By Elizabeth Howzen Kais
Rotating your body 180 degrees while generating enough force to accelerate a golf club can place a lot of stress on your back. Initially this stress may be experienced as an unusually high level of tiredness, also known as fatigue, at the conclusion of a round or range session. If left alone this fatigue progresses to muscle aches, tissue tears and changes in the alignment of the spine. The key is to be both strong and flexible enough in the muscles to properly align the spine making the rotation movement of the golf swing effortless.
The easiest area of misalignment to identify is the neck. Many golfers underestimate the importance of keeping the head centered between the shoulders. Every inch that the head moves forward of the midline increases the weight that upper back ligaments and neck muscles support by 100 percent. For example, if your head weighs 10 pounds and it moves one inch forward of the midline your upper back ligaments and neck muscles must now support 20 pounds. A head that is two inches forward forces the back ligaments and neck muscles to support 30 pounds, and so on. Unfortunately this forward head posture is reinforced in our daily activities of working at a computer or desk and driving. This misalignment leads to headaches and pain between the shoulder blades.
How can you determine proper head alignment on your own? With one hand place the shaft of a driver on your spine directly between your shoulder blades with the grip on the back of your head. You can steady the club by holding it at the clubface end below your low back. Now take your address stance while continuing to hold the club shaft on your spine between the shoulder blades and on the back of the head. Place your flat, free hand on the back of your neck. Your hand should simultaneously contact the club shaft and your neck in this position. If it only contacts your neck, your head is too far forward of the mid-line.
Correcting this misalignment involves two steps. First draw your chin straight back in toward your throat. Do not allow your chin to simultaneously move up or down, only straight back. Second, as you draw your chin straight back, elongate your neck as if someone were pulling it straight out in line with the spine. Do not worry if you are unable to hold this position or are not able to contact the shaft of the club and the back of your neck at the same time when you first begin this exercise. Pull the head back and elongate the spine as far as you can and hold the position for as long as you can maintain perfect form. With perfect practice your front neck muscles (deep cervical flexors) will become stronger and your back neck muscles (cervical extensors) will stretch back to their normal length.
Low back pain occurs when there is too much or too little spine curve in the area between the ribs and the hips. This condition occurs when some muscles surrounding the low back, ribs and hips become too tight and shift the bones. This also causes the opposing, balancing muscles to become loose and weak. Both conditions reduce low back rotation in the back swing and the follow through causing a short swing and an over all reduction in drive power. A golfer who attempts to improve their rotation without addressing their abnormal lumbar curve can over stretch the mid-back and/or shoulder muscles and stabilizers causing damage to those bones and tissues (i.e. bone spurs or rotator cuff tears).
How can you determine proper low back alignment on your own? With one hand place the grip of a driver directly between your shoulder blades with the shaft bisecting your hips. The shaft will actually lie flat in contact with the sacrum, which sits between the hip bones. You can steady the club by holding it on the shaft toward the clubface end below your low back. Now take your address stance while continuing to hold the club grip between the shoulder blades and bisecting the hips on the sacrum.
Place your flat, free hand on the middle of your low back. The flat hand should be positioned between the ribs and hips directly opposite the belly button. Your hand should simultaneously contact the club shaft and your low back spine in this position. If it only contacts your low back spine, you have too much low back curve. If you cannot fit your flat hand between your low back spine and the club or if the club shaft rests flat on your spine from ribs to hips, you have too little low back curve.
Correcting too much low back curve simply means stretching the tight muscles and tightening the stretched muscles. The tight muscles most commonly associated with too much low back curve are the erector spinae and the psoas. Rounding your mid to low back like an angry cat, either standing or on hands and knees, while drawing your belly button in stretches the erector spinae. This muscle begins at the sacrum and hips and ends on the lower portion of the sixth and seventh ribs and extends the spine.
Lying face up flat on your back and bringing one knee into the chest while pressing the low back and straight, other leg into the floor stretches the psoas. It is critical that the low back and straight leg remain in contact with the floor. The stretch occurs in the front hip area of the straight leg when the hips tilt as the opposite knee is pulled in toward the chest and the low back is pressed flat into the floor. The psoas begins at the low back (lumbar) spine and ends at the thigh bone (femur).
The stretched muscles most commonly associated with too much low back curve are the hamstrings and abdominals. Lying face down over a Swiss Ball (a large latex ball inflated to 55 to 65 cm) with your hands on the floor, draw the belly button in toward the low back and raise the legs to parallel with the floor. This will strengthen the hamstrings. Turn face up so your whole spine is on the on the Swiss Ball and perform crunches to strengthen the abdominals.
Correcting too little low back curve simply means reversing the previous muscular information. In this situation the tight muscles most commonly associated with too little low back curve are the hamstrings and the abdominals. Assume your address position with the club grip on your mid back and the shaft between your hips. Make a space for your hand by tipping your hips forward (toward the ground) and arching your low back. Draw your belly button in toward your spine for support. Be certain that the club shaft remains in contact with the spine between the shoulder blades, the sacrum between the hips, and your hand. You will feel a stretch at the top of the back of your leg just below the hips and sacrum. The hamstrings begin at the base of the hips on the back side of the leg and ends just below (Semimembranosus and Semitendinosus) the knee and just above (Biceps Femoris) the knee.
Lying face down with the hands under the shoulders and straightening the arms while keeping the hips on the ground stretches the abdominals. It is critical that the hips remain on the floor and the shoulders remain as far away from the ears as possible when the arms extend. The rectus abdominis begins at the front of the hips and ends at the fifth, sixth and seventh ribs and the xiphoid process of the sternum.
The stretched muscles most commonly associated with too much low back curve are the hip flexors (psoas and quadriceps) and trunk extensors (erector sp inae). Sitting down and standing up strengthen the hip flexors. Assume your address position with the club grip on your mid back and the shaft between your hips. Make a space for your hand by tipping your hips forward (toward the ground) and arching your low back. Draw your belly button in toward your spine for support. Be certain that the club shaft remains in contact with the spine between the shoulder blades, the sacrum between the hips, and your hand. Now bend your knees and hips more as if you were going to sit down on a chair. Only lower down as far as you can keeping contact with the stick, your knees tracking to but not beyond your second toe, and your feet flat on the floor. Then stand all the way up keeping the same perfect form.
Lying face down on the floor with your fingertips at your ears and lifting the torso as high as possible off the floor strengthens the low back extensors (erector spinae).
Always remember that you are a unique individual with specific needs. Be sure to consult your physician prior to starting any new activities. The health and fitness industry is not regulated by any federal or state government agency. Only seek exercise advice from certified and degreed practitioners.
Elizabeth Howzen Kais has a Masters of Education, Health and Physical Education from The College of New Jersey. She is a C.H.E.K-Certified Golf Biomechanic and Level 1 Practitioner, NCSF certified Personal Trainer and Primary Certification Instructor, a Master Member of IDEA (since 1991) and an American Council on Exercise Group Exercise Instructor (since 1990). She is a strength and conditioning consultant for golfers in south Florida. She is available to answer questions at www.FloridaGolfConditioning.com.