The Low Back, Injuries, and the Yoga For Back Pain In Golfers

Time and time again, the lower back has been shown to be the area most vulnerable to injury in amateur and professional golfers alike (1). The reasons are complex and, frankly, there are a lot of them! The back connects the whole body and every movement we make either initiates from it or involves it at some point in the process. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent, manage, and treat pain and injury. For sake of simplicity, we will focus on an approach that uses yoga for back pain, but if you are under a doctor’s care for back pain, make sure to consult them before making changes to your treatment.

Causes of back pain in golfers

Before we can understand how to prevent and treat back injuries from golf, we need to understand why they happen in the first place.

Lifestyle – A staggering percentage (more than a quarter) of the population already suffers from back pain without ever picking up a set of clubs (2). In fact, part of the boom in Yoga in recent years is down to the ever-rising number of back complaints related to too much sitting, immobility and general lack of core strength (more on this in a moment). If you already have pain, it’s something that you should address carefully as you start playing golf or practicing Yoga. If you are healthy, then golf can actually be a great preventative measure, getting you out and moving rather than stapled to the couch!

The Swing – The swing is a Type 1 spinal movement. This means that the spine bends in one direction while turning in the opposite It is also a fundamentally one-sided sport, meaning that if golf is your main source of exercise and you do nothing to complement it, you set yourself up for imbalances in the body.

Furthermore, the slightly crouched or hunched position of the swing means you are twisting the spine in a position of flexion. This is not necessarily such a terrible thing, but it does represent the spine’s weakest alignment and overstraining yourself is easier in this position.

‘Secondary factors’ – Carrying your clubs, riding over bumps in your cart, stumbling in loose sand in a bunker, becoming dehydrated on a hot day; all of these can potentially increase your possibility of injury and are factors to be mindful of as we go on.

Prevention of Injury

They say an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure, so we should start here. It has always been believed that core strength plays a vital role in drive power and performance, and this has influenced many of the ways in which we train for golf. However, some research has indicated that this may not be the case (3).

In fact, there is evidence that core strength has precious little carryover to drive length. Instead, the strongest connections between ‘gym’ performance and swing seem to lie in limb strength. Interestingly, lower body strength in women seems to determine power in women, while in men it seems to depend more on upper body strength.

This means that cues to drive from the ‘core’ in the swing may be misguided, as is a focus on core rotation training to develop power; if the research is correct, this may not help your swing at all and in fact by deliberately activating the core during the swing you may risk injury without improving performance!

Of course, core strength is important. In fact, core strength performance measures in the study showed that it tracked a lack of pain and injury closely. This means, from a training perspective, that time spent on developing power and movement in the core may be counter-productive, but developing stability and strength might just be key to maintaining a pain-free game!

Given that golf involves both side-bending and rotation, it is important to incorporate both of these movements in your golf-specific Yoga practice. This is to ‘even out’ the imbalance that naturally comes up in such a one-sided activity. You can spend more time on your non-dominant side in the poses below, but you’re probably better off trying to train them equally and bring everything up to the same speed.

Furthermore, gentle backbends can help to offset the constant, slight rounding of your setup position. Deeper forward bends are also necessary to make this position easier and more comfortable.

Finally, including hip- and shoulder-openers is key for golfers. The body will always seek to reach the same position in the follow-through and if there is restriction in these areas, then the movement that should have occurred at these points may occur in a less controlled way at the joints of the spine and this is not what we want!

My pick of the best poses to use to help maintain your spinal health (maybe even improve your play):

Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara) – Studies have shown that a simple ten-minute warmup can be effective in reducing golf-related injuries (1). Ten minutes of Sun Salutations on the course might look funny but it might help your play and will certainly help you stay healthy! Even if you don’t do them directly before playing, they are a great way to start your posture practice!

Standing Side Bending (Chandrasana) – Take this slow and really explore the stretch. Remember you are working to get both sides equal and this might require more time on your lazier side. Try to keep lifting the upper back up and away from the lower back, rather than ‘crunching’ down into it.

Standing forward bend (Uttanasana) – With this one, really try to pull your sternum towards the floor rather than your face towards your legs. This will keep the upper back un-rounded, which after all is something we are trying to minimize!

Cobra (Bhujangasana) – This will strengthen the lower back, open up the chest and help to encourage the gentle back-bending that we need to counter-act the slight forward bend in your setup.

Puppy Pose (Shishosana) – A nice gentle shoulder-opener. You can also simulate this with the classic golfers’ stretch of holding the club overhead and taking it behind you as far as possible with arms straight.

Side Plank (Vasisthasana) – This is an anti-spinal flexion posture. This means it trains your body to actively resist excessive side-bending in the spine. This can seriously save your lower back!

Seated Twist (Ardha Matseyandrasana) – This combines a beautiful spinal twist with a gentle hip opener. Two golf performance birds with one Yoga stone! Make sure to keep the spine as upright as possible in the twist.

Playing and Practicing With Injury and Pain

With up to 16% of recreational golfers sustaining injury each year (4), there are a lot of people playing hurt! The most important considerations are to carefully manage your pain, not allowing ego to drag you into making things worse and, of course, consulting your physician before engaging in physical activities that may have an impact on your condition.

In fact, the best advice to come to you from Yoga in terms of playing injured might be to practice mindfulness. There is a trade-off between the ability of the body to produce force and its safety in doing so. This means you may have to make the difficult decision to sacrifice some of your hard-earned power and drive length in order to recover. Mindfulness will allow you to see this as part of your process and to calmly observe your improvements and recovery as they are rather than worrying about what might have been.

The same Yoga poses used for prevention can be used to treat back issues, but there are a few changes:

Do not push – If you feel pain, you’re going too far. Your practice should never be making things worse, otherwise what would be the point. Stay within your comfortable range and don’t have any expectations of what your postures should look like on a given day.

If something hurts even when taking it easy, take it out – Again, your practice should be helping you. Anything that hurts, you take out. You can always re-integrate it later.

Move more slowly – If you’re not sure, just take it super-slowly moving into postures. It is much harder to hurt yourself if you maintain constant, careful control throughout your movements.

Walk – This may sound like strange advice from a Yoga Teacher, but if you have pain despite all of the above then just try to walk more. Studies have consistently shown that staying still is poison for back pain (5). If you can’t golf or practice without pain, sitting still is not the answer. Instead, try getting out and walking. There are lovely walking meditations out there as well, so you can treat your back pain and your frustrations at the same time.

Conclusion

Yoga can definitely help your golf game, but if you develop pain, then both your play and your practice can suffer. Focusing on protecting your body along with improving performance can help you play more golf for longer (which is the point, surely!). What’s more, taking a mindful approach to your physical activity, no matter the flavour, can give you a more satisfying experience all round.

And if you do suffer an injury, go back to your mindfulness and meditation techniques. Accept the present for what it is and work mindfully to recover and to proof yourself against future mishaps.

With this approach, you may just find yourself going three-under-par and putting your legs behind your head into your nineties. Or maybe you’ll just get more out of both your hobby and your practice. Either way, you can see a long, healthy, beneficial relationship between golf and Yoga for years and decades to come.