By Kathy Corey
Golf—the game itself appears to be relatively benign. But the golf swing is a complex, coordinated movement that on the moment of impact applies compressive forces approximately eight times the body weight. The game is now recognized as a sport rather than a leisure activity and requires muscular strength, joint flexibility, neuromuscular training, and the perfect balance between mobility and stability. Unlike other sports that condition the body within the action of the game, the golf swing itself is not enough for conditioning since it only takes about one second to execute. A specialized golf workout designed specifically for an individual’s needs and limitations will produce the greatest results in the most efficient amount of time. The goal of the program lies not only in training the body for a better swing but also in injury prevention and in focused control.
Worldwide, it is estimated that 50 to 60 million people play golf. The National Golf Foundation reports 26.2 million golfers in the United States with an increase of 5 percent over the previous year. The largest group to increase in participation is women. With this increase, various reports of injury rates indicate that approximately 60 percent of all amateur golfers experience injuries and 50 percent of professional golfers are forced to retire because of golf related injuries. The most common sites for injury for amateur men are the lower back (36 %), elbows (32.5%), hands and wrists (21.2%), and shoulders (11%). Amateur women golfers have greater occurrences in their elbows (35.5%), followed by lower back (27.4%), shoulders (16.1%), and hands and wrists (14.5%). The injuries in amateurs are due to overuse, striking the ground with the club, and poor swing mechanics.
Professional golfers have fewer injuries than amateurs and occur in the hands and wrists (29.6% men, 44.8% women), lower back (25% men, 22.4% women), shoulders (11.4% men, 7.5% women) and elbows (7.3% men, 6% women). Due to the many hours per day played by professionals, overuse is the major cause of 80 percent of their injuries. Striking the ground and twisting their trunks account for the other 20 percent.
Addressing these specific issues is a crucial part of a golf training program. Foot and leg alignment, core strength, joint and spinal flexibility, shoulder rotation, and arm, wrist and hand strengthening exercises need to be included because the momentum of the swing is dependent upon the sequential kinetic transference from each body segment into the club. Spinal alignment is vital to proper swing mechanics since the spine coils and uncoils 110 to 130 times in one direction over an average 4-hour game.
Pilates exercises train your core muscles. It is a mind body exercise system that develops strong, flexible and well-toned muscles creating a connection between concentration and activity. Pilates brings focus to each movement pattern and enhances both balance and stability. The golf swing is based on moving from your center with alignment from the ground up. Pilates exercises create this alignment and consistently repeat the movements in a controlled environment. The key to a great swing is to make it repeatable. Pilates gives the golfer the tools necessary to not only improve the swing, but to improve it with reliability.
Golf is a game of asymmetry and multidirectional stresses. Imagine doing an oblique curl to the left 110 to 130 times with compressive forces 8 times your body weight. Pilates spinal rotation exercises help to de-rotate this spinal imbalance and re-align core muscles. Attention to standing alignment and foot placement stabilizes the base of support, and weight-shifting exercises promote better balance.
The most important aspect of this program is designing core movements for the individuals needs. Assessing performance and lengthening tight muscles, decreasing multi-joint tightness, strengthening the weaker muscles for power on impact will create a program that advances the game, prevents injury and improves general fitness.
In the one second of the swing, the muscles fire in the following pattern for a right-handed golfer:
Gluteals – left side
Adductors – left side
Latissimus dorsi -- left side
Obliques – left to right side
Quadriceps – right side
Pectorals – right side
Hamstrings – left side
Rotator Cuff – right side
Golf is a left-handed game for a right-handed society. For a right-handed golfer, the left side of the body is the target side (closest to the ball) while the right side is the non-target side. And while the golf swing uses almost all the muscles in the body, the muscles on one side of the body may be doing the exact opposite of the other side of the body. For a conditioning program to be effective, both sides of the body need to be trained for the specific jobs they need to accomplish.
The major phases of the golf swing are: the set-up or address, the backswing, the downswing, impact and follow-through.
The set-up phase may be the most important part of the swing. A good golf swing starts with a good base of support. Core muscles at the hips, pelvis and lumbar spine provide stability and allow for the transference of power to the legs, trunk and arms. This initial phase establishes the biomechanics for the swing. Once the swing has begun, there is no time for correction. Impact occurs in 1/5 of a second and injury can occur from an incorrect starting position. During this phase, the golfer forms the primary spinal angle which is created by forward flexion and hinging at the hips. The back should be straight and in the neutral position and the knees bent about 10 – 20 degrees. The secondary spinal angle is created by lateral bending to the right (non-target) for a right-handed golfer and the downward rotation of the right arm and scapula. The forearms and triceps are now activated in an isometric contraction. The erector spinae, rectus abdominis, hamstrings, and gluteus maximus are engaged for balance and support. It is necessary to maintain the primary and secondary spinal angles throughout the swing. Any deviation of these angles will result in a loss of power.
The backswing involves rotating the trunk and raising the arms to prepare for the downswing. The rotation of the shoulders pulls the pelvis away from the target line and changes the position of the center of gravity. At this point, good rotation and flexibility are needed to maintain the secondary spinal angle and keep the center of gravity within the base of support. The height of the backswing is determined by the amount of spinal rotation and range of motion in the shoulders especially on the target side of the body. The body positioning should be at its maximum efficiency to create the kinetic energy for the downswing. The primary muscles used in the backswing are the biceps, teres minor, supraspinatus and the infraspinatus on the non-target side to raise and pull back the club and stabilize the shoulder girdle. The pectoralis major engages on the target side to move the target arm back. The flexor carpi ulnaris and extensor carpi ulnaris stabilize and cock the wrists. The deltoids activate on both sides of the body to lift the club back. The external oblique on the target side and the internal oblique on the non-target side rotate the torso along the spinal axis. The rectus abdominis and erector spinae rotate and stabilize the non-target side. In the lower body the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus aid hip rotation. The adductor brevis, longus and mangus on the target side are responsible for the inward and lateral movement of thigh. The gluteus minimus, also on the target side, moves the hip inward and laterally.
The motion of the downswing pivots the body toward the target and pulls the arms down generating club head acceleration. The actions of the shoulders and arms in the downswing are responsible for the club head speed. The pectoralis major now engages on the non-target side for acceleration before impact. The posterior deltoid on the non-target side acts as a stabilizer. The triceps remain contracted. The teres minor, and infraspinatus activate the movement of the target arm, and along with the trapezius they stabilize the shoulders. The non-target arm rotates internally toward the target from the subscapularis. The extensor carpi radialis longus and the extensor carpi radialis brevis uncock the wrists. The latissimus dorsi stabilize the shoulder girdle and adduct and stabilize the non-target arm. On the non-target side, the external oblique acts as a stabilizer and pulls the shoulders toward the hips rotating toward the target. The internal oblique and erector spinae on the target side are responsible for trunk rotation. The biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus aid hip rotation. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus engage for hip abduction now on the non-target side. The most stress to the body occurs in the downswing phase.
Impact is the fastest and most crucial part of the swing. The shoulders, arms and hands must transfer the energy from the club into the ball. They are the last link in the kinetic chain. At impact the target side internal obliques and pectoralis are at their most active point. On the non-target side the pectoralis major contributes only slightly to the club swing. The latissimus dorsi activates to aid both internal rotation and the movement of the non-target arm. The triceps maintain their contraction during the swing. The muscles stabilizing the shoulder and creating external rotation of the target arm are the teres minor and infraspinatus. The subscapularis on the non-target side are responsible for the internal rotation and movement of the non-target arm. The extensor carpi radialis longus and the extensor carpi radialis brevis maintain the uncocking of the wrists. The initiation of the wrist snap is done with the activation of the flexor carpi ulnaris. The external oblique on the non-target side acts to pull the shoulders to the hips and rotates the body toward the target. As the internal oblique and erector spinae rotate the trunk on the target side, the rectus abdominis engages to stabilize the torso. The quadratus lumborum bends the trunk to the side on the non-target side of the body. The action of the gluteus medius at impact is rotation to the target with the non-target leg. The gluteus minimus abducts the hip laterally shifting the weight to the target. The biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus aid hip rotation and hip extension. The adductor brevis, longus and mangus on the non-target side are responsible lateral weight shift and the hip movement toward the target. The gastrocnemius/ soleus activate to stabilize the body during the weight change.
From the top of the backswing to impact can take as little as 250 milliseconds. It takes the brain 300 milliseconds to process new information. There is no chance for correction once the swing has begun.
Momentum is a large part of follow through. Once the club has made contact with the ball, the body begins to decelerate. The body weight has shifted into the target leg and the shoulders and hips are facing the target. The primary muscles in the upper body on follow through and their actions are: teres minor on the target side for shoulder stabilization and external rotation of the arm; subscapularis on the non-target side for internal rotation and arm movement; infraspinatus for external rotation of the target arm; and the extensor carpi radialis longus and the extensor and flexor carpi radialis ulnaris to maintain the grip. In the trunk, the primary muscles and their actions are: the external oblique on the non-target side is a stabilizer and pulls the shoulders toward the hips rotating toward the target; the internal oblique on the target side is responsible for trunk rotation; the rectus abdominis stabilizes the torso to prevent excessive hyper-extension of the back muscles; and both side of the erector spinae bring the body to the upright position to complete the movement. Muscles and actions in the lower body and legs include: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus for hip rotation and extension; gluteus minimus on the non-target side for hip abduction and on the non-target leg, hip rotation; the gastrocnemius/ soleus on the non-target side for stabilization at the end of the swing; and finally the tibialis anterior stabilizes the lower target leg.
Biomechanically, the golf swing is a complex and unnatural movement that works the whole body—just not in symmetrical patterning. Addressing physical limitations through a series of Pilates exercises works to create symmetry and coordination, improve muscular endurance and range of motion. Pilates establishes coordinated muscles firing through re-training the core muscles—the deep stabilizers, hip flexors and extensors, hip abductor and adductors, and spinal flexors, extensors and rotators.
Both golf and Pilates are mind/body activities. The components of the golf swing are: fluid motion, precision, accuracy and power. The Pilates principles are: control, concentration, centering, precision, flow of motion and breath.
A golf pro will help correct technique by altering stance, grip, and hip turn ratio. But the underlying fault in the swing is in the body. Correcting the swing at the time of the swing will not improve the physical cause. Physical faults—lack of flexibility, poor rotation, hip instability, general hip and leg weakness, shoulder girdle instability, weakness in the wrists and forearms, and poor core strength all correlate to the way the ball is hit. Addressing these faults at their source and re-training the body by introducing the appropriate tools for success will not only improve the game but will prevent injury and increase general fitness.
Some of the most common physical faults of the golf swing are backswing sway, chicken winging, reverse spine angle or dipping, lower body lunge, casting, and poor swing rotation. Each of these faults has a negative effect on the golf swing and a correlating physical cause. Assessing the physical limitation and defining the cause will create a program of corrective exercises to improve the golf swing and reduce injury.
Backswing sway occurs when the hands drift too far away from the body, pulling the torso on the backswing. This results in too much lateral movement and the ball flight path will likely be a slice or a hook. The causes are lack of balance and the inability to rotate the upper torso. To correct this fault use balance exercises that stabilize core muscles and shift the body weight. Create proper foot alignment and use balls and foam rollers to improve balance. For more upper torso rotation, stabilize the pelvis and increase range of motion with torso rotation exercises. Placing a golf club or pole behind the head across the top of the shoulders and rotating just the upper torso will help to increase flexibility and eliminate this problem.
Another common fault is known as chicken winging which happens when the golfer lifts the non-target elbow on the backswing. This movement changes the angle of the club and the swing path which will result in smothering the ball or hitting the top of the ball. The cause is shoulder girdle instability. Use exercises to strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle and minimize range of motion for hyper-mobile joints. Strengthen the infraspinatus, teres minor and posterior deltoid.
Reverse spine angle or dipping pushes the body weight to the front foot. This causes the hips to slide laterally instead of rotate. The result is that the ball path distance is diminished. Creating hip stability will correct this problem. Exercises to strengthen the core muscles in the pelvis and the rectus abdominis, external obliques and hip flexors are indicated in this program.
Lower body lunge occurs when the body is not in the proper position at the moment of impact. The body lunges past the ball in an attempt to quickly transfer the weight to the target side. This incorrect positioning turns the club face downward resulting in smothering the ball or the ball not getting off the ground. This problem can be corrected by strengthening the hips and legs. Include lunges for the quadriceps, prone or standing leg curls for the hamstrings, and adduction and abduction exercises for the hips.
An early uncocking of the wrists is called casting. This will bring the club head ahead of the hands which tops or smothers the ball and results in a loss of power on impact. This is generally caused by weakness in the wrists and forearms. Since the number one injury for amateur women and the number 2 injury for amateur men are elbow injuries, strengthening exercises for the wrist and forearm can help protect this joint and prevent strain. Wrist curls, and reverse wrist curls, radial flexion and ulnar flexion are indicated for this condition.
A limited range of motion in the torso causes one of the most common physical faults in the swing – poor swing rotation. Swing power comes from the turn of the body. A program of core strength exercises and flexibility movements should include exercises for the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, erector spinae, hip flexors, hamstrings, pectorals, deltoids and internal and external rotators.
When swing faults occur the ball flight path is adversely affected. There are four fundamentals that primarily control the ball flight path: clubhead alignment, swing path, angle of attack and clubhead speed. The neuromechanical system consists of four elements that govern ball flight factors: muscle balance and flexibility, static and dynamic postural stability, strength and power. In order to produce a sound swing and improve performance identifying individual physical weaknesses as they relate to these elements is necessary. The physical factors that correlate to the ball flight factors are:
Muscle balance and flexibility, and static and dynamic postural stability – clubhead alignment
Muscle balance and flexibility, and static and dynamic postural stability – swing path
Muscle balance and flexibility, and static and dynamic postural stability – angle of attack
Muscle balance and flexibility, and static and dynamic postural stability, and strength and power – clubhead speed
A conditioning program designed to develop strength and power may add distance but not improve controlling the ball flight path. Pilates exercises work to create muscle balance, flexibility, core alignment and proper spinal mechanics. When muscle balance and core alignment are optimal, good motor programming results. Over time, swing faults are corrected by better body mechanics which also reduce the chance of injury.
The Pilates matwork and equipment offers a wide variety of exercises to stretch, strengthen and rotate the body. Pilates creates core alignment and functional strength to perform movements to integrate the whole body. Its purpose is freedom of movement for the greater enjoyment of activity at any age. Its goal is intelligent fitness for lifelong health. The precision of correct Pilates movements creates new physical patterns. The practice of Pilates builds a flow of motion that brings ease and power to the golf game. Pilates, like golf, brings conscious control and focus to all movements, and, like golf, only through the centering of body and mind can great benefits be achieved.