Most people who have tried Pilates or looked into it know the quote, “if your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young”. Joseph Pilates truly believed this and even now we talk about it.

This is now known as spinal articulation. In Polestar, spine articulation is our third principle. To us, this means how you distribute movement throughout the spine, and as a result, you get a distribution of the forces you then put through it. If you can do this well, the chances of pain and injury in one specific area go down.

The British open championship

It has been estimated that 50 million people worldwide play golf every year and around 4 million of those are in the UK! This is about 8% of our adult population (1). The 16th July this year should have been marking the start of the 149th Open Championship. Sadly, due to Covid-19, this is the first year since the 2nd world war that it has been cancelled.

Last year one of our Physio and Pilates instructors Louise Aylwin explained why Pilates is great for golfers and how she has used it with some of the top players in the world.

This year, in honour of the British Open, we are going to explain spine articulation in a little bit more detail and how improving it can help you prevent back pain and improve your golf swing. So even if you can’t be sat watching the British Open you can be improving your swing and your overall game!

A bit of simple anatomy to remember

We split the spine into 3 areas; the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid back) and lumbar spine (lower back). Your spine has different amounts of movement in each of these different areas.

The cervical spine is the most mobile in all directions due to the shape of the bones and how they sit with each other.

The thoracic spine has the greatest amount of movement in rotation but the least in the rest. This is key to remember when thinking about your golf swing and for most people is not the case. We see a lot of people who don’t have enough rotation to achieve a good swing.

The lumbar spine is the strongest part and is designed for weight bearing. It should have the most movement when you bend forward and lean back, but the least in rotation (except at the very lowest part). This is the area that can often get overloaded due to the lack of movement higher up the spine.

Golfer taking a shot on a golf course

The golf swing

We all know that the golf swing demands a lot of coordination and rotation, but it also deals with quick forces and which repeat over and over again. A study in 1998 and again in 2014 showed that the golf swing can be performed more than 50 times in a round and up to 300 times during a typical practice session (2 and 3).

There is a lot of talk about the ‘classic’ golf swing vs the ‘modern’ swing. The classic swing was mainly used until the 1960s when Jack Niklaus started using a shorter, faster swing which gave good height and distance on his shots. This became known as the modern swing.

When looking at it simply, and if we are describing ‘pure’ swings, in the ‘classic’ swing the legs and pelvis naturally follow through the movement. The ‘modern’ swing tries to stop your pelvis turning and increases the thoracic rotation during the backswing. This winds up your midsection, stores lots of energy and tightens all the trunk muscles. As your thoracic spine and pelvis turn back to hit the ball in the downswing, experienced golfers also slide their pelvis to the side. The stored energy and this slide help with the final speed of the club head meaning you can hit the ball further and with precision.

This may not seem relevant, however it is if you are looking at spinal articulation and distribution of forces. Remember the pelvis attaches to the spine so how they move in relation to each other is key.

By stopping your natural movement in order to get more power, it has been argued that the lumbar spine cannot cope with the amount of force. Add the repetitive nature of golf to this and you may have a problem (4).

Mobility throughout your body is key

Lots of people have looked at why golfers may be so susceptible to lower back pain and a few things keep being flagged up, one of which is lack of mobility in your thoracic spine and hips.

Imagine your week. You wake up on Monday morning and go to work, sit down all day in meetings or at your computer, come home and then sit down in front of the TV. By the end of the week you are tired and feel stiff so at the weekends you go and play golf in order to stay active.

When you sit at your desk all day your hips tighten, and your thoracic spine stiffens. If you then don’t stretch well before your game, or do some functional movements during the week to try and stop this happening, you can’t help but rotate from your lumbar spine when you play.

Because of our posture and daily influences, you have prevented the bits which should move well from moving and put more demand on the bits that should be stable. The distribution of forces through your spine is now not optimised.

How can I stop my back aching when I play golf?

There are some really simple things that you can do to try and stop yourself getting lower back pain in golf.

First on the list is to warm up! Try stretching beforehand (active of course), do some practice swings left and right handed. This warms up the spine in both directions, but also gets the muscles and ligaments ready to perform the task at hand, golf! Begin with smaller irons and move up to the larger ones.

Use a caddie, a golf buggy or get a bag with dual straps. Constantly bending over to pick up your bag or the straps on the bag will all fatigued the muscles and leave you more at risk when you hit the ball. As the bags tend to be heavy, they are also likely to compress and stiffen your spine.

Try moving during the week! Doing non impact exercise which encourage spine movement like swimming, yoga, or Pilates will help you say mobile.

You can also check out the exercises on our website which look at spine mobility. All these can be done at home. Louise also gave some great tips in her previous blog.

However, if you are finding that you have back pain when you play golf and it doesn’t go away, go and see your physio to see if they can give you some tips and tricks on how to help. You can also book to see one of our Physiotherapists in the Pilates studio to look at your mobility and strength and put together a program specific for your body and your goals.

Education is key:

These blogs are designed to give information to everyone, however, it is important to remember that everyone is different! If you have not seen one of our therapists and have any questions about injuries, what you have read or whether this may be useful to you, please just ask.

At Complete Pilates we would advise you to always speak to your doctor, physiotherapist, or clinical Pilates instructor here at Complete Pilates if you are worried about starting a new exercise regime.
We are more than happy to help anyone and point you in the right direction. Our biggest belief is that education is key. The more you understand about your injury, illness and movement, the more you are likely to improve.