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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 [email protected] 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

The Wedge Guy: Short game tempo

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One of my favorite things to do is observe golfers closely, watching how they go about things from well before the shot to the execution of the swing or stroke. Guess the golf course has become kind of like going to the lab, in a way.

One thing I notice much too often is how “quick” most golfers are around the greens. It starts with grabbing a club or two from the cart and quickly getting to their ball. Then a few short jabs at a practice swing and usually a less-than-stellar result at a recovery.

Why?

If you are going to spend a morning or afternoon on the course, why hurry around the greens? I tend to be a fast player and despise five-hour rounds, but don’t fault anyone for taking a few seconds extra to get “right” with their recovery shot. You can still play “ready golf” and not short yourself in the close attention to execution. But let me get back to the specific topic.

Maybe it’s aggravated by this rush, but most golfers I observe have a short game tempo that is too quick. Chips, pitches and recoveries are precision swings at less than full power, so they require a tempo that is slower than you might think to accommodate that precision. They are outside the “norm” of a golf swing, so give yourself several practice swings to get a feel for the tempo and power that needs to be applied to the shot at hand.

I also think this quick tempo is a result of the old adage “accelerate through the ball.” We’ve all had that pounded into our brains since we started playing, but my contention is that it is darn hard not to accelerate . . . it’s a natural order of the swing. But to mentally focus on that idea tends to produce a short, choppy swing, with no rhythm or precision. So, here’s a practice drill for you.

  1. Go to your practice range, the local ball field, schoolyard or anywhere you can safely hit golf balls 20-30 yards or less.
  2. Pick a target only 30-50 feet away and hit your normal pitch, observing the trajectory.
  3. Then try to hit each successive ball no further, but using a longer, more flowing, fluid swing motion than the one before. That means you’ll make the downswing slower and slower each time, as you are moving the club further and further back each time.

My bet is that somewhere in there you will find a swing length and tempo where that short pitch shot becomes much easier to hit, with better loft and spin, than your normal method.

The key to this is to move the club with the back and through rotation of your body core, not just your arms and hands. This allows you to control tempo and applied power with the big muscles, for more consistency.

Try this and share with all of us if it doesn’t open your eyes to a different way of short game success.

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The Wedge Guy: The core cause of bad shots

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You are cruising through a round of golf, hitting it pretty good and then you somehow just hit an absolutely terrible shot? This isn’t a problem unique to recreational golfers trying to break 80, 90, or 100 — even the best tour professionals occasionally hit a shot that is just amazingly horrible, given their advanced skill levels.

It happens to all of us — some more frequently than others — but I’m convinced the cause is the same. I call it “getting sloppy.”

So, what do I mean by that?

Well, there was a USGA advertising campaign a while back feature Arnold Palmer, with the slogan “Swing Your Swing.” There’s a lot of truth to that advice, as we all have a swing that has — either frequently or occasionally – produced outstanding golf shots. While there is no substitute for solid mechanics and technique, I’ve always believed that if you have ever hit a truly nice golf shot, then your swing has the capacity to repeat that result more frequently than you experience.

The big question is: “Why can’t I do that more often?”

And the answer is: Because you don’t approach every shot with the same care and caution that you exhibit when your best shots are executed.

To strike a golf ball perfectly, the moon and stars have to be aligned, regardless of what your swing looks like. Your set-up position must be right. Your posture and alignment have to be spot-on. Ball position has to be precisely perfect. To get those things correct takes focused attention to each detail. But the good news is that doing so only takes a few seconds of your time before each shot.

But I know from my own experience, the big “disrupter” is not having your mind right before you begin your swing. And that affects all of these pre-shot fundamentals as well as the physical execution of your swing.
Did you begin your pre-shot approach with a vivid picture of the shot you are trying to hit? Is your mind cleared from what might have happened on the last shot or the last hole? Are you free from the stress of this crazy game, where previous bad shots cause us to tighten up and not have our mind free and ready for the next shot? All those things affect your ability to get things right before you start your swing . . . and get in the way of “swinging your swing.”

So, now that I’ve outlined the problem, what’s the solution?

Let me offer you some ideas that you might incorporate into your own routine for every shot, so that you can get more positive results from whatever golf swing skills you might have.

Clear your mind. Whatever has happened in the round of golf to this point is history. Forget it. This next shot is all that matters. So, clear that history of prior shots and sharpen your focus to the shot at hand.

Be precise in your fundamentals. Set-up, posture, alignment and ball position are crucial to delivering your best swing. Pay special attention to all of these basics for EVERY shot you hit, from drives to putts.

Take Dead Aim. That was maybe the most repeated and sage advice from Harvey Penick’s “Little Red Book”. And it may be the most valuable advice ever. Poor alignment and aim sets the stage for bad shots, as “your swing” cannot be executed if you are pointed incorrectly.

See it, feel it, trust it. Another piece of great advice from the book and movie, “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days In Utopia”, by Dr. David Cook. Your body has to have a clear picture of the shot you want to execute in order to produce the sequence of movements to do that.

Check your grip pressure and GO. The stress of golf too often causes us to grip the club too tightly. And that is a swing killer. Right before you begin your swing, focus your mind on your grip pressure to make sure it isn’t tighter than your normal pressure.

It’s highly advisable to make these five steps central to your pre-shot routine, but especially so if you get into a bad stretch of shots. You can change things when that happens, but it just takes a little work to get back to the basics.

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Stickney: To stack or not to stack at impact?

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As you look at the impact positions of the best players in the world, you will find many different “looks” with respect to their body and club positions. Some of these impact positions might even appear unique, but don’t be fooled. They all have one thing in common: preserving the players’ balance throughout the impact interval! In fact, if you are not in-balance, then you will lose power, consistency, and have trouble controlling your launch dynamics from shot to shot.

This balance is a necessary key to playing well and one area that can be easily understood with a few graphics shown on GEARS 3D. As you examine the photo in the featured image, you can see a few things:

  • The player on the left has “fallen” backwards through impact slightly moving his head out of the circle established at address
  • The player on the right is more stacked at impact — meaning that his chest, zipper and hands are all in the same place at the same time (within reason)
  • The player on the left has reached this same position in the swing with different segments of the body reaching the ball at different times
  • There will be a difference of impact shaft lean between the two players due to one player reaching impact “together” and the other shoving his hands more forward as he falls back
  • The player on the right is more “connected” through impact…won’t be the longest hitter but will be able to find the ball in the fairway more often
  • The player on the left is putting more pressure on the rear portion of the lower back which could have a potential for injury if he’s not careful

Now, obviously there are pro and cons to both positions. Overall, if you want to be consistent and in-balance more often that not, I would suggest you try your best to focus on being “stacked” when you hit the ball.

Let’s dive in a touch deeper to show you what happens physiologically on 3D when you fall back through impact and I think it will really drive the point home.

  • At address notice the Vertical Spine Number 96.2, this is showing us where the spine is positioned at address
  • You can see the head is in the center of the bubble

  • On the way to the top of the swing you can see that the spine has moved “away” from the target laterally a slight bit to 98 degrees
  • The head has dropped downward and has also moved laterally as well- more lean over the right leg to the top

Now here is where the problem comes in…as you work your way to the top, it’s ok of your head moves a touch laterally but in transition if it stays “back” while your hips run out from under you then you will begin to fall backwards on the way to your belt-high delivery position.

  • We can see at the delivery position that the spine has continued to fall backwards as the hips rotate out from under the upperbody
  • When this happens the hands will begin to push forward- dragging the handle into the impact zone
  • Whenever you have too much spin out and fall back the hands move forward to accommodate this motion and this reduces your Angle of Attack and decreases your dynamic loft at impact
  • This will cause balls to be hit on the decent of the club’s arc and reduce loft making shots come out lower than normal with a higher spin rate and that means shorter drives

Now let’s examine impact…

  • The player on the left has reached impact in a more disconnected fashion versus the player on the right as you compare the two
  • The player on the right has a shaft lean at impact that is less than a degree (.75) while the player on the left has a much more noticeable forward lean of the shaft thereby reducing dynamic loft at impact

  • The player on the left’s spine has moved from 96.2 to 112.9, a difference of 16.7 degrees while the player on the right has only moved back a few degrees. We know this because his head has stayed in the bubble we charted at address
  • The hips have run out from under the player on the left in the downswing and this causes the head to fall back more, the hands to push forward more, and the impact alignments of the club to be too much down with very little dynamic loft (as also shown in the photo below)

Whenever the hips turn out from under the upper body then you will tend to have a “falling back effect of the spine and a pushing forward of the hands” through impact.  Notice how the hips are radically more open on the player on the right versus the left- 27.91 versus 42.42 degrees.

So, now that we can see what happens when the hips spin out, you fall back, and you fail to be “stacked” at impact let’s show you a simple way you can do this at home to alleviate this issue.

  

  • A great drill to focus on being more stacked at impact is to make slow motion swings with the feeling that the upper portion of your arms stay glued to your chest
  • These shots will be full swings but only 20% of your total power because the goal here is connection which allows everything to reach impact together and in-balance
  • The second thought as you make these swings is to pay attention to your head, if you can focus on allowing it to stay “over the top of the ball” at impact you will find that it will stay put a touch more so than normal. Now this is not exactly how it works but it’s a good feeling nonetheless
  • Once you get the feeling at 20% speed work your way up to 50% speed and repeat the process. If you can do it here then you are ready to move up to full swings at top speed

Finally, don’t forget that every golfer’s hips will be open at impact and everyone’s head will fall back a touch — this is fine. Just don’t over-do it! Fix this and enjoy finding the ball in the fairway more often than not.

Questions or comments? [email protected]

 

 

 

 

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