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.
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.
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.
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.
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.