Golf. Even the name of this sport evokes a sense of calm and leisure, played out on a quiet field in front of a hushed crowd. Yet every golfer knows that golf is a sport that only looks easy. In fact, golf requires muscular strength, joint flexibility, neuromuscular training and the perfect balance between mobility and stability. The game hinges on the ever-important golf swing, a complex, coordinated movement that on the moment of impact applies compressive forces approximately eight times one’s body weight.
If your clientele is increasingly made up of golfers, you are not alone. Worldwide, it is estimated that 50–60 million people play golf on a regular basis. In the United States alone, more than 26 million people now play the sport (National Golf Foundation 2006). According to a 2004 report, the groups with the largest increases in participation between 2002 and 2003 were women and children (National Golf Foundation 2006).
To improve in golf, players need a golf training program that will produce the greatest results in the most efficient amount of time. With its focus on core strength, flexibility, stability and balance, Pilates is a great tool for conditioning your clients who play golf. This mind-body modality can improve a player’s golf swing and help prevent the types of injuries that plague both amateurs and professional golfers alike.
Approximately 60% of all amateur golfers experience injuries playing the game (Horowitz 1999), whereas half of all professional golfers are forced to retire because of golf-related injuries (Metz 1999). Golf injuries in amateurs are the result of overuse, poor swing mechanics and/or striking the ground with the club.
The most common sites for injury among amateur men are the low back (36%), elbows (32.5%), hands and wrists (21.2%) and shoulders (11%). Amateur women golfers have the greatest occurrence of injuries in the elbows (35.5%), followed by the low back (27.4%), shoulders (16.1%) and hands and wrists (14.5%) (Metz 1999).
Although professional golfers tend to have fewer injuries than amateurs, they are not bulletproof. Pros usually sustain injuries in their hands and wrists (29.6% men vs. 44.8% women); low back (25% men vs. 22.4% women); shoulders (11.4% men vs. 7.5% women); and elbows (7.3% men vs. 6% women) (Metz 1999). Because of the many hours that pros play each day, overuse is the culprit for 80% of their injuries; striking the ground and twisting the torso account for the remaining 20% (Metz 1999). Addressing these particular areas of vulnerability should be a crucial part of any golf conditioning program. Specifically, Pilates exercises that target foot and leg alignment, core strength, joint and spinal flexibility, shoulder rotation, and arm, wrist and hand strengthening need to be included in the program because the swing’s momentum depends on the sequential kinetic transference from each body segment into the club. Spinal alignment is vital to proper swing mechanics, since the spine coils and uncoils 100–130 times in one direction over an average 4-hour game (Horowitz 1999).
Golf is a game of asymmetry and multidirectional stresses. (Imagine doing an oblique curl to the left 100–130 times with compressive forces eight times your body weight, and you’ll have some sense of the toll that golf places on a player!) Pilates spinal rotation exercises de-rotate this spinal imbalance and realign core muscles. Attention to standing alignment and foot placement stabilizes the base of support, and weight-shifting exercises promote better balance.
When you are creating a Pilates conditioning program for golfers, what’s most important is designing core movements for the individual player’s needs. A Pilates conditioning program that assesses performance, lengthens tight muscles, decreases multijoint tightness and strengthens weaker muscles for power on impact will advance the game, prevent injury and improve general fitness.
Golf is a left-handed game played by a right-handed society. For a right-handed golfer, the left side of the body is considered the target side (closest to the ball), whereas the right side is the nontarget side. Although the golf swing uses almost all the muscles in the body, the muscles on one side of the body may be doing the exact opposite of the muscles on the other side. For a golf conditioning program to be effective, both sides need to be trained for the specific jobs they must accomplish.
For example, in the 1 second it takes to complete the golf swing, the muscles fire in the following pattern for a right-handed golfer (Simpson & Kaspriske 2004b):
- gluteals—left side
- adductors—left side
- rectus abdominis—both sides
- latissimus dorsi—right side
- obliques—left to right side
- quadriceps—right side
- pectorals—right side
- hamstrings—left side
- rotator cuff—right side
The major phases of the golf swing are as follows:
- setup (sometimes called “address”)
The setup phase may be the most important part of the swing. A good golf swing starts with a good base of support. Core muscles at the hips, pelvis and lumbar spine provide stability and allow for the transference of power to the legs, trunk and arms.
This initial phase is important because it establishes the biomechanics for the swing. Once the swing has begun, there is no time for correction. Impact occurs in one-quarter of a second, and injury can occur from an incorrect starting position (Chek 1999).
During this phase, the golfer forms the primary spinal angle, created by forward flexion and hinging at the hips. The back should be straight and in the neutral position, while the knees are bent about 10–20 degrees (Wolkodoff 1997).
For a right-handed golfer, a secondary spinal angle is created by lateral bending to the right (nontarget) and downward rotation of the right arm and scapula; the opposite action occurs in a left-handed player. This movement activates the forearms and triceps in an isometric contraction. The erector spinae, rectus abdominis, hamstrings and gluteus maximus should be engaged for balance and support (Wolkodoff 1997).
Both the primary and secondary spinal angles need to be maintained throughout the entire swing (Wolkodoff 1997). Any deviation of these angles will result in a loss of power.
The backswing involves rotating the trunk and raising the arms to prepare for the downswing. The rotation of the shoulders pulls the pelvis away from the target line and changes the position of the center of gravity. At this point, good rotation and flexibility are needed to maintain the secondary spinal angle and keep the center of gravity within the base of support. The height of the backswing is determined by the amount of spinal rotation and range of motion in the shoulders, especially on the target side of the body. The body positioning should be at its maximum efficiency, to create the kinetic energy for the downswing.
The primary muscles used during the backswing are the biceps, teres minor, supraspinatus and infraspinatus on the nontarget side, to raise and pull back the club and stabilize the shoulder girdle (Wolkodoff 1997). The pectoralis major engages on the target side, to move the target arm back. The flexor carpi ulnaris and extensor carpi ulnaris stabilize and cock the wrists. The deltoids activate on both sides of the body, to lift the club back. The external oblique on the target side and the internal oblique on the nontarget side rotate the torso along the spinal axis. The rectus abdominis and erector spinae rotate and stabilize the nontarget side. In the lower body, the biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus aid hip rotation. The adductors brevis, longus and magnus on the target side are responsible for the inward and lateral movement of the thigh. The gluteus minimus, also on the target side, moves the hip inward and laterally (Wolkodoff 1997).
The most stress to the body occurs in the downswing phase. The motion of the downswing pivots the body toward the target and pulls the arms down, which generates club head acceleration. The actions of the shoulders and arms during the downswing are responsible for the club head speed.
The pectoralis major now engages on the nontarget side for acceleration before impact. The posterior deltoid on the nontarget side acts as a stabilizer (Wolkodoff 1997). The nontarget triceps remains contracted. The teres minor and infraspinatus activate the movement of the target arm, and along with the trapezius, they stabilize the shoulders. The nontarget arm rotates internally toward the target from the subscapularis. The extensor carpi radialis longus and the extensor carpi radialis brevis uncock the wrists. The latissimus dorsi on the nontarget side stabilizes the shoulder girdle and adducts and stabilizes the nontarget arm (Wolkodoff 1997).
On the nontarget side, the external oblique acts as a stabilizer and pulls the shoulders toward the hips, rotating the body toward the target. The internal oblique and erector spinae on the target side are responsible for trunk rotation. The biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus aid hip rotation. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus engage for hip abduction (Wolkodoff 1997).
Impact is the fastest and most crucial part of the golf swing. The shoulders, arms and hands must transfer the energy from the club into the ball; they are the last link in the kinetic chain. From the top of the backswing to impact can take as little as 250 milliseconds (Chek 1999). Since it takes the brain 300 milliseconds to process new information, there is no chance for correction once the swing has begun (Chek 1999).
At impact, the target-side internal obliques and pectoralis are at their most active point. On the nontarget side, the pectoralis major contributes only slightly to the club swing. The latissimus dorsi on that same side activates to aid both internal rotation and the movement of the nontarget arm. The nontarget triceps maintains its contraction during the swing. The muscles stabilizing the shoulder and creating external rotation of the target arm are the teres minor and infraspinatus (Wolkodoff 1997).
The subscapularis on the nontarget side is responsible for the internal rotation and movement of the nontarget arm. The extensor carpi radialis longus and the extensor carpi radialis brevis maintain the uncocking of the wrists. The initiation of the wrist snap is done through activation of the flexor carpi ulnaris. The external oblique on the nontarget side acts to pull the shoulders to the hips and rotate the body toward the target. As the internal oblique and erector spinae rotate the trunk on the target side, the rectus abdominis engages to stabilize the torso. The quadratus lumborum bends the trunk to the side on the nontarget side of the body. The action of the gluteus medius at impact is rotation to the target with the nontarget leg. The gluteus minimus abducts the hip, laterally shifting the weight to the target. The biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus aid hip rotation and hip extension. The adductors brevis, longus and magnus on the nontarget side are responsible for the lateral weight shift and the hip movement toward the target. The gastrocnemius and soleus activate to stabilize the body during the weight change (Wolkodoff 1997).
Momentum is a large part of follow-through. Once the club has contacted the ball, the body begins to decelerate. Body weight shifts to the target leg, while the shoulders and hips face the target.
The primary muscles in the upper body used during the follow-through phase of the golf swing are the teres minor on the target side, for shoulder stabilization and external rotation of the arm; the subscapularis on the nontarget side, for internal rotation and arm movement; the infraspinatus, for external rotation of the target arm; and the extensor carpi radialis longus and the extensor and flexor carpi radialis ulnaris, to maintain the grip (Wolkodoff 1997).
In the trunk, the primary muscle at work during follow-through is the external oblique on the nontarget side, which acts as a stabilizer and pulls the shoulders toward the hips, rotating the body toward the target; the target-side internal oblique, which is responsible for trunk rotation; the rectus abdominis, which stabilizes the torso to prevent excessive hyperextension of the back muscles; and both sides of the erector spinae, used to bring the body to the upright position, completing the movement (Wolkodoff 1997).
Muscles used in the lower body are the biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus, for hip rotation and extension; the gluteus minimus on the nontarget side, for hip abduction and for hip rotation on the nontarget leg; the gastrocnemius and soleus on the nontarget side, for stabilization at the end of the swing; and finally, the tibialis anterior, for stabilization of the lower target leg (Wolkodoff 1997).
From a biomechanical perspective, the golf swing is a complex and unnatural movement that works the whole body—but not in symmetrical patterning. Addressing physical limitations through a series of Pilates exercises can help create symmetry and coordination, improve muscular endurance and increase range of motion. Pilates exercises establish coordinated muscle-firing by retraining core muscles, including deep stabilizers, hip flexors and extensors, hip abductors and adductors, and spinal flexors, extensors and rotators.
Both golf and Pilates are mind-body activities that share some of the same basic principles. Golf swing principles are fluid motion, precision, accuracy and power, whereas Pilates principles focus on control, concentration, centering, precision, flow of motion and proper breathing.
A golf pro can help correct a golfer’s technique by altering stance, grip and hip turn ratio. But the underlying fault in any golf swing is in the body itself. The way the ball is hit correlates to physical limitations, such as lack of flexibility, poor rotation, hip instability, general hip or leg weakness, shoulder girdle instability, weakness in the wrists and forearms, and poor core strength. Correcting the swing at the time of the swing will not improve the physical cause. The underlying limitations need to be addressed at their physical source, and the body needs to be retrained in order to improve the swing, prevent injury and increase overall performance.
These are some of the most common faults in a golfer’s swing:
- backswing sway
- chicken winging
- reverse spine angle or dipping
- lower-body lunge
- poor swing rotation
See “Pilates Corrective Exercises for Golfers” on page 59 for a look at recommended exercises for each of these physical limitations.
Backswing sway occurs when a golfer’s hands drift too far away from the body, pulling the torso on the backswing. This causes too much lateral movement, and the flight path of the ball will likely be a slice or a hook. The causes of backswing sway are lack of balance and an inability to rotate the upper torso.
To correct backswing sway, focus on Pilates balance exercises that stabilize core muscles and shift the body weight. Create proper foot alignment, and use balls and foam rollers to improve balance. To enhance upper-torso rotation, stabilize the pelvis and increase range of motion with torso rotation exercises. Placing a golf club or pole behind the head across the top of the shoulders and rotating just the upper torso will help increase flexibility and eliminate this problem.
Another common golf fault is chicken winging, which occurs when a golfer lifts the nontarget elbow on the backswing. This movement changes the angle of the club and the swing path, and the player ends up smothering the ball or hitting the top of it. The cause of chicken winging is shoulder girdle instability.
Use exercises to strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle and minimize range of motion for hypermobile joints. Focus on exercises that strengthen the infraspinatus, teres minor and posterior deltoid.
Reverse spine angle (also called dipping) pushes the body weight to the golfer’s front foot. This causes the hips to slide laterally, instead of rotating. The result is that the ball path distance is diminished.
Creating hip stability will correct this problem. Exercises to strengthen the core muscles in the pelvis and the rectus abdominis, external obliques and hip flexors should be the focus for a golfer with this limitation.
Lower-body lunge occurs when the body is not in the proper position at the moment of impact. The body lunges past the ball in an attempt to transfer weight quickly to the target side. This incorrect positioning turns the club face downward, which results in the ball either being smothered or not getting off the ground.
This problem can be corrected by strengthening the golfer’s hips and legs. Include lunges for the quadriceps, prone or standing leg curls for the hamstrings, and adduction and abduction exercises for the hips.
When a golfer prematurely uncocks the wrists, casting occurs. This action brings the club head ahead of the hands, topping or smothering the ball and resulting in a loss of power on impact. Casting is generally caused by weakness in the wrists and forearms.
This limitation can be helped a great deal with the proper Pilates emphasis. Elbow injuries are prevalent among amateur golfers, and strengthening exercises for the wrist and forearm can protect this joint and prevent strain. Wrist curls, reverse wrist curls, radial flexion and ulnar flexion are indicated for golfers who are prone to casting.
A limited range of motion in the torso causes poor swing rotation, one of the most common physical faults in the golf swing. Swing power comes from the turn of the body.
A program of core strength exercises and flexibility movements should include exercises for the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, erector spinae, hip flexors, hamstrings, pectorals, deltoids and internal and external rotators.
Any of the swing faults can adversely affect the flight path of the golf ball. There are four fundamental principles that primarily control the ball flight path:
- club head alignment
- swing path
- angle of attack
- club head speed
- Muscle balance and flexibility, along with static and dynamic postural stability, affect club head alignment.
- Muscle balance and flexibility, along with static and dynamic postural stability, affect swing path.
- Muscle balance and flexibility, along with static and dynamic postural stability, affect angle of attack.
- Muscle balance and flexibility, along with static and dynamic postural stability, strength and power, affect club head speed.
Pilates exercises work to create muscle balance, flexibility, core alignment and proper spinal mechanics in both amateur and professional golfers. When muscle balance and core alignment are optimal, good motor programming results. Over time, golf swing faults can be corrected by better body mechanics, which also reduce the chance of injury.
Pilates mat exercises can be used to stretch, strengthen and rotate the golfer’s body. Pilates conditioning creates core alignment and functional strength so that the entire body is integrated when movements are performed. Pilates movements performed correctly and with precision will create new physical patterns for golfers. Certain types of Pilates equipment, such as the fitness ring, or magic circle, can also be included in a program for golfers. The ring can be an especially effective way to add resistance to a workout, act as a stabilizer for the joints and create closed-chain exercises, which produce more functional movements for the body. For a look at specific Pilates exercises and uses, see “Pilates Corrective Exercises for Golfers” on page 59.
The practice of Pilates builds a flow of motion that lends ease and power to the golf game. Pilates, like golf, brings conscious control and focus to all movements. Only through this kind of centering can great benefits be achieved—both on the golf course and in the activities of daily living.
corrective exercise core twist with hip rotation
This increases torso’s rotary motion. Use fitness ring, but keep it level and on same plane throughout movement, in order to stabilize angle of spine in rotation. Reverse movement may be awkward at first but will increase body awareness and improve balance both on and off golf course.
Stand with feet hip distance apart. Hold fitness ring horizontally, and place it at center of chest, at bottom of rib cage. Press shoulder blades down, and lift elbows until level with ring.
step 1: Inhale, and rotate torso to target side.
step 2: Exhale, and swing torso around to nontarget side, keeping ring parallel to floor and shoulders level.
Repeat movement 10 times.
Now, start exercise on nontarget side of body, rotating to target side, and repeat 10 times.
To increase upper-body rotation, work with full range of motion, emphasizing starting point of rotation on target side.
corrective exercise prone hamstring lifts, curls and extensions
Strengthening hamstrings, buttocks and hip adductors will help maintain proper body positioning at moment of impact.
Lying prone on floor, bend knees and place ring between ankles. Place hands on floor, palms down, and relax head on hands. Pull navel to spine, and press hips to floor. (Spine should be elongated, not arched.) Keep knees bent at a 90-degree angle, and maintain enough resistance on ring to hold it horizontally to floor.
segment 1: lifts
step 1: Inhale as you lift legs up from floor.
step 2: Exhale, and squeeze ring.
step 3: Inhale, and release squeeze.
step 4: Exhale, and lower legs.
segment 2: curls
step 1: Inhale as you lift legs up from floor.
step 2: Exhale, squeeze ring and curl heels toward buttocks.
step 3: Inhale, and uncurl back to 90-degree position.
segment 3: extensions
step 1: Inhale as you lift legs up from floor and squeeze ring.
step 2: Exhale, and extend legs (straightening them behind you) a few inches above floor.
step 3: Inhale, and curl back to 90-degree position.
step 4: Exhale, and lower legs to floor.
segment 1: Perform 10 repetitions.
segment 2: Perform 5 repetitions, then release legs down and perform a second set.
segment 3: Perform 5 repetitions.
Ensure that pelvis remains neutral and does not rotate as you lift hip bones from floor. Be sure to maintain active core muscle alignment through each of the exercises.
Special thanks to Cecile LeMoine Bankston, who modeled expertly for these photographs; and to Gina Axelson, who so generously hosted our photo shoot at her beautiful new studio—Bella Forma Pilates—in Carlsbad, California.
Sidebar photographs by Jim Coit.
corrective exercise bow and arrow
Stabilizing shoulder joint and working muscles through shoulder girdle both concentrically and eccentrically create awareness of how to strengthen the kinetic chain and work through center of joint to maintain crucial joint alignment.
Stand with feet hip distance apart. Hold fitness ring vertically at chest level. Press shoulder blades down, and lift elbows to chest level. Turn torso and head toward nontarget side.
step 1: Inhale, and stabilize shoulder girdle. Exhale, and pull ring toward target side, hinging from shoulder; keep elbow and wrist on same plane.
step 2: Inhale, and press ring to nontarget side.
Repeat 10 times before starting exercise on target side.
Pay close attention to positioning of elbow and wrist. Watch for any break in the kinetic chain. This exercise, when executed properly, will also strengthen forearms and help reduce wrist and elbow injury.
corrective exercise twist with arm pulls and saw
poor swing rotation
This rotational stretch works core muscles for improved flexibility and core strength.
Sit on mat with legs extended in front of you. Open legs to V position, slightly wider than hips.
segment 1: twist with arm pulls
step 1: Inhale, and lift arms out to sides of body at shoulder level.
step 2: Exhale as you flex feet and twist torso to target side. Keep both hips anchored to floor, and arms straight at shoulder level.
step 3: Press arms back with 10 small presses, inhaling and exhaling with each press.
step 4: Twist torso into center position with full breath.
Repeat on nontarget side.
segment 2: the saw
step 1: Inhale as you lift arms out to sides of body at shoulder level.
step 2: Exhale, flex feet and twist torso to target side. Keep both hips anchored to floor, and arms straight at shoulder level. Inhale, and lift nontarget arm toward ceiling. Round your back, exhale, and stretch arm across body, reaching arm past opposite foot. Keep both hips anchored to mat. Bring target arm behind body.
step 3: Stretch forward, sliding nontarget hand past foot in “sawing” motion. Perform 10 “sawing” movements. Inhale and exhale with each movement.
step 4: Round back to sit up, and lift arms out at shoulder level. Twist to center position. Repeat exercise on other side.
segment 1: Repeat exercise 2 times.
segment 2: Perform 2 sets.
Ensure that clients keep both hips pressed to mat, and abdominal muscles pulled inward and upward. Make sure head follows line of spine. If clients have difficulty sitting tall with legs straight, have them bend one leg, then stretch over straight leg and gradually straighten bent knee to increase stretch into hamstrings.
corrective exercise standing hip balance control
reverse spine angle, or dipping
This exercise teaches the relationship between balance and counterbalance. The different segments of the exercise increase hip stability and improve core alignment and fitness.
Stand with feet hip distance apart. Hold top of fitness ring in both hands. Round torso, keeping hips directly over heels, and place bottom of ring on floor, with ring in vertical position. Torso alignment places hips, knees and ankles in vertical plumb line. Pull shoulders away from ears, keeping head in line with spine, and gaze toward legs.
step 1: Inhale, and press circle down without swaying hips or leaning back.
step 2: Exhale; pull navel to spine, and round torso upward to release press on ring. Use core muscles and stabilize hip position. Activate full length of rectus abdominis to maintain body design; do not allow back to flatten.
step 1: Maintaining core alignment, lift both heels up and balance on balls of feet.
step 2: Inhale, and lower target heel to floor.
step 3: Exhale, and lift heel, rolling to ball of foot.
step 4: Inhale, and lower nontarget heel to floor.
step 5: Exhale, and lift heel, rolling to ball of foot (both heels are now lifted).
Repeat each segment 10 times.
During segment 1, you will be correcting body from swaying front and back. Movement must be performed with no angle movement from hip to knee to ankle. During segment 2, you will be stabilizing hip sway from side to side. Heel must lower directly under hip, with no release or shift into opposing hip.
corrective exercise finger flicks
This simple movement improves circulation in arms and hands, while also strengthening forearm muscles.
Stand with feet hip distance apart. Bring hands in front of body, and make loose fists by rolling up fingers with thumb on top.
step 1: Strongly flick fingers open as if trying to remove something sticky. Movement should be so strong that you can hear a sound as you flick fingers apart. Perform 10 flicks.
step 2: Continue flicking as you bring arms up in front of body to chest level. Perform another 10 flicks.
step 3: Continue flicking as you bring arms above head. Perform another 10 flicks.
step 4: Continue flicking as you lower arms out to sides of body at shoulder level. Perform another 10 flicks.
step 5: Continue flicking as you lower arms in front of body to starting position. Perform another 10 flicks.
Perform 1 set. As you progress, do 1 set, then reverse pattern and repeat.
Make sure clients keep wrists straight and stable so movement passes through center of wrist. Elbow should remain soft, not locked or overly bent. Breathing pattern matches movement: inhaling for 2 flicks and exhaling for 2 flicks.