Whether you’re a once-a-month golfer or one who hits balls every day, there is a good chance you’ve experienced some kind of discomfort in your low back as a result of swinging a club.
A host of tour players including Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods have complained of back pain this season, even missing tournament play because of it. Indeed, research has consistently identified low back injuries as the most common injury affecting golfers. The exact cause of this pain is a hotly debated topic, however, most seem to agree that the rapid and intense shear, rotational and lateral forces placed on the lumbar spine (low back) as a result of the golf swing are in some way responsible.
My personal experience (backed by research I would like to add. After all, proper academic study results are much better than just taking my word for it!) points to several likely causes of lower back pain in golfers, and that appropriate intervention can successfully prevent and alleviate lower back pain. With that said let’s crack on to the bit you probably skipped to and look at some strategies and interventions to prevent low back pain:
Address Swing Faults and Characteristics
Studies seem to agree that faulty movement patterns and type of swing utilised have a great affect on the propensity to experience low back pain. Any swing fault involves excessive flexion, lateral flexion (a fancy way of saying side bending), or extension of the lumbar spine will increase the likelihood of low back pain. A “reverse C” address posture or follow through (think Monty’s swing for a pretty good dictionary definition of this) or reverse spine angle are the biggest candidates in my experience. Reverse spine angles in particular have been associated with low back pain associated with low back pain by researchers.
Interestingly, the “classic” swing (think Jack Nicklaus or Sam Snead where the lead heel comes off the floor in the backswing and hip turn is much more pronounced) has been demonstrated to be easier in terms of forces on the low back than the modern golf swing in which the lead heel stays flat and a big “x factor” is developed with a small hip turn and a huge shoulder turn.
Develop a Strong Core
Glute and ab strength helps stabilize the body and alleviate some of the pressure on the low back. The same study mentioned above showed that pro golfers not reporting low back pain demonstrated significantly greater abdominal muscle activation than those that did. Essentially, if you have weak abs and glutes, the low back is called upon to support the upper torso and supply stability in the golf swing. That’s not good.
The other issue concerning glute and ab strength is that of unilateral imbalances, with one side being stronger than the other. Several studies have identified muscle imbalances and asymmetry in glute strength as a probable cause of low back pain. A simple way to test unilateral glute strength is to complete a supine single leg bridge test.
Lying with your back on the floor, bend your knees so you can place your feet flat on the floor and fire your glutes and hamstrings to lift your butt off the floor, locking your hips out, so your body forms a straight line in a glute bridge position. From here the left leg off the floor. Hold this position for 10 seconds.
- Notice if the pelvis starts to drop, or the right leg starts to shake on either side.
- Do the hamstrings or lower back start to cramp?
If these things happen, you likely have a strength issue with your glutes or they are inhibited. If the results are significantly different when you repeat the test holding your right leg in the air then you likely have a unilateral strength imbalance.
Strive for Neutral Posture
Studies have reported that golfers exhibiting low back pain tended to flex their spines more when addressing the ball. However, it’s not just your golf posture you need to watch. In your daily postural habits too, you should strive to keep neutral pelvic alignment. Anterior pelvic tilt (forward tilting pelvic position) in particular has been associated with low back pain, as the tilt of the pelvis lengthens the hamstrings, affecting hamstring and glute function and requiring the low back to do much more work in providing strength and stability to make up for these inhibited muscles. Essentially you’re forcing your low back to do more work under more load, a recipe for pain and injury sooner or later.
Improve T-spine Mobility
Your lumbar spine can withstand some degree of extension and rotation, but not nearly as much as the thoracic spine is designed to achieve. Unfortunately, the fact is most people significantly lack adequate T-spine mobility to achieve proper rotation in the golf swing and therefore must make up for this by finding mobility elsewhere – i.e the lumbar spine which is, as I said, not designed to achieve a great deal of rotation. Not conducive to low back health!
Improving mid back (t-spine) mobility can alleviate any unnecessary torque on the low back. A 2002 study of professional golfers found that those presenting low back pain exhibited significantly more lateral bending and less trunk rotation in the backswing, while those who did not exhibit pain demonstrated more than twice as much trunk rotation. Give mobility drills such as the one below a go to improve yours:
[youtube id=”a3nPgxJKMPE” width=”620″ height=”360″]
Improve Hip Mobility
A case study of a pro golfer with low back pain has demonstrated an increase in hip turn in the swing resulted in a reduction of low back pain. Another study found correlation between decreased lead hip rotation and low back pain.
Simply put, just as with improving t-spine mobility, greater hip mobility can help reduce forces on the low back during the swing. Why not give this hip mobility drill a try to improve yours? Just remember to keep the low back flat to the floor to stop it becoming a low back stretch (you’ll find out why very shortly):
[youtube id=”40_I_69Gvl0″ width=”620″ height=”360″]
For years golfers in particular have been recommended exercises like hip crossovers and scorpions to “warm-up” the low back, when in reality, as I said, the lumbar spine is not designed for much movement at all. I would argue that most golfers should be avoiding exercises that excessively rotate the lumbar spine as this is really just feeding into the problems causing low back pain. Instead, they should focus on developing motion at the hips and thoracic spine. Don’t just take my word for it, check out this article by legendary athletic coach Mike Boyle, then do another set or two of the hip mobility and t-spine mobility exercises in the videos above.
The truth is that good motion in golf comes from turning the hips and shoulders, not from rotating the lumbar spine. The bottom line is bad, injured, golfers turn at the low back, good golfers turn at the hips and shoulders.
What should your hips do in the golf swing?
If you want to become more consistent, a better ball striker and hit longer golf shots then this is the video for you. This video will show you exactly what your hips pelvis should be doing during your backswing, downswing and through impact. Having great control of your pelvis and it’s movement will help you have greater control over your golf swing.
Playing in your mind vs. playing out of your mind
Comparing the recreational beginner to the elite player
As a player, I know there are rounds of golf where I feel like I worked extremely hard to achieve the results and there are also rounds that are effortless and just plain easy. Why do we go through these peaks and valleys in golf?
As an instructor and player, I want to explore a deeper understanding of what it means to be playing out of your mind vs. playing in your mind.
I want to address both beginners and elite players on their quest for better play. All beginners and elite players must understand that, as players, we are all experiencing ups and downs. The bottom line is that some handle them better than others.
Why is this a feeling golfers have: “playing out of your mind”?
Well, it is pure relaxation. It is fluid, seamless, continuous motion. No hang-ups. No hiccups.
The next big question, how do we achieve this regularly?
We get to this without forcing it, by believing in our makeup. It is locked in our subconscious. It is a controllable, uncontrollable. Subconsciously, your nervous system is in the green light. You are just doing. This is peak performance. This is the zone. This is playing autonomously, out of your mind.
I believe that over time, a golfer’s game is compiled in his/her built-up expectations of the player they truly believe they are. Expecting to make a putt vs. just so happening to make it feeds two different minds. When you place an expectation on an action tension is created. Tension creeps into our nervous system and our brains either respond or they don’t. This is called pressure. This is what I call playing in your mind. You are in your head, your thoughts are far too many and there is just a whole lot floating around up there.
The more players play/practice, the more they will expect out of themselves, and in result, create that pressure. (ie. Why progress is difficult to achieve the closer you get to shooting par or better). The best players are better at responding to that pressure. Their systems are auto-immune to pressure. (ie. Think of practice like medicine and think of a pre-shot routine like the Advil to help calm the spiking nerves.)
- Playing in your mind = high tension golf… you might need an Advil.
- Playing out of your mind = low tension golf… you are in a good headspace and are doing all the right things before your round even started.
The key to understanding here is that we can play in both minds and achieve success in either situation. It is all about managing yourself and your re-act game.
Subconscious playing is beyond enjoyable. It is more recreational in style. I believe beginners are playing more subconsciously, more recreationally. I believe elite players can learn from the beginner because they are achieving superior moments and sensations more subconsciously, more often. All players at all levels have off days. It is important to remember we all have this in common.
The goal is always to play your best. When I play my best, there are no preconceived thoughts of action. It’s simply action. Playing out of your mind is an unwritten script, unrehearsed, and unrepeatable on a day to day basis, you’re living it.
Say you have that one round, that out of your mind, crazy good day. The next few days, what do you do? Do you try to mimic everything you did to achieve that low number? As good players, we take these great days and try to piece it together into a script of playing. We know we can get it down to almost damn near perfect. The more a player rehearses the better they get. Edits are made…knowing that things are always shifting. Visualization is key.
No doubt, it’s a huge cycle. Players are in a continuous race to achieve results in numbers. Players looking to reach great success should generate a journal/log and compile a record and playback method and revisit it repeatedly.
There is no secret or magic…it takes mastering the minds to achieve the best results more often. Most important, as players, we must recognize that during our amazing rounds…
- We are relaxed
- We are having fun
- We are just doing
In this game, the deeper we go, the more we propose to be there. It will always bring us back to the basics. One complete full circle, back to the beginner in all of us. So, the next time an experienced player sees a beginner on the first tee…take a moment and appreciate that player!
Remember to enjoy the walk and believe that hard work always works!
Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the zone and how to become accustomed to playing autonomously.
Equipment improvements are even better for women! Now they are getting over 300 yards!
We had a sweet driver shaft fitting at Club Champion in January. We picked up the shaft in their store in Phoenix and that afternoon, and Savannah hit two benchmark drives at 305 and another at 317 yards! Kinda makes you a bit of a believer, huh!? We are looking forward to seeing the numbers on our GC Quad back home this week to check out the difference. Stay tuned for next week!
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