[ Craig Ballantyne ] Bill, what is the limiting physical factor in golf performance?
Bill Hartman: The obvious answer is your level of golf-related skills. The catch, however, is that your
golf skills are directly related to your physical abilities. This question actually comes up a lot. Usually I refer to a study that was done with a very large group of golfers which looked at how their backgrounds affected their golf performance.
[ CB ] What did you find?
BH: The biggest factors that determined their level of skill were what age they were introduced to the game, what other
sports they played throughout their formative years, and their current level of physical conditioning.
So if you were introduced to golf at a relatively young age, played a variety of different sports growing up to develop your overall athleticism, and maintained or improved your physical conditioning throughout your lifetime, you:
- Had a lower handicap.
- Took fewer lessons.
- Played more successfully for a longer athletic career.
Now we certainly cannot go back to your past and change the first two factors, but we can certainly change a golfer's level of physical conditioning.
[ CB ] Where should people start?
BH: If I had to pick just one factor within the realm of physical qualities that limits a golfer's performance it would have to be
flexibility. The golf swing is a pretty unnatural movement that requires full range of motion of the hips, spine and
shoulders. Any limitations in these 3 primary areas will cause some form of compensation elsewhere in the body.
Most of these compensations are what we call swing faults. So right away, you can see how powerful a properly designed conditioning program can be for a golfer.
Instead of performing endless "drills" to correct a fault with limited success, we can actually go to the cause of the fault and literally fix it because it is more often than not an issue of golf-specific flexibility rather than skill.
[ CB ] What role does stretching play in your conditioning programs?
BH: Great question because I think there's a lot of misinformation that's being fed to golfers about
Let's make a quick distinction between stretching and flexibility training. Stretching is directed toward changing the structural extensibility of the muscle complex (muscle and associated connective tissue). In other words, we're trying to make the tissues stretch farther than they already do.
Flexibility training is directed toward increasing joint range of motion which may or may not include stretching exercises, but also includes exercises that alter the nervous system control of the muscles to allow greater motion to take place in the joints.
So to get back to your question, some of my golfers do stretching exercise and some don't, but all of my golfers do some form of flexibility training.
There are three types of flexibility you want to address with golfers:
- Flexibility-Strength - Ability to produce force throughout a full range of motion.
- Flexibility-Speed - Ability to move through a full range of motion at a high rate of speed.
- Flexibility-Endurance - Ability to move through a full range of motion under specific levels of fatigue.
[ CB ] How do you train the golfer to improve these areas?
BH: How their flexibility training program is designed comes down to what a golfer "brings to the table".
For instance, it's not uncommon for me to test a golfer's flexibility with standardized testing and find no significant limitations in range of motion. However, when you look at his or her swing you may see any number of ranges of motion limitations that relate to swing faults or performance issues.
A lot of things change when a golfer is exposed to the speed and forces involved in the golf swing. This is where the altering of the nervous system comes into play. It may be an issue of developing strength or accommodating a muscle to a higher rate of contraction at the end range of a movement to allow the body to go there.
This is where general fitness programs tend to fail golfers. They just don't address their specific needs based on the demands of the sport.
[ CB ] What methods do you use for strengthening the musculature of the torso?
BH: Like most trainers, I've got a lot of weapons in my arsenal for training the torso, but probably the most effective thing I do in respect to golfers is so simple it's not funny.
I have them stand up. How's that for a training secret?
Seriously, about 85-90% of the exercises I prescribe for golfers are done on their feet. Every time they squat, bend, pull on a cable, lift a dumbbell, press a weight overhead, stretch a band, or throw a ball we're getting a training effect on the trunk musculature from a variety of angles just by doing the activities in a standing position.
This approach also forces golfers to forcefully resist rotation which is just as important as generating forceful rotation. Nothing I've ever done works better to increase performance and create injury resistant golfers.
Coming from a physical therapy background, I kind of followed the crowd with the stability balls, foam rollers and some other gadgets which was okay, but it certainly didn't get my golfers to the level of performance they were looking for. I think those things have a place in rehab; but when it comes to performance training, they have very little use.
[ CB ] What movements do you use for lower and upper body strengthening?
BH: It's really hard to separate my prescription into upper and lower body because we do so many things on our feet to tie the upper and lower body together. I will say this though; we do a lot of
lunging variations, a lot of bending and a lot of rotational movements. The amount of each depends on the golfer's needs and the time of the season or training cycle.
The Green Beckons...
Okay, free secret! While the abdominals are certainly important and should be emphasized to some extent in training, golfers need to emphasize the posterior chain musculature even more.
If you want to increase your driving distance, strengthen your lats, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Preferably in combination as much as possible. This actually goes for just about any rotational sport.
I've also made some minor modifications to some popular strength exercises like dumbbell rows, I call them Golfer's Rows (catchy, huh?), and cable PNF patterns to make them more of a whole body exercise and really emphasize the diagonal relationships of the posterior chain musculature. We can also do these at a variety of speeds to emphasize power-related issues.
All my golfers also spend some time during the year doing some foundational strength work using standard barbell exercises like standing presses, squats, rows, etc. By broadening their foundational strength, they are able to tolerate some pretty intense exercise which really drives their performance to new levels.
[ CB ] How are your clients responding to this approach?
BH: I have to hand it to my golf clients. They have really embraced this type of training which seems so foreign to many of them who typically spent a lot of time walking on a
treadmill and doing a great deal of inappropriate strength training.
[ CB ] In your opinion, what is the role of endurance in golf? Do you focus on cardiovascular endurance or local muscle endurance?
BH: This has to be the most misunderstood factor in golf performance.
Cardiovascular endurance, aerobic endurance, or whatever you want to call it, is
almost never a limiting factor in a golfer's on-course performance.
I know what you're thinking. How can this be? A round of golf can last 4 hours, surely that requires endurance. Well, yes it does, but if you read the research, golf requires a very average level of aerobic capacity.
In most studies, the participants didn't achieve an aerobic training effect even if they had an underlying cardiac condition. There is some great info dating back to 1974 that shows the energy system usage for golf is comparative to that of weightlifting, volleyball, and short-term track and field events.
So why would I recommend any significant aerobic energy system training? I don't ... usually. The exception to the rule is with a client who is so sedentary in his or her lifestyle that they cannot walk 4 miles at a 1-mph pace. That's how taxing golf is to your aerobic capacities. Very few clients that I have encountered in my career are that sedentary.
[ CB ] So where does "golf fatigue" come from?
BH: Let me answer this by making a couple of references just about anyone will understand. Imagine taking the
SAT's while spending the day at Disneyland and pitching a 7-inning baseball game for good measure. Yeah, I know it's a bit bizarre but stay with me here.
Remember when you took the SAT's to get ready for college? Four straight hours of challenging testing with maybe one "potty break" in the whole thing. Were you tired when you got finished? You bet you were. Why? Was it because you lacked "cardiovascular endurance"?
No, your brain was tired. From a mental aspect, golf is very much like taking a four hour test with the benefit of some nice scenery.
Ever go to Disneyland? What do you do there? You stand in line ... all day. Are you tired at the end of the day? Of course! Why?
If you read the research about how we maintain standing posture, you'll find that most of the fatigue we experience is due to loading of inert (non-contractile) tissues while maintaining an upright posture. Not muscular fatigue.
I used to tend bar when I was in college. Working a full shift would wipe me out faster than a hard, 2-hour workout in the gym. Hey, just ask anyone who works the checkout at Wal-Mart if they get tired. Do they tax their energy systems? Nope. They stand all day in one place and load their non-contractile structures ... just like golfers!
Do baseball pitchers get tired? Yep. Why? Because they repetitively perform maximum and near maximum efforts to throw a baseball. Swinging a golf club produces about 90% of peak muscle activity for each full swing. Depending on how well you play you may make as many as 40-50 full swings and 100 total swings in a round. That accumulates fatigue.
Put all these things together, and you could have yourself one tired golfer.
[ CB ] So how do you develop golf-specific endurance?
BH: Get stronger standing on your feet. Increasing maximum strength especially in postures and movement patterns similar to that in which you play golf will automatically increase your golf-specific endurance. All the tissues, not just the muscles accommodate to the increased stress applied by the load.
Practice efficiently. By making golf practice sessions similar in timing and loads by keeping track of effort and number of swings, you can develop some very specific golf endurance. Each round you play also contributes to your golf-specific endurance.
[ CB ] Thanks for the wonderful golf training lesson. Readers can stop by Bill's website for more information: yourgolffitnesscoach.com. As mentioned, also look for a second article from Bill for female golfers on grrlAthlete.com.
BH: I'd like to thank CB Athletic Consulting for the opportunity to share my views on the wacky world of golf fitness!