As winter comes to an end that means golf season is just around the bend (or dogleg). If you are like me, any time you hear that classic Master’s piano tune on ESPN, the itch to get back into golf is stronger and more difficult to ignore. Beyond slicing the ball into the next fairway, a big frustration many golfers have is low back pain.
Low back pain is the most common musculoskeletal reason that golfers stop playing. Up to one third of golfers have limited play due to lower back pain. The causes are typically playing too much too soon (or overuse), poor muscle conditioning, or poor swinging mechanics.
Don’t wait for your first round to start getting into golf shape. To keep your back healthy, you need a strong fitness foundation. Start with aerobic exercise to improve your overall conditioning. The goal should be 30 minutes at least three days per week of walking at a vigorous pace, biking, or swimming. Couple this with exercises like planks or glute bridges to strengthen the core. Strengthening your leg and core muscles will give you a stable foundation from which to make a strong swing while protecting your spine. Finally, do stretches to improve your hip and low back mobility. Studies have shown that golfers who lose hip rotation stress their spines more, so concentrating on stretches for your hip rotators should be a priority. A visit with a physical therapist or an athletic trainer with expertise in golf-specific exercises will help you build a plan and is a worthwhile investment of your time to prevent an injury down the road. Your golf score may improve by a few strokes too!
Did you know there are two main swing techniques in golf? The modern swing is what you see in most players today. Think Tiger Woods. This swing requires you to rotate mostly through your spine while keeping the hips relatively still to build energy. This then leads to rapidly twisting through the spine throughout the swing. While the benefit is more consistency in the ball strike and more power,the downside is much more force and strain on the lumbar discs. A recent study discussed that more young PGA tour professionals are having back injuries that their predecessors of the 1980s and 90s. Instead, learn the classic swing. Think Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. These golfing legends have much more rotation at the hips and shoulders compared to the back. This will better spread out the force you generate over a larger area, leading to less strain on the low back.
Don’t start your season playing 36 holes two days in a row. As you fatigue, your chances of injury increase. If you haven’t played all winter, start your spring golf season with a few holes and work your playing time up gradually. Before you know it, you will have developed enough stamina both physically and mentally to play a nice 18 hole round.
When you get to the range, don’t start your practice activities with your driver. Start slowly with some chips and pitches, and then work your way up the bag to finish with a few drives. This warms up all of the core muscles in your back and conditions the discs for all of the twisting you will be doing throughout the day. If you over-practice your short game and under-practice your long game, you lower your risk of injuring your back and will most likely decrease your handicap at the same time.
While we are all tempted to swing for the fences and try to hit a 300-yard drive, most of us are unable to despite our best efforts. The average golfer loses more control on the ball the harder they try to swing. You additionally add more torsional forces to the back the harder you swing. Play within your physical capabilities and never swing at 100%. You will lower your risk of injury, extend your playing life, and most likely hit a better, straighter shot in play.
If you have pain stop playing and get it evaluated. If you experience a new pain of moderate to severe intensity, recognize that something is wrong. No pain, no gain is not the correct attitude here. In general, early intervention is a lot easier than trying to treat a condition that is a result of repetitive injury. Many times a personalized rehabilitation program of specific exercises to address some of your muscle imbalances is all that is needed to return to sports and enjoy this wonderful game. We here at Virginia Spine Institute have the professional insight and tools you need to overcome your back pain.