Golf: Back to basics

No doubt you’ve seen them at golf courses, doubled over, clutching their lower backs. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself. But it’s no exaggeration to say most golfers will encounter back pain at some point in time.

Fred Couples, a former Masters winner, has said the back wasn’t meant to take the stress of the golf swing. He’d been told that the swing is as bad on the back as rodeo riding. That doesn’t have to be the case, though.

“We’re not talking about inherent problems here.” Dr. Gary Wiren, a PGA Master professional based in North Palm Beach, Florida, says, “The back problems we see are related to some sort of weakness. The good news is that there are ways to change this.”

Wiren is 65, and is driving the ball longer than ever. He doesn’t have a twinge of back problems, but he did 15 years ago. After studying back problems in golfers, he concluded that exercise is the best way to prevent difficulties and neutralize and overcome back problems that already exist.

“Here’s what I tell people,” says Wiren, whose video Good Golf for Bad Backs is a helpful tool for golfers.  “Every single day, preferably in the morning, it’s a good idea tout your left foot on the vanity in your bathroom and hold a stretch for a minute or so. Then do the same thing with the other foot. This stretches the hamstring and really helps prevent back problems.”

Sit-ups help
Wiren also advocates crunches, or sit-ups. He does 300 in a session, and will do that a few times a day. The effect is to strengthen the stomach muscles, which goes a long way toward preventing back problems.

Michael Bentley, a golf professional based in Ludlow, Vermont, has developed an instructional program called PowerLINK3D. This system uses three-dimensional motion technology as a means of analyzing the ways in which golfers move and the ways in which they transfer energy during the swing. Known as kinetic linking, the concept is gaining favour in the golfing community. The golfer who transfers energy efficiently from the hips to the shoulders, the shoulders to the arms, and the arms to the clubhead – the proper sequence – will probably avoid back problems.

“When golfers are a little overweight they usually carry extra pounds around the mid-section,” Bentley says.  “It’s like a jug of water tied to your belt.  Imagine what this does-to the lower lumbar vertebrae and the spine.  With the additional anterior force on the spine, the weight pulls the vertebrae out of alignment, creating muscle fatigue, stretched ligaments and poor muscle sequence in the swing. The only way to change this is to stress the body with specific exercises, changing the way the muscles fire and their intensity.”

The common goal of both men’s programs is a stronger mid-section, which in turn leads to a more stable spine during the swing.

Pelvic tilt exercise
Perhaps no trainer emphasizes strength in this area more than Beverley Burdeyney, a 60-year-old Torontonian diagnosed with spina bifida as a child who now spends much of her time working with golfers.

“I help my clients develop their own dynamic central stability girdle,” Burdeyney explains, “comprising pelvis, abdomen and lower back.  This area can be compared to the foundation of a house.  If the foundation is strong and solid, the building will be stable and will stand erect.  You have to learn to consciously control your body.”

Burdeyney has developed a comprehensive workout program whose basic form can be completed in 20 minutes. Its foundation exercise is the pelvic tilt, where one tightens the stomach muscles and presses the lower back against the ground.  She suggests stomach crunches, single and double knee to chest exercises while lying on one’s back, head and neck stretches and a variety of arm and leg exercises using light weights.

“It’s all about prevention,” Wiren says. “That’s where keeping away from back problems starts.”

And if you work at it consistently, you can keep back problems at bay and increase your strength at the same time. That should lead to a lower handicap on the course, and fewer physical handicaps off it.