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6 reasons why golfers struggle with back pain: Part 1

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This article is co-written with Marnus Marais. Since 2011, Marnus has worked with some of the world’s best players on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, helping them to maintain optimal health and peak physical performance. His current stable of players includes Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, and Louis Oosthuizen, amongst others.

You find more information on Marnus and his work at marnusmarais.com

 

Back pain is by far the most common complaint among regular golfers. It is estimated that up to 35 percent of amateur golfers endure lower back injuries. And in our experience working with tour players, the prevalence is even higher in the professional ranks! 

Back pain can affect our ball striking and short game, diminish our enjoyment of the game, or even stop us playing altogether. It can make us feel anxious about playing (and making the pain worse) and just generally disappointed with current performance falling way short of our expectations. 

There is certainly no shortage of information on the topic of back pain, and with myriad back pain products and supplement options available, confusion about the best path to pain-free golf is one of the main reasons we don’t actually do anything effective to alleviate our suffering! 

We aim to present in this article an easy-to-digest explanation of the common causes of back pain, alongside some simple and practical ways to address the underlying issues. 

The recommendations we make in this article are generic in nature but effective in many of the low back pain cases we have worked with. However, pain can be complex and very specific to the individual. You should seek the personalized advice of a medical or exercise professional before undertaking any form of remedial exercise.

Reason 1 – Lack of mobility in 2 key areas

Certain areas in the body need to be more stable, and others need to be more mobile. The lumbar spine falls into the stable category, partly due to its limited capacity for rotation and lateral flexion (side bending). We know the unnatural golf swing movement imparts both rotational and side bending forces on the spine, so it’s an area we need to keep stable and protected. 

In order to avoid excessive low back rotation in life and especially in the golf swing, it’s very important that we try to maximize the range of movement in other areas, most notably the joints above and below the low back, where the majority of rotation in the golf swing should take place:

Area 1 – Hips

We need sufficient range of movement to turn into, and out of, both hips. For example, if we can’t turn and load into our lead hip due to a lack of internal rotation mobility, we tend to compensate with excessive rotation and side-bending in the lower back.

Suggested Exercises – Hip Mobility

Foam roll glutes, you can also use a spiky ball

90 90 hip mobility drills, fantastic for taking the hips through that all important internal rotation range

90 90 Glute Stretch – great for tight glutes / hips

Area 2 – Thoracic Spine (mid to upper back)

Having sufficient rotation in our thoracic spine to both left and the right is extremely important. The thoracic spine has significantly greater rotational capabilities compared to the lumbar spine (low back). If we maximise our mobility here, we can help protect the lower back, along with the cervical spine (neck).

Suggested Exercises – Thoracic Mobility

Foam rolling mid / upper back

 

Cat / Camel – working the T-Spine through flexion and extension

 

Reach backs – working that all important T-Spine rotation

Reason 2 – Alignment and Muscle Imbalances

Imagine a car with wheel alignment issues; front wheels facing to the right and back wheels facing to the left. Not only will the tires wear out unevenly and quickly, but other areas of the car will experience more torque, load or strain and would have to work harder. The same thing happens to the lower back when we have body alignment issues above and/or below.

For example, if we have short/tight/overactive hip flexors (muscles at the front of the hips that bend our knee to our chest) on one side of the body; very common amongst golfers with low back pain. This would rotate the pelvis forward on one side, which can create a knock-on effect of imbalance throughout the body.

If the pelvis rotates in one direction, the shoulders naturally have to rotate in the opposite direction in order to maintain balance. Our low back is subsequently caught in the middle, and placed under more load, stress and strain. This imbalance can cause the low back to bend and rotate further, and more unevenly, especially in the already complex rotation and side bending context of the golf swing!

Below is a pelvic alignment technique that can help those with the afore mentioned imbalance

Reason 3 – Posture

Posture can be described as the proper alignment of the spine, with the aim of establishing three natural curves (low back, mid/upper back and neck).

 

The 3 major spinal curves – 1-Cervical, 2 – Thoracic, 3 – Lumbar

Modern lifestyles and the associated muscle imbalances have pushed and pulled our spines away from those three natural curves, and this had a damaging effect on our spinal health. Our backs are designed to function optimally from the neutral illustrated above, and the further we get away from it, the more stress we put on our protective spinal structures. 

Aside from promotion of pain, poor posture also does terrible things for our golf swings; reducing range of motion in key areas (hips, mid back and shoulders) and creating inefficiencies in our swing action, to give us a double whammy of back pain causes.

Fortunately, re-establishing good posture is really simple and you can combine the information and exercises featured in the videos below with the mobility exercises featured in the Reason 1 section above. The equipment used in the videos is the GravityFit TPro – a favorite of ours for teaching and training posture with both elite and recreational players.

 

In the next installment of this article, we will cover reasons 4, 5 and 6 why golfers suffer from back pain – 4) Warming Up (or lack thereof!), 5) Core Strength and 6) Swing Faults.

 

If you would like to see how either Nick or Marnus can help with your golfing back pain, then check out the resources below:

Marnus Marais – marnusmarais.com

Nick Randall – golffitpro.net

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Nick Randall is a Strength and Conditioning Coach, Presenter and Rehab Expert contracted by PGA Tour Players, Division 1 colleges and national teams to deliver his unique brand of golf fitness services. Nick is also a GravityFit Brand Ambassador. He is working with them to help spread their innovative message throughout the golf world and into other sports.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. rybo

    Oct 15, 2019 at 8:47 am

    Missed reason #4

    Golf shoes have become like slippers with virtually no support. No one was meant to walk 6+ miles in slippers. Hips and knees are taking a pounding, which translates into the back taking on added stress.

  2. Mike

    Oct 14, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    Matt Kuchar sucks big donkey.

  3. Robin

    Oct 14, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    I had a metal on metal hip replacement in my 40s due to a military accident.
    I have had 4 more sense on the same left leg.
    Now I’m 56 and can barely walk now. So It’s best to avoid surgeon, and exercise now while you can before you can’t.

  4. Bob Jones

    Oct 14, 2019 at 5:19 pm

  5. Kim Chee

    Oct 14, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    One of the few worthwhile articles I’ve read on this website in a while.

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Stickney: The deadly double-cross

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OK. Here we go. Number 17 at Punta Mita. Water all down the left side. OK. Aim right and hit a slight draw—been hitting the ball wonderfully all day, scoring conditions are perfect—I’m ready to make a birdie!

Over the ball. Check my alignments—good! Last look—where we want the ball to end up—good! No swing thoughts—great! Go!

Ball begins on the line I wanted—so far so good—apex perfect. Oh no! Now it’s not drawing! In fact, it’s fading! Crap! There’s out of bounds right! Don’t hit the path…

BOING! Gone. UGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG! The dreaded “double-cross.”

Why does this seem to happen to all of us from time to time (only when there is a problem on one side we’re trying to avoid?) The answer is simply one of three things normally

  • Not committed
  • Poor pivot
  • Faulty grip pressure

Not Committed

This one is simple: Anytime you have conflicting thoughts over the ball and you are unsure of what to do next, step back and regroup! Easy sounding right? Not at all! This take a ton of self-discipline and awareness to actually notice the signs and make the choice to stop yourself in the middle of your routine. If you can, you are one of the few.

Not being committed comes in the physical, mental, and emotional forms. Regardless of which you are fighting on the tee in this situation, it’s best to stop and regroup. If you do not, a double-cross and double bogey can be lurking!

Poor Pivot

Whenever you have doubts about your ability to pull off a shot mechanically the first thing to go is your control of the “pivot” which is how you twist and turn and displace weight. The pivot, per “The Golfing Machine,” controls things like rhythm, balance, the head, the club shaft, etc. so if you “stall out or outrace yourself” then your ball can go anywhere. Usually, when you have trouble that you are trying to avoid, you will tend to slow down in efforts to try and guide the ball—when this happens you will hang back and either hold on or flip it through impact, and this will cause you to lose control of the clubhead and clubface. No bueno!

Faulty Grip Pressure

As stated above, you will find non-commitment in one of three forms, and normally when you have emotional or physical issues your grip pressure will spike. Anytime you have a grip on the club that’s in death-mode, you will find that having any type of normal or consistent release is impossible. When your release becomes an issue so will your ball’s flight. Try your best to relax and let things happen without trying to force them; squeezing the grip too hard can only make things worse.

Now that we know what the issues tend to be, what can we do besides step back? Your goal is to swing the club, just like you do every other time, as normally as possible. The fewer “thoughts” you have, the better. Usually, if you try to stay aggressive, you’ll have a better chance of having the ball land on grass. Try it and you’ll surprise yourself!

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Instruction

TXG: 8 handicap fairway wood & hybrid fitting

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Finishing the full bag fitting for our Mizuno contest winner by dialing in a fairway wood and hybrid!

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Instruction

6 reasons why golfers struggle with back pain: Part 2

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This article is co-written with Marnus Marais. Since 2011, Marnus has worked with some of the world’s best players on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, helping them to maintain optimal health and peak physical performance. His current stable of players includes Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay, and Louis Oosthuizen, amongst others.

You can find more information on Marnus and his work at marnusmarais.com

Following on from Part 1 of this article, we examine reasons 4, 5 and 6 for why golfers suffer from low back pain.

Reason 4: Weak Core Muscles

Before we make start making exercise recommendations for this complicated area of the body, it’s worth asking—what is the core exactly? There is considerable debate about this often misunderstood region. Back pain expert Professor Stuart McGill, explains it as follows:

‘The core is composed of the lumbar spine, the muscles of the abdominal wall, the back extensors, and quadratus lumborum. Also included are the multijoint muscles, namely, latissimus dorsi and psoas that pass through the core, linking it to the pelvis, legs, shoulders, and arms. Given the anatomic and biomechanical synergy with the pelvis, the gluteal muscles may also be considered to be essential components as primary power generators’

In a golf context, there is a common myth that the core muscles are our main source of power in the swing. In reality, the main role of the core is to provide stiffness and stable support for force/power transfer from our legs to our upper body

If we can create stiffness and stability in our core, we can help protect our spine and surrounding structures from unnecessary strain whilst also improving swing efficiency—pretty sweet combo!

Due to a combination of perpetual sitting, poor posture and other detrimental lifestyle factors, our cores tend to lose this ability to provide stiffness and stability. We can combat and correct this with a solid core conditioning program. Below are examples of some of our favorite exercises.

Dead Bug with Fitball – the combination of squeezing the fitball whilst extending arm and leg delivers all sorts of great stimulus for the core muscles.

Bird Dog – great for glute, core and back strength

Pallof Press – fantastic anti-rotation exercise. Good for strengthening the core whilst using the ground efficiently

Reason 5 – Not Warming up Properly/Not Warming up at All!

As we’ve explained above, mechanical back pain arises from too much stress and strain placed on the back. During the game of golf, we treat our spines terribly—expecting them to twist, turn and contort with the aim of producing decent golf shots!

If we don’t prepare our bodies for an activity like golf and just go out cold, we significantly increase the chances for strain and stress being placed on the lumbar area.

I’m sure many of you have had the experience of throwing a ball or a stick hard without warming up, and received a nasty sharp pain in your shoulder. Now, if you were to warm up before doing that; stretching your shoulder, making a few practice throws etc, you’d likely avoid strain altogether. Same goes for the low back and the golf swing – without a decent warm-up, there’s every possibility of a strain when trying to rip driver down the first!

By incorporating a warm-up into your pre-golf routine, you can significantly reduce the risk for injury AND help avoid that card wrecking double-double start! As a side bonus, warming up regularly can help your general health, fitness, and wellbeing too.

We know that most amateurs don’t warm up; a study done by Fradkin et. al showed that around 70 percent of amateur golfers seldom warm-up, with only 3.8% reporting warming up on every occasion!

A decent warm isn’t hard and doesn’t have to take ages to complete; research shows that a warm-up of 10-20 minutes is sufficient. In the video below, Marnus gives a thorough guide to a solid warm up sequence.

Reason 6 – Swing Faults

Let’s not forget the golf swing. One of the most common reasons I see golfers struggle with low back pain is that they are unable to “get to their lead side” and “get stuck” on the downswing. This causes the aforementioned excessive side bend and rotation from the low back, which we need to avoid! 

“Getting stuck” on the trail side

Now we aren’t golf coaches and therefore don’t deliver swing advice. However, there are some fundamental movement patterns that most golfers could benefit from practicing. In the videos below, one of our favorite body orientated swing coaches, Richard Woodhouse, is using one of our favorite training tools, the GravityFit TPro, to help teach an efficient movement pattern. The aim is to develop a strong connection between arms and body, using the hips and thorax to rotate, thereby helping to avoid “getting stuck.”

Summary

The absolute best practice for a healthy golfing lower back is working with a golf swing instructor and also a health/fitness professional that understands the body and swing connection. As a team, they would be able to identify and improve your individual swing faults, movement pattern dysfunctions, range of motion deficiencies, muscle weakness, imbalances, and alignment issues.

If you don’t have access to such expertise locally, you may want to check out the online services offered by Marnus and Nick here:

Marnus – https://www.marnusmarais.com

Nick – https://www.golffitpro.net/

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