“What’s the best exercise for golf?”
This seems like a pretty simple question at first glance. The answer is a bit more complicated, however. In brief, a fitness program designed to improve one’s golf depends, in no small part, on a person’s fitness level as well as handicap.
“But golf is golf” you may say. So why would two people need to train differently to get optimal improvement? Consider for a moment the golf pro in comparison to the amateur: Tour pros hit the ball about 34 % further than amateurs but suffer 80% less shear force at the lumbar spine. Compressive forces at the low back can be as high as 8 times a person’s body weight at impact (more if you hit the big ball first!) and the lead knee can undergo torsional stress comparable to running.
And people wonder how anyone could hurt themselves playing golf. These forces show us a difference between how professionals and amateur’s bodies handle the forces of the golf swing. They also illustrate a need for different training.
Fitness and golf were on a collision course 12 years ago and about 7 years ago an almost audible crash was heard on the professional golf circuit as Tiger and David Duval began making waves with exercise. Of course they weren’t the first to really dedicate themselves to fitness while playing professional golf. That distinction belongs to Frank Stranahan and later Gary Player. Back then other pros thought those guys were at least a bit nutty to be combining golf and weight training. It was thought the “golf” muscles would forget how to move or that you would become muscle bound and unable to produce a good swing. Also “back then” the sport was as not as glamorous or watched and played by as many. The emphasis was in the practice of the swing and not much else. Also more insidiously, the tournament courses were set up so that more parts of a player’s game were challenged more often and the need for massive drives and long balls was not nearly as important as it is today. Shaping shots was important; managing the course was important; 300 yard drives (also unheard of) were not important.
The emphasis today on hitting it further and further helped bring specific training for golf more into focus and Tiger’s presence and game helped in no small measure as well.
Talking in pure terms about the golf swing and the effects of training, consider this: Let’s say I am able to clone Joe golfer. The original Joe Golfer has his same old 20 handicap swing but to the clone I am able to immediately improve his weight shift so that his swing is perfectly sequenced and timed. I’ve not done anything else to the clone or the equipment yet the clone is generating about 17% greater club head speed than the original Joe. Now I’ll go back, start over, and give the Joe Clone the same 20 handicap swing but I will increase his ability to generate torque (make him stronger) to the club about 5%. Guess how much the Clone increased club head speed…..1.8%.
In this situation, improving timing and sequencing of movement pays an incredibly bigger dividend than does becoming stronger. Pro’s have great timing and sequencing—they wouldn’t be on the Tour if they didn’t. So they get more out of power and strength training than a high handicapper that can’t reproduce good sequencing time after time.
Have you ever wondered why in just 45 minutes your golf pro is able to dramatically improve how far and/or how accurate your shots are? He certainly didn’t take 8-10 weeks in the weight room but did it in 45 minutes right there on the range! That’s improved timing and sequencing of movement that comes from better positioning, improved grip, and proper follow-through. But it’s hard to keep the pattern early on in the acquisition of skills for the game of golf (shoot, the Tour players say its hard even “later on” in the acquisition). I use a device I developed for use with the Tour pros for training timing as well as strengthening that works particularly well in conjunction with golf pro instruction. You can check it out at www.instantreplay.us.
But let’s get back to ideas about training. Tiger Woods illustrates a perfect example of specific needs for training: He’s buffed; he’s strong; and he’s incredibly flexible. His flexibility is his greatest asset but is also is biggest downfall. So his programming is focused on stability as opposed to mobility or the ability to move body parts. He’s already got plenty of mobility, in fact probably too much, what his body needs mostly is to control those body parts (stability) that so freely move. Most weekend golfers, however, will find just the opposite to be true.
Two factors hamper most week-end or amateur golfers: busy work schedules that don’t allow for daily time in the gym and the continuing march of time. Both put the hammer down on your ability to move: your mobility or flexibility. The old adage “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” is never truer than when we talk about joint range of motion and flexibility. Remember when you were twenty-something and you could roll out of bed and go without a second thought about how your body was feeling? And maybe even wearing yesterday’s clothes? You did that because you could. Your body allowed it and so did your lifestyle. Now with life at a faster pace you’re unable to be involved in as many varied activities as before and you end up doing more and more of the same routine. Well, that varied routine of yester-year was not only a hell of a lot of fun but also made more of your body’s joints move through a full range of motion therefore you kept better flexibility. Also you were younger so your connective tissues held on to water better and remained less brittle and more pliable. Sometimes makes a guy wish he were twenty-something again!
I’m not saying there is not a place in golf for resistance or weight training but that it is again a relative thing. A younger player needs to lift lighter to avoid bulking and having muscle get in his way but the older golfer (45 y.o. plus) needs to push heavier weight as he no longer has the hormone system that will build bulk and the aging process will preferentially eat away those fast twitch muscle fibers that weight training helps maintain. A younger player can go ahead and push heavy weights with the legs and hips but not with the upper body but the older player can go heavy weights (with proper progression) on a total body routine.
There is, of course, a complicating factor to all this talk about “simple” golf conditioning: injuries. As we age many of us pick up injuries like the lint screen of a dryer picks fuzz off clothes. Unfortunately, we can’t just clean our injuries like lint but in fact we carry those “reminders” with us as we age. Suddenly golfer A can’t get the same benefit from an exercise golfer B does because golfer A was trashed in an auto accident 10 years ago and is unable to move his body like golfer B.
So now we have differences to be accommodated if our training is to be optimal: skill level of the golfer; current conditioning level of the golfer; age of the golfer; body type of the golfer; and injury status of the golfer.
Wow, where to start! And all you asked was “What’s the best exercise for golf?”
Ideally, you start with an assessment of range of motion, old injuries, history, athletic ability to move, balance etc. and use that information to decide what type of training is most beneficial to begin at this time. That’s where I come in or someone like me but there are some things a person can do for golf training and warm up even without the specialized care.
It won’t matter if you are super flexible like Tiger or not so flexible like Doug Sanders (old pro for you youngsters) you will always benefit from a warm up prior to teeing off.
I prefer to teach my clients active or kinetic stretching prior to play vs. long hold (30-40 second) stretching because it provides the same short term benefits of long hold stretching but without the detrimental effects to power development that long holds give. Long holds are good to do after play or in the process of rehabilitating an injury because they will help improve range of motion over the long term.
One simple active move is what I call the “Wall Twist”. Stand about 8 inches from a wall and assume a mid-iron stance (no club however), now slowly twist into a take-away position and try to touch both hand to the wall. Be sure to keep your head stable, looking at an imaginary ball on the floor. Hold 2 seconds and return to address. Repeat this 8-10 times each way: take-away and finish.
This works all the joints from your feet to your head in a golf-specific position and pattern. If you had time for only one warm up move this would be my recommendation.
Once you are on the tee here are a few other ideas that will help you get all cylinders firing: get there earlier so you can hit some balls! Just kidding but these moves will work well before hitting balls as well as on the first tee when you just can’t get to the practice range:
Reach one hand behind your back and the other over your head and down your back as if you were trying to touch your fingers. It is important here that you do not cause shoulder joint pain or force your arms. Nor do your fingers need to touch (in fact if they do touch you probably should skip this one and spend time on another zone that may need some help). Just gently squeeze your arms into place and hold 2 seconds then repeat in the opposite direction. Do each side 3-5 times. IF YOU FEEL PAIN IN YOUR SHOULDERS THEN DO NOT DO THIS.
The standing leg raise is a good way to stretch your hamstrings and wake up your low back muscles as well. Stand tall and slowly raise one straight leg forward until you feel tension in the back of this leg. Now lower it next to the opposite leg and repeat a bit higher this time. Do not let your low back round but stay tall. This is a leg LIFT not a leg KICK so it is done rhythmically and smoothly. Do not hold but lift to tension and lower and repeat 5-10 times each side. It’s great if you can do this without a balance helper but if not then use a long iron or driver for a bit of balance help.
Finish with some smooth swings with a nine iron held in front of you with one hand on the grip and one hand near the club head. Put yourself in a mid-iron stance and move towards a half swing and progressively build from a half swing to a three quarter to a full swing move. Focus on precise leg loading and body position as you perform distinct swings. In other words, do not use a rapid fire series here but instead use a set-up, swing, and set up again and repeat. Try to do 5 swings at each level.
These drills help with flexibility and timing to a certain extent and will benefit most that use them.
Remember, not all training programs work the same for everyone but there is a program with which everyone can work. You just have to find your program that gives you the MOST for your game and your body.
Ralph Simpson has been a physical therapist and trainer for the PGA Tour the past 12 years of his 21 year career and has now opened Manual Orthopedic & Sports Therapy (MOST) a golf training and physical therapy facility in Whitefish.
For more information on Active stretching for golf see the June issue of Golf Digest for Ralph’s latest article.