Tight chest muscles. Reduced flexibility in the torso. Strained shoulders and a sore back. Unfortunately, that’s the description of many amateur and weekend golfers. Golfers habitually bend and twist, bend and twist—all the while straining their backs and shoulders, forming muscle imbalances and inviting injury. What if we could change how our clients feel on the golf course? What if we could help them utilize the force of trunk rotation instead of the brute force of aching muscles to drive a golf ball?
Incorporating yoga and Pilates movements into a golfer’s exercise regimen is a sure-fire way to increase freedom of movement, build core strength, enhance performance and reduce risk of injury. As fitness professionals we are not in a position to be “swing doctors,” but we can facilitate increases in range of motion and torso strength
to enable a golfer to perform a superior swing. Understanding how the principles of yoga and Pilates can assist in the alignment, strength, mental focus and flexibility of golf enthusiasts can improve your skills when working with this population.
A golfer’s healthy posture begins with full-body strength, flexibility and the maintenance of muscle balance. Players need strength in the upper- and lower-body musculature and the postural and rotational muscles. They also need to be mindful of muscular symmetry (Archambault 2000). Asymmetry is pervasive among golfers; the shoulder, biceps, forearm and upper back tend to develop more on a golfer’s dominant side. The stronger muscles are tighter, while the weaker muscles are more flexible (Baptiste & Mendola 1999). Many golfers desire a better bilateral balance in their musculature, as do most one-sided athletes (for example, baseball pitchers and tennis players).
An efficient golf swing requires full range of motion of the spine and ribs; shoulder external rotators, adductors and abductors; forearm pronators and supinators; and wrist extensors and radial deviators. Flexibility increases the range through which golfers can swing and reduces the frequency of tears and strains in ligaments and tendons (Garrett 1996).
While flexibility enables motion to occur, sufficient strength of the posterior shoulder muscles is essential for club control during the swing phase. The abdominals, erector spinae and latissimus dorsi are used in concert to stabilize the trunk and dissipate forces. Professional golfers use their hips for power, as the hip musculature is very active during the golf swing. Hip rotators are extremely important during the downswing, when the abductors and adductors act in a stabilizing role to maintain balance throughout the movement. In the absence of strong hip rotator musculature, the low back and arms must make up the work, potentially causing back strain (Archambault 2000). A balanced, flexible and strong body is the foundation a serious golfer needs to take his game to the next level.
You can add specific posture and balance assessments for the golfer to the assessment tools you already use and are comfortable with. Use the information you gather to develop an exercise program by matching your observations on posture and flexibility with appropriate exercises.
For example, if a client appears with a forward head and rounded shoulders, implement exercises that stretch the chest and strengthen the upper back—for example, Standing Chair Twist, and Alternating Opposite Arm and Leg Lifts. An inability to stand in place with eyes closed (poor neuromuscular control), for example, indicates the Chair Pose.
Observation. Observe posture.
- Is head protruding too far forward?
- Are shoulders rounded?
- Does your client stand with stomach or buttocks sticking out?
Flexibility. Assess the flexibility of the torso and all four extremities.
- Does the dominant side have less range of motion?
Strength. Look at muscular development.
- Is there more development on the dominant side?
- Does this correlate with restricted flexibility in the muscles or less range of motion in the joints?
Balance. Evaluate neuromuscular control and ability to perform exercises that incorporate balance.
- Able to do a single leg bridge?
- Able to stand in place with eyes closed?
- Able to perform a single leg squat on the BOSU®?
The word yoga means “union” or “harmony.” Yoga was first described as a systematic approach to self-realization by Patanjali around 200 BC. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defined yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” (B.K.S. Iyengar translation). Simply defined, yoga is a process of both physical and mental training. The yoga we see taught in fitness studios all over the country often emphasizes the physical postures, or asanas.
The various categories of asanas offer us a multitude of benefits:
- Mental command. Poses can calm and relax, as well as stimulate and invigorate.
- Improved concentration.
- Increased flexibility and strength.
- Improved balance control.
- Improved circulation and respiration.
An inflexible client will struggle to move through the range of motion required for the golf swing. As the body compensates to complete the movement, the golf swing will lose its integrity. Yoga can loosen tight muscles and ease tissue restrictions to enable a more fluid swing.
In addition to increasing flexibility, yoga improves mental focus. This focus develops from practicing postures, breath control and meditation. Many, if not all, golfers struggle with the mental hazards of the game: loss of concentration, due to fatigue; distractions from a nerve-racking day; or interruptions from those around us. A struggle ensues “between our conscious mind—analyzing, alert, logical—and our subconscious mind—the well of intuition and long-term memory” (Baptiste & Mendola 1999). The intent of all the poses is to bring us into the present moment, taking us away from the unending chatter of the mind, which can distract us from the focus required for a flawless golf swing.
Pilates has been described as “the science and art of coordinated body-mind-spirit development through natural movements under the strict control of will” (Gallagher & Kryzanowska 1999). It strengthens the core, increases flexibility and builds stability within the pelvis and torso. Pilates requires concentration, control and the ability to stabilize the torso effectively while the extremities are moving.
Using Pilates exercises to strengthen your center, or “powerhouse,” will help lengthen the torso and improve posture. Strengthening of the core will also reduce the incidence of back pain (Trainor & Trainor 2004). The concentration needed to demonstrate fluidity of movement during Pilates exercises can improve a golfer’s mental game as well as her physical game.
Pilates can complement a golfer’s regimen, according to Sean P. Gallagher, director of The Pilates Studio™ in Manhattan and coauthor of Pilates® Method of Body Conditioning. “First off, [Pilates] is a balance [workout]; secondly, it helps you gain strength and flexibility in the torso for powerhouse control, where the golf swing comes from. Pilates also incorporates core-extremity integration in multiple planes and configurations that allow for better control of the extremities. This control will help the golfer fine-tune the ability to direct the ball. It is also beneficial because Pilates works nearly every muscle in the body during an intermediate-level workout and puts most joints through a normal range of motion.”
Pilates can be helpful in correcting asymmetries in a golfer’s musculature. Through Pilates, clients “better understand their imbalances by being thoughtful while doing their workout. Since only a few repetitions are recommended, you could also do 3-5 reps more [than the recommendations in the Pilates exercise section],” suggests Gallagher. Clients who lack symmetry “should use Pilates as an adjunct to undo what their sport does to them on a weekly basis.”
As a fitness professional, you can help golfers expand both their physical and mental conditioning by introducing yoga and Pilates into their regimens. The prospect of becoming more flexible will draw golfers to you, as will the chance to boost their core strength and concentration. Learning how to quiet the mind and let the subconscious control the physical prowess you have helped create will not go unnoticed.