6 ways to reduce and prevent low back pain in golfers
Whether you’re a once a month golfer or one who hits balls every day, there is a good chance you’ve experienced some kind of discomfort in your low back as a result of swinging a club. A host of tour players including Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods have complained of back pain in recent times, even missing tournament play because of it. Indeed, research has consistently identified low back injuries as the most common injury affecting golfers. The exact cause of this pain is a hotly debated topic, however most seem to agree that the rapid and intense shear, rotational and lateral forces placed on the lumbar spine (low back) as a result of the golf swing are in some way responsible.
Research also suggests that appropriate corrective exercises can be effective in prevention and reduction of low back pain. The take home message is whilst you might not be able to completely prevent low back injuries, you can implement the methods below and greatly reduce your odds:
Address swing faults and characteristics
Studies seem to agree that faulty movement patterns and type of swing utilised have a great affect on the propensity to experience low back pain. Any swing fault involves excessive flexion, lateral flexion (a fancy way of saying side bending), or extension of the lumbar spine will increase the likelihood of low back pain. A reverse C address posture or follow through (think Monty’s swing for pretty much the dictionary definition of this) or reverse spine angle are the biggest candidates in my experience. Reverse spine angle in particular have been associated with low back pain associated with low back pain by researchers.
Interestingly the ‘classic’ swing, think Jack Nicklaus or Sam Snead where the lead heel comes off the floor in the backswing and hip turn is much more pronounced, has been demonstrated to be easier in terms of forces on the low back than a ‘modern’ golf swing in which the lead heel stays flat and a big ‘x factor’ is developed by separation between hip turn and shoulder turn.
Develop a strong core
Glute and ab strength helps stabilise the body and alleviate some of the pressure on the low back. Indeed the same study mentioned above showed that pro golfers not reporting low back pain demonstrated significantly greater abdominal muscle activation than those that did. Essentially, if you have weak abs and glutes, the low back is called upon to support the upper torso and supply stability inn the golf swing. That’s not good.
The other issue concerning glute and ab strength is that of unilateral imbalances, put simply one side being stronger than the other. Several studies have identified muscle imbalances and asymmetry in glute strength as a probable cause of low back pain.
Strive for neutral posture
Studies have reported that golfers exhibiting low back pain tended to flex their spines more when addressing the ball. However it’s not just your golf posture you need to watch. In both your daily postural habits too, you should strive to keep neutral pelvic alignment. Anterior pelvic tilt (forward tilting pelvic position) in particular has been associated with low back pain, as the tilt of the pelvis lengthens the hamstrings, affecting hamstring and glute function, and requiring the low back to do much more work in providing strength and stability to make up for these inhibited muscles. Essentially you’re forcing your low back to do more work under more load, a recipe for pain and injury sooner or later.
Improve t-spine mobility
Your lumbar spine can withstand some degree of extension and rotation, but not nearly as much as the thoracic spine is designed to achieve. Unfortunately, the fact is most people significantly lack adequate t-spine mobility to achieve proper rotation in the golf swing and therefore must make up for this by finding mobility elsewhere – i.e the lumbar spine which is, as I said, not designed to achieve a great deal of rotation. Not conducive to low back health!
Improving mid back (t-spine) mobility can alleviate any unnecessary torque on the low back. A 2002 study of professional golfers found that those presenting low back pain exhibited significantly more lateral bending and less trunk rotation in the backswing, whilst those the did not exhibit pain demonstrated over twice as much trunk rotation. Give mobility drills such as the one below a go to improve yours:
Improve hip mobility
A case study of a pro with low back pain has demonstrated an increase in hip turn in the swing resulted in a reduction of low back pain. Another study found correlation between decreased lead hip rotation and low back pain.
Simply put, just as with improving t-spine mobility, greater hip mobility can help reduce forces on the low back during the swing. Why not give this hip mobility drill a try to improve yours – just remember to keep the low back flat to the floor to stop it becoming a low back stretch (you’ll find out why very shortly):
For years golfers in particular have been recommended exercises like hip crossovers and scorpians to ‘warm-up’ the low back, when in reality, as I said, the lumbar spine is not designed for much movement at all. Indeed I would argue most golfers should be avoiding exercises that excessively rotate the lumbar spine as this is really just feeding into the problems causing low back pain, and instead focus on developing motion at the hips and thoracic spine. Don’t just take my word for it, check out this article by legendary athletic coach Mike Boyle, then do another set or two of the hip mobility and t-spine mobility exercises in the videos above.
The truth is good motion in golf comes from turning the hips and shoulders, not from rotating the lumbar spine. The bottom line is bad, injured, golfers turn at the low back, good golfers turn at the hips and shoulders.