Golf is one of the most popular sports in America, particularly among adults. Here in the city, I’ve seen my fair share of people both around my age (26, although some people still believe I’m 21…) and way older lugging around their golf clubs on the weekends, presumably to hit the driving range or a nearby golf course.
Golf is a sport that requires a ton of skill, but it is also easily accessible because of its low impact and intensity compared to other sports like football or basketball. On a recreational level, I can’t imagine a comparable sport that is as relaxing as golf. You’re not trying to beat the clock, and in most cases you’ll barely work up a sweat playing 9 or even 18-holes.
However, it is this skill level that can cause problems for people who play golf. When it comes to the sport, perhaps the most important skill on a movement level is the ability to rotate. Think of it this way–all the swing types that are utilized in golf, everything from the tee shot to the putt, are based on rotation.
Studies have shown that low-back pain from golf can account for anywhere from 18% to 54% of golf injuries. It is also not uncommon to see injuries of the knees, hips, elbows or wrists. In recent memory, Tiger Woods has been sidelined by a bad back. And in tennis, Rafael Nadal has been bothered by his knees on numerous occasions. The New York Times published a feature about that here: Nadal’s Knee.
Golf and tennis are both rotational sports, and many of the injuries that occur in both sports can be explained in part by rotation. Pain and injury occurs during rotation in joints that aren’t meant to rotate. The lower back consists of smaller vertebra, and it was not made to rotate. The knee is a joint that’s built for flexion and extension, but only a small amount of rotation. In Nadal’s case, his knees were unable to withstand the rotational load that he puts them through in competition, especially with his demanding match schedule as a top tennis pro.
If we take a joint-by-joint approach to the body (a model that was popularized by strength coach, Mike Boyle, and others) we see that the knees and the lower back are mean to be stable joints. In this model, the joints of the body alternate between mobility and stability as we go upstream from the feet. We see that the ankles are meant to be mobile, the knees stable, the hips mobile, the lower back stable, the t-spine mobile, and so on. All of this make sense in the context of sport movement.
In a golf swing, tennis forehand/backhand, or bat swing, rotation is strongest through the t-spine and the hips. Ken Griffey Jr. was known for golfing baseballs out of the park, but notice how much of his rotational power came from his hips and his upper back rotating towards the ball, below.
Ironically, these are also the areas of the body that lock up and get stiff if you sit at a desk all day staring at a computer. If you lack mobility in one area, the body will find an adjacent joint to make up for it. Those adjacent joints just so happen to be the lower back and the knees, respectively. We now have an issue, as two joints that weren’t meant to rotate are now bearing the brunt of rotational duties.
This isn’t necessarily bad; however, over the course of 9 or 18 holes, or tons of practice with these mobility issues, pain and injury can come to threshold. Playing golf can aggravate pre-existing back conditions, and overuse is more severe than trauma when it comes to injury onset. Golf injuries come about as a result of rotation and repetitions.
There is a silver lining here though. Because golf injuries occur as a result of overuse, there are certainly ways that we can protect the body and make it better able to tolerate the rotational stresses inherent to the sport.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis on rotation in golf, and how to train in the gym to effectively mitigate your injury risk playing the sport!
by Jeremy Lau
Lindsay, D. M., & Vandervoort, A. A. (2014). Golf-Related Low Back Pain: A Review of Causative Factors and Prevention Strategies. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 5(4), e24289. http://doi.org/10.5812/asjsm.24289
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.