Luckily for everyone participating in the game, the golf swing has recently been de-coded as just another rotary sport. In essence, the physical laws of motion that create rotation for golf are no different than those for throwing a softball or javelin, hitting a baseball, serving in tennis or taking a slap-shot in hockey, just to name a few. Not that the golf swing is exactly the same as these other sports movements, (since, for example, the baseball bat moves more horizontally, speeds may vary, etc.), but the body sequencing is the same when it comes to the rotational aspects of these various and varied sports.
Understanding this gives trainers and coaches an objective point of reference with which to compare body positions, joint angles, range of motion, etc. at the different phases of the swing. We understand what the body will be asked to do at different positions and can train to accommodate those demands. In other words, golf’s unattainable progress becomes tangible and reachable.
With regard to the physical laws of motion, a golfer creates an open kinetic chain (“kinetics” refers to the study of the forces and torques that create motion, whereas “kinematics” studies motion without regard to the forces that produce it), with the feet at the closed end and the club head at the open end. In order to create the greatest ball striking impact at the open end of this chain, the club must be brought to the highest speed at the right moment, making sequencing AND timing (and coordination) of paramount importance to ideal biomechanics and a proper swing.
But ideal biomechanics do more than result in a pretty golf swing. They create a more consistent, reproducible swing that hits the ball farther and straighter, resulting in lower scores, and they reduce unnecessary stresses on the body, resulting in fewer injuries. Having the proper range of motion, muscular balance and strength assist in both sequencing and timing of proper biomechanics, the coordination of which is the key to better golf. What is the body going through on any given day at the range or on course?
Force is initiated from the ground up, beginning with the feet. The ideal sequence has the golfer begin his or her downswing with a slight weight shift toward the target, followed by an immediate rotation of the pelvis back toward the target. The pelvis then continues rotating while the shoulder, arms and club stay back. When the hips stabilize, they pull the shoulders with the torso muscles acting like rubber bands, and that speeds up the shoulders. The arms and club continue to lag at this point. While the shoulders continue to rotate, the same rubber band effect will happen between the upper back and arms. As the arms speed up and come down, the club is released and the ball is hit.
The laws of physics are well at work here: the peak speed of each segment is greater than the one before it (summation of speed) due to internal and external torques acting on progressively smaller segments. This is crucial because it allows the specific muscles to stretch and shorten in a way that allows energy and speed to transfer out to the club. An analogy could be cracking a whip, in that a relatively simple snapping of the whip handle begins a transfer of energy that culminates in a sound born of a sonic boom. What is critical is not only how the wrist begins its motion holding the handle but how the wrist completes its motion, stabilizing the handle. This stabilization allows the energy to be transferred down the line in a series of undulations that parallel the smaller and smaller body segments that produce the golf swing.
This sequencing is being used by the better players in the world. The rate at which they move their parts may be different, but the order in which they move them is not. From a visual perspective and swing plane, these players have very different looking swings. But the kinematic sequencing (or the kinetic link, or momentum transfer) that is happening inside their bodies is the same. This makes physical preparation easier to anticipate and master.
From a training perspective, perhaps it is easier to understand what happens when the body is not prepared to handle what’s being asked, biomechanically. Take the transition phase of the golf swing, the point in time wherein the lower body initiates the downswing. One of the main reasons that many golfers struggle at this point is the lack of lower body stability and the consequential inability to “disassociate,” or move the upper and lower body independently of each other. The physical ability to turn the upper body against a stable lower body creates coil, and the proper release of that stored energy created by coiling generates tremendous club head speed with very little effort.
Alternatively, if a golfer is (currently) physically unable to disassociate, he or she will not sequence correctly. The faulty lower body mechanics and their additional compensations will also give rise to counterproductive swing faults.
The common thread in the different rotary sports just might be the human body that plays them. When dissecting it, it becomes apparent that, due to its underlying structure, the body might not know any other way to play. The opposing and symmetrical lines of pull of muscle fibers, the contractile properties of the muscles themselves, plus the connective structure of the skeletal system illustrate how all movements, including those involved in rotary sports, have some ideal pattern to them.
Central to the workings and the make up of the body’s musculature are what’s considered to make up the “core.” A way to understand core function with regard to rotational sports, such as golf, is to look at the “serape effect.” This concept was illustrated well over 50 years ago in a text by Logan and McKinney. The serape is a Mexican garment that is draped loosely over the shoulders and is crossed in front of the body, much like how the muscles of the core act as a connector. Logan and McKinney identified the “serape” muscles as the rhomboids, serratus anterior, external obliques and internal obliques (see Figure 1).
The serape effect incorporates several major concepts, which are vital to the understanding of movement. In ballistic actions such as swinging, throwing and kicking, the serape muscles add to the summation of internal forces. They also transfer internal force from a large body segment to smaller parts. “The serape effect clearly makes the connection that in overhead activities, there is a definite hip-to-shoulder relationship.” Using the example of a right-handed thrower, there is an interaction between the pelvic girdle on the left and the throwing arm on the right by way of concentric contraction of the left internal oblique, right external oblique and serratus anterior on the right at the initiation of the throw. The pelvic girdle is rotating to the left and the rib cage is rotating to the right.
This movement paradigm is true in all rotary activities including the golf swing. But more importantly, it exemplifies that rotational sports movements take their cues from the bodies that play them, and when they are prepared for a specific sport’s demands, those bodies are naturally ready to perform.
And this brings trainers back to the fundamental need to follow a progression when doing golf performance training with clients. One of the most common physical limitations that needs to be corrected for better golf is a lack of internal hip rotation. This is a mobility issue that will affect the way the pelvis stabilizes in rotation, clearly a stability issue, and will not allow for proper energy transfer and kinematic sequencing. Training must begin at correcting those issues before moving onto strength and power. If power is the starting point, as is often the case, it could negatively impact the sequencing and mechanics necessary to play well and injury free.
Once sports performance trainers have understood the specifics of golf and golf training, and once they have appreciated the similarities to other sports training needs, they are well on their way to becoming more effective with present athletes and prospective golf clients. But to maximize their potential, there is another step left to address.
Other professional sports teams have an integrated array of specialists on staff for the players. Golf is no different. And as discussed before, golfers of all levels are beginning to aspire to and emulate the pro golfer’s level. The staffing is available, and having it is good for their egos.
The player’s new golf team has the following specialists on it:
- At least one teaching pro for technical expertise
- A sport psychologist for the psychological edge that’s sometimes needed
- An equipment specialist for effective club fitting
- A golf fitness trainer for preparation, injury-prevention and performance-enhancement once on the course
- Possibly a physical therapist, chiropractor or manual therapist
After nabbing the clients, the golf fitness trainer must now work at being an established part of that professional team. This is a network that is outside the golf instructor’s base of clients. And by being part of it, a trainer widens the circle of referrals. This means “taking the show on the road” and meeting with more area instructors. The fact that there is now an existing client base with a proven track record will make the next instructor a much easier target. Sports psychologists, physical therapists, chiropractors and manual therapists are usually willing to discuss networking arrangements, as they see the possibility for reciprocity. The same holds for fitting experts. And by growing the circle of referrals, the client base starts to grow as well.
At this point, a trainer might realize that their business is about to change again. As a consequence of a growing clientele, the trainer must now address “growing pains.” Of course, they could sleep less and work more, but that possibility isn’t so popular with the clients who don’t want to work out the same strange hours as the trainer. The other option with shrinking availability is to raise prices. It’s an economic truth: the law of supply and demand. Sure, some existing clients aren’t going to want to pay the higher rates, but passionate, affluent golfers will. After all, with the amount of knowledge and expertise that their trainer has amassed, of course they deserve to be paid those rates. And probably more.
This is the new situation: an already educated, experienced sports performance trainer has just added a new golf focus to his business. By studying the subject like crazy, he’s become the best golf trainer around. He is busy, profitable, reputable and successful. The trickle down: by virtue of the fact that golf has elevated his understanding of biomechanics, he’s suddenly a better performance trainer at other sports as well. That means he’s even busier, more profitable, more reputable, more successful and happier than before.
Can that trainer be you?
- Kreighbaum, Ellen and Katharine M. Barthels. "Biomechanics: A Qualitative Approach for Studying Human Movement." 2nd ed. Burgess Pub. Co. January 1 1985
- Logan, G., & McKinney, W. "The Serape Effect. In Anatomic Kinesiology" 2nd Ed. New York: William C. Brown, Co. 1970