How to improve your Golf Swing!

At The North Wales Spine Clinic we not only focus on reducing pain and injuries in a safe and effective way but also on sports performance in Conwy, Gwynedd and Anglesey.   This commentary concerns golf and how to reduce your handicap, avoid golf sports injuries such as back pain and shoulder pain and importantly play consistently better golf.  Our team consists of Postural & Sports Performance specialists, Sports Chiropractors, Bangor University Health and Fitness Manager Dave Jones and former Welsh squad coach with 36 years experience as a Golf Professional, Iain Runcie.  This article outlines what the Pros at the top already know and do.  It describes the ‘secret weapon’ that has sprung Tiger Woods into the most consistent and successful Golf Professional ever.

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Picturing the world’s best ball strikers conjures up images of effortless power and exceptional gr ace. Sergio Garcia, Alvaro Quiros, Rory Mcllroy, and Geoff Ogilvy all seem to command the ball with power and balance. Picturing the average recreational golfer, perhaps one or all of your usual Saturday morning playing partners, often conjures up an image of a disjointed, uncoordinated movement that is at times complete chaos and futility. When a professional golfer hits balls, it seems like such an easy thing to do. However, the golf swing is one of the most complex movements in all of sport. Almost every joint and muscle in the body is utilized in some capacity during the golf swing. A weakness or deficiency in just one area can greatly reduce your ability to create an efficient swing. Lacking in more than one area can make generating and then transferring maximal force throughout the body extremely difficult if not altogether impossible.

One of the greatest misunderstandings of the average player, and sometimes even high-level players and golf coaches, is that speed and power in the golf swing is predominantly generated from the arms. This misunderstanding arose before high-speed video cameras, force plates, electromyography, and other types of expensive research equipment were used to measure forces and movements within the golf swing. In the prehistoric days of golf (any time before a few years ago), teachers and students could identify only what their eyes were able to see. Since the golf swing is such a quick movement, golfers were able to identify only the arm movement and the planes created by the arm and club. This thinking has drastically changed now that the golf swing has been analysed and dissected using modern technology. You can’t watch a PGA or LPGA event without having the commentators analyse a player’s swing with the super-slow-motion bizhub camera. It is now evident that the arm and club actions are often a final thought in the actual development and execution of a golf swing.

A review of the driving distance statistics from the PGA Tour over several years reveals some interesting trends. Let’s compare the number 1 player and number 50 player in terms of average driving distance for the years 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2008 (Fig 1.1). There were 20 players who averaged 299 yards or greater off the tee in 2008. The 50th player in terms of driving distance on tour in 2008 was hitting the ball farther than the 1st player in driving distance in 1996.

Fig 1.1 Average Distance for 1st and 50th Players in Driving Distance on PGA Tour

Year 1st in driving distance 50th in driving distance
1980 274.3 yd
261.0 yd
1990 279.6 yd 266.4 yd
2000
301.4 yd
277.5 yd
2008
315.1 yd
293.3 yd

The recent increase in the distance off the tee can be attributed to many factors, the most obvious being improved ball, club-head, and shaft properties. Player fitness and the emergence of true athletes in golf’s greatest tour, however, are also major contributors to this phenomenon. In the 1970s and even the 1980s, the number of true athletes on the professional golf tours was rather small when compared to today. The emergence of players such as Tiger Woods in the 1990s and increased purses made it more enticing for athletes to choose to pursue golf as an athletic career. If you look at the men on the PGA Tour these days, the transition of today’s players from merely golfers to world-class athletes is obvious.

Although the women’s tour has been much slower to adopt this emphasis on fitness, the change is occurring. Annika Sorenstam really pushed fitness in the women’s game into the mid-2000s, and she dominated the game like no other member of the women’s tour had. The many young stars of today’s game, including the long-hitting Vicky Hurst, are incorporating fitness to help them achieve and maintain their success. Today’s golfers at the secondary school, college, and tour levels are bigger, faster, and stronger than they were in the past. The game has been forced to adapt to this new breed of golfer by instilling new rules on balls and clubs and making courses longer and more difficult. To keep up with these changes, golfers must continue to adapt themselves. This means maximizing their bodies to keep up with their peers. The recreational golfer is also affected by these changes. Many of today’s new courses are being built longer in response to the turbo-charged play of today’s top players. These changes in golf course architecture make it more difficult for the average player to compete. Golf Anatomy helps bridge that gap for the amateur by presenting an easy-to-follow manual for improving your golf fitness.

Developing Proper Technique Through Golf Fitness

If there is one thing about golf that we have known for a long time, it is that proper technique is important. Swing coaches have been consulted for many years to help players dial in their swings with improved technique: correct grip, stance, takeaway, and so on. Coaches use an endless number of drills to help their golfers obtain certain feels and positions within the swing. However, the biggest revelation when it comes to the perfect way to swing a golf club is that there is no perfect way. A club can be swung an infinite number of ways. Many end with the same result—the club face hits the ball squarely at impact. The difference is the efficiency of the swing. If you put Hunter Mahan’s swing next to Jim Furyk’s swing, you would notice a huge difference. Obviously, both of these players are phenomenal golfers, and they are both considered world-class ball strikers. Although their swing styles look completely different, both have an efficient downswing that transfers a very high percentage of the energy produced during the downswing into the golf ball at impact. Comparing your swing with your favourite player’s in an attempt to mimic his every movement often is not a sensible way to improve the technical side of your game. The key is to make your body capable of producing the most efficient swing that you can produce. The future of golf no longer relies solely on one standard swing to copy, but rather is a meshing of proper mechanical technique and efficiency of movement. Every player has a unique range of available motion in his joints, level of strength, and balance inconsistencies. Only by maximizing his own profile can a player truly achieve optimal competence.

One of the biggest problems that the common golfer encounters is the inability to achieve and reproduce positions that a swing coach desires. This is frustrating for both coach and student. Until recently, many people never considered that the golfer’s body was the obstacle. If your car consistently drifts to the right when you are driving, you immediately suspect the alignment of your car needs a mechanical tune-up. It seems absurd we didn’t think that a golfer who constantly moved in an undesirable direction might need a mechanical tune-up as well. In those prehistoric days, it was assumed that the golfer simply was not skilled enough to produce certain movements. So, the swing coach would have to work around those technical limitations.

Millions of dollars are spent each year on golf lessons in the United States alone. Even with this large monetary investment, the average North American handicap has not changed in the past 30 years. We must consider the fact that teaching of the golf swing has concentrated on changing only the aesthetic product (the movement) without developing the quality of the underlying machine, which can either enhance or inhibit the ability to create movement. Each joint in your body has a range of motion that is specific to you. Each of us is different. Some people have great mobility, and some are limited in their range of movement. If you can’t rotate your shoulders through a full range of motion when you are at rest, how can they move through a full range of motion during the golf swing? It doesn’t make sense to expect them to do so. The problem is, when learning to hit the ball better, many people try to move into positions that aren’t physically possible because of limitations in range of motion. Not until the body improves to allow for greater range of motion and strength will a golfer be able to attain these positions during the golf swing.

This is why you need to achieve a certain level of golf fitness before expecting to make the desired swing changes properly and efficiently. The golf swing is, in fact, a very unnatural movement. You cannot expect your body to perform this task in the desired manner without the proper preparation.

So what is golf fitness, and how do you achieve it? Each sport has its own specific demands, and golf is no exception. However, golf fitness is much different from the fitness people go to the gym to achieve. We have all heard that golf is a game of opposites. This is no more evident than when you watch Anthony Kim or Andres Romero drive the ball more than 300 yards. How can someone with such a small frame crush the ball so far? Obviously it takes more than brute strength. Rather, it is the result of a perfect combination of a number of skill sets including, but not limited to, adequate mobility, stability, and balance.

The major characteristics that need to be trained for golf fitness are mobility, stability, balance, body awareness (proprioception), strength, and power. The order in which these specific components are trained is just as important as the components themselves. The correct progression of exercises provides the most efficient training and diminishes the risk of injury. Training for power before you have obtained an adequate amount of mobility increases the risk of injury and results in minimal golf-specific translation of fitness to the golf course. A solid foundation of mobility and stability is the essential building block for developing a body that is truly fit for the golf swing.

Generating Power and Speed

At the sport’s highest levels, it is increasingly common for players to adapt their swings for improved efficiency in power generation. Our goals are to introduce exercises that will help you achieve greater golf fitness and introduce some of the important principles used by today’s top teachers and players when developing a technically efficient golf swing.

Generating speed with the arms creates many of the swing faults found on driving ranges throughout the world. For maximal power creation with minimal negative stress on the body, the ground must be the first link in the chain of energy transfer. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every force applied by one object onto a second, an equal and opposite force is applied from the second object back onto the first. As such, using the legs to drive forcefully into the ground results in the ground pushing back up into the golfer’s body with an equal magnitude of force. The force the ground transmits into the golfer is known as the ground reaction force (GRF). GRF is then transferred up through the legs and into the pelvis. From the pelvis the force is transferred into the golfer’s core, shoulder complex, arms, and, finally, the golf club and ball. Transmitting this energy from the ground to the ball with the most efficiency is what allows you to create the most power your body will allow.

This energy moves through what is known as the body’s kinetic chain. The different parts of the body act as a system of chain links, whereby the energy or force generated by one part of the body (or link) can be transferred successively to the next link. The optimal coordination (timing) of these body segments and their movements allows for the efficient transfer of energy and power up through the body, moving from one body segment to the next. Each movement in the sequence builds on the previous segment’s motion and energy. The result of this transfer and summation is what determines club-head speed.

This kinetic chain is the linkage system that connects adjacent joints and muscles throughout the entire body. A weakness or injury in one area of the body impedes the transfer of energy. The body compensates for this blockage by overusing or misusing other body parts in an attempt to make up for this lost energy. In an efficient golf swing in which the legs generate the majority of the power, large muscles contribute to force generation. When a weakness is present along the body’s kinetic chain, the energy produced by the legs is unable to transfer effectively into the core and arms. As a result, the smaller muscles surrounding the area of weakness are placed under great stress. In time, this will lead to overuse injuries within the joints and soft tissues (the muscles, tendons, and ligaments) and make an efficient swing impossible.

We must clarify what we mean by the word weakness. When referring to a weakness in the body’s kinetic chain, we are not referring strictly to a lack of muscle strength. We also include deficits in joint motion and body awareness. Having proper ranges of motion in each of the body’s segments and proper awareness of each of these segments is as important as the strength in each muscle. Therefore, weakness can mean a deficiency in strength, range of motion, or body awareness.

Understanding Body Awareness

Often body awareness, or proprioception, is the most overlooked sense. It is as important as the other senses for optimal athletic functioning, if not more important. Remember you can’t fire a cannonball out of a canoe.  Proprioception is the process by which the body can use muscles in immediate response to its surroundings. Your body must be able to respond rapidly to changing body positions and different forces throughout the swing. Imagine how many body parts are moving in different directions during the golf swing, all in less than three seconds from the initiation of the upswing to the end of the follow-through. How can your body keep up with all that information? The body is able to do this through tiny receptors in the muscles and joints that keep track of every joint position in the body. The better these receptors work with their respective muscles, the better body awareness you will have throughout the entire golf swing. This will greatly help you produce the correct movements and angles necessary for a good swing more frequently.

Kinaesthesia is the ability to sense joint motion and acceleration. Proprioception and kinaesthesia are the sensory feedback mechanisms for motor control and posture. These mechanisms help orient the body and maintain balance and are unconsciously utilized by the brain and spinal reflexes to provide a constant influx of sensory information. The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) translates this sensory information and sends out immediate and unconscious adjustments to the muscles and joints in order to achieve specific movement and balance.

Your ability to balance under different circumstances depends on how well your body senses changes to body position and the forces applied against and within it. Walking, riding an escalator, and treading on uneven ground are some examples in which the body requires proprioceptive input to maintain balance during motion.

Just as training can lead to increases in muscular strength, training can also increase the accuracy and speed with which the body is able to perceive and respond to various positions and forces. Because improvements in balance and proprioception come through neural adaptation and often do not require an actual increase in muscle mass, these are often the quickest skill sets to improve once they are consciously incorporated into a fitness program.

Transferring Power

When a right-handed golfer initiates the downswing, he shifts his body weight onto his target side (left side) by positioning his target-side knee (left knee) over his target-side foot (left foot). This places the golfer’s lower body into an ideal force-generating position. With the knee over the foot, the quadriceps can function to straighten the knee, and the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles can contract to create extension of the hip and pelvis. This combined extension movement drives the target foot into the ground. The ground creates a resultant force back into the golfer that can be passed effortlessly through the legs and into the golfer’s pelvis and core. If the pelvis and core are functionally strong and are able to move through the desired range of motion, the force will pass into the shoulder complex. The shoulder complex consists of the muscles connecting the spine and ribs to the shoulder blade and the muscles connecting the shoulder blade to the arm. If the shoulder complex is functioning optimally, this force can be transferred into the arms and, finally, into compression of the golf ball.

In addition, using the legs to position the golfer and create power helps minimize an over-the-top, slice-generating swing. The lateral shift of the lower body onto the target side brings the plane of the downswing forward toward the target. As such, the arc of the club will automatically have a more inside swing path.

When a golfer initiates the golf swing with her upper body, the angular momentum of the golf club forces the club head out away from the body on the downswing. Once initiated, this angular momentum provides resistance through inertia against the golfer’s body, preventing the body from moving forward toward the target. Visually, you see a golfer who appears to have fast hips. It appears her hips are rotating too quickly, which forces the club out and away from the body as the trail shoulder moves forward toward the ball, creating an over-the-top, slice-generating swing plane. Often a player like this is told to slow down the hips. Actually, the problem is not that her hips are turning too fast but that she is using her arms to generate the power and not using her legs to shift forward toward the target. When this player learns to use her legs to push into the ground, her apparently fast-rotating hips will appear to slow automatically, and her club head will begin to attack the ball from the inside more easily.

Players who appear to have fast hips and have trouble attacking the ball from the inside are rotating predominately through the joints in the lower back with minimal rotation actually occurring at the hip joint. This lower back-centred movement is especially stressful on the spine and supporting muscles. The wear and tear eventually will lead to pain.

Training for Success

How can so many of today’s top players, such as Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim, and Sean O’Hair, combine power and finesse in their golf swings? Part of the answer is obvious—their technique is world class. The other part of the answer is not as obvious. They are able to move each part of their bodies through the required range of motion while simultaneously maintaining kinetic balance, stability, and power. When one of these skill sets is limited, a golfer’s efficiency in transferring energy is diminished, the golf swing suffers, and injuries occur. For this reason, each of these players puts a lot of time and effort into ensuring his body is in functionally optimal form. This includes daily sessions in the PGA fitness trailers during tournament weeks, regular treatment sessions with their Chiropractors—both for injury prevention and injury maintenance—and aggressive off-week fitness regimens.

Each week, these players include various forms of fitness in their routines: mobility exercises like those found in yoga, stability movements for the core and shoulder regions, balance and proprioception exercises, and strength and power movements. They use exercise equipment such as tubing and cables, medicine balls, stability balls, traditional weights, cardio equipment, and kettlebells. All the equipment we have in our fully equipped gym at The North Wales Spine Clinic. Many exercises require only body weight. It is important to use more than one type of training methodology in your golf fitness program to ensure a constant and progressive challenge to your body. In many aspects of life, people tend to practice what they are good at and ignore what they find challenging or difficult. Often decent ball strikers spend the majority of their practice time beating balls on the range and almost completely ignore their short-game practice. The same occurs in the gym: People work on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. For example, athletes who have poor flexibility often ignore or invest minimal time on a mobility program and spend the majority of their time executing traditional strength training exercises. This behaviour leads to minimal carryover of the gains attained in the gym onto the golf course. The end result is frustration and a lot of wasted time.

Whether you are one of the golf world’s up-and-coming stars like Danny Lee or Jamie Lovemark, an established veteran like Stephen Ames, Lorena Ochoa, or Robert Allenby, or an amateur player looking to improve your game for future club rounds, using your time efficiently is important. We all wish we had more time to do the things we love. Unfortunately, our time is limited, and we need to maximize the time we do have. At The North Wales Spine Clinic we can train you and see results both on the course and in your daily life in a short period of time.

At The North Wales Spine Clinic we can help you avoid the common pitfalls of fitness training of all types. Remember, there are different skill sets involved in developing fitness. Often athletes want to move directly from minimal or no specific fitness training to the most difficult or complicated movements. This methodology often leads to poor long-term performance gains and increased likelihood of injury and mechanical restrictions. It is important to develop good balance, mobility, stability, and basic strength before attempting power movements found in magazines and on the Web. If you listen to your body and gradually progress through your exercise prescription, you should see great improvements while staying safe and free of injury.

Many of the legends of golf incurred problems with injuries toward the ends of their careers. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson all required hip reconstruction. Fred Couples and Tommy Armour III have had significant problems with their backs. Tiger Woods has significant knee problems that may challenge his ability to win a record number of majors. Trevor Immelman, Phil Mickelson, and Michelle Wie have been sidelined with wrist injuries. Injuries plague the golf world at a staggering level. It is not uncommon to see members of any golf foursome, regardless of age or skill level, use some form of pain modulator either before or after a round of golf. Many injuries that require the use of pain medication occurred off the course but limit the player’s ability to play pain free on the course. At The North Wales Spine Clinic we provide a variety of low-stress exercises that are useful for golfers suffering from an injury. These exercises are also great for anyone who has limited experience in fitness training because they are low impact and most require minimal experience.

The goal of The North Wales Spine Clinic with golfers is to develop a golf fitness program that is specific to your needs. We encourage you to seek the help of a golf professional such as Iain Runcie and incorporate gold drills into your exercise program. Golf is a wonderful activity that can contribute to a healthy lifestyle through encouraging both increased physical activity and social interaction. At The North Wales Spine Clinic we can help increase your enjoyment on the course through improved functional capabilities and a decreased likelihood of on-course injury and discomfort. Click this link for our research page.

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