If you have spent a hot second on my site or if you follow my social media, you know that I have deep love for kettlebell training.
I discovered kettlebells several years before my first pregnancy and they were the first tool and first modality that really worked well for my body. I looked forward to my workouts, I gained a ton of strength, and most significantly I stopped injuring myself doing all the other things I like to do (namely, long-distance running). I’ve been hooked ever since.
Kettlebells can be a great tool to use during your postpartum rehab and foray back into strength training. But there is a difference between using kettlebells for rehab or progressing back into strength training and going full bore back into hardstyle kettlebell training.
The hallmarks of hardstyle kettlebell training are ballistic movements (the clean, the swing, the snatch) and the tension breath (the “tsss” breath”). The tension breath is often taught as a tool to stabilize the body at the top of the ballistic movements and through the exertion of the grinds (slower and heavier movements like deadlifts, squats, overhead presses).
I’m gonna dive a little deeper into both of those things. But first, a quick anatomy lesson.
Your Inner Core is Your Powerhouse
Your inner core unit is your body’s Powerhouse (an analogy I recently scored from Janette Yee). Just like a house, it has a roof (the diaphragm), walls (the innermost abs and multifidus) and a foundation (the pelvic floor). They work together in a coordinated and reflexive manner to do a lot of things, including keeping you dry and providing the stable platform off of which your body can generate powerful movements.
A strong powerhouse leads to powerful movements. If your core is compromised, your distal movements (the stuff you do with your arms and legs) will be less powerful.
Your body has a few different ways to generate stability through the torso. They’re all managed by your breath and they all rely on the integrity of your inner core.
On inhale, your diaphragm contracts downward and creates pressure in your abdomen (intra-abdominal pressure, like filling a balloon with air); this pressure stabilizes your spine. On exhale, your diaphragm contracts upwards and your pelvic floor and innermost abs also contract. The contraction of your pelvic floor and abs create stability on exhale.
Sometimes, during a very heavy lift, you might take a breath and hold it - this also creates stability. I won’t talk much about the breath holding strategy in this post, except to say that breath holding can direct extra downward pressure through the pelvic floor and this can be challenging for folks who are newly postpartum or dealing with leaking or prolapse.
Hardstyle kettlebell training relies a lot on the hardstyle tension breath. This breath generates maximum tension and pressure in the core to stabilize lifts. Rather than dialing in the amount of tension required for a given task, hardstyle kettlebell asks you to create max tension for every lift. If you are newly postpartum or if you are managing a pelvic floor consideration, this excess tension may be hard to manage and/or may exacerbate any existing weaknesses in your core canister.
Picture this: You are blowing up a balloon and there is a weak spot in the latex. The growing pressure in the balloon will find that weak spot and create a bulge as it tries to find a way out.
In your body, pressure works the same way. During exertion, you create pressure in your abdomen to stabilize your body. If you have a weak spot in the latex, so to speak, the pressure will find it. If you have an unmanaged prolapse, a diastasis recti or even just a mis-coordination amongst your inner-core muscles, when you use the tension breath and create max tension, your pelvic floor is less likely to have the strength to resist that pressure and may be more susceptible to downward pressures and over time, injury. Pelvic floor or core injuries compromise your Powerhouse.
And here’s the thing. You don’t need max tension most of the time. You need just enough tension. You don’t need the same amount of stability to pick up a pencil as you do to pick up a 16 kg kettlebell. Fair?
Returning to Kettlebells Postpartum
Okay. We needed to talk through that because now we’ll talk about a good strategy for returning to kettlebell. This will include:
- Alternatives to the hardstyle tension breath
- Timelines for return to sport
- Smart prerequisites to achieve before getting back to ballistics
- Strategies for progressing back to the fun stuff
- The signs and symptoms you might be overloading your pelvic floor
Diving in, let’s start with alternatives to that tension breath.
The Connection Breath: Integrating your Breathing and Your Pelvic Floor
Ideally, the members of your inner core, your Powerhouse, work together as a team. Their function is coordinated. When you are newly postpartum, that coordination is usually lacking. Lack of coordination can result in a range of pelvic floor dysfunctions or conditions. Coordination can be restored through breathing.
Task Number One when returning to kettlebell work is to learn how to coordinate your Powerhouse with your breath. It’s not so tough, really. It boils down to exhaling in coordination with pelvic floor contraction.
I call this a Connection Breath. It’s an alternative to the tension breath. Whereas the goal of both breathing strategies is similar (stabilizing the torso), the Connection Breath brings awareness and intention to the integration of the core and pelvic floor in a manner that is PROTECTIVE and SUPPORTIVE. It also embodies the concept of bringing appropriate tension to task (an idea coined by Antony Lo, PT). Bringing "tension to task" means that you only recruit the minimum appropriate required dose of core bracing and activation to accomplish the task at hand.
So as to not derail too far off-course, we’ll keep the resources for how to do the Connection Breath in other places. Here are a few resources in which I’ve taken a deep dive into how to perform and apply this breathing strategy.
Sample Trajectory for Return to Kettlebell After Baby
Return to kettlebell training will happen in stages.
Stage 1) After you give birth, rest and recover for 2-6 weeks or more.
Stage 2) Return to Exercise: Rehab and Retrain. Use this time to re-pattern movements, retrain your breathing and build foundational strength.
Stage 3) Kettlebell-specific training (this is the stuff that prepares you to swing bells) and progressive overload (start light/slow and progress to heavier/faster)
I am not going to go into depth on a specific timeline, because the process of rehab and retraining can take a different amount of time for every body. Consider you will likely spend a few months in the “return to exercise” phase. Want to know when you are ready to move on? Check out the following pre-requisites to kettlebell work:
The Pre-Requisites for Kettlebell Training After a Pregnancy
When we talk about returning to kettlebell training (in particular, hardstyle kettlebell training)- we’re often talking about the hallmark ballistic movements that kettlebells are uniquely suited for. We’re talking about swings, snatches and cleans, not just any strength training move that could be accomplished with any old free weight.
These ballistic movements place unique demands on the inner core canister because they require rapid cycling between states of very high tension and relaxation. Your core function must be functioning in a coordinated and reflexive manner, so that it can handle the demands of these moves and so you don’t have to think about managing your core during technical and dynamic movements.
Do you have the pre-requisites? Here’s a handy little checklist:
Can you perform the Connection Breath?
Can you perform the Connection Breath during simple movements and movements requiring significant effort?
Do you understand how to dial in your tension to task?
Can you support yourself in a hardstyle plank for 30-60 seconds? Can you breathe while you plank?
In order to manage tension in a full lockout at the top of ballistic movements, you will need at a minimum the ability to hold yourself in a plank for some period of time (say 30-60 seconds) and have the ability to breathe the entire time. This is so you can resist the forward pull of the kettlebell at the top of the swing.
Do you ever experience uncontrolled doming of your abdominal midline? Do you leak during hard movements? Or any movements? Do you experience any other pelvic floor issues?
If you are experiencing leaking, doming, pelvic pain or pressure during exercise, your core is likely not firing on all cylinders yet. Spend a bit more time retraining and building foundational core strength before throwing hire demand exercises, like swings and snatches, their way.
Here are a few additional considerations:
You should be getting adequate sleep, be happy with your nutrition and have a good handle on life stress. Stress is stress, be it exercise or life and your body can only tolerate so much.
You have done some work examining your posture and alignment.
You have re-trained your breath. You understand how to exhale on, before or through exertion. If this sounds like Greek- back up and visit those recommended links that dive into breathing.
You can execute fundamental movement patterns (hinge, squat, push pull) without symptoms.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Pelvic Floor Strain:
Take a pause if you experience:
leaking (of urine, gas, stool)
pain or pressure in your vagina or perineum
doming/coning through your abdominal walls
If you experience these symptoms, examine your breathing strategies as well as your biomechanics and alignment. If you can’t troubleshoot on your own, I recommend reaching out to a pelvic floor physical therapist to check on symptoms, and a qualified postnatal fitness specialist to help you dial in your moves.
Common Issues in Postpartum, When Returning to Kettlebells:
Common issues experienced during return to kettlebell work often stem from skipping pre-reqs or ignoring early warning signs.
Here are three biggies that I see frequently:
1) Overextending hips at the top of the movements. This puts extra pressure through the abdominal wall and may compromise the full function of the inner core. If you leak or dome at the top of a swing, get those hips back and stop in a vertical plane.
2) Not breathing. Seriously. If you aren’t breathing during ballistic movements, your core can’t fire reflexively and respond to the fluctuations in pressure and demand. Make sure you are using a breathing strategy to support your movement.
3) Poor biomechanics. Do you know the difference between a squat and a hinge? Do you know how to move your pelvis without taking your lower back along for the ride? You need to have the knowledge and mobility to maintain a neutral back throughout your movements.
A few FAQs:
What can I do to train for returning to kettlebells?
1a) Work on your lockout: Planks (Incline to Horizontal), Deadbugs, Hip Hinges with a Forward Press.
1b) Practice the Hip Hinge: Dowel hinge, Band Pull Throughs
1c) Load the Hip Hinge: Deadlift
2) Add speed: Deadlift faster (fun!)
3) Test Ballistics: Pull Catch (aka Goblet Clean, aka the Two-Handed Clean)
When is it safe for me to swing a kettlebell after having a baby?
Once you’ve nailed your pre-reqs, it’s time to start getting back to the fun stuff.
If you are working your way back to swings, here’s a progression that works for a lot of people.
1) Start with deadlifts.
2) Add load slowly over time.
3) Add speed after a little bit of load (i.e. deadlift faster).
4) Return to swinging with power swings/dead stop swings and gradually work up to continuous swings.
Don’t start with the heaviest bell. Don’t start with Top of the Minute drills. Start simple. Assess your body. Progress from there.
There you go. Everything you ever wanted to know about returning to Kettlebell training postpartum, served up in one epic blog post.
But I get it. You can read all day about how to do the thing, but it’s another to have a coach write you a customized program, troubleshoot your unique considerations and be at the ready to answer your questions when they arise.
If you are looking for professional guidance to support your return to kettlebell work, I offer 1:1 coaching, online and accessible anywhere in the world. I can also help you troubleshoot symptoms like pain, peeing or abdominal coning remotely. Reach out for more information.
Can you swing kettlebells during pregnancy? (This contains some real gems for postpartum too)
Take a deep dive into HOW to perform the Connection Breath and use it to feel stronger in your postpartum exercise. Download my free guide Breathe Better for a STRONG Pregnancy and Postpartum.
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