Yoga, Pilates & Golf
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.
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Asanas: Yoga poses.
Lengthen the hips: Cue: Relax the tension in the hip flexors and reach the toes away from the hips (the opposite of joint compression).
Lengthen the spine: Cue: Create space between the vertebrae, to elongate the spine (the opposite of compression).
Navel to spine: Cue: As you exhale, feel your pelvis shift forward, your pelvic floor and gluteal muscles tighten and your abdomen flatten. Your ribs should draw closer to the imaginary line across your hips, making the distance between your stomach and back as small as possible.
Powerhouse: The area between your rib cage and the imaginary line across your hips at the pelvis.
Vinyasa: A series of flowing yoga movements.
The following yoga poses performed 2-3 times a week are just a few of the many that can enhance a golfer’s performance.
Eagle Pose (Garudasana)
Stretches hips, knees and ankles; strengthens upper back and shoulders. Challenges balance and mental focus. Stand with your feet together. Bend your knees and shift your weight to the right foot. Lift your left leg and place it over your right so the left thigh is on top. Wrap your left foot around the outside of the right calf. Cross your arms in front of you with the left arm under the right. Bend the elbows and wind your left hand around to meet the right. Press your palms together. Keep the shoulders down and the elbows lifted. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds as you focus on your breath, and then repeat on the other side.
Standing Chair (Bench) Twist (Maricyasana III)
Stretches torso, hips and chest. Place a flat bench against a wall. Stand sideways to the wall as you face the bench and place the foot closest to the wall on the bench. Position the same-side thigh against the wall to stabilize your hips. Point the foot of the standing leg straight ahead. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Exhale and turn your navel toward the wall. Spread your hands apart on the wall, below shoulder height, while you roll your shoulders down. Hold for 60 seconds and then switch sides.
One-Legged Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
Stretches hips and abdomen; lengthens spine. Begin on your hands and knees. Take your left knee forward as you externally rotate your hip, resting your outer left shin, knee and thigh on the ground. Keep your knee and thigh pointing straight ahead and bring your left heel in front of your right hip. Try to keep your hips level and facing forward. To increase the stretch to your right hip flexors, bring your torso more upright; to intensify the outer left hip stretch, bend forward. Hold for 30-60 seconds while focusing on your breath. Repeat with your right leg forward.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Challenges balance and mental focus. Stand with your feet together. Shift your weight to the left foot and bend your right knee. Place the right heel on the left thigh as you turn the right hip out. Keep your hips facing forward. Raise your arms overhead. Stay in the pose for 30 seconds, breathing deeply. Repeat on the other side.
Stretches hips; challenges balance. Begin on your hands and knees and step the left foot forward between your hands. Have the shin perpendicular to the floor. Curl the toes of your back foot under and press the heel down to press your toes into the floor. Draw your hips forward, descending the right thigh toward the floor. Place your hands on your left knee and lift up through your chest. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
Lengthens the spine; strengthens back and posterior scapular muscles. Lie on your stomach, forehead on the ground, legs together and toes pointed. Stretch your arms alongside your torso, palms facing up. As you exhale, lift the head, chest, arms and legs off the floor. Keep the spine lengthened and the shoulder blades back and down as you reach your toes away from your torso. Breathe for 10 seconds and then lower the arms and legs. Rest for 20 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
Challenges balance and mental focus; strengthens hips and thighs. Stand with your feet straight, hip distance apart. Bend your knees until your thighs are almost parallel to the ground and drop your tailbone down. Raise your arms overhead in line with your torso. Observe your breath for 30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Half Wall Stretch (Ardha Uttanasana)
Lengthens spine; stretches shoulders, hamstrings and calves. Place your hands on the wall, shoulder width apart, at shoulder height. Step back until your arms are completely straight, keeping your feet directly under your hips. Keep your back straight as you bend forward. Take several breaths, and then walk toward the wall to release the pose.
Bridge (Setu Bandha)
Lengthens spine; strengthens hips, gluteals, hamstrings and low back. Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet hip distance apart. Place your arms by your sides, palms facing down. As you inhale, press down through your hands and tuck the tailbone. As you exhale, press your heels down and lift your hips, sacrum and spine off the floor. Press down through your arms and feet to help lift up your chest. Breathe for 20 seconds and then lower your hips. Repeat 3 times.
Challenges balance; strengthens shoulders and torso. Begin sitting on your left hip with your legs folded to the right side. Place your left hand on the floor adjacent to your left hip and relax your right arm at your side. Exhale and lengthen up out of your hips, straightening your legs and extending your spine. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Strengthens abdomen and hips. Lie on your back with both knees bent. Place your hands behind your head, keeping the elbows open. Lift your shoulders off the mat and lower your chin toward your chest. Bend the left knee toward your chest while your right leg extends outward. Use the abdominals to maintain a flat back as you then bring the right shoulder toward the left knee. Switch sides. Repeat 5-10 times on each side.
Single Leg Stretch
Strengthens abdomen and hips. Begin on your back with navel to spine, exhale and pull your right knee to your chest as you lift your shoulders off the mat. Extend your left leg outward. Maintain your upper-torso position, keeping navel to spine, as you switch sides. Repeat 8-10 times each side.
Relaxes shoulders; repetitive rolling motion relaxes and massages the spine. Sit and hug both knees into your chest. Flex your spine, bringing your chin toward your chest. Using your abdominals to assist in balancing on your sit bones, inhale and roll backwards. Exhale and return to the starting position. Repeat 5 times.
Increases flexibility of torso and rotational muscles; improves posture and alignment. Sit tall with legs extended slightly wider than hip width apart. Extend your arms open about 45 degrees from the sagittal plane of your body. Keeping the spine lifted, exhale and drop the right arm down over the left leg as if to saw off the left pinky toe with the right pinky finger. Using your abdominals, roll up and return to the starting position. Repeat 4-5 times on each side.
Alternating Opposite Arm and Leg Lifts
Strengthens back and shoulders; lengthens spine and hips. Begin prone with navel to spine. Reach both arms out in front of you. Exhale and extend the left arm and right leg up while maintaining a stable torso and not rocking your hips. Keep shoulder blades together and down. Inhale and lower. Switch sides. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Double Leg Lift
Strengthens hips, quadriceps and abdomen. Lie on one side, supporting your head with the lower arm. Your upper arm is in front of your body to help maintain alignment. Extend both legs at a small angle in front, and inhale to prepare. Exhale and lift both legs to hip height. Repeat 8-10 times on each side.
- If your client feels pain during or after an exercise, remove that exercise from the program or provide a modifier when possible (bolsters or yoga blocks).
- A stretch should feel like an increase in tension, but never pain. Only take a client to a point of tension in the muscle.
- If a client’s joint range of motion is grossly different from one side to another, or if the client complains that he can’t perform daily activities with that joint, collaborate with a health professional so that the client can safely reach his goals.
- If a client complains of back pain during any of these exercises, recommend that she consult a physician before continuing, to rule out pathologies or injuries that would require a health professional’s care.
Jill Johnson, MS, PT, is a licensed physical therapist and registered yoga teacher in Lebanon, New Hampshire. She is the director of the Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio in Lebanon and enjoys combining her physical therapy knowledge and love of yoga when working with clients and students. She can be reached through her Web page at www.ahayoga.comless
Baptiste, B., & Mendola, K.F. 1999. Yoga for golfers. Yoga Journal (May-June).
Catalano, J. 2003. Poised for yoga. Training and Conditioning, 13 (5), 13-9.
Gallagher, S.P., & Kryzanowska, R. 1999. The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning. Philadelphia: BainBridgeBooks.
Garrett, W.E., Jr. 1996. Muscle strain injuries. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 24 (6, Suppl.), S2-8.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2003. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: Thorsons
Selby, A., & Herdman, A. 1999. Pilates’ Body Conditioning: A Program Based on the Techniques of Joseph Pilates. London: Barron’s.
Trainor, T.J., & Trainor, M.A. 2004. Etiology of low back pain in athletes. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 3 (1), 41-6.
© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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