Better Golf (and Less Injuries) with a Balanced Body
By Ada Wells, MPT
As seen in the Fall 2009 Balanced Body Pilates COREterly
As Pilates instructors, we possess a unique set of tools that can help golfers decrease their chances of injury and improve sports performance. To have a successful golfing experience, the individual must not only possess the proper skills to know how to properly swing a club, but they must also possess the range of motion, strength, and neuromuscular control to allow their body to actually execute the swing. While it is helpful to understand the complex biomechanics of the golf swing motion, focusing on just a few key critical areas will help most golfers.
Why golf is so difficult and why all the injuries?
Having a consistent golf swing with good form is a difficult task because of the complexity of its biomechanics. Without going into too much detail, there are a few aspects of the golf swing that are helpful to understand. First, the spine is subject to a very rapid and complex loading pattern. In less than 1.5 seconds, the spine and extremities are taken to their end ranges of motion, making the extensibility of soft tissues dictate the path of the swing. Lacking flexibility in the mid-back and hips may cause the lumbar spine to bend and rotate in ways that increase spinal stress. The golf swing also involves a combination of non-functional movement patterns and rotational movements around multiple axes. Since these are not typical motions, i.e. the head moves opposite the body through most of the swing, there are different neuromuscular firing patterns that must occur. Individuals may be prone to upper body injuries if they don’t possess the strength to control their flexibility in these atypical positions. Regardless of age, gender, or experience, muscle strength and flexibility imbalances can impair one’s ability to play effectively, especially when combined with poor instruction or form.
Many swing faults and injuries are the result of lacking range of motion or motor control in a few key areas. Below are some suggestions that are helpful when working with your golf client.
Spine Range of Motion and Control: Optimal spinal mobility at all levels is critical since limitations at one area will increase compressional forces on another. This is particularly important during the end ranges of the swing when control of thoracic extension and rotation need to be maximal. The pelvis should also stay relatively neutral throughout the swing to allow the body to rotate around a neutral spine axis. Note that the pelvis stays neutral despite changes in hip position and its directional orientation throughout the swing.
The Pilates Arc™ is a wonderful tool for golfers, since they can stretch the spine and work on core control in a variety of spinal orientations. Mat exercises such as the mermaid and saw are helpful for encouraging spinal rotation and pelvic control, whereas the swan and swimming are helpful in working with spine control in extension.
Hip Range of Motion and Control: Good hip range of motion, particularly hip internal rotation and hip extension, is very important. A tight iliotibial band combined with weak hip abductors can be a culprit for many swing faults. What is often overlooked is the importance of also working on hip and lower extremity control in weight bearing positions.
Functional Footprints® are a favorite tool with golfers. They allow one to work on hip control with the golfer in a weight bearing position and in varying degrees of hip rotation, whether they’re used on their own or in combination with other apparatus. The reformer is the obvious place to work on hip flexibility, whether performing the supine legs in straps series or the standing lunge/hip flexor stretch. Performing hip work on the reformer with the client standing in their golf address position is helpful for training muscular control with the hips in flexion and spine in neutral – think speedskater or the standing splits series.
Cervical Mobility and Scapular Control: Integrating postural exercises is necessary for any sport, but with golf, the added complexity of the head moving in an opposite direction of the arms and thoracic spine makes it critical. Also, the potential for repetitive upper extremity injuries exists if the golfer doesn’t have good scapular control.
Lying supine, parallel to the foam roller is a great place to start with most golfers, as it allows them to engage their core stabilizers while mobilizing their mid-back and stretching out their pectorals. Prone exercises on the combo chair are helpful to encourage scapular stabilization while the spine moves into spinal extension and rotation positions. On the mat, the spine twist is excellent for working on good spinal mobility in neutral. Performing variations with neck and arm position can make it very functional for the golfer. Arm springs on the trapeze table can be used in standing or kneeling to work on scapular control in a variety of directions.
In general, a non-specific, but balanced Pilates session with good form and cues, will be of benefit to golfers, whether or not you even mention golf or have ever played yourself. However, if you choose to specifically target golfers or if you frequently have golfers as clients, it is helpful if you have a deeper understanding of the complexity of the golf swing. Take lessons, talk to a pro, take golf-specific fitness courses, and try it yourself so that you understand what is physically required to have a good golf swing and to maximize results with your golfing clients.
Ada Wells, MPT, owner of ProBalance, Inc., graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. in Physiology. She received her MPT from Chapman University. She is Polestar certified and a member of APTA and PMA. Ada specializes in combining manual therapy with Pilates-based exercise for sport-specific rehabilitation and performance programs with a special interest in golf. For the past 7 years, she has provided Pilates services to the celebrity golfers at the American Century Golf Championship.