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 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 Pilates 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 Pilates can assist in the alignment, strength, mental focus and flexibility of golf enthusiasts can improve your skills when working with this population.
Golf Muscle Basics
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.
The Principles of Pilates
Pilates 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.
The strength required for these exercises originates largely in the abdominal muscles. The muscles of the abdomen control the movements to avoid placing a burden on the muscles of the back or extremities (Selby & Herdman 1999). Drawing the navel to the spine during these exercises allows the powerhouse to control the movements. Perform the suggested exercises 2-3 times a week as a complement to the golfer’s regimen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Catherine Fiscella, MSPT, is a licensed physical therapist, a personal trainer and a Pilates instructor.
Archambault, M.L. 2000. Biomechanical evaluation of the golf swing. www.apta.org (online course).
Baptiste, B., & Mendola, K.F. 1999. Yoga for golfers. Yoga Journal (May-June).
Garrett, W.E., Jr. 1996. Muscle strain injuries. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 24 (6, Suppl.), S2-8.
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.