When I started teaching 16 years ago, it seemed that 80 percent of my students had lower-back issues. The incidence was so high, I knew my biggest contribution would be to help them learn to swing in a way that would alleviate stress on the spine. That's what I've tried to do. And I'm not talking only about average golfers: The PGA Tour on a Saturday morning is like an Aleve commercial. In fact, other injuries--to the shoulders, elbows and wrists--often come from compensations to save the back. In working with Craig Davies, a chiropractor and golf-specific fitness trainer in Orlando, I've identified four key areas where golfers can transfer some of the stress of the golf swing to areas of the body better suited to handle it. Here's how to do it.
The keys to protect your spine on the backswing are maintaining a bent right knee and turning your left shoulder downward (above, right). Many golfers try to rotate the shoulders level (above, left), but turning the left shoulder down lets the thoracic spine (mid-back) and not the lumbar spine (lower back) handle the twisting. The thoracic spine is designed to rotate, but the lumbar is not. If the right knee straightens on the backswing, the right side of the pelvis moves considerably higher than the left, tilting the bottom vertebrae to the left, which puts stress on them.
Use the ground to create a powerful but safe swing. As you start down, feel as if you're preparing to leap off the ground by making a squat move with your lower body (above, right). Your quadriceps (thigh muscles) and glutes (butt) are great power sources, and this squat move uses them and promotes a lateral motion to the left side. If you don't squat, you might turn your hips but you won't move your pelvis forward enough (above, left). Then the only way you can get power is to torque your spine. As the club swings down, the torque increases, ramping up the stress level--that means pain.
A t this point, 90 percent of your body weight should be over your left leg, and your shoulders and hips should be level and turning open. If you still have a significant amount of your weight on your right side (above, left), you've relied on your lumbar spine to rotate your body toward the target--ouch! As I said before, the lumbar spine is meant to stabilize your upper torso, not turn it. Instead, you want your hips and pelvis to do most of the rotational work, and you can achieve that by getting your weight well into your left leg as you strike the ball (above, right).
Don't try to stay in your posture as you swing through because that puts a tremendous load on your lower back. Instead, thrust your pelvis toward the target. This requires the left glute and core muscles to absorb the stress. Push forward and stand up: You should be at your normal standing height at the finish. There'll always be stress on the back, but these tips will reduce the load.
Sean Foley is based at the Core Golf Academy in Orlando and teaches PGA Tour players Sean O'Hair, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and Stephen Ames. A native of Toronto, Foley, 35, is one of Golf Digest's Top-20 Teachers Under 40. He collaborated with Craig Davies, a chiropractor and fitness trainer, in developing this article.