Golf Biomechanics - common swing patterns

Updated: May 29

The first case study in this series looked at the correlation between a common postural imbalance and its influence on swing dysfunction. This article will look at one of the most typical problems I witness, and what common patterns are associated with it - namely the role of the ribcage in swing and the spine movements that occur when malfunction ensues.

Case study – spine angles and the role of the ribcage.

As described in the first article in this sequence, how the ribcage rotates around the spine in my view is a much more accurate description as to how the trunk rotates in both back and downswing, rather than how it is commonly defined as shoulder rotation. The ribcage is a very complex region of the body with over 60 muscles attaching into the thoracic spine, on average 2/3rd of them becoming overactive/tight and 1/3rd becoming underactive/weak. In addition many of the fascial slings that connect the bodies framework together pass through the ribcage so discussing what physical imbalances impact on how the ribcage works is probably best left for another discussion, as it is worthy of an article dedicated solely to itself. However that said, numerous daily influences on how it works includes prolonged sitting due to shortening/inhibition of some of the muscles around the pelvis and low back which subsequently impacts on the mechanics of the spine. Also, another common scenario is poor breathing techniques which is arguably the most common bad motor pattern seen in humans as many fail to use their diaphragm properly leading to people elevating their ribcage and overusing their intercostal muscles/neck muscles, although what neck muscles and to what degree they are recruited is still the subject of debate amongst researchers. For these reasons, the focus of this article will be directed primarily towards swing patterns and what are the customary poor spine movements invariably seen in golf not the structural deficiencies that may underpin such form.

Pattern one – Elevation/extension of the ribcage in the backswing.

We talked previously with regards to before making any judgements we need to explore what is making the segment behave in the way it is. In light of this, let’s look more locally as to how the ribcage is moving instead of what influences may be causing such reactions. Consequently, it is worth noting that one of the typical stimuli of ribcage elevation/extension is lateral sway of the pelvis (away from the target) also pelvic thrust (toward the ball). As stated in the previous article, always work at the first breakdown which is ultimately what the 3D data will allow me to highlight by identifying whether it is the pelvis causing the ribcage to react or vice versa. When the ribcage extends/elevates, this causes the back extensor muscles (erector spinae) to become overactive as when they perform this role correctly the spine will extend and the ribcage elevate. Aligned with this is the challenge that these muscles are almost un-fatigable which then leads to the muscles that need to work to allow proper spine rotation (multifidus and obliques) from not being able to do their job correctly. It is worth mentioning that one influence on this pattern is when golfers employ a misconception of the back squat exercise posture as to their set up which effectively locks up the spine and prevents good movement. What we need is a neutral spine that is both mobile and spring like in its performance.

So what does this pattern look like in the backswing? You’ll note in the image below that when the ribcage elevates and extends excessively, you can see what looks like a shearing of the thoracolumbar junction where the top of the pelvis/low back sits in one place and the mid spine bends in a completely different direction.

In light of this how to we solve the problem? Biofeedback was given to the player to help learn how to move the ribcage correctly as it rotates in the backswing. The command was given to encourage the distance between the sternum and belly button to remain the same as the ribcage rotated in the backswing. However in this particular instance, the player had to ‘unlearn before they could relearn’ as there were some interesting misconceptions attached with their view of rotation. In the graph below, the curves denote the relationship between the forward bend of the pelvis and ribcage from set up through to finish, this is how I calculate how the ribcage is functioning and how both segments are rotating around the X axis. Remember, the spine is an axis and everything has to move around an axis, hence how the ribcage rotates around the spine is more accurate than ‘shoulder rotation’!! You can clearly see how the blue line which is the initial movement of the ribcage/pelvis drops excessively as the trunk rotates in the backswing, way beyond normative values and subsequently reporting substantial levels of extension, however the green line (after biofeedback) shows the significant reduction in ribcage extension and most importantly a ribcage that now matches up with the pelvis as they rotated.

As a result of this, the undue amounts of pelvic sway that were exhibited at the start of the session then corrected itself. The movement through the pelvis was a secondary pattern (one that is reacting to poor function elsewhere) so once the ribcage started to move well, the pelvis could then do its job properly and allow the golfer to load around the right hip joint effectively. This is shown in the graph below, the green curve showing the initial swaying motion of the pelvis away from the target in the backswing, where as you will see the blue curve drops less in the backswing which identifies a large reduction in pelvic sway as a result of improved ribcage movement.

Pattern two – mismatching of pelvis and ribcage planes.

One of the initial movements I look at post address is how to the pelvis and ribcage match up with respect to the planes they rotate on relative to how much they are rotating. A common pattern observed is when the pelvis rotates ‘too flat’ and the thoracic spine rotates with excessive left side flexion. This is shown below by the 3D animation as you will note how ‘level’ the pelvis remained whilst the mid spine was side bending.

As per normal, the question that needs asking is which segment is reacting to the other and what is influencing the mis-firing segment to behave in the way it is. Again, there are an abundance of influences that can cause this type of pattern, however in the instance of this particular player it was caused by muscle tightness around their pelvis and low back restricting how the pelvis rotates around the femoral head/hip joint. This resulted in the spine subsequently moving around its most mobile part which led to the pelvis rotating too ‘level’ due to the reduction in rotation around the hip joints alongside dominant muscle action through the paraspinal muscles. In the graph below, the green curve reflects the side bend/tilt in the pelvis as it rotates, whereas the blue curve represents that side bend/tilt motion of the thoracic spine. At the top of the backswing, the values achieved by both were extremely mis-matched, most noticeably the pelvis only having 3° of side bend to the left which is somewhat low. There are no normal levels as to how much the pelvis side bends as this is effected by many other movements, such as amount of rotation, swing preferences, side bend in trunk etc... however normative values exhibited by the masses would be nearer 10-12° at the top of the backswing (right hip high/left hip low), with approximately 40-50° of left lateral flexion through the thoracic spine. The thoracic spine in this case had upwards of 50°.

In order to solve this problem, the player had to address the muscle imbalances around the pelvis as the view was taken there was no point asking the body to do something it physically could not currently do. Once balance was restored around the pelvis, this then provided the platform to learn how to move correctly and match up the planes that both the pelvis and ribcage rotated on.

Pattern three – right side lateral flexion during downswing.

Most injuries in golf occur as a result of the recover move, effectively how the player compensates to find impact and in many cases injuries are years in the making, when the player first becomes aware of any pain is often when they hit a certain shot, from a different lie that happened to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. One of the biggest recovery moves I see is the right side of the trunk shortening excessively through impact, effectively crunching as it rotates. This is one of the worse movements possible for the spine to be subjected to, as well as other peripheral joints such as wrists, neck and knees. Now, there are many reasons as to why a player would crunch through their right side and this will be discussed in future publications. However let’s look at what excessive right lateral flexion of the trunk (crunching) looks like.

Above is an extreme example of the right side crunching through impact, unfortunately this player was exposed to several injuries prior to them being made of the patterns and what the reasons as to why they were moving in this particular way. There were some interesting swing and exercise concepts attached to these swing patterns that needed attention before any intervention could take place. In view of this, one important question that always needs to be asked is “who/what is influencing the athlete?” More on this in the future....

In the data below, the green curve represents the right lateral flexion of the spine, the blue curve highlights the rotation of the ribcage. You’ll observe how there is more side bend than rotation which is an extremely high risk move as history suggests that numerous problems can be born from this move, namely injuries as well as certain ball and club delivery patterns. This isn’t strictly true as there are many influencing factors attached to this, but as an initial reference you would want to see similar values and a well matched up amount of side bend vs. rotation of the trunk plus how it relates to what the pelvis, head and arms are doing.

Impact - trunk side bend 17° - trunk rotation 8.7°. Biofeedback and drills were prescribed and you’ll see below the reduction in side bend plus a matched up trunk in respect to rotation and side bend.

Post biofeedback impact - trunk side bend 24.5 ° - trunk rotation 24.3 °.

From a body perspective, below is an example of what lateral flexion looks like. The green muscles (agonists) are the ones working/shortening, whereas the red muscles (antagonists) are the ones that are lengthening to allow the trunk to side bend. Where the injury occurs depends on several factors, for example any underlying pathologies, other swing patterns or in many cases which way the cookie crumbles knee, wrist, low back etc...

So what we can learn from this information? Looking purely at how the spine function in golf below are some key references that we can use

  • Find neutral spine, establish the three main curves that exists in the spine, cervical, thoracic and lumbar. Good biomechanics starts with good posture, both anatomically and in golf set up. Pathomechanics (biomechanics gone wrong) invariably starts with poor body structure.

  • Strengthen a neutral spine. Avoid excessive rotational training as this often tightens the oblique’s and encourages poor oblique function, plus tightening of the myofascial slings. Also scientific literature shows that excessive rotation without the necessary training can actually weaken the spine.

  • The spine is axis of rotation, learn how to rotate around it correctly.

  • Identify what is the spine reacting to and what is influencing it to function in the way it does.

  • Shoulder rotation is fundamentally different to spine/trunk/ribcage rotation.

I would like to thank Professor Carolyn Richardson for providing some vital information in writing this article.

The next article will look at coaching language and its influence on swing mechanics.

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