nose?


    1. Start with unloaded (bodyweight) movement. If kettlebell swings hurt, go back to a hinge or deadlift! If a squat with dumbbells is painful, does it change anything to put the weights down?


  • Consider unilateral (one-side) movement instead of bilateral (both sides.) If you hang out with us for a while, you’ll find that we talk a LOT about this. It seems silly, but coordinating two halves of your body is actually really hard! Find a single-side version of your exercise (try both sides) and see what happens!
  • Stop before you fatigue. Hitting fatigue means you begin to lose efficiency and form. Stop before you get tired to maintain all the alignment, breath and awareness you started with!


  1. Ask for help before you get frustrated or anxious. If everything you’re trying isn’t working : ask for help! Remember that loop above? Anxiety actually makes the pain cycle last LONGER. If you have a coach, send them a video or reach out to them for a session. Sometimes extra eyes are all it takes. If you don’t have a coach : get one! 


I’ve learned these days (especially as I’m currently 26 weeks pregnant, and my back is REAL noisy about how much I can get away with) that stopping movement isn’t an option. And that mindful, informed, committed sessions - and often a little help - is the path back to my kettlebells, barbells or whatever else has my fancy at the time.


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