Sports performance conditioning is one of the fastest growing aspects of the exercise and fitness industry. Athletes from high school age to professionals are experiencing tremendous improvement in skills and a dramatic reduction in injury rate by training their bodies with exercises that mimic the movements that are specific to their individual sport. Clearly, soccer is vastly different from wrestling, running cross country track is different than field hockey, and tennis players move differently than gymnasts. Even golf, long associated with overweight men riding golf carts, has experienced a tremendous evolution. Players hit the ball longer and harder, and although this is partly related to improved equipment, most professionals employ trainers and fitness experts to help them maximize their potential. Sports performance conditioning includes warm-up activities and stretching routines as well as in-season and off-season conditioning. It is extremely comprehensive and individual, necessitating monitoring by experienced strength and conditioning coaches and physical trainers. But, what about recreational athletes? Can they too benefit from these principles? Can even the average golfer benefit from a custom exercise routine?
The answer is a simple and resounding YES. Most golfers take the physical aspects of golf for granted because of the slow pace of the game. But, “the golf swing is one of the most unnatural, explosive movements in sport… you must prepare your body to both produce and withstand the forces required for powerful drives” (from Complete Conditioning for Golf, Westcott and Draovitch). 1/4to 1/3 of all golfers are injured while playing golf, resulting in 40,000 trips to the emergency room each year. Women suffer more upper body musculoskeletal injuries than men, but are less prone to back injuries than men. In general, the vast majority of injuries are from poor swing mechanics and lack of physical preparation. And, of equal importance, most technical problems with swing mechanics are closely related to a lack of proper strength, balance and flexibility. While learning proper swing mechanics is best handled by a golf professional, physical preparation is best handled by a fitness trainer experienced in the game of golf.
Researchers at Brown University conducted a small study with golfers over the course of an 8 week training program. All groups trained approximately 40 minutes a day, three times a week and ALL experienced an improvement in general health and increased club head speed. All participants reported lower scores, longer drives and no injuries during the following golf season. Considering the amount of money golfers spend on the latest and greatest equipment, golf lessons and more, it seems that a little bit of physical preparation is time and money well spent!
Golf conditioning typically consists of exercises which enhance the strength of the muscles used in golf, enhance the flexibility of these muscles and improve the balance/stability of the golfer. Improving these aspects of fitness takes weeks of pre-season conditioning in order to have a positive impact during the golf season itself. 8 weeks should be the least amount of time invested in pre-season training.
Specifically, pre-season conditioning should focus on strengthening the “core muscles”- those deep muscles of the back and abdominal area which attach at the spine and improve the strength and stability of the spine. The use of physio balls and medicine balls has been shown to be quite effective in conditioning these muscles. The obliques, the abdominal muscles along the sides of the waist, also need to be strengthened, as they are primarily responsible for the rotation of the spine during the golf swing. Including rotational movements during training is therefore essential.
The strength and endurance of the upper back, shoulder and arm muscles are also integral to a proper golf swing( although true swing power is transferred from the hips up through the torso- thus necessitating a strong core). A pre-season conditioning program should include exercises that strengthen the upper back and back of the shoulder, specifically the rotator cuff muscles, as these areas are so prone to injury. Wrist and forearm strengthening will also assist the golfer in preventing overuse injuries such as golfer’s elbow.
The large muscles of the hips and legs are where the golfer first sets the golf swing in motion- strength, balance and coordination of these muscles are thus essential to train pre-season. Practicing standing on ½ foam rollers, or any surface that is unstable such as a foam pillow, will improve the balance and stability of these muscle groups, thus preparing the golfer for the uneven surface of the golf course.
Pre-season conditioning should also include flexibility training. Muscle groups that are abnormally tight are prone to injury. The golf swing requires great torso and upper body flexibility and these muscle groups must be trained prior to the golf season. Overly tight muscle groups that will impede the golf game include the hamstrings, hip rotators, low back, calves, chest, waist and upper back muscles. For example, a rounded upper back posture related to tight chest muscles decreases rotational potential, thus increasing the risk of shoulder and arm injuries. Tight hips prevent proper weight transference during the back swing, thus increasing the chance of low back injury.
Once golf season is upon us, a proper warm-up routine, both physical and mental, should always be performed prior to golf. Stretching to maintain flexibility should always be performed after golf. These are the areas most recreational golfers greatly neglect. A proper warm-up should include dynamic stretching (stretching through movement) that warms up the muscles used in golf, as well as a few gentle static pre-stretches to make sure that all of the golf muscles can move smoothly through their natural range of motion. Using a golf club during the dynamic and static golf stretches is a great way to insure a mental as well as physical preparation routine. Post golf, stretching the muscles mentioned above is always a good idea, as repeated golf swings can shorten the range of motion of these muscles over time.
Although there are many aspects of golf conditioning that require training with a fitness professional, there are some simple stretches and strength training exercises that most golfer’s can learn about through golf conditioning books and articles. Personal Best Personal Training offers a golf conditioning program called Fit for Golf. The program is available in the Member’s Only section of the website.