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.

46 COMMENTS

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

    • Interesting website, but when the golf guru uses his own body structure to demonstrate his swing theories I become somewhat skeptical.
      Also, these self-made golf gurus may just be on an internet ego trip sucking in gullible golfers with what “sounds good”, just like Homer Kelley.
      Simple word descriptions of the Magic Move golf swing is a sure sign of ego and scam.

      • 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.

  4. 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!

    • Did you know that sitting puts more strain on your spine than standing? A sedentary existence at work and home is conducive to eventual back pain. You sit at home for meals, sit in your car to get to work where you sit at a desk and then back into your car to get home for supper and then sitting to watch tv before retiring to your horizontal bed.
      Sedentary lifestyle people usually become obese because they have a depressed metabolic rate…. and their spine is kept in an unnatural state while sitting for prolonged periods of time. The spine just goes out of kilter… and then you want to stand in front of a golf ball with a golf club in an inclined manner and then generate large forces from your legs and hips for transmission to your shoulders? Well good luck because you are attempting futile movements that will injure your already damaged spine.
      Oh, and then swing a 50-70 lb bag of belly fat around your cantilevered spine only supported by muscles of the back? That, folks, is the height of idiocy… and then complaining you have had spinal surgery and wondering how you can get back on the golf course??!!!

  5. Dr. Jim …. the transition from T12 to L1 is where the spinal structure is overstressed in the golfswing. Add to that a loose belly that does not compress the abdominal internals against the inside of the spine and you shift the load to the deep back muscles.
    Such loading create a restraint and inability to rotate the shoulders against the hips because the core is compromised.
    Sedentary men with belly paunches rotate their hips and shoulders in unison and therefore will never have an effective driver and long club swing. You can see it … and it’s soooo obvious.
    p.s. Excellent comprehensive article that confirms some of what I have posted on the GWRX forum.

    • 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!

      • Yes, and furthermore, men with large soft bellies create a mass momentum problem for the spinal chord and vertebrae. The brain protects it’s extension, the spinal chord, by blocking rotation of the hips to avoid throwing all that belly mass fully around. The hips block and the shoulders stop rotating to because there is no X-factor separation.
        It’s quite futile for fatty men playing recreational golf to attempt to increase their clubhead speed because everything essentially stops going into impact… and a new super club will do nothing for them.
        Stout professional golfers have compensated for their added belly bulk because they are hard wired for a golf swing from childhood. However these stout pros do put excessive stress on their spine and will eventually develop chronic spinal problems.
        p.s. I’m not a bio-mechanist, only an engineer who can resolve the forces and torques generated by the body structures. It’s so obvious what’s happening and thanks for your reply.

      • Elbow pain problems are caused by impact shock forces resolving themselves at the elbow joints.
        Lead arm shock is due to elbow joint orientation at impact and off-center hits. Trail arm shock is due to pounding the clubhead into the dirt with sudden deceleration and excessive hand grip.
        No secret here…. simple engineering analysis.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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