Stretching, strengthening and neuro-muscular patterning for golf.
As a young tour player in the late 1980s my view of fitness for golf was almost indistinguishable from a general full body workout that included the usual bench presses and abdominal crunches. With the ever increasing knowledge gained from golf sciences we have a much better understanding of appropriate fitness and training for golf. As a coach, I was also confronted with players whose technical development was confusingly slow. Fortuitously I was exposed to and developed relationships with progressive physiotherapists whose knowledge helped me understand that certain technical issues were directly related to the player’s physical predispositions. This relationship led to a deeper understanding of golf related injuries and training to enhance performance of both elite and amateur golfers. Golf biomechanics also helps in formulating what constitutes an effective and efficient swing technique. For me developing a good relationship with qualified practitioners with an expert knowledge of golf is of paramount importance and really has two clear objectives. Firstly, the swing mechanics have the potential to create and exacerbate injuries in golfers, particularly when the golfer’s technique is of high risk. The golfer’s body is generating substantial force that is repeated through practice and play. Thus swing related injuries are common place. Your coach may therefore refer you to a physiotherapist who understands the biomechanical requirements and implications of the golfer’s swing who will then be able to advise you and your coach of potential injury risks and also implement preventative measures. The second objective of involving allied health practitioners is to enhance performance. Shot quality and consistency cannot be measured by technique and physical capacities alone but they are major contributors to the overall potential of the player. Hitting the ball further without compromising consistency is undoubtedly one of the optimal goals of every player. What can golf specific exercises do? From my perspective as a coach and having worked with a number of skilled health practitioners, I see there being three focal points of golf specific training. 1. Stretching 2. Strengthening 3. Neuro-muscular patterning Stretching Stretching has been an accepted part of preparation for golf for many years. Now stretching of muscles is undertaken for both preventative and performance based reasons. Undergoing a physiotherapy screening that is golf specific can indicate the player’s range of movement in critical areas of the body. Regardless of a player’s dedication or the quality of coaching, if the body is physically restricted, changing swing patterns and dynamics will be limited. Over the years I have observed some clear cases of tightness in golfers’ muscles that manifest into poor technique. A good example of this can be seen when a player has tight pectoral muscles and their shoulder external rotation is restricted. Their ability to position the club on plane is restricted as the backswing moves on the path of least resistance. Players may be able to consciously position the club and arms in rehearsals and drills but under the dynamics of the swing the arm movements commonly default to the player’s old pattern. If a player comes to me with the club oriented above or across the plane and has worked at resolving it, my first appraisal would be an assessment of the flexibility of their pectoral and latissimus dorsi muscles. Similarly, if a player is having difficulty with their body-arm connection on the backswing, I would be concerned about the flexibility of their middle back (thoracic spine). Strengthening Muscle strength for golf can only be identified if the required swing movements are understood. Strength can provide stability and speed but until recent times generic training regimes adopted for golf have been more appropriate for footballers than golfers. Core stability is probably seen as the key area to stabilise the player’s pelvis and spine during the swing. The usual abdominal crunches may have you sporting a neat six pack but these muscles do not relate overly well to the functions of the golf swing. Instead, exercising the less aesthetically appealing muscles of the deep abdominal region would help to develop core stability. The oblique abdominus muscles that run across the trunk region are needed to generate rotational speed on the downswing and if the player is lacking downswing speed, exercises targeting these muscles may need to be emphasised. Strength of the scapula stabilisers is another area to give consideration, particularly if the player is having difficulty with the timing and compression of the shot in an otherwise functional swing. The player’s leading arm is attached to the trunk and held in place by the scapula stabilisers and as this area is subjected to the dynamics of the transitional phase and downswing it becomes an important linkage requiring strength. Neuro-muscular patterning As your golf swing is orchestrated by signals from the brain to the body, the nervous system also plays a role in the quality of swing movements. When attempting to refine a swing pattern some exercises will promote the correct neural network. These exercises often combine strength work with sequencing patterns that relate to the golf swing. These exercises can be tailored to address individual player’s technical issues. A player may be developing more dynamic downswing rotational speed but incorporate a more efficient sequencing pattern by simulating the sequence during the exercise. Some exercises will be done in isolation to establish the pattern more precisely. When and how to exercise. We have had excellent success with golf specific exercises by incorporating them into the player’s daily practice sessions. Just by laying a towel on the ground many exercises can be done using the player’s own body weight or simply with a stretch cord. Other exercises may require a Fit ball or other training aid. For tour players and amateurs that travel a lot, bulky aids are less useful thus many exercises are designed to utilise small aids or none at all. By carrying out the exercises during practice sessions it allows the player to relate the exercise directly to their golf swing and they often feel an immediate gain particularly from stretching their key restricted areas. Many of the exercises require supervision in the early stages because the value of the exercise can diminish quickly if the quality is lost. During tournament rounds you will often see players take the opportunity to stretch during delays. This may become more common and even include other exercises as our knowledge increases and we think a little further outside the square. If you do seek assistance in golf specific training just remain mindful of the holistic approach to golf that is needed to play to your optimal level. Concentration skills and other mental disciplines plus the litany of short game skills all deserve due consideration to achieve the balance required to excel in golf.