The art of kettlebell training, or strongperson training, is a practice that must be developed over time and as my mentor says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”. These days, it is more commonly referred to as functional training which is a slightly larger scope than strongman, or what I call strongperson. Functional training is often associated with various tools from balls to bands, blocks, ladders, pulleys and hanging handles whereas strongperson is more simple. Strongperson is about lifting weight, including your body weight, in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, it is safe to say that strongperson is functional training, but not all functional training is strongperson. I personally incorporate many tools into my physical practice and I would estimate that strongperson style training makes up at least half of my training.
In this article, I am going to discuss seven of the most common mistakes I see in new kettlebell practitioners, some of which would never go away without proper coaching. I hope to help provide you with solutions to specific mechanical problems as well as to an overall approach to using this piece of equipment. All of the points relate directly to all strongman training regardless of the tool you are using, so feel free to interchange kettlebells for dumbells and barbells as you practice. Kettlebells can do things neither of the other two can do, and they are probably the most versatile of all of the weights, but all of them have their pros and cons.
1. Moving your body too fast. The biggest mistake people make when kettlebell training is that they move thier body too fast. I’m not referring to the kettlebell swing that requires the hip snap, or the power phase clean and snatch. I’m referring to the very first time they touch a kettlebell and begin with the most basic movements, the deadlift, squat, lunge and press. To begin with, move slowly, in a very determined way, feel every inch of range of motion and know exactly where that range of motion is coming from. Developing a solid base before moving on to any power phase movement is an absolute must and for some people it will take weeks or more.
2. Advancing to the next move too soon. Speaking of moving too fast, trying to walk before you can crawl is another common mistake. People often underestimate the precision needed to train with a kettlebell. Try not to think of kettlebells a the type of thing where you throw a set of ten swings into your workouts between chest press sets. In order to perfect your technique you generally have to take kettlebell training more seriously. If you are using bad technique, you are not only wasting your time, but you could get hurt!
3. Not learning the squat versus the bend. Before you begin any power phase kettlebell movement you should know the difference between a squat and bend. For many, one will be very easy while the other quite challenging. Tight hamstrings cause a squatting motion when the hips flex from standing while tight hip flexors make the bend movement much easier. When it comes to moving weight in the most effective way possible, you will need to be able to perform both of them in different circumstances. Weight picked up from the ground will feel much lighter with a bend pattern, but when holding something at your chest or even overhead, the squat will be easier.
4. Using your upper body instead of hips. Muscle tightness, synergistic dominance or, more commonly nonfunctional motor patterns developed from muscle isolation training can all cause people to lift with their upper body instead of their hips. The primary kettlebell movements, the swing, clean&jerk and snatch are all driven primarily with the hips. The upper body muscles play a supporting role, stabilizing the weight at the exact moment.
5. Rounding the back. If your hip-hinge isn’t top notch, don’t progress to power phase movements! Rounding of the back is very common in the various kettlebell moves, so learn how to hip hinge without rounding your back. You should know the moment your back rounds at the bottom of a squat or bend and be able to stop before it happens. Moving slowly at first will help this.
6. Lacking lat engagement. Lat engagement is one of the most commonly overlooked things by practitioners. In the overhead position and while moving under the weight, the lat is the muscle that makes you strong and keeps you safe. Moving under the weight is one of the most effective strategies to build superhuman strength and should be used frequently in your practice. Exercises such as the turkish getup, bent press, windmill and overhead squats are all examples of moving under the weight. You will never perform these, or any other lifts, to your potential without proper lat engagement.