The Demands of Golf
Golf is a dynamic, whole body activity. The golf drive off the tee, in particular, places huge stress on joints and muscles from the toes right through to the stabilising muscles of the neck and head. The forces occurring in the swing are generated by the body’s muscles and joints. Within this very brief time period, the key physical demands made on the body include:
- Stability in the base of support (feet, knees, hips)
- Stability in the supporting muscles of the back, shoulders and arms
- Mobility of the pelvis and hips, torso, shoulders and arms
- Strength and Power of the main muscles that move and co-ordinate the back and down swing resulting in:
- Coordination and sequencing of all movements such that there is a transfer from the upper body through the hips and torso with the club moving downwards from overhead to:
- A total body force development through to ball impact and follow through
While the drive from the tee will make great demands on total body stability, mobility, strength, power, and coordination, shorter drives will also make less powerful demands. From a physical demands perspective, putting is also greatly influenced by the stability of the base of support (feet, knees, and hips) and also torso, shoulders and arms.
While playing golf will develop a degree of stability, mobility, strength, and power, in order to be better prepared for the repetitive demands of golf it is important to lay a strong foundation in each of these physical requirements. If you do not train stability, mobility, strength and power, you will not tap into your latent reservoirs of power. There also needs to be a progression and transfer of foundation training to dynamic rotational power development if there is to be a true transfer to your golf swing.
Let’s look at the physical demands of golf so that you may appreciate the importance of putting stability, strength, power, and speed in addition to flexibility into these muscles.
Time-motion analysis of golf
If you are a recreational golfer the average round will take approximately 3 hours. During this time you will walk between 5 and 7 kilometres. Now, this tells us that Golf is a prolonged activity sport. However, these 3 hours of walking and low intensity movement are punctuated by very intense and brief dynamic moments. Consider that the activity time for a drive from the tee takes approximately two to three seconds. Thus if you get round in 100 you are likely to have anywhere between 3.5 to 5 minutes, in all, swinging a club – a very limited time period overall but for these few minutes some very demanding physical movements. Also consider that the initial ball velocity for a tee drive for a tour pro player is on average 160-170 mph. For the recreational male golfer it is about 110-130mph and for the female golfer it is about 100-120 mph. So, even though there is a big difference in club head speed between the pros and recreational golfers, similar stresses can be placed on the body for all golfers trying to drive the ball up to and above 100mph!
The effect of differences in golf stance
When a player bends forward from the shoulders in the address position, he or she increases what is called the moment arm. This is the distance between the base of the lower back and the centre of mass of the body. The further the golfer reaches out the greater the distance from his lower back. Now assume that all forces act about the lower back. Thus, the further the golfer bends forward the greater the force or stress acting about the lower back. Many golfers stand in a position that puts great stress on their lower backs. The many studies on injuries all agree that the lower back is the most injured part of the body in golfers. To help reduce the risk of injury check that your stance is balanced.
If the player reduces the distance between the lower back and the centre of mass he reduces proportionately the force acting about the lower back.
Another important point to appreciate is head and neck position during the golf swing. Imagine the scene; the golfer is bent over in the address position. His neck and upper back are well bent over the club. Additional stress is now applied to the lower back and upper back. Again the potential for injury is relatively high here. It can be reduced by adjusting the stance.
How to reduce stress on the lower back and upper back
Bending at the knee to absorb some of the force acting on the lower back is the first step to consider. This also has the effect of ensuring that the forces developed throughout the swing will be transmitted more efficiently to the down swing. Actively engaging the core muscles about the pelvis-hip while addressing the ball will help redistribute the load from the back through to the core as well. This will also assist in getting better transfer from back swing to down swing.
Keeping the shoulder blades as flat as possible is a potential power source to the golfer during the back swing and through to the down swing. This starts by ensuring that the golfer has strong upper back muscles that can keep the shoulder blades as flat as possible staring at the address. This also has the effect of reducing the stress on the upper back and neck during the address position and throughout the swing. Ensuring that you have a sensible warm-up and a regular routine of stretch and strengthening exercises will go a long way to reducing the risk of picking up golf injuries.
Physical differences between pros and amateurs
Understanding the key physical differences between the professional and the rest of us will help the amateur or recreational golfer to make improvements in his or her game. Numerous scientific studies on the golf swing differences between professional and amateurs have been completed. From these studies the following key points can be made, Professional golfers:
- Have better mechanics in the address and swing of each shot
- Are able to rotate faster during their swing compared to amateurs
- Are more efficient – or have better sequential rotation in their swing
- Are able to develop greater strength and stability
- Partly as a result of the above, pro golfers are able to generate greater club speed closer to ball impact
By identifying the key differences between Pros and Amateurs it is possible to plan a specific physical fitness programme that will improve these so called ‘weak links’ in the amateur golfer. Thus, the lessons from the pros are as follows:
Develop greater strength, stability and mobility so that a more efficient and powerful swing can be completed with the result that you will deliver greater club head speed to the ball at impact. During iron, wedge, and putting shots you will also benefit from a greater degree of stability and mobility.
Recent scientific studies and our own experience confirm that this is what will happen when a progressive conditioning programme is undertaken. Let us now look at the specific mechanics of the golf swing a little closer.
Sequential rotation – a key factor
Over recent years golfers and scientists have been interested in measuring the speed, or more correctly the velocity of club head at ball impact. What has not been as closely examined is the acceleration of the different body parts during the down swing. Ideally the golfer wants all body parts in good sequence so that they can all contribute positively to ensuring that swing acceleration is at its greatest just at ball impact. Amazingly this is not what actually happens with most golfers.
Most golfers do not reach their maximum club head velocity at ball impact – it occurs earlier in the down swing, most likely because of a poor sequencing of body part rotations.
Thus, if the club head has reached its maximum rate earlier in the down swing then it is decelerating before ball impact. There are several factors that help explain why this happens and they include:
- Poor joint mobility including a limited x-factor
- Poor stability in the pelvis and lower limbs
- Excessive concentration on technique
- Incorrect sequencing of body limbs
The X-factor is now common speak in golf. It is simply the range of movement possible or rotational stretch from the shoulders to hips. Stand in the address position and move through the back swing. The stretch you feel from your hips through your back to your shoulders is the X-factor. The degree of rotation stretch from your hips through to your shoulders in the back swing is a key requirement for ensuring that you get optimal mobility about your hips and shoulders so that during the downswing you can transfer power through this range of movement. There is an optimal rotation, or stretch, which you need to have. This is influenced by both your stability in the pelvis, glutes, and legs, and dynamic flexibility about your torso. The real importance of the X-factor is seen during the swing – the X-factor is really about the timing and moving between the shoulders and hips during the down swing. Note that you may be restricted in the shoulders and this may limit your X-factor. You may also be tight in the hip muscles or the thigh muscle and this may also limit your range of movement in the X-factor.
In order to ensure positive rotational acceleration through the down swing, it is important to remember – you can’t launch a rocket from a canoe. This implies that the base of support about which you rotate needs to be very sound. This starts with a strong stance. From this strong base your feet, legs and hips are linked with the upper body and club. Each link in the chain must be strong and be able to transfer energy efficiently and smoothly up from the base of support during the back swing and reverse the transfer on the down swing. The stability strength of your muscles in holding your bones in good mechanical positions generates a level of energy that can be transferred through to the golf club to the ball. In conjunction with a good X-factor base, stability is critical to develop. Did you know that the first muscles to fire when moving your arms overhead are your legs and your deep lying abdominal muscles. Similarly when you initiate the down swing they are also required to keep a strong link between the club overhead, your arms, shoulders, and torso and your base of support.
Excessive concentration – practice to relax
This may come as a surprise to you but focusing too much or too hard on an activity will slow you down. When you are learning a new skill your brain is trying to teach your muscles and joints to move in a certain way. The brain tries to command the muscles and joints. However, the speed at which your muscles and joints move is locally controlled by the peripheral nervous system. You knock out or switch off the speed controller when you are learning a new skill or refining an old one. Remember when you learned how to cycle your concentration was very focused. Your brain took control. Now after learning the skill you can automatically get on the bike and cycle – your peripheral nervous system is now doing its job.
When learning a new exercise you have to concentrate on how to sequence the movements – in other words your brain is teaching your muscles and joints what to do and the order in which the movement is to be completed. If your muscles are flexible and strong enough they should be able to go through the range that is required for the successful movement to occur. However, if you rely on your brain as the speed controller then you will not harness the speed that you are capable of. This is what often happens in golf – golfers try too hard to hit the ball by thinking and focusing too much on the task at hand. For real speed, the peripheral nervous system has to be engaged. Therefore thinking and concentrating should switch off! So practice to relax. Have you ever noticed the traffic relation about the sprinter as he or she moves at great speed? Well the principle is the same relax, let your tensions unwind and you will move more efficiently and ultimately with greater speed.
Thus, there are two things to master – brain work is needed for learning new or refining old movements in practice but then you should shut it off – do not think about how you will strike or hit the ball when you are looking to develop more speed at contact or indeed when playing. The bottom line is to shut the brain off (stop thinking about the mechanics of the swing) when speed is the goal. Let your muscle memory do the work.
Learning the proper sequence of body segments during the swing
Now that we have established that the X-factor, a strong stable core and base, brain and muscles are all central to improved golf let us look at the swing in some more detail.
Imagine that the back swing is a storing or accumulation of stretch energy much like a stretched elastic can store energy for the recoil. Well the recoil is the down swing. It is initiated through the power centre of the body – the pelvic core. And provided that there is a correct sequencing of body segments then this stored elastic energy can be harnessed to dramatic effects.
The down swing is initiated by a shift in the hip with the lead leg bracing or pushed firmly into the ground. This actively transfers the stored energy in the torso and club into the down swing. The muscles of the core initiate the movement of the down swing. This action is actually barely noticeable during a swing. It is trained by the brain but is honed by the peripheral nervous system. However, a key point to emphasise here is that the connection between the deep lying core muscles and the muscles of the left leg, in particular the hamstrings and quadriceps must be well trained. This highlights the concept of sequencing that is critical to ensuring that all body segments – the pelvis, torso and shoulders, the arms and club are all accelerating in sequence.
Further analysis of the down swing shows that the X-factor now becomes important with the pelvic core initiating the downswing energy transfer. It literally sets the sequence of body parts into motion. If the shoulders were to do this then the stored energy would not be transmitted to the down swing. As the down swing progresses the shoulders are now going to move at a greater rate – but the hips still keep pace by rotating through a short range but very strongly.
As stated, if the different segments and muscles of the body can produce a correct sequencing of acceleration then the outcome is most likely going to be a greater club head speed at impact – with the ball travelling farther than before. Training the body to become more efficient in sequencing this acceleration is one key goal of our training programmes. For some golfers this may mean that they will require greater mobility as their weak link may be the X-factor. For other golfers the weak link may be having tight hips, which does not allow the golfer the mobility during the back or down swing to initiate the correct sequencing. Other golfers may have poor pivot strength about their lead leg which ‘gives’ way on the latter part of the down-swing. Thus the physical needs of the golfer must be married to the technical execution of the swing.