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Spinal Tap-In:
How to Get Back in the Game

Oliver D. Grin, M.D. is the Chief of Neurosurgery at the Blodgett Medical Center in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recently produced a CD-ROM entitled "Oh, My Aching Back" which is devoted to spinal fitness. The program contains much useful information to golfers (including a special section on fitness and exercises) as well as additional material relating to the kind of common skeletal and trunk problems golfers often experience. A member of Kent Country Club and the Wuskowhan Players Club, Dr. Grin is a relative newcomer to the game; a decade ago he was one of America's premier amateur yachtsmen before turning his attention to golf. He says his interest in golf was piqued by the increasing number of adult patients he was seeing at his practice "whose only interest was getting well enough to get back out on their favorite course." He must be following his own medical advice; recently he's seen his own handicap drop to low double-digits and in 1997 he broke 80 for the first time. He talked to the Michigan Golfer recently about his interest in golf fitness.

Michigan Golfer: With the success in recent years of such long hitters like Tiger Woods and John Daly it seems everyone now is interested in a making a wider shoulder turn in order to generate more clubhead speed. In that context, will a longer swing inevitably lead to back problems?

Oliver Grin: I don't think it's inevitable. A lot of people have the idea about a golf injury: 'This happened playing golf. If I hadn't been playing golf it wouldn't have happened.' I don't believe that. We have to remember disease and injury are inherent in the human experience. Just because some athletes get back problems doesn't mean they wouldn't have those problems if they weren't athletes. The vast majority of people I see who have bad backs aren't athletes.

MG: So you're not among the people who are predicting back woes for Woods as a result of the enormous torque he seems to put on his spine every time he swings?

Dr. Grin: The question really should be, 'Is he going to have more back trouble because he plays golf?' In my mind, I'm not convinced he is. I would tend to take the opposite argument -- that he would actually have a healthier back (than if he didn't golf) as long as he gives himself some recovery time after he plays. And obviously, he does. Even now he takes plenty of time off and does other things to condition himself for when he is playing.

MG: You're a believer in weight training. Does that cause athletes to lose some measure of flexibility?

Dr. Grin: It's hard to separate one from another. Golfers obviously need flexibility to be able to make a good turn in their swing. On the other hand, if their muscles are stronger they'll be more flexible, because stronger muscles will give more stability to the spine. A good example of this is the modern-day baseball player compared to the average player from the '60's. And yes, people who do weightlifting can overdo it; that's why training for body-building competitions is different than what you'd do for golf. But in general, the idea lifting weights and doing strength training is bad for your golf is wrong. Biology is based on the idea of 'Use it or lose it.' If you don't use your muscles, they tend to waste away. If you don't maintain your flexibility, you tend to get stiff

MG: Explain what golfers are up against as they try to maintain their fitness.

Grin: Studies show that after the age of 25 people lose a half-pound of muscle mass every year if they don't specifically work out to avoid that loss. So a person who's 45 has typically lost 10 pounds of muscle mass from when he was at his peak. Often, that same person has put on additional weight which is fat. Combined, those two factors will lead to a lot of instability of the trunk. If that person is not doing any kind of exercise at all we'd first recommend a light cardiovascular program. After that, we'd recommend a program which would include the use of weights.

MG: Is there a common idea that leads you to believe improved spinal fitness is something most people would benefit from?

Grin: If you look around, you'll see that good posture for many people is almost nonexistent. In golf we hear a lot references now to the term 'spine angle'. What's exciting to me is how this really relates to athletes in most every sport, be it golf or cycling or skiing. On a bike, the guy who's moving around from side to side while riding is using a lot more energy than the rider whose body stays erect. Same thing in skiing -- the best skiers have a quiet upper body and absorb shock with their legs. That's why I think a person who's fit for golf is fit for life. What leads to a healthier spine also leads to a healthier golf swing.

MG: So you believe people in general and golfers in particular could avoid back problems by concentrating as much on strength training as flexibility?

Grin: Yes. When you think about it, you can do very little to change your bone structure. You might be able to change your nose or face, but only through surgery. People usually have a lot of hair or they don't. But muscles are the one thing in your body you can really alter or reconfigure. And muscles give a lot of support to the other structures in your body so it's important to stay fit. I'm absolutely convinced after managing 50,000 back patients -- 10,000 of which I've operated on -- that if we could have people physically fit and more flexible, a good percentage of these patients could avoid having surgery or back pain.

Dr. Oliver Grin's CD-ROM, "Oh, My Aching Back" is available for sale through Ludan Education Services in Grand Rapids at (800) 367-1553.

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