Updated: May 29, 2020
There are many areas within the golf swing where we can look to alignment as a measurement of good form however one of the most important influences on movement control in golf is lower limb alignment at address, namely the relationship between ankle, knee and hip joint. In this article we are going to discuss what is good lower limb alignment and some common patterns that exist through poor lower limb positioning at address.
One of the primary objectives of having good lower limb alignment (LLA) is it provides the joints, muscles, segments etc throughout the body the chance to do their job properly. This is influenced hugely by the fact that the foot is the only part of the body that makes contact with the ground during golf so any dysfunction or imbalances through the foot will then cause compensation and adaptation through ankle, knee, hip........ As the old song goes, the ankle bone connects to the knee bone, the knee bone connects to the hip bone......therefore as everything connects to everything, everything will effect everything.
Typically there are four main influences on human motor control, biology, physiology, neurological and mechanical/structural. Let’s look at structural imbalances when discussing LLA, in essence if the bones, joints and soft tissue sit in a place where they are not happy moving from then it is a fair assumption to make that they will simply not to their job to the best of their ability, hence there will then be compensations elsewhere in an attempt to complete the task, in this case the golf swing. This then leads to how does the body then complete the task from a position it is not happiest working from? In simple language, the golfer invariably knows what movements they would like to make, therefore the body calls upon all available resources to make this movement possible, however if some of the areas are shut down or compromised due to structural misalignment then it will simply find another way of doing it, effectively it will ask another joint to do more in order to compensate. As you may have heard me say in the past, never change a compensation as it’s the compensation making it work, additionally it is also the compensations that the players are making that often cause injury, certainly in joints such as the wrists. So one could link injury patterns through the wrists back to areas such as poor LLA.
Let’s take a look at what good LLA looks like.
As far as aligning lower limb, there are two main areas to look at, firstly ankle and foot position and secondly how the knee sits in relation to the hip joint. The secondary patterns you could then examine is how the pelvis then sits on top of the femurs and how this matches up with the lumbar spine. Ideal foot position would be when the foot sits at about 30° externally rotated. A simple way of setting this is to run an alignment pole inside the players heel at right angles to the target line, you should be able to place one golf ball between the pole and inside of big toe. This is not scientifically accurate however it gives a good reference to work from. Below are two good examples of foot and ankle alignment.
Above and below are two good examples of lower limb alignment.
With regards to the knee, where it sits in relation to the hip joint is vital for several reasons, two of them being it allows the femur (long bone in the thigh) to sit in the hip socket correctly and secondly provide good structure around knee which is crucial with regards to knee health and pelvic control. The femur functions best as shown in the animation below when the knee sits directly under the hip socket. To give you an idea of the margins we are playing with, if the axis of rotation (centre of rotation) stays within 2mm of the centre of the socket then this allows for normal joint health and function, however when the neck/head of the femur is displaced by more than 2mm then this impacts on hip joint function as well as sometimes leading to illnesses such as osteoarthritis.
Above is good structural alignment between knee and hip.
Let’s now discuss some common dysfunctional patterns seen in LLA.
Knee valgus leading to anterior tilt in pelvis.
Below is an example of left knee valgus (knee in) alongside over pronated and externally rotated left foot.
When the lower limb sits in this position at address, it can have large effects on how the lower limb joints function, predominately through the hip joint. The hip joints are one of the major suppliers of rotation in golf as good function through the joints allow the pelvis to move well during the golf swing. When the knee sits in, the femur subsequently internally rotates and the pelvis moves into anterior tilt (forward bend). Often, when the pelvis moves into anterior tilt is changes the firing patterns of the muscles around the spine with the large back extensor muscles becoming over active and the deep abdominal muscles becoming underactive. When the back extensor muscles start doing more than we want them to it completely changes spine mechanics and has large detrimental effects on its ability to rotate and provide good function for the ribcage to move. I describe this as a pattern of movement rather than a series of faults. So, if the body now has less resource at its disposal due to a change in conditions around the pelvis and spine (the main rotators in golf), it will simply find a way of moving around the problem in order to make things work. Factors leading to knee valgus include ‘flat feet’, leg length discrepancies, shoe design, poor control through the pelvis in areas such as glute medius, deep lower abdominals etc.. Now, depending on your point of view, much research will suggest that orthotics can be a good intervention to help restore good foot structure and allow the foot to sit well on the floor, whilst other’s offer the view that if it’s in a poor place purely through faulty body structure then good conditioning of the postural muscles will provide the correct framework to establish good LLA. My own view when working with players is to treat them on an individual basis, collate as much evidence and information on the player and their history as possible and then use this to make the appropriate decision. It is also worth noting that in many cases the player is simply not aware of what is good LLA so it is more an issue of a learned skill, therefore they need to develop the awareness of matching up ankle, knee and hip joints through education.
Another example is given below, in this case the player’s right knee sits in however they react by allowing the pressure to sit on the lateral border of the right foot.
Right foot in at address.
In the image above you’ll see how the player’s right foot sits in/lacking sufficient external rotation. On investigation, this particular player was actually attempting to do this based on a misconception of how to control the pelvis correctly. Correct in this case is without creating compensation elsewhere in their movement patterns or without cost to the body – injury! When the foot/ankle sit in this position, it reduces the ability of the knee and hip to do their jobs properly, so loosely speaking yes, it will limit the amount the pelvis can rotate but typically doing so by overloading and causing undue stress of the surrounding tissues and structures in areas such as sacroiliac joint (SIJ). If the pelvis cannot move in the way it wants to move it will then ask the SIJ to rotate for it which is simply cannot and does not like doing, hence this is one of the most common causes of low back pain. It is important to know that humans cannot dictate the degrees of freedom a joint can move, but it can control it through good training. Therefore with an understanding of how joints are designed to work and good muscle function, the player can control the pelvis through good education, awareness and training to allow the pelvis will do a good job without artificially using other segments to compensate. In short, let the joints do their jobs properly and have them to the job to the best of the ability instead of creating a series of compensations through the chain.
Left foot in
For right handed golfer, when the left foot sits in as highlighted below it presents certain problems. Now this is a very generic view as there are many underlying factors that will influence this, but typically most players would look to pass through around 90° of pelvic rotation from their address position to finish position. So let’s look at how we achieve this 90° and what proportion is done through each of the lower limb joints.
In most healthy golfers there is about 45/50° of internal hip rotation, 15° of internal femoro-tibial torsion and a small amount of foot supination/adduction. Therefore the remaining 25/30° of rotation occurs through ankle and foot placement. So, when the left foot sits in the position above, effectively you deprive the body of 25° of rotation so as mentioned before, it will simply get it elsewhere through compromised movement, poor biomechanics and with an increase chance of injury occurrence. In the case of the player above, due to the left foot position it effected their ability to load around the left leg through impact which resulted in the pelvis moving away from the target during impact along with poor arm/trunk connection. In the data below, you will see the green curve drops significantly at half way in downswing which shows the pelvis starting to move back away from the target, simply due to the leg hip, knee etc running out of rotation so to accommodate the pelvis had to move as described. The blue curve represents how the pelvis moved once the LLA had been addressed and you will note clearly how the pelvis could now function correctly through impact by loading around the left leg without compensation.
Good biomechanics starts with good frame and body structure. Having the joints, segments, muscles etc in position to initially do their job correctly, then secondly have them do their jobs to the best of their ability will provide the platform for golfers to move in a stable and efficient way without compensations and adaptations that invariably lead to swing breakdowns, injuries and inconsistent impact conditions. As the feet are the only contact point between the player and the ground and the relationship between the femur and pelvis being pivotal in creating true rotation, having good lower limb alignment provides a the base for good function and movement.