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Is Your Golf Swing Hurting Your Back, Or Is Your Back Hurting Your Golf Swing?

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When most golfers are working on their swing mechanics, they’re trying to fit themselves into a certain style of swing or mimic what other’s are doing, and that makes perfect sense. If you want to hit it farther, why wouldn’t you try to swing like Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka. It’s working for them, right?

The problem is that different golfers have different bodies, and they need to swing accordingly. Otherwise, they’re likely going to experience pain, and most likely back pain, which has woven itself into the fabric of discussions in country club locker rooms worldwide.

Back pain affects golfers of all levels, from major champions to club professionals and 30 handicaps alike, and I’m willing to say everyone who has played golf has experienced back pain or back discomfort at some point. It isn’t exclusive to golfers who are chasing swing mechanics that don’t work for their bodies, although it’s certainly an important factor. Others reasons for back pain include poor posture, prolonged sitting and other repetitive stressors.

As golfers, we need to be screened to understand what parts of our bodies aren’t working properly, as well as how to fix them. Fix your physical limitations, and you finally might be able to make the swing change your instructor is trying to get you to make. The results could also dissuade you from trying to make a swing change that simply will not work with your body, which will not only help you play better, but more importantly help you prevent injuries.

Why Your Back Hurts

Some of the physical causes of back pain come from mobility and stability issues in the neck, shoulder, mid back, hips, ankles, and believe it or not, your wrists. Yes, something as simple as the inability to set the club with your lead wrist in the backswing may cause you to over rotate your spine to achieve more club movement in the backswing.

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Our body and golf swing works in alternating patterns of mobility and stability. You have mobile joints connected by stable segments, and if this pattern is altered, dysfunction and compensation will occur. Some common examples: if your trail hip does not internally rotate, your trail shoulder does not externally rotate or your trunk does not turn away from the ball, there is a good chance your lower back will become compromised.

Keep in mind, too, that the golf swing puts a demand on the spine that is different from our normal movement. In the middle of our back, our joints bend to the side and turn in opposite directions. This can create a problem because we require something different when we swing a golf club. Think of right-handed golfers. Their right hand is lower when they grip the club, which is achieved by side bending their mid back to the right. As a right-handed golfer takes the club into their backswing, they are turning right. This is opposite-from-normal movement for our mid back, which if not monitored overtime, can become very unhealthy. 

The spine has two natural curvatures, lordosis (neck and low back) and kyphosis (mid back). The spine performs three basic motions: bend, side bend and rotation. Each area in the spine performs these motions to varying degrees and some of the motions are combined.

SpineAnatomyAtlas

We have three planes of motion in our body: linear, forward and back, and rotational. Any lack of motion in one plane can lead to a compensation in another. A lack of rotation in our golf swing will cause us to move in a linear direction. These linear faults commonly are sways, slides, early extension, and reverse spine. All of these faults can have several causes. One physical cause could be a lack of rotation in the hips, which would cause a lateral or linear movement. This lateral movement leads to increased side bending in the lower back, which will cause lower back pain. This is one of the the most common physical causes of a golfer’s lower back pain.

Is your back the problem?

If you were to bend over and touch your toes, your spine has to flex forward with a uniform curve and your pelvis must move backward. As pictured below, it is very common to see an increase in bending in your mid back and a straightening in your lower back.  This straightening of your lower back region can be the result of normal anatomy, postural changes, muscular imbalances or the inability to control movement in your pelvis.

Commonly, your spine substitutes one motion for the other. When the man in the photo below attempted to touch his toes, he was unable to bend his lower spine. His mid back compensated by bending more, which lead to a poor set up position at address.

Christoetouch

He was also complaining of lower back pain while swinging the club and an inability to find a comfortable set-up position. After basic spinal mobility exercises, he was able to bend and touch his toes with a uniform spinal motion. This restored motion in his spine allowed him to address the ball in a better posture, and he is now back to playing without pain and hitting the ball farther.

Chrissetup

The Different Ways To Swing

There are infinite ways to swing a golf club, and we all must choose a style that works within our body. Despite all the different ways to swing, most swings can fall into two styles: the modern swing and classic swing. There have been many debates on the modern vs. classic swing in regard to which one is worse for your back. The reality is that they both have characteristics that are unhealthy and provocative of lower back symptoms.

The modern swing is a compact swing that requires rotation and separation of the hips and thoracic spine with a lot of torque created through foot contact with the ground. The lower back is not anatomically designed for much rotation or side bending; our lower back and core region is where we transfer energy from our lower body to our upper body. To maintain a tight, compact swing, it requires optimal movement in our hips, shoulders and thoracic spine while increased stability is needed in our feet, knees and lower back. And if we lack motion in one of those places, our body will get it from another.

With the classic swing, we see a one-piece takeaway with equal trail hip and spine rotation. A golfer may also lift the club in the backswing. When initiating the downswing after this lift, it is common to see compression on the trail side lower back region. The rotational demand of the hips and mid-spine in this swing style my even be greater than with the modern swing. Since the hips and mid-spine are the most common restricted joints, this leads to increased stress on the lower back.

Questions Golfers Need To Ask Themselves

  • What are they trying to do in their swing?
  • Can their body do what they are asking?
  • Is their swing style hurting my back?

Don’t know the answer to these questions? It’s OK, most golfers don’t. That’s why there are golf fitness professionals and instructors.

As a golf fitness and medical professional, I can speak to the merits of a physical assessment for all golfers, regardless of how much they play or their skill level. It’s a wonderful thing to do before you invest in golf lessons, or even while you take them, as the majority of qualified golf fitness instructors would prefer to work in conjunction with a golf instructor to help you meet you golf goals more quickly and easily.

That pain you’re feeling in your office chair or in your car? Maybe it’s from your golf swing and maybe it’s not. Stop putting it off, and get to the root of the cause of the problem. It can only help your game.

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Dr. Jim Alberry is the owner of Functional Performance Physical Therapy, P.C located in Syosset, NY. He has a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree from the University at Buffalo, where he did his undergraduate work in exercise science. Dr. Alberry is a level 3 certified medical professional by the Titleist Performance Institute where he also is an assistant instructor with their Level 1 certification. Jim is a consultant for several PGA professionals, strength and conditioning coaches and is a guest lecturer at local universities. He has worked with the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and Symetra Tour providing medical coverage. Dr. Alberry blends the worlds of rehab and fitness and his specialization is in optimizing human movement and improving an athlete’s performance. Daily he helps golfers move better, feel better and play better.

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30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Bob Jones

    Jul 12, 2017 at 11:45 am

    There are a lot of good-sounding comments here that are really conjecture. To find out how the golf swing stresses the spine, please read Gluck, et. al., The lumbar spine and low back pain in golf (2008), and Hosea and Gatt, Back pain in golf, (1996). The first article is readily available through an internet search, the second must be requested.

    • Bob Jones

      Jul 12, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      I put those article references up for people who want to dig deeper into research-based facts. Each reader is free to choose for themselves.

  2. Tourgrinder

    Jul 12, 2017 at 10:27 am

    Great article. Thanks. As someone who has battled an inherited condition called degenerative spondylolisthesis for many years, and now continuing to battle the ‘degenerative’ part of it all more and more, I’d be very interested in your suggestion as to what kind and type of professional I should try to find and work with. I’ve had numerous sessions in the past with professional PTs, many of whom knowing very little, if anything, about the golf swing. I’ve also worked somewhat with teaching pros and swing coaches, who, unfortunately, are not so familiar with both the pains and limitations of lumbar spine afflictions. I’ve been told I need an operation, but I keep putting that off for fear of it not accomplishing what’s intended and also putting a clear end to my playing golf. Yet, in my early 60s I still try to hit my driver using the same swing and same velocity as when I was in my 40s. BTW, when I was in my 20s and hitting a stiff, steel-shafted persimmon driver, I routinely lifted my left heel. For the past 20-25 years, perhaps because of the lighter and longer shafts, I’ve left that left heel planted and I now think it has only aggravated my condition and limitations. In other words, I’m beginning to agree with Brandel Chamblee.

    • Jim Alberry

      Jul 12, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      Tourgrinder, We should connect offline. I would love to help in any way/problem solve what the best approach should be for you. Shoot me an email at dralberry@yahoo.com and lets connect.

  3. SoonerSlim

    Jul 12, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Jim,

    Great article. I fit into the classic swing type. I have had lower back surgery in L5-S1 area and lower right side permanent sciatic nerve numbness in my lower right leg and right foot. I tend to swing with too much hip slide on the forward swing and get the club too much underneath and inside out. This is killing my lower back! Please tell me how I swing different to take the pressure from a classic swing off my lower back?

    thanks, Jim

  4. doubou2014

    Jul 12, 2017 at 9:27 am

    A website that is dedicated to a mechanically correct swing (MCS) that prevents back problems can be found at waxgolf.com.

    • doubou2014

      Jul 12, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      I happen to know DJ Watts who is the “guru” (as you put it) behind the website and have been taught the MCS swing by him. DJ is by far the most articulate explainer of the golf swing that I have encountered in person or otherwise, and prior to meeting him I had received instruction from well known instructors. I have stood directly behind many Tour pros on the range and during tournaments and DJ strikes the ball as well as any of them and further than most without pain or injury despite being older than them. There are no tricks or gimmicks in his methodology as I and many others who have benefitted from his reaching can attest. If you would go through several of his postings, you would gain a better sense of how to swing without the threat of pain.There are many young Tour players who are experiencing problems with their backs, elbows, etc. because they have been taught the modern golf swing by instructors who should know better.

      • ooffa

        Jul 13, 2017 at 6:23 pm

        You should know better than to dis the modern golf swing instructors, many of who post on this forum.

        • doubou2014

          Jul 16, 2017 at 8:01 pm

          The modern golf swing is the cause of numerous injuries suchbas those sustained by Tiger Woods. It is irresponsible to teach it.

  5. Ccshop

    Jul 11, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    Awesome article! I’m dealing with some bad lower back issues myself. Make competitive golfing extremely difficult for me at the moment. Did a TPI assessment and passed all phases. I have a little tighteness in my hips which may be tugging on my lower back. I’ve tried exercise, physical therapy, chiropractor, everything besides surgery but lower back pain persists. Hoping I can figure it out but what a great read!

  6. BigBoy

    Jul 11, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    Pros swing it too fast and amateurs are too fat. Back pains fixed.

  7. Jim Alberry

    Jul 11, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you and I totally agree. That T12/L1 area is the sight of so many problems! There is so much added torque on that region when someone has a large belly as well. Great stuff and I have to check out some of your forum posts!

  8. Ben Jones

    Jul 11, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Genetics rule.

  9. Max

    Jul 11, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Would love to see the next article address elbow pain!

  10. mr b

    Jul 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    thi pics don’t match up to the article. very confusing to know what the point here is? you back hurts. it could be a number of things. here are some random pics not in any order. good luck.

  11. tazz2293

    Jul 11, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I must ask.

    What were the basic spinal mobility exercises, what was the workout routine and how long did it take the gentleman before he could touch his toes?

    I have had 3 back surgeries and haven’t touched my toes in over 20 years. At least I can still see them, I think. Yep, I can see them.

    Seriously this is something that could help golfers like me.

    • Phil

      Jul 11, 2017 at 5:08 pm

      Try to find a local certified TPI Fitness Instructor, they can help assist.

    • Jim Alberry

      Jul 11, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      Tazz2293, The other gentleman Phil is correct. Find a someone who is TPI certified in your area and get screened and on an individualized program. You can do that on mytpi.com and click on the find an expert tab. The exercises I had this gentleman do were based off what we found that day and were very basic. They consisted of pelvic tilting performed in a few different positions (on his back and on all fours) and some simple hip movement activities that helped him understand how to move his pelvis. From start to finish he was able to touch his toes in about 10 minutes. I have found that when I figure out what actual problem is I am able to “fix” it very quick. The magic lies in making it stay long term. He now has 3 simple things to do everyday to maintain it. Thank you.

    • tazz2293

      Jul 12, 2017 at 6:58 am

      Thank you all for the replies.

  12. Tom1

    Jul 11, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    great article.

  13. Oh

    Jul 11, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Ask Eldrick. It’s the humping after the rounds with the ladies of the night that hurt the back the most.

    • The Drop Zone

      Jul 11, 2017 at 11:35 am

      After last year…
      I’d say his golf swing is hurting his bank account

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Instruction

A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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Instruction

Is There An Ideal Backswing?

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In this video, I talk about the backswing and look into optimal positions. I also discuss the positives and negatives of different backswing positions.

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