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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.

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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WATCH: How to take your hands out of your swing

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In this video, I share two great drills that help golfers take their hands out of the golf swing. These drills encourage more rotation through impact with quieter hands to improve consistency.

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A simple formula to figure out the right ball position for you

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In this video, I offer my simple formula on ball position that has seen my students produce more consistency. Watch to see how you can adapt your ball position to hit more shots on target.

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How to fix the root cause of hitting your golf shots fat

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Of all the shots golfers fear, hitting the ball FAT has to be right up at the top of the list. At least it heads the list of commonly hit poor shots (let’s leave the shank and the whiff out for now). After fat, I’d list topping, followed by slicing and then hooking. They are all round-killers, although the order of the list is an individual thing based on ability. Professionals despise a hook, but club golfers by and large fear FAT. Why?

First of all, it’s embarrassing. Secondly, it goes nowhere — at least compared to thin — and it can be physically painful! So to avoid this dreaded miss, golfers do any number of things (consciously or subconsciously) to avoid it. The pattern develops very early in one’s golf life. It does not take very many fat shots for golfers to realize that they need to do something differently. But rather than correct the problem with the correct move(s), golfers often correct a fault with a fault.

Shortening the radius (chicken-winging), raising the swing center, early lower-body extension, holding on through impact (saving it), running the upper body ahead of the golf ball and even coming over the top are all ways of avoiding fat shots. No matter how many drills I may offer for correcting any of those mistakes, none will work if the root cause of fat is not addressed.

So what causes fat? We have to start with posture. Some players simply do not have enough room to deliver the golf club on a good plane from inside to inside. Next on the list of causes is a wide, early cast of the club head. This move is invariably followed by a break down in the lead arm, holding on for dear life into impact, or any of the others…

“Swaying” (getting the swing center too far off the golf ball) is another cause of fat, as well as falling to the rear foot or “reversing the weight.” Both of these moves can cause one to bottom out well behind the ball. Finally, an excessive inside-out swing path (usually the fault of those who hook the ball) also causes an early bottom or fat shot, particularly if the release is even remotely early. 

Here are 4 things to try if you’re hitting fat shots

  1. Better Posture: Bend forward from the hips so that arms hang from the shoulders and directly over the tips of the toes, knees slightly flexed over the shoelaces, seat out for balance and chin off the chest!
  2. Maintaining the Angles: Casting, the natural urge to throw the clubhead at the golf ball, is a very difficult habit to break if one is not trained from the start. The real correction is maintaining the angle of the trail wrist (lag) a little longer so that the downswing is considerably more narrow than the backswing. But as I said, if you have been playing for some time, this is risky business. Talk to your instructor before working on this!
  3. Maintaining the Swing Center Over the Golf Ball: In your backswing, focus on keeping your sternum more directly over the golf ball (turning in a barrel, as Ernest Jones recommended). For many, this may feel like a “reverse pivot,” but if you are actually swaying off the ball it’s not likely you will suddenly get stuck with too much weight on your lead foot.
  4. Setting Up a Little More Open: If your swing direction is too much in-to-out, you may need to align your body more open (or feel that way). You could also work with a teaching aid that helps you feel the golf club is being swung more out in front of you and more left (for right-handers) coming through — something as simple as a head cover inside the golf ball. You’ll hit the headcover if you are stuck too far inside coming down.

The point is that most players do what they have to do to avoid their disastrous result. Slicers swing way left, players who fight a hook swing inside out and anybody who has ever laid sod over the golf ball will find a way to avoid doing it again. This, in my opinion, is the evolution of most swing faults, and trying to correct a fault with a fault almost never ends up well.

Get with an instructor, get some good videos (and perhaps even some radar numbers) to see what you are actually doing. Then work on the real corrections, not ones that will cause more trouble.

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