Jan 29, 2015The Science Behind the Swing
More than just strength, successful golfers need to learn proper weight shifting. Fortunately, this can be trained with a few simple exercises.
By Pete Draovitch and Ralph Simpson
Pete Draovitch, ATC, PT, CSCS, is a Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Performance Complex and co-author of Complete Conditioning for Golf.
Ralph Simpson, PT, OCS, CMPT, ATC, spent 12 years on the PGA Tour Fitness Van and is a Manual Physical Therapist now in private practice in Whitefish, Mont.
In some ways, training a golfer is like training athletes in most other sports. Golf athletes need to build strength, flexibility, and movement skills. Yet golf is also very different from most field and court games in that the movement occurs while the body is neither running nor reacting. In this sense, it requires a different approach to addressing training and conditioning needs.
Data collection models have shown that the most important element of improving a golfer’s swing is proper weight shifting, not increasing strength. By increasing their strength by five percent, a golfer can get about a 1.7 percent increase in club head speed. On the other hand, by improving proper weight shifting, a golfer can achieve up to a 14 percent increase in club speed.
This does not mean we should neglect strength training. Developing proper weight shifting won’t do much good if the golfer is fatigued by the 11th hole and can no longer hold postures the game requires. However, we can conclude that training for proper weight shifting may be more important in golf than other sports.
STRETCH & STRENGTHEN
The first thing we do when developing a strength and conditioning program for golfers is assess the individual athletes. We conduct a functional movement screen to identify any problems with mobility, stability, and sequencing. We follow that with a clinical assessment to more closely examine their needs.
From these findings, we put together a flexibility and strength program. We feel that flexibility is very important for several reasons. Along with helping the athlete achieve more in their strength program, flexibility is important from a mobility standpoint. Flexibility allows the athlete to store more elastic energy and decelerate their swing over a greater distance. We incorporate functional flexibility activities into the start of our athletes’ workouts.
We use many different forms of stretching, including static stretching, PNF, and Active Release Technique (ART), just to name a few. Some of the exercises we employ are crossovers, hamstring stretches, kneeling hip flexors, and bow bends.
In developing the strength-training portion of the program, we aim for sport-specific muscular strengthening activities. We also use different forms of resistance, ranging from body weight and resistive tubing to traditional weight training equipment.
Our strength work focuses on the three major areas of the body. The core is engaged by utilizing gentle abdominal hollowing and pelvic floor contractions with all exercises. For low-back-endurance, we use prone leg raises. For the lower body and core, we employ wall sits, stationary lunges, and windmills. We use a progression (from least to most demanding) of chops and lifts from standing to seated to kneeling, as well as seated wall presses, to develop upper body strength and the core. (See “In-Season Program”.)
Developing balance is critical for a golfer, as the success of every stroke is based on having a precisely balanced body throughout the swing. We use a number of side-stepping drills with tubing wrapped around the athlete’s waist to strengthen and train the hip abductors and adductors in combination with hip rotation. We also use dynamic postural balance drills in both challenged and unchallenged environments, with the eyes open and closed, and on level and unlevel surfaces.
After addressing flexibility, strength, and balance as the base of the program, we then concentrate on developing proper weight shifting through segmental sequencing. In our opinion, this may be the most important skill and fitness factor for improving performance.
Since the golf swing is an appropriately timed coiling and uncoiling process, inability to properly sequence those segments may result in loss of power or in compensatory movement patterns. The golf score of a tour-level player can vary as much as 20 to 40 percent between rounds or even between front and back nines. However, barring injury, muscular fatigue, or different effort levels, an individual’s strength and flexibility should not vary that much from day to day. Therefore, the only explanation for the large variance has to be the sequencing changes which occur from round to round, nine to nine, or even shot to shot.
How do we train for more effective sequencing? Let’s first take a look at what makes up effective sequencing.
Optimum athletic performance requires coordination, balance, and well-timed weight shifts of the various segments of the body. Few athletic skills reflect this as well as the golf swing. Several neurological systems provide the feedback necessary for a person to accurately move body segments and contract and relax muscles during the smooth ballet of sporting movements. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive discussion of these systems and their pathways, some dialogue of this neuroanatomy and neurophysiology will be necessary if we are to better understand how to apply training theories to improve performance.
Three subsystems of the central nervous system (CNS) control our ability to maintain balance and equilibrium: the somatosensory system, the vestibular system, and the visual system. Although higher CNS centers (cerebral cortex and brain stem) are very much involved, we will focus on the somatosensory system.
The somatosensory system, most simply described, is a system of proprioceptors and tactile sensors that provide information concerning the orientation of body parts to one another and to the supporting surface for the purpose of maintaining postural equilibrium. In other words, the somatosensory system controls how we move our center of gravity and extremities in relation to our environment.
The most important branch of proprioceptors are mechanoreceptors, which live either within joint ligaments or capsules (articular) or within muscles and tendons (muscular). Overlap exists between the two as they provide seamless control of joint stability via muscle tone changes.
There are four types of articular mechanoreceptors:
Type I are slow and non-adapting receptors, which continuously transmit impulses as long as the stimulus is present. They allow the CNS to know the status of muscle contraction and load on tissues at each moment of both static and dynamic activities.
Type II are the fast adapting receptors, which are movement and rate detectors. They fire only when the strength of the stimulus being applied changes. They react strongly while a change is actually taking place and the impulses are directly related to the rate at which change takes place.
Type III receptors are located in ligaments and seem to measure tension. They become active at the extreme ranges of motion.
Type IV receptors are free nerve endings that primarily detect pain. Some also react to crude touch, pressure, and tactile sensations.
Muscular mechanoreceptors are called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) and muscle spindles. The GTOs, located where tendon blends to muscle, send information about muscle tension or changes in tension to the CNS and spinal cord. The spindles, however, are located within the muscle belly and transmit information regarding rate and magnitude of muscle length change. The muscle spindles are unique in that they have nerve attachments that not only perceive stimulus but also cause motor responses. These motor responses adjust the tension of small muscle fibers within the spindle itself, altering its sensitivity to the larger muscle’s current state of tone.
Large muscle movements are initiated when they receive signals from alpha motor neurons thus changing their current tone. But since the response may be stimulated by joint and cutaneous mechanoreceptors as well as the brainstem, it follows that proprioceptor activation in functional movements help increase excitation of the spindles, which in turn cause a greater recruitment of motor units and a stronger contraction.
The last groups of proprioceptors are tactile sense organs, which also have the ability to influence movement and posture. Spread throughout the skin as cutaneous receptors as well as in deeper layers, these organs are either slow or fast adapting. Of particular importance are those of the plantar surface of the feet. They have been shown to supply the CNS with information regarding weight distribution upon each foot as well as between the feet. Not only are they important sources of input on static position and body sway, but they play a significant role during dynamic and functional movements as well. These cutaneous receptors provide information that blends with the receptors of muscles and joints to further the overlapping system of neurological input guiding movement and balance.
This close look at how the central nervous system affects body movement has helped us better understand segment sequencing and how to train it. From this information, we developed a series of exercises that can rapidly enhance input from these somatosensory components, enabling a golfer to learn specific athletic-golf movements faster as well as improve existing motor skills.
The program is an elastic resistance-based application that targets the mentioned motor learning and neurological systems. One end of the elastic tubing is attached to a door (or pulley system) and the other end is wrapped around the subject’s shoulder. It allows assisted training for developing segmented sequencing, or motor learning. And it provides resisted training for strengthening when the tubing is wrapped around the waist. (See “Swinging With Tubes” ANCHOR LINK.)
Its usefulness in assisted training is based on targeting the specific parts of the somatosensory system that are engaged during a golf swing. Type I, II, and even III mechanoreceptors are targeted as are weight-bearing tactile receptors.
The sport-specific swing planes trigger the type III cells at the end of the pattern further educating the sensory system as to exact positions. Protocol rotation patterns tend to load limbs and feet in a certain order, stimulating the cutaneous receptors of the foot as well as muscular mechanoreceptors of the lower leg. During rapid movements, this input from the legs give us our most sensitive means of feeling postural sway, which then encourages loading of the legs in functional patterns at different times as weight shifts are progressively trained. This results in massive sensorimotor input and raises the level of excitability and contractility of the nervous system, speeding the rate of muscle shortening. In other words, movements and muscle contractions become more responsive and quicker.
The importance of this becomes evident when we think of a typical force/time graph. In golf, typically 0.2 seconds are required from a full, take-away position to reach impact, yet for most explosive movements, absolute maximum force usually requires 0.6 to 0.8 seconds. So, the goal is to create more power faster. By focusing on the trunk, hips, and legs, we’re in a great position to do this.
Ultimately, this approach loads the joints of the spine and lower extremities in sport-specific patterns. Because these patterns first require the athlete to control his center of gravity and individual body segments against resistance, then move those same components with the assistance of the tension, balance is continually challenged and control improved. This sort of training will enhance the responsiveness and sensitivity of mechanoreceptors, thereby increasing proprioceptive input to the CNS.
Since these inputs and effects are mediated via the nervous system, rapid changes may take place. As has been shown, more input means a better ability to move the body in a coordinated fashion. “Feel” is enhanced. The golfer’s body is learning to move more efficiently and effectively.
When introducing this program to your athletes, be sure to take into account the many variables of your specific team. Initial fitness levels, time constraints, sport coach desires, and athlete maturity are some important factors to think about.
In addition, other variables must be manipulated to ensure that fitness and practice time are appropriately adjusted. Time of the season must be considered, while time of the week determines how much of a workload the athlete should be undertaking. During the season, practice must take precedent while the main strength objective should be to maintain levels as close as possible to those achieved during the preseason program.
Volume versus intensity are the two variables which must be manipulated to ensure you are optimizing your fitness potential and not over-training or under-training. Since golfers may hit 500-1000 balls during a usual practice session, sometimes it is smart to do a totally unloaded, non-weight-bearing workout, such as non-weight-bearing trunk stability or aquatic therapy.
It is also important to recognize that anyone interested in competing at a high level must participate in a year-round strength and conditioning program. What was once the exception is now the rule.
Sidebar: Swinging With Tubes
To help golfers develop their segmented sequencing, we have developed a swing training system that uses both assisted and resisted movements. This system helps re-synchronize weight shifts while incorporating strength, power, and range of motion gained through more traditional programs. It uses a device called the “Instant Replay,” which consists of elastic tubing attached either to a door below the bottom hinge or to a pulley system near the floor. Here are the exercises we use:
Assisted Take-Away: Make a shoulder loop in the free end of the tubing and reach through it with your right arm (right handed golfer). Turn in a circle to your left until your right shoulder points at the pulley system or door attachment. The tubing should now be wrapped around the body from the right shoulder, exiting the body from the right side. Perform assisted back swings focusing on your core. Do not swing completely through—perform the back swing only, then stop and reset for another rep.
Resisted Swing: Facing the wall/door attachment, hook the tubing on the right side of your pelvis and turn to your left, wrapping the tubing around your pelvis until your right shoulder points at the wall/door attachment. Adjust the tension so that you feel constant tension throughout the entire swing. Hold your finish position against the tension and slowly return to your address position before repeating.
Opposite Side Take-Away: Use this for developing balanced range of spinal motion when necessary. Face the wall/door attachment and loop the tubing over your left shoulder. Turn to the right in a full circle until your left shoulder is pointed at the wall/door attachment. Now perform left handed back swings without swinging through.
Accelerated (Assisted) Swing: Use the same set up as in Opposite Side Take-Away but change your swing thoughts and grip to a right-hander golfer. Perform full swings holding your finish position in a balanced form. Be sure that when you are in a finish position, there is no more tension within the tubing—it should hang limp. You will be very close to the door/wall attachment. Focus on your core during the entire swing.