To Lockout or Not to Lockout?

When locking your joints is a good idea

2 Kettlebells Locked-out Overhead
The Kettlebell Lockout. Steve Cotter/IKFF

Should you lock out your joints or not? That is a very important question as it relates to kettlebell lifting, or any kind of weightlifting for that matter. 

Sometimes it is advised not to “lock-out” the joints. Meaning, keep a slight bend in the knees, elbows and other joints of the body. While this is good advice for the body in a resting or otherwise relaxed state, and during movement from one position to another, it is not correct advice for the body under additional load.

For example, when you have a kettlebell in a position overhead such as in Jerk, Snatch, Press, or any number of other overhead exercises. In such examples, the joints of the body should be fully extended, locked-out, so that they are strong and stable under the load. 

Adhering to a concept referred to as “joint stacking”, a successful (read: NOT GETTING HURT in training) kettlebell lifter will understand how to position the joints in such a way as to establish and maintain structural alignment.  All joints must be aligned properly to receive and absorb force, and they have to be able to move in correct sequence.

If you were to observe your body position from above, as if hovering above your body looking down, you can see that the skeleton is designed such that one segment or joint sits directly above the previous segment up and down the entire body. This is commonly called the Kinetic chain, which describes the human body as a series of overlapping segments connected via interlocking joints.

Within any particular exercise, movement in one joint will affect the movement of another joint within that movement (kinetic) chain.   

How does joint stacking within the kinetic chain relate to safe, effective kettlebell lifting? 

By stacking one joint vertically over the next joint, the body is provided with structural integrity via stability.

By way of example, let’s look at the Kettlebell Press. 

In the Press, starting from the ground up, the feet are flat to the floor. Tracing a vertical line straight up the body along the midline (centerline of the body), through the roof of the head and up through the center of the overhead kettlebell, one can see that each of the major joints of the body—ankles, knees, hips, spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists—are set one above the other, with each successive joint vertically aligned above the previous joint in the kinetic chain. 

The kettlebell is aligned vertically over your body’s center of mass (in the area the lower abdomen), thus establishing a “combined center of mass” which is all vertically aligned over your Base of Support (your feet/stance). The correct joint-stacking as illustrated in this example, has the effect of stabilizing the load (kettlebells) using the structure, and therefore allowing the muscles to use only as much effort as is needed to adopt the position, with no wasted effort.

 

Of particular note is that the joints are fully extended. The knees are fully extended, with no bend, so that the lower body is stable and supports the upper body. The elbows are fully extended, which is called Lock-out, so that the kettlebell weights are supported overhead. In contrast, if the elbows are relaxed and bent, this creates joint laxity in which there is too much looseness and therefore too much movement. While under load this looseness is not a good idea, because a loose joint cannot stabilize (control) the weight, especially as the weight gets heavier. The joint laxity allows for dissipation or “leaking” of force, and will inevitably lead to injury. An out-of-control kettlebell is a recipe for disaster.

Learn to Lock-out (fully extend) your elbows and knees under load to establish better control and reduce likelihood of injuries while kettlebell training. 

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