The windmill is an outstanding advanced kettlebell move that combines shoulder stabilization, thoracic rotation, plus hip and hamstring mobilization. Mastering this exercise will improve functional qualities like dynamic motor control and mid-line stabilization. It will also improve your overhead lifting skills. Unfortunately, the windmill is usually misunderstood as a basic side-bend like something learned in yoga. The following breakdown provides a useful and safe progression to learning the windmill.
Step One: Start in a half-kneeling position, not standing. The outstanding FMS dvds Kettlebells from the Ground Up 1 and 2 provide detailed tutorials on these kneeling positions. Part 2 of the series focuses almost extensively on these positions. Do yourself a favor and make them part of your training library.
To get in the open-half-kneeling position (the easiest position), assume a lunge position on the floor where the front and back legs are at 90 degrees. Swivel the shin of the back leg (the one with knee down) in 90 degrees (shin should be perpendicular to the heel of the standing leg). Raise one arm overhead (the arm that coincides with the standing leg, if right leg is standing, right arm should be overhead) in an elbow-locked, shoulder-packed position. The bicep of the raised arm should be even with (not touching) your ear. Now, hinge back in the hip of the standing leg and drop your non-raised arm to the floor straight in front of the kneeling knee (it should be 10-12 inches forward of the down knee). You should be looking up at the raised arm. Now, you’re in the hip-hinged, trunk-rotated position that will eventually be the bottom of your windmill.
The next step involves keeping the exact same setup as before but with an additional flexibility component that will more closely approximate the flexibility needed to actually windmill. From your open-half-kneeling position with arm raised, start to descend to the floor by this time reaching for the top of your standing foot with your descending arm. Cup the top of your foot with the hand, hinge back in the folding hip and try to bring your elbow and forearm to the floor. You should feel this in the backside of your hip—not your low back. If you feel it in your low back, you’ve gone too far. You don’t have to reach the floor with your elbow; instead go as far as is comfortable.
Step Two: Repeat this drill on the other side of your body. Then, to gain more stretch and the closest approximation to a standing windmill, do the exact same drills from your regular kneeling lunge position. You’re now lunging on “railroad tracks,” without the turned in back shin. These will be more difficult.
Step Three: After you feel comfortable in these positions, the next task is to add a kettlebell. Use a light bell and repeat the previous drills with a kb in the half-kneeling positions. To repeat, you should not feel this in your low back. If you do, you probably lack either hip mobility or thoracic rotation.
Step Four: You are now ready to try this standing. As before, you will do these drills unloaded first and then add a kettlebell. Assume a shoulder-width standing position. Let’s assume we’re working on our right side. Swivel on your heels so that you’re right foot is turned left at about 30 degrees and your left foot is turned left 30-45 degrees. Raise your right hand overhead to the press lockout position. Look up at your raised hand. Now, hinge back in the right hip and try to visualize that your hip is hinging in a line with the 30 degree line of your right foot. Your right leg should stay straight as you descend and rotate (just keep your eye on your pressing hand, and you’ll properly rotate). The knuckle-side of your left hand should be tracing a line down the inside of your left leg (which can be slightly bent). Most of your weight should be in your back leg (right leg in this case) at probably an 80/20 ratio. Now that you’re standing, you will feel the stretch in your hinging hip and the hamstring of your straight leg. Only reach as far down your front leg as you can without deviating from the straight back, hip-hinged position. Eventually, you will be able to touch the floor or pick up a kettlebell with the reaching hand. For now, just make sure that you can do the move with perfect technique and no pain. Repeat this sequence on the other leg.
Step Five: Once you have accomplished the progression, you are ready to add a kettlebell. Either clean/press or snatch the bell up, and then follow the exact same cues as are detailed in Step Four. Once you have mastered the technique of windmills, you can add them to the beginning or end of your workouts. Or, they are a great stand-alone drill on a rest/mobility day.
Step Six: Mastery of the windmill (including the ability to do it perfectly with substantial weight) will allow you to start learning the kettlebell bent press, which is an even more advanced windmill progression that allows for greater load bearing. Practice these drills sequentially and safely, and your overhead kettlebell skills and total body coordination will improve dramatically. Enjoy.