Golf-specific fitness is not just for tour players anymore. Any golfer can tune their body to improve performance by following a golf fitness training program created by a physical therapist. Obviously, the average recreational golfer does not have the time or money that a tour player must invest in a high-tech home gym or spend hours a day working out, but a little effort will go a long way.
Have you seen some of the tour players lately? If you haven’t noticed there are more “athletic” PGA and LPGA players out there than 20 years ago. These golfers take their fitness routines seriously, have a team of medical and fitness professionals to guide them and realize that to compete at the highest levels they must continue to work hard on their flexibility, strength, balance and power.
With the advent of numerous technological advances in golf equipment, one might think that the average handicap over the past 15-20 years would have dropped sharply. The fact is there has been minimal if any change in the average American golfer’s handicap.
The clubs do not swing themselves; new technology still requires a human body. The most important piece of equipment you own is your body and to maximize your golf performance potential, consider seeing a PT to help you train for the explosive golf movement and repetitive demands necessary for a 4–5-hour round.
Physical Therapists possess the scientific and artistic knowledge of human anatomy and movement that make them ideal professionals to assess golfers for physical limitations and imbalances that could affect golf performance and help injury prevention.
A golf fitness program should have several different variables to create a comprehensive plan to improve overall golf performance potential. To fully maximize performance in addition to improving your physical fitness, quality swing instruction and clubs that fit you (read – “don’t buy clubs off the shelf”) are necessary.
Working with a PT on your fitness and a swing coach on proper club fitting and mechanics will improve your ability to safely make a powerful swing that is biomechanically sound, that will avoid potential injury and give you maximal distance with each club. A physical therapist-guided golf fitness program will incorporate exercises to improve:
Flexibility for golf.
Flexibility/Mobility is the freedom of the joints and soft tissues of your body that allows an ability to create multiple planar movements. We need a baseline amount of appropriate soft tissue and joint mobility to create an efficient movement pattern that makes up the golf swing. If you are not working at it, you may or may not be surprised at how our tissues do not get more flexible as we age.
Physical therapists are not only able to manually mobilize soft tissues and joints they are also able to assess and then prescribe appropriate dynamic and static mobility exercises to target areas of limitation and asymmetry. Again, the stiffness of our tissues is increasing with our age, so our flexibility is diminishing with each passing year. We are, however, able to slow down, maintain or even reverse our decreasing flexibility with consistent bodywork and proper stretching and movement technique.
The golf swing moves in multiple planes all at the same time (think forward bent with side-to-side weight shift and full body rotation throughout) with the rotational plane dominating the movement. Golfers should therefore work to improve full body rotation with regular rotational mobility exercises prescribed by a physical therapist. We have 4 “Rotational Centers”: the hips, mid-spine, shoulders, and neck. Adequate mobility in these areas is necessary to assist an injury-free and efficient swing.
There is maximal coil in the backswing when the rotation of the hips is somewhat limited and the upper body is allowed to rotate further (X-Factor). This is facilitated by flexibility in the neck, thoracic spine and shoulders. There is maximal uncoil as the hips turn toward the ball and there is some lag time before the upper body follows (X-Factor Stretch) stemming from the stretch shorten cycle of the trunk and hip musculature.
The more backswing turn you can get, the more time you have to create speed and power in the downswing. And the more “flexibility reserves” you have the less likely you will use up every last degree of rotation to make your turn leaving you vulnerable to injury when doing this multiple times a round or practice session. Therefore, gaining motion or flexibility in these areas is important to create an environment for a safe but full turn on the ball.
The golf swing does not just occur in the transverse (rotational) plane, however. It also is on a forward bending axis that requires length in the calves, hamstrings and glutes (back of the legs) from address through impact and then length in the hip flexors and quads (front of the hip) at the finish in order to avoid multiple swing faults and compensations, which may eventually lead to movement inefficiencies and/or injury. The side-to-side motion of the golf swing happens in the torso as forward bend turns to lead-side side bend in the backswing and then rapidly turns to max-trail-side side bend at impact. The side-to-side motion of the lateral weight shift also presents a demand for mobility in the groin and lateral glutes. It is important to know which area(s) you may need specific work to improve which is where a physical therapist’s expertise to assess and address is invaluable.
Strength for golf.
We need balance between the length and the strength of our tissues. If you have a great turn as described previously but do not possess good hip or trunk rotational strength, you will have difficulty creating a powerful uncoil as well as even staying stable over your feet. With a decrease in hip/trunk stability you will also see an increase in the amount of sway, slide, and other various lower body compensations that ultimately bring your club off plane and therefore do not give you optimal ball striking ability. “Golf Strength” includes strength in these patterns: Push, Pull, Diagonal Chop, and Vertical Thrust.
“Core Strength” is a buzzword these days and is important for day-to-day function but is also critically important for a strong golf swing. Yet endless crunches and sit ups do not quite cut it when transferring core strength to golf.
Using more functional core stability exercises is essential as a basis for strengthening various other body parts as all of those other body parts are connected to the middle/center “core” of us. If we are not strong at the core, we cannot be as strong away from the core.
Core stability helps give us the ability to transfer power from the ground/legs to the arms/hands and ultimately to the club head in the downswing transition zone of the golf swing—from coil to uncoil. It will also give us protection from injuring the low back, the most common golf injury I see clinically.
The core is made up of a number of different muscle groups. Most importantly the core is made up of the three layers of abdominals and the lumbar paraspinal muscles but also includes the lateral hips, the glutes, and the pelvic floor. Ideally to strengthen yourself for golf: the push, the pull, the diagonal chop and the vertical thrust components should be trained while on your feet, maybe even in golf posture and with the core initially consciously engaged in order to magnify muscle recruitment. There needs to be foundational strength recruitment in these motions which may not look “golfy” initially with progression into a more functional synergy of muscle groups and “golfy” movement planes later. Through manual and functional strength testing a physical therapist can figure out which component you might be lacking.
Balance for golf.
In order to be able to stand over the golf ball and progress through the golf swing, where weight is initially balanced then transfers from side-to-side finishing with 90-95 percent of your weight on the lead leg, a considerable amount of balance must be achieved.
I see a lot of recreational golfers unable to finish the golf swing mostly because they cannot stand confidently on their lead leg. If the body knows that it cannot basically stand on one leg for any length of time, especially in a rotated position, it will avoid it. And without the smooth weight shift transitions, the biomechanics of a good swing cannot be achieved, therefore creating compensations that lead to swing faults, mishits, and possible injury.
To enhance your ability to transfer weight onto your finishing leg, practice at home just standing on that leg. Progress this by standing on that leg while the rest of your body rotates to the finish position and even more so by standing on an uneven surface like a pillow or couch cushion. Functionally, when you are practicing on the range or even playing a round, try to hold your finish position for at least five seconds or until the ball returns to turf. This can make a huge difference in your ability to confidently finish your swing, which then enhances your consistency and power.
Power for golf.
Power is strength with speed. There are two parts to the equation. We can increase power by increasing either of the two components and if we increase both components power is further magnified.
Physical therapists can assess your upper body, core and lower body power and strength using the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) level 2 strength and power testing protocol. If the power numbers are down, you could have a strength and/or a speed problem. After taking a client through the strength testing protocol, we can determine if you might also have a speed problem. Some physical therapists have 3D motion capture systems like K-Motion K-Vest and can further measure your segmental speed to determine if you can properly transfer speed in the optimal ratios. This can be measured and re-measured at different points along the interventional spectrum as you progress through your program and additional strength and/or speed exercises are prescribed to address your limitations.
Get the most out of your golf game.
It does take commitment and compliance to fully reach your physical golf peak. Even a little work will boost your overall fitness and will help your golf performance. It does help to have someone trained in the biomechanics of the golf swing, an in-depth understanding of human movement and in strength and conditioning to guide you through a safe and successful program. Physical Therapists especially those that are TPI Certified are an optimal choice to help you.
Additional golf resources
Golf has been growing in popularity, including among junior players. The benefits of the sport for kids include physical, social, mental and emotional growth, but it’s important to keep it fun while also keeping them safe by avoiding early sport specialization.
Golf courses are a popular place for people to get outside and get moving. Failing to properly prepare for the rigors of 18 holes, however, can lead to injury. Reduce your risk of injury by committing to a dynamic warm-up before you walk onto the tee box on the first hole every time you play.
Whether you’re an avid golfer or someone who hits the course every now and then, optimal fitness can improve your golf performance and help you prevent golf-related injury. Physical therapists with specialized training can help you take your game to the next level.
We look forward to being your healthcare partner.
Whether you are an elite athlete or weekend warrior, physical therapy can help you avoid injury, optimize your performance and recover from injury quickly and safely. We focus on the unique needs and goals of the individual and create customized care plans designed to keep every athlete active and engaged in the sports they love.