Exercising for The Golf Swing
Exercise programs can speed the recovery from injury, prevent injury in the first place, increase stamina, help to reduce weight, create a more muscular or attractive appearance, improve mental alertness, reduce blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, improve posture and reduce posture-related pain, reduce stress (or at least increase the ability to manage it), create a feeling of well-being (the exercise “high”), and increase the ability to perform specific functions (e.g. swing a golf club). This Guide focuses on the last point.
When you consider the requirements of the golf swing, your downswing swing lasts less than a quarter second. Depending on your ability, you may make anywhere from 35 to 60 full swings, over a period of 3 to 5 hours in a typical game.
As for exercising for the golf swing, several objectives are key:
- Hit the ball further. It makes sense that the stronger and more flexible the player, the greater the potential distance in the golf swing. Several studies have confirmed that general exercise programs can increase strength, flexibility and distance. A golf-specific golf exercise program should do even better.
- Prevent injury and speed recovery from injury. Golf is not a dangerous game, but injuries happen. Repetitive strain injuries can result from a lot of practice and play. Impact injuries can occur when hitting trees or the ground in the downswing. Golf is notorious for back injuries, because the golf swing, particularly the spinal tilt, can stress the back. Golf can cause elbow injuries. Golfer’s elbow can be particularly painful and destroy one or more seasons.
- Improve the swing technique. Normally, the golfer’s brain focuses on the total swing, and does not isolate on particular muscles within the swing. Exercise can create muscle awareness. Through greater awareness of the muscles that stretch and contract in the swing, the golfer can improve technique. For example, if the wrong muscles are being stretched on the backswing, the golfer can detect and fix the problem. By focusing on a particular muscle, the golfer can make sure it is performing correctly, and increase the speed at which it performs.
In the golf swing, let’s look at objectives that are not important.
- Muscle appearance, particularly size.
- Endurance. It might be useful to train the leg and posture muscles for endurance to facilitate walking a golf course, but endurance is not important in any individual golf swing. The swing does not last long enough to fatigue the muscles, and there is usually a significant interval between swings.
- Balance. In action sports like football, hockey, track and field, basketball and soccer, the athlete is constantly moving in relation to the ground. For these sports, training core muscles in the abdomen and the stabilizer muscles in the legs helps the athlete improve balance. Golf is played on a solid platform, with both legs and feet rooted (more or less) to the ground. Assuming balance is obtained through proper swing techniques, there is limited need to work on balance and stabilizer muscles for golf.
With all this in mind, this chapter looks first at flexibility, and then muscle development, particularly as they apply to the golf swing
Flexibility is important in the golf swing for three reasons:
- A good range of movement in key joints (wrists, forearms, shoulders, and torso) is clearly desirable. A muscle contraction in a specific time period applied over a large range of movement is going to produce more club head speed than the same contraction in the same time period over a small range of movement.
- Reduced resistance increases effective strength. Groups of muscles work in opposition to each other. For example, the contraction of the biceps in the front of the upper forearm causes the elbow to flex. The more flexible the triceps in the back of the upper forearm, the less resistance to the contraction of the biceps, and the greater the strength of the contraction.
- Injury risks are reduced.
There are several different types of stretch exercises:
- Ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force the joint and related muscles beyond the normal range of movement. Ballistic stretching risks injury, has limited effect on flexibility, and is not recommended.
- Dynamic stretching. This type moves parts of the body to gradually increase reach, speed of movement, or both. Dynamic stretching consists of controlled leg, arm or torso swings that take you (gently) to the limits of your range of movement, without trying to force a part of the body beyond its range of movement.
- Static-active stretching. A static-active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there for a period of time with no assistance other than using the strength of the muscles that got you into the stretch. It can be difficult to hold a static-active stretch. Static-active stretching develops the muscles that are used to create the stretch. However, the muscles used to create the stretch may not be sufficiently powerful to fully stretch the target muscles.
- Static-passive stretching. This uses apparatus such as a floor, partner, wall or chair (rather than other muscles) to create and hold the stretch. An example would be a stretch of the hamstring by putting one’s leg on a chair. Stretches are gentle and held for a period of time. The focus is on relaxing the muscles to overcome their resistance (and the related pain) to the stretch so that the target muscle can be fully stretched. This gets a full stretch of the target muscle without risk of injury.
- Isometric stretching. This involves putting a muscle in a relaxed, stretched position, and then contracting the muscle. The contraction puts additional pressure to lengthen the muscle, helps strengthen the muscle being stretched, and may reduce the pain related to stretching.
- Proprioceptive Neuroskeletal Facilitation (PNF) stretching. This is a fancy expression which amounts to a combination of static-passive and isometric stretching. Begin with a static-passive stretch held for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by an isometric contraction of the flexed muscle for about 10 seconds, followed in turn by a passive-static stretch. The type of stretching combines the best features of isometric and static-passive stretching. In addition, it appears to numb the pain reaction in a stretched muscle. This pain reaction protects the muscle from injury, but also limits the stretching of the muscle to its fullest (prior to injury).
The foregoing suggests that proprioceptive neuroskeletal facilitation stretching may be the most effective stretch technique for golf.
Since golfer’s elbow is a common golf injury, here are two static-passive stretches that all golfers should do. These stretches provide an opportunity to try proprioceptive neuroskeletal facilitation stretch.
A muscle development program for the golf swing should include two elements: exercises and the way they are performed.
The Way Exercises are Performed The golf swing requires the rapid contraction of muscles moving a light load. The load is the golf club, and it does not weigh much.
Elements in a muscle cell include:
- myofibrils, which are the cell’s contractile elements;
- the mitochondria, which provides the fuel for contraction; and
- the sarcoplasmic reticulum, which is a network of tubules running from the exterior of the cell to the myofibrils and which assist in distributing the nerve impulses that trigger muscle contraction.
The myofibrils include a range of fiber types from white, “fast-twitch” fibers which have a thicker nerve supply, and red, “slow-twitch” fibers which have a greater amount of mitochondria and are important for sustained contraction. “Fast-twitch” muscles fire all at the same time, whereas “slow-twitch” muscle motor units are recruited asynchronously, with some resting and others firing. For golf, it is important to develop the white, “fast-twitch” fibers in a few key muscles. The development of “slow-twitch” fibers is relatively unimportant. The development of the nerve system which can trigger the nerve impulses that trigger contractions is critical.
Since the golf swing occurs quickly and does not require a great amount of strength, the key aspect of the training is not the weight to be lifted, but the speed of the contraction. The speed of contraction is to a large extent a mental activity. The brain says “contract”. The message is carried to particular muscles, and the muscles cells, particularly the fast twitch fibers, contract simultaneously.
Conventional weight training programs are built around the following elements: amount of weight to be lifted; number of repetitions of the lifts per sets; speed of repetitions within a set; interval between sets; etc. Weight training programs should be designed to reflect the objectives being pursued. Here are some objectives:
- Endurance: Endurance training develops the ability to perform repeated contractions, or to hold a contraction for a period of time. Running a one-hundred meter dash is an example of an activity that requires muscle contractions in the legs for 10 or more seconds. Running a marathon requires contractions over 2 or more hours. Endurance training typically uses lots of repetitions of a particular movement at relatively light loads. The purpose is to stress muscles to build up the mitochondria, which provide the energy in the cell to fuel the contractions in the movement
- Muscle Size: Body building training seeks to develop large muscles. One builds muscles by trying to develop all the components in the cell, with priority given in proportion of the size of the component within the cell. The myofibrils are the largest component of the cell, so an emphasis is placed on contracting the muscles under heavy loads to develop the myofibrils. Exercise movements are performed at slow speeds. Loads are selected as those which cause muscle failure after 6 to 12 repetitions. Typically, loads start at 60% of the maximum one can lift with one contraction and increase to over 80% over a period of a few months. Because the muscles are engaged over a period of 20 to 40 seconds per set of repetitions, there is development of the mitochondria as the contraction in each repetition requires fuel.
- Maximizing Strength: Maximal strength training focuses on the ability to handle a heavy load in a short period of time. The classic example is an Olympic weight lifter, who has to hoist a massive weight just once and the event is over in a few seconds. The focus is on developing the myofibrils, whose contractions provide the power, and the nerve connections which support the rapid synchronized contractions. Training programs for those seeking maximal strength typically involve a few repetitions of the movement. Loads are selected to cause muscle failure after 1 to 5 repetitions. Typically, loads start at 60 percent of the maximum one can lift in one contraction and increase gradually over a period of a few months to 80 percent or more of one’s maximum for one contraction. Movements within the set are performed quickly. The interval between sets is relatively long at 4 to 5 minutes to allow the nervous system to recover. Within the movement, force typically starts slowly, builds to a maximum, and declines as the movement ends. The maximum rate of force development over the movement can be tracked to monitor progress. The target is to increase the maximum rate of force development.
- Explosive Strength. Explosive strength training focuses on the ability to handle a light load in a short period of time. Examples include the strength required for high jumping, or sprinting, or pitching a baseball, or shooting a basketball jump shot. The focus is on developing the myofibrils and the nerve connections, with the emphasis more on the latter than the former. Training programs focus on moving light loads with maximum acceleration. Loads are selected to cause a decline in “speed of the movement” within 1 to 5 repetitions. Note that for maximum strength training and body building, load selection is based on the inability to lift the load, not the decline in speed of the movement. The interval between sets is relatively long, at 4 to 5 minutes, to allow recovery of the nervous system. Within the movement, the focus is on a high initial rate of force development (i.e. a high rate of force development at a fixed point after the start of the movement).
It is conceptually logical to extend the conventional training options by adding a new category – explosiveness only. This option would apply to situations where one wants to perform a movement quickly and there is no or minimal load.
The table below outlines conventional weight training programs and by extension, how they might be applied in an “explosiveness only” option.
Some important points on explosiveness training include:
- Maximal strength, explosive strength and explosiveness only options all include performing movements fast. Fast movements carry risks of injury. Those who choose to perform exercises in this way should take care. Warm up, start performing the movement slowly, build up speed gradually with repetitions, and increase loads only when they can be managed.
- Explosiveness only training is different from other standard types of training in terms of the weights to be lifted, repetitions per set, speed of each repetition, and interval between sets.
- Explosiveness only is the most compatible with many movements in the golf swing. In golf “explosiveness” is much more important than “strength”. The goal of at least some movements within the downswing is to move a light load quickly.
- Explosiveness training involves light loads, starting with no weights, increasing the weights gradually over time. It also involves fast movements.
- The set is over when the speed of repetitions starts to slow, or the form deteriorates, or muscle fatigue sets in, or synchronization is lost when two related movements are performed simultaneously.
- Since counting repetitions detracts from concentration on speed of movement, one should not count repetitions. Instead, think of moving fast.
- Mental concentration is part of explosiveness training, as neuron development is part of the objective.
- The incorporation of mental thinking about the performance of fast movement without actually carrying out the movement may be effective in developing neurons.
- For all muscles not used in the golf swing, one’s weight training program should be designed according to the objectives of muscle development for those muscles
In the foregoing chapters, the golf swing has been reduced to basic movements. Any exercise program for the golf swing should mimic these movements.
The exercises below typically entail a movement in one direction, and then a reverse movement in the opposite direction. It is important to pause at every direction change for several reasons:
- It is easy to get into a “back and forth” rhythm without concentration on the movement in one direction, then the other. Each exercise consists of two components involving different muscles. These components get lost in a rhythmic “back and forth” execution.
- The pause forces a controlled deceleration leading to a stop. This prevents ballistic stretching, which can occur when the momentum of the body carries the movement beyond its range. The faster the exercise is performed and the more weight being moved, the greater the risk of overstretching and injury.
These exercises mimic the movements in the golf swing. Most movements start at one limit of the range of movement, and then go in the opposite direction to the limit of the range of movement. In the golf swing, the impact point is approximately at the mid-point between the two limits. To the extent that one decides to perform the movement fast, the speed typically must be achieved by the mid-point in the movement. After the mid-point, the speed should decelerate and stop in a controlled way, to prevent injury.
Cocking and Uncocking the Wrists
To perform the exercise, place both elbows on their respective legs. This isolates the movement to the forearms and wrists. Put both palms perpendicular to the ground i.e. facing inward toward each other. Move the wrists to the right, then pause, and then move them to the left in synchronization. At the outset, you may want to try to do the movements in the left and right wrists separately.
Rotating the Forearms at the Elbow
To perform the exercise, place both elbows on their respective legs. This isolates the movement to the forearms and wrists. Rotate both forearms counter-clockwise and clockwise repeatedly. At every change in the direction of rotation, pause. At the outset, you may want to try to do the movements in the left and right forearms separately.
Moving the Upper Arm in the Shoulder Socket
To perform the exercise, hold one arm out in front at an angle relative to your spine that is approximately equal to the angle it would have in your golf swing. Move the upper arm toward the centre of the body to the end of its range of movement, taking care not to move the shoulder socket forward at the same time. This is the “start” position. Once in the start position, move the upper arm away from the centre of the body to the point approximately straight out in front. In the golf swing, this mid-point would be the impact point. The movement from the start position to the impact point is the one that needs to be performed with speed in the swing. Decelerate and stop approximately the same distance from the mid-point as when going from the start position to the mid-point. Then, reverse the movement to get the arm back to the start position. Repeat the movements a number of times. Then, do the same movements with the other arm.
Rotating the Upper Arm in the Shoulder Socket
To perform the exercise, hold both arms out in front at an angle relative to your spine that is approximately equal to the angle in your golf swing. Rotate both upper arms clockwise to the end of their range of movement on a synchronized basis. The right elbow should be pointing down, the left elbow pointing out. Stop, and then rotate both upper arms counter-clockwise to the end of their range of movement. Elbow positions should have reversed. The right elbow should be pointing out, and the left pointing down. Repeat the movements a number of times.
Moving the Shoulder Sockets
To perform the exercise, sit on a chair. Put your right hand on your right shoulder. This ensures that the upper arm and related shoulder muscles are not active in the movement. Move your right shoulder socket forward toward the centre of the body (counter-clockwise) as far as it will go. This is the start position. Then, move the right shoulder socket clockwise to the end of its range of movement and stop. Then, reverse the movement by moving the right shoulder socket counter-clockwise to the start position. Repeat the movement a number of times. Repeat the exercise with the left shoulder socket. After you have mastered the movements in the separate shoulder sockets, do the exercise with both shoulder sockets on a synchronized basis. Note in the pictures that the chest and head do not move. The shoulder sockets are moving independently, and in combination, create rotation around the spine.
Exercise 7: Twisting and Untwisting the Spine
To perform the exercise, sit erect on a chair or bench. This will immobilize your butt and legs and isolate focus on the spine. Hold a pole, golf club or similar object with both hands, and place it across your back (not on top of your shoulders). The lower the pole position, the less likely you are to move the shoulder sockets as part of the exercise, and the more able to focus on your spine only. Rotate clockwise to the end of your range of movement, keeping the pole, golf club, etc. horizontal to the ground. Stop. Rotate counter-clockwise to the end of your range of movement. Stop. Repeat the movement in both directions a number of times.
Spinal Tilt (Stretch)
To perform the exercise, sit on a chair. This immobilizes your lower body. Hold a pole, rod, golf club in your hands, and place it across your shoulder blades. Contract the muscles in your right side to tilt the pole so that the lower end is on your right. Go to the end of your range of movement. Note that much of the energy to tilt the spine comes from gravity, as well as the stretch of the muscles along your left side. Stop and hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Contract the stretched muscles in your right side for 10 seconds while continuing to hold the position. Contract the muscles on your left side to tilt the pole so that the lower end is on your left. Go to the end of your range of movement. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then while continuing the stretch, contract the stretched muscle for 10 seconds.
Push and Clear
To perform the exercise, stand with your right foot at the edge of an elevated surface such as a step, with the front part of your foot on the surface and the back part of your foot hanging below the surface, so that tendons in your lower leg are stretched. This is the start position. Raise yourself straight up, so you end up standing on your toe. Do not change your knee bend during the exercise, so that the change in elevation results solely from pointing your toe. Repeat the movement a number of times. Repeat the movement using your other foot.
To perform the exercise, stand on your right leg with your left leg off the ground. Hang on to a support to help with balance. Using only your right ankle, put your weight on the instep through eversion (turning the sole of your foot outward) and keep your weight on the instep throughout. Then, rotate your hips clockwise to the end of the range of movement, and then stop and then rotate your hips counter-clockwise to the end of the range of movement. Note what is happening. In essence, the rotation occurs because of a combination of pronation and supination, and plantar flexion and dorsi flexion in the ankle. Repeat this clockwise and counter-clockwise movement a number of times. Then, repeat the movements with your other ankle.
Note that this exercise moves your entire weight above the ankle. Rapid movements at your ankles can create a lot of momentum in your body. This momentum can cause you to over-rotate at your ankles, leading to injury. The injury risk is exacerbated because the foot has a lot of small bones, which injure easily. Because we generally and golfers particularly rely on our feet, it is best to perform exercises at safe speeds to reduce the risk foot problems.
Warming up before a round is a great idea. It prevents injury. It improves your score by eliminating the bad swings and bad shots early in the round. A golf swing with muscles that are not warmed up is usually painful. To reduce the pain in the overstretched muscles, most golfers swing faster than normal by cutting short the backswing. A fast swing can do a number of things to the golf shot, most of which are bad. Studies of the warm-up patterns of golfers indicate that most people do not warm up properly. Avoid being a member of this group.
Warming up before a trip to the driving range is also a great. It prevents injury. It improves your practice by giving you more benefit from the initial balls. In particular, warming up will give you a better tempo for your practice.
All the exercise books suggest that before stretching or contracting muscles, you should warm up the total body with five minutes of brisk activity – a good walk or jog, stair climbing, aerobic workout equipment (e.g. tread mill, elliptical machine, or stationary bike). If you can find a way to warm up your total body at your golf course prior to playing, do it.
Then, carry out the exercises outlined above. Most exercises can be carried out without any extra equipment other than a chair or bench. If time is limited, do one set of each exercise, to ensure all the relevant muscles are warmed up.
Now you are ready for your first swings. There are a number of devices available to help the golfer warm up, including special warm up clubs and weights that can be attached to your clubs. If you have these aids, use them.
Take practice swings, starting with gentle swings and working up to normal swings. Continue until you are totally comfortable.
If you are at the range, start with easy swings using a high iron. Work toward harder swings with lower irons and woods only when your muscles are telling you it is all right to do so.
At this point, you should be ready to either step up to the first tee.
The Bottom Line
- Recognize the importance of stretching, and the paradoxical result that stretching can make your muscle contractions stronger by reducing resistance to them.
- When stretching, apply proprioceptive neuroskeletal facilitation (passive-static stretching combined with isometric stretches)
- Stretch the forearms in particular to prevent golfer’s elbow.
- To develop the muscles whose contractions make up the individual movements in the golf swing, perform exercises which mimic the individual movements.
- Recognize that the golf swing requires the movement of a light load quickly a limited number of times per round, typically separated by long intervals.
- When exercising for the golf swing, try to develop explosiveness, rather than maximal strength, explosive strength, endurance, muscle size, etc.
- Consider the possibility that developing speed may be a mental exercise in addition to a physical one.
- Warm up properly.