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Improving performance and avoiding neck and shoulder pain
By: Rosemary Rhodes (profile)
Maria Verchenova of the Ladies European Tour demonstrates a self test for your upper body posture.

Golf involves constant repetition of movement with the body in a potentially stressful position, placing demand on the physical structure of a golfer.

The golf stance and swing encourages excessive use and shortening of muscles on the front of the body, whilst lengthening the muscles of the back. The changes to a person’s posture and muscle strength imbalances that result have potential to cause injury.

Acute neck and upper back pain are frequent complaints from female golfers who often seek treatment from physiotherapists. Coaches, looking to improve the position of the right arm at the top of the back swing, want their golfers to increase flexibility and strength in the shoulders while improving connection of the shoulder blades to the trunk. This facilitates increased turn of the upper body with improved timing and control.

Postural control is the key to reducing the likelihood of being injured or losing flexibility. It is not just golf that is to blame; lifestyle has a big impact on posture. We all have childhood memories of being told to stand up straight and keep our shoulders back but sitting in cars, aeroplanes and at computers all encourage slouching in less than ideal positions.

The body works efficiently when it is in a good posture and all our building bricks are stacked correctly. It is this posture that allows muscles to work effectively and, as well as producing their maximum strength, operate with optimum timing and efficiency. Typically, a female golfer does not have the same physical strength as her male counterpart and so the efficiency of the system becomes even more important. It is often apparent that female golfers try to achieve a strong swing by using greater muscle activity than that which is required. This is often counterproductive as the movements produced are not always ideal or reproducible over time. An example of this is the golfer who uses the upper abdominals excessively to gain force but as a result fails to utilise the rotatory power from the lower core muscles and the powerful gluts.

The postural domino effect

A postural “domino effect”, frequently seen in female golfers, often starts with overactive short abdominal muscles resulting in increased forward bend of the upper body and rounding of the upper back. As a result of this, the shoulders move upwards and forwards and the chest muscles become short and tight, limiting shoulder movements. In response, the back and shoulder muscles are stretched and lengthened and as such, are unable to fully contract and provide the endurance needed to hold the body in position for an ideal swing. This becomes a vicious cycle as the front of the body gets stronger and tighter and the back gets weaker. The effect of this cascade pulls the neck forward, placing excess strain on the joints of the neck, and can result in injury. Because changes are slow in occurring, you may not recognise this as being relevant to you!

In the photograph below, Maria Verchenova of the Ladies European Tour, demonstrates a self test for your upper body posture. To test yourself and see if any of this applies to you, stand with your back against a wall. With your feet 5cm away from the wall, bend your knees slightly and flatten your lower back and the back of your head against the wall. Bring your arms out to 90 as shown in the picture. You should be able to keep your back, head and your hands and arms on the wall. If not, try working on the programme below and then reassessing yourself to see the improvement.

Picture 1 – Crucifix

Starting a programme: Any programme should start by working to improve flexibility to improve posture and allow for strength development. The stretches below aim to improve your upper body posture. Each stretch should be performed for approximately 30 seconds and repeated at least twice.

Picture 2 – Chest stretch

The muscles on the front of the chest restrict the ability to get the right arm into the position needed for the top of the back swing and also place increased strain on the neck while making the upper back more bent and less able to rotate. Try the stretch shown on both sides but if it does not feel tight vary your arm position up or down the wall to find the tightest area.

Picture 3 – Side / lat stretch

It is physically impossible for your body to rotate if it cannot side-bend and so to improve upper body twist it is important to stretch sideways first. Reach as high to the ceiling as you are able and then lean sideways to feel the stretch, keeping your hip against the wall. In a female golfer there appears to be a dominance of the lat muscles (latissimus dorsi) and upper abdominal muscles to provide the power of the swing. These muscles can become short and tight preventing the other stabilising muscles from working. Stretching the lats and the sides of the body, and reducing their dominance is, in my opinion, the key to improving the flexibility and hence the strength of the shoulder complex.

Picture 4 – Backwards over ball.

Once the chest and side muscles are more flexible, the position above will help to lengthen the abdominal muscles and stretch the middle back. To get the maximum shoulder stretch, link your hands and turn them as shown stretching arms as straight as possible.

Strengthening and stabilising your shoulder The shoulder joint and shoulder blade together make up the shoulder complex and need to work in harmony for optimum shoulder strength. As flexibility improves, strength is needed to maintain the new positions you are able to achieve. All exercises in the gym should start with the shoulder in a good posture. This is achieved by, gently pulling in your low stomach muscles (core), widening your shoulders and flattening your shoulder blades to your body. This should be done without arching your back or squeezing your arms into your body. Stability exercises are designed to work the endurance muscles around the shoulder. They should be performed slowly, ideally holding the end position for approximately 5 seconds and repeated 8-12 times for 1-3 sets. Quality of performance is important and it is better to do less repetitions than to do the exercise badly, as you tire.

Picture 5 - Rotator Cuff strength

Sitting as shown, with shoulders wide and elbow at 90, take your hand outwards, keeping your elbow in at your side. Hold for 5 sec and then return to the start position. If you are doing the exercise above with either resistance bands or a cable machine, it should always be done in sitting for optimum strengthening. In this position your posture is fixed and you cannot arch your back to avoid using the weaker muscles of the shoulder.

Picture 6 – Advanced shoulder strength

It was previously mentioned that the lat muscles can become excessively dominant in a golfer and the exercise here aims to re-educate movement patterns to encourage the use of the rotator cuff muscles instead. Sitting with shoulders wide and core tight, ensure your shoulders and elbows are in a straight line, with the cable or band level with your hand. Rotate your shoulder by lifting your hand upwards, keeping your elbow still. Return to the start position. Performing the exercise with your arm at 90 to your body prevents you using the lats so keep the arm away from the body and feel how much more difficult the exercise is. Just one word of caution – make sure you keep your neck muscles relaxed and your shoulders down and back, your body will try and take the easy way out!

Picture 7 – Horse stance

In the position shown, the shoulder blades should be drawn down and away from the neck and the core gently pulled in to keep the low back in a flattened position. Straighten your arms and make your back ‘table top’ straight. Hold this position while you straighten out one arm and the opposite leg. Hold for 5 sec and lower. Doing the exercise with a balance cushion under one hand or knee increases the effort to maintain stability. Make sure your low back does not arch and keep your leg as low as necessary to maintain the low back position. This exercise is working the low abdominal and gluteal muscles whilst encouraging lengthening of the upper abdominal and lat muscles. The connection of the shoulder blade to the body is being activated as the serratus anterior muscle works to stabilise the position. At the same time, the balance reactions are being challenged and this functional exercise becomes the exercise equivalent of multi tasking. Tackling the issue of upper body posture and strength allows the golfer to avoid injury and improve their physical condition for golf. The exercises here are designed to enable you to get the most out of exercising your shoulder by being specific about what you are trying to achieve and making your body perform as it should do. Photos courtesy of Maria Verchenova of the Ladies European Tour.

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