Q & A: Sore Lower Backs and A Strong Military Press

I'm dipping into the mailbag today to answer some questions about kettlebell training.

These questions all come from Gregory H who emailed me a couple of days ago.

Q: I notice after a kettlebell workout my lower back is sore/fatigued and "sensitive".  Is that indicative of bad form?  Is it my back getting stronger (I am very out of shape and my core has become extremely weak, especially my back)? I am very careful and try to always keep my back straight, core flexed etc. Or is it that the weight I'm using is too heavy?

A: It could be a combination of all those things.  

The one thing that I would say you really need to focus on is your BRACING TECHNIQUE.  What I mean by that is that your abs should be contracted as if you're about to get punched in the stomach – so not "sucked in" and not "pushed out".  Another point is that bracing involves you being able to separate breathing from that ab contraction.  You should be able to breathe comfortably/easily even though your abs are braced. 

When you're performing high rep ballistic exercises like swings, cleans or snatches, bracing/core endurance is key.  Although these movements involve many moving joints (hips, knees, ankles, shoulders), the one thing that should remain ABSOLUTELY STABLE is your back.  You need to maintain a neutral (almost extended) spine and keep that form strict throughout the entire set.  

As soon as you feel that your form is about to go, then terminate the set – regardless if you hit your rep goals or not.

In the TT Kettlebell Revolution, I have outlined a "Core Prep" program that I advise everyone to complete before starting Phase 1 of the program.  This program helps you increase your core endurance through some very basic -but effective- isometric exercises.  If you haven't done the Core Prep, you can check out a video of a version of it by clicking the link below.

=>The Core Prep Program

My advice would be to stick to this program for 2 weeks straight and to try to hit all the benchmarks before doing more high-rep ballistic work.

Q: My shoulders have always been my weakest point on my body, even when I was very active and athletic.  Even though I can comfortably do most lifts with 16Kg, presses I cannot seem to do with good form with even 12's.  But then doing swings with 12's feels like I'm goofing off.

Should I change weights during the circuit or keep working with 12's until my shoulders catch up?

A: I'm just like you, Gregory, in that the Military Press is probably my weakest lift.  After completing my RKC in October, however, I did have an "a-ha" moment and dramatically improved my military press.  I'll let you in on what I learned.

With a "Grind" movement like the military press, it's important to understand that even though your shoulders are the prime movers (the main muscles working in the exercise), it truly is a FULL BODY exercise.  

That said, you need to really ROOT yourself into the ground…plant your feet firmly into the deck and try to feel the ground with your toes.

Brace your abs TIGHT.

Contract your quads and pull your kneecaps up.

Squeeze your glutes shut.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, think about and fire/contract your lats (the muscles on the backend of your arm pits).

Pull your breath in and slowly seep it out as you SQUEEZ the handle of the KB and drive it overhead.

Try these techniques for the next few workouts and don't worry about reaching your rep goals.  Just focus on getting better and more comfortable with the exercise – PRACTICE, don't train….and DEFINITELY DO NOT DRAIN yourself.

If you still find that the weight isn't going up like you think it should, then, yes consider dropping down to a 12kg just for the presses.  But, if your program calls for 5 reps of the military press and you can only manage 3 with the 16kg, I would just stick with the 16kg and really practice on grinding it out.

I hope that helps!


Thanks for the awesome questions, Greg!

If any of you guys have questions about kettlebell training, feel free to post questions in the comments section OR drop me an email at KettlebellWorkouts@gmail.com!

Have a great day!

-Chris Lopez, RKC


  • Reply January 5, 2011


    this was helpful – i have trouble with my mid back region rhomboids and lower scapula which becomes weak and sore on one side after presses and snatches. i can sense that my neck is somehow involved in the problem and i think im overstarining one side to compensate for some weakness – any advise?

  • Reply January 6, 2011

    Chris Lopez, RKC

    @Don – Focus on “packing” your shoulder by being very conscious of keeping it down and back. It sounds like your shoulder may be creeping up towards your ears and overcompensating to get that bell up by using the muscles around your neck.

    I’m not a big advocate of exercising in front of a mirror, but in your case this may be a good thing. Watch yourself as you press the bell overhead and make sure that your shoulder stays down. Think about pushing the bell up with your lat.

    If you train with a partner, have your partner “poke” you in the lat to help you get some bio-feedback and that will hopefully let you know when your lat is firing.

    Hope that helps, Don. Let me know.


  • […] Q & A: Sore Lower Backs and A Strong Military Press […]

  • Reply August 19, 2011


    Great tips. I have a bit of a sore back here too and have a query: the core prep program, would that be every day for 2 weeks? Or would every other day be better?

    • Reply August 19, 2011

      Chris Lopez, RKC

      Hi Grant, the core prep isn’t meant to be very intense (I did that on purpose), so you could do exercises like planks, side planks and bridges everyday. That said, listen to your body…usually you’ll find that you’re able to do it every day and therefore should.

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