PT on the Net Research

Conditioning Golfers


Golf is one of the fastest rising participation sports in the world. In the US, 16 percent of Americans actively participate, and in New Zealand, there are approximately 416,000 Kiwis playing golf. Golfers will do anything to hit the ball longer and lower their handicaps! They regularly spend as much as $4,000 on a set of clubs, hoping for an extra few meters on their drive. The golf industry generates billions of dollars in sales every year. But despite all the advanced technology in golfing equipment, the average handicap for both males and females has not dropped in the past 16 years. So what’s the problem?

It’s simple - golfers need to realize that the only way to achieve a lower handicap is to improve the function of the golfers themselves! And the way to achieve that is through correct conditioning. This article will focus on one aspect of golfing that fitness professionals can have a significant impact upon.

Ball Flight and Swing Faults

A brief overview of the way swing faults are generally corrected is needed. Ball flight is primarily controlled by five factors:

  1. Club Face Alignment
  2. Swing Path
  3. Angle of Attack
  4. Hitting the Sweet Spot
  5. Clubhead Speed

Swing faults are to be expected when a player’s swing displays characteristics that adversely affect one or more factors above. A golf pro will identify the aspects of the swing producing aberrant ball flight and will then attempt to instruct the player toward correction. Frequently, two, three, four, five or more adjustments are made, often resulting in such modifications as altering stance, swing amplitude, hip/shoulder turn ratio, grip and so on. In the majority of players, these swing changes are necessary to compensate for imbalances in the musculoskeletal structures of the body. Eventually, the experienced teaching pro finds a way to trick the system, allowing the player to overcome the swing fault of primary concern, at least for the time being. 

Identifying the Elusive Obvious

The trouble is that no matter how good you are at tricking the system, it is always just a trick, and tricks are compensations. The more compensations players learn and attempt to manage to overcome structural mal-alignment, the more likely they are to experience inconsistency in their game. This is because the brain is the organizing force behind any bodily movement and works, in a sense, like a computer: the more windows you have open, the slower it runs. Brain computing speed is crucial when you consider that the movement from the top of the backswing to impact can take place in as little as 250 milliseconds; yet, it takes approximately 300 milliseconds to process a new movement!

The harsh reality is that the brain processes information in series. Stated simply, when golfers have more than one thing to concentrate on, they will either be forced to think about what the golf pro is telling them to do or on hitting the ball. If they concentrate on altering their stance in addition to one or more aspects of their swing, they are unusually lucky the flight of the ball is corrected! And if the swing does improve, this improvement is usually transient! There are sound physiological reasons for all this. 

Neuromechanical Factors that Govern Ball Flight Factors

The body is a complex system of interrelated systems. Those predominantly involved in producing the swing are the nervous, muscular and skeletal systems, which combine to create the neuromechanical system.

The state of readiness of a player’s neuromechanical system can always be determined by assessing the following four physical factors:

  1. Muscle Balance and Flexibility
  2. Static and Dynamic Postural Stability
  3. Strength
  4. Power

Each individual has a given level of ability and a specific level of skill relative to the demands of any given task or challenge; in this case, the challenge is to produce a sound swing. Although golf teaching pros can pinpoint the faults in the golf swing, many cannot identify lack of skill or physical ability in any of the physical factors that relate to the golf swing (see Table 1). Failure to make the connection between performance and the neuromechanical system will always result in short term fixes to swing faults! This is where the fitness professional enters the picture. With a sound understanding of anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics and functional exercise, the fitness professional can design conditioning programs to correct any deficiencies in the physical factors, improving the swing by improving the golfer.

As you can see by reviewing Table 1, the four factors most critical to controlling ball flight are under the greatest influence of muscle balance and flexibility plus static and dynamic postural stability. These factors directly influence both joint mechanics, muscle recruitment patterns and consistency of movement. Any golfer would agree that if he had to trade some distance for a straighter shot, he would have a much greater chance of lowering his handicap. If physical factors 1 and 2  in Table 1 are not adequately addressed and attempts are made to improve physical factors 3 and 4, your golfing client only gets to walk further into the rough!

BALL FLIGHT FACTORS

PHYSICAL FACTORS

Clubface Alignment (1,2) 1. Muscle Balance and Flexibility
Swing Path (1,2) 2. Static and Dynamic Postural Stability
Angle of Attack (1,2) 3. Strength
Hitting the Sweet Spot (1,2) 4. Power
Clubhead Speed (1,2,3,4)
Table 1 - Correlating Ball Flight Factors and Physical Factors

As indicated here, Muscle Balance (1) and Static and Dynamic Postural Stability (2) are intimately related to control of all ball flight factors. In contrast, Strength (3) and Power (4) are only of great influence to clubhead speed. Interestingly, most golfers who condition spend the majority of their time developing only those physical factors that improve clubhead speed, which is only approximately 20 percent responsible for controlling ball flight!

Not All Muscles Are Created the Same

Joint dysfunction, muscle imbalance and static or dynamic postural stability problems are all reasons a player’s swing faults are hard to improve long term. Aside from blatant lack of skill, muscle imbalance is by far the most common source of altered neuromechanics and both poor and/or inconsistent swing mechanics. 

Fitness professionals working with golfers need to be able to identify and correct length-tension relationships (e.g., the balance between muscles and groups of muscles). Length-tension relationships represent and dictate both the real-time function of the working joints and how well the body executes the brain’s swing command. In the presence of muscle length-tension imbalances, what may be a very good motor engram (motor command sequence) leaving the brain often manifests as a swing with notable faults. This is commonly expressed by the golfer as, "Damn, I thought for sure that was going to be a good one."

A player with muscle imbalance is most easily identified by his poor posture. Altered spinal curvatures disrupt spinal mechanics, leading to compensatory movement at other joints. Increased thoracic kyphosis restricts torso rotation, causing faulty swing mechanics. No matter how well trained a player may be, there will always be neuromechanical distortion of his swing. When the player’s muscle balance and postural alignment are optimal, there is minimal engram disruption. In this state, good motor programming results in long-term correction of swing faults and minimizes chances of orthopedic injury.

One of the main reasons for muscle imbalance is the way our muscles are designed. We have muscles that are classified as tonic and phasic. Tonic muscles are ideally suited to postural duties such as holding an address posture and an optimal swing axis. Tonic muscles react to aberrant physical or mental stress by shortening and tightening. Phasic muscles are more suited to dynamic movements such as actually swinging and accelerating the club. Phasic muscles react to aberrant physical or mental stress by lengthening and weakening. The physiological reality of how these two muscle types react to both physical and mental stress is what underlies many chronic swing faults that persist, despite having spent large sums of money on elite coaching and high tech clubs.

One of the key reasons for the difference responses between the muscle types is the threshold of stimulation; tonic muscles have a low threshold of stimulation, while phasic muscles have a high threshold of stimulation. Additionally, as we age (beyond 40), our phasic abdominal and gluteal (butt) muscles tend to weaken, further encouraging muscle imbalance. 

Experienced golfers often have a very good mental image of the ideal swing, and try with all intent to execute one. Because tonic muscles have a lower threshold of stimulation than phasic muscles and tend to override commands to antagonistic and synergistic phasic muscles, the physical image or expression of the motor command may not represent the mental image used to generate the movement. Here the tonic lumbar erectors and hip flexors override the phasic abdominal and gluteal musculature, pulling the player into an over-swing. Not only does the player frequently not realize he is doing this, back pain is a common byproduct.

When a player develops any degree of muscle imbalance, the swing motor engram that leaves the player’s brain is altered in proportion to the degree of facilitation* and muscle imbalance that exists in the musculoskeletal system. Additionally, each time a player executes a swing in the presence of muscle imbalance, the engram is progressively altered, and the muscle imbalance is further facilitated. This is one reason that golfers play for five or even 10 years with minimal improvement in their handicap; even though their understanding of the game is improving, their level of neuromechanical imbalance is of greater influence on their game!

The Solution

You can make significant gains toward a better swing by showing your golfing client how to stretch the shortened tonic muscles just before you play (Table 2). Using slow static stretching on the shortened tonic muscles only, you will get sufficient results to see an immediate change in swing mechanics. Don’t be surprised if your clients develop unexpected swing responses after stretching a few shortened tonic muscles. This is because they are now seeing a more accurate representation of the messages leaving their brain, which are frequently chock full of compensatory messages programmed in by past experimentation and under the influence of a teaching pro that was doing his best with the knowledge he had at that time! To teach the intricacies of each stretch is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, see my "Golf Biomechanic’s Manual" or an experienced sports physical therapist.

TONIC MUSCLES

Cervical Extensors Quadratus Lumborum
Levator Scapulii Iliopsoas
Upper Trapezii Rectus Femoris
Scalenii Hamstrings
Subscapularis Adductors
Pectoralis Minor Piriformis
Biceps Brachii Tensor Fascia Latae
Wrist Flexors Gastrocnemius
Lumbar Erectors Soleus
Table 2 - Tonic Muscles that Frequently Shorten, Affecting Swing Mechanics

Learn to identify and address neuromechanical obstructions to the swing using assessment and evaluation techniques. Follow the Flexibility –> Stability –> Strength –> Power progression in your conditioning programs. Any attempt to develop strength or power before adequate flexibility and stability are achieved will only serve to break your client down! The good news is that as you restore normal muscle balance in the client’s body, the coaching he now receives from a teaching pro has a fighting chance of making long term changes in his swing! So you can work with golf pros, knowing you are both helping the client to improve his game.

References:

  1. Hans Spring et.al. 1991. Stretching and Strengthening Exercises. Thieme Publishing, New York,
  2. Karl Lewit. 1991. Manipulative Therapy in Rehabilitation of the Locomotor System, 2nd Ed. Butterworth-Heinmann Ltd., Oxford
  3. Paul Chek. 1999 Golf Biomechanic’s Manual. C.H.E.K Institute
  4. 27th Edition Dorlan’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary

* Facilitation – when an impulse has passed once through a certain set of neurons to the exclusion of others, it will tend to do so on a future occasion and each time it traverses this path the resistance in the path will be smaller. By the Law of Facilitation above, repetition of any movement (good or bad) becomes progressively more programmed in the nervous system.