What is Spinal Stiffness?
The term Spinal Stiffness is the non sexy way of saying core strength. Nobody really cares about having a stiff spine but rather wants a six pack or a rock solid core! However, to have a rock solid core, you need to have a stiff spine. A stiff spine may sound like a negative thing to some people. The term “stiff” gives us the connotation that the back is stiff which yields pain and tightness in which we look to avoid. This is not the case in this context.
The human body’s spinal cord most definitely should be able to flex and extend at numerous places throughout. Being able to control that through our physical and neurological capabilities is much more important nonetheless. For the female rotational athlete, it is highly important to train Spinal Stiffness and know the benefits not only for training, but knowing the additional risks that come with a non stiff spine and why we need to make it a focus in our training.
Spinal Stiffness and Golf
Let’s break down the general anatomy. Your core is not just your “abs”, it is actually everything that runs 360 degrees around from your hips arguably to the shoulders. This includes the Rectus Abdominis, the Transverse Abdominis, the muscles surrounding the Lumbar, Thoracic, and even some of the lower Cervical spine. Within that we also have the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulders, the Lats, the Trapezius, among others.
The main role of the core is to enable all of that musculature to maintain the stiffness or rigidity of the spine so that through a movement, especially one under load, or a ballistic movement, it is not dynamically moving. For example, while you are swinging the golf club, ideally your spine will rotate and side bend, however you do not want to see much movement beyond that. We aim to stay away from extension or additional movement that takes us out of that “stiff” position.
This “stiff” position is the same in training, like while doing a hip hinge movement, we want the spine to stay in a fairly neutral position while just the hips are moving. You may see some people in the gym where they arch their back extensively throughout a deadlift, or lose stiffness entirely and have that “cat like” back position while performing a deadlift. This is what we need to avoid as it can cause additional unnecessary strain and lead to long term injuries.
The Importance of Spinal Stiffness for Female Golfers
For the female golfer, or any female athlete, there are times of the month where we are producing more hormones than normal. This creates a more elastic property to all the tendons within our core and body throughout. While we want to stay elastic because we are more efficient at expressing fast twitch capabilities, if we do not have the foundation of strength or “spinal stiffness” to support it, we create more strain and the possibility of over taking our strength with speed, leading to short and long term injuries.
The highest at risk population for this disadvantage are junior female golfers that are just beginning puberty. These juniors that are proficient and higher ranked when it comes to their club head speed, but have not put in enough time working on their strength game and set themselves up for overuse injuries. Without putting an emphasis on this type of training, it is common to see back injuries, SI dysfunction, and other joint inflammation issues starting earlier than later.
If you can maintain the proper spinal stiffness, you will be efficient in transferring power from the lower extremities through the core to the upper extremities. You are going to be very powerful, very fast, and perform at a higher level, and your likelihood of injury goes down significantly. There are a few ways in which to train this property, and they should all be addressed in your programming.
How to Develop Core Strength
The first way to train spinal stiffness is going to be with Anti-Extension of the spine. This is training the core to maintain that stiff spine without going into an “overarching” position. There are various exercises to train this including planks and plank variations. This includes planks on a stability ball while moving your arms around, planks while lifting your arms and/or legs, any position that requires you to maintain a stiff spine with some dynamic movement on top of it. Test yourself even more by trying to reach out with sliders on your hands while on your knees or toes, go as far as you can and then pull it back in while also maintaining spinal position. These are all ways to train the anti-extension property of the spine.
Secondly we are going to have to train spinal stiffness in an Anti-Flexion manner. This is training the core to avoid any side bend. Keeping the spine stiff while maintaining a tall posture and not leaning side to side while we load one of the sides is addressing anti-flexion. We can train this with exercises such as suitcase carries, side planks, offset carries, and any exercise that is biased to loading one side of the body.
Perhaps the most specific for the rotational athlete will be training anti-rotation of the core. This is the ability to resist rotation and maintain spinal stiffness when again one side is loaded, but this time pulling you in the opposite direction. To train this, use exercises such as Palof presses, anti rotation shuffles, using bands, cables, anything that forces you to maintain a position while being pulled to rotate.
The Benefits of a Stiffer Spine
Training these three properties of the core will help with carrying out its real function, which is not to produce movement, but to transfer ground reaction forces from the ground, up through the legs, to the arms, and to the golf club. If you are not able to maintain spinal stiffness, you have an “error” in your system, or a “leak” in your makeup. Whatever you want to call it, you will be missing out on a ton of speed and power that you could be producing because of that fault. This is when we start to see technique flaws as well! You could have the strongest legs in the world, but if you are not able to keep that spine locked into position, you lose everything on the application to the club in the swing. A real shame and waste of lower body gains!
In short, make sure your current programming has you training these elements of the core or make sure you hop on one that does so. They are all critical in a well rounded Golf Performance program. For the female athlete who is biologically more prone to overuse injuries, it will be of a higher importance. Having higher elastic properties during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle causes a higher rate of injury during this period of the month. Spinal Stiffness training will be critical to increasing club head speed while staying injury free, and maximizing longevity for the female golfer.