Better Golf (and Less Injuries) with a Balanced Body

By Ada Wells, MPT

Pilates instructors possess a unique set of tools that can help golfers decrease their chances of injury and improve sports performance. To have a successful golfing experience, golfers must not only possess the skills to know how to properly swing a club, but they must also possess the range of motion, strength, and neuromuscular control to allow their body to actually execute the swing. While it is helpful to understand the complex biomechanics of the golf swing motion, focusing on just a few key critical areas will help most golfers.

Why a Golf Swing is Difficult and Prone to Injury

Having a consistent golf swing with good form is a difficult task because of the complexity of its biomechanics. There are a few aspects of the golf swing that are helpful to understand:

  1. The spine is subject to a very rapid and complex loading pattern. In less than 1.5 seconds, the spine and extremities are taken to their end ranges of motion, making the extensibility of soft tissues dictate the path of the swing. Lacking flexibility in the mid-back and hips may cause the lumbar spine to bend and rotate in ways that increase spinal stress.
  2. The golf swing also involves a combination of non-functional movement patterns and rotational movements around multiple axes. Since these are not typical motions, i.e. the head moves opposite the body through most of the swing, there are different neuromuscular firing patterns that must occur.

Golfer as seen from the back having just swung his golf club

Individuals may be prone to upper body injuries if they don’t possess the strength to control their flexibility in these atypical positions. Regardless of age, gender, or experience, muscle strength and flexibility imbalances can impair one’s ability to play golf effectively, especially when combined with poor instruction or form. Combined with improved form, Pilates benefits golfers by providing the right foundation of strength and flexibility to prevent common injuries.

Critical Areas of Potential Injury for Golfers

Many swing faults and injuries are the result of lacking range of motion or motor control in a few key areas.

Spine Range of Motion and Control

Optimal spinal mobility at all levels is critical since limitations at one area will increase compressional forces on another. This is particularly important during the end ranges of the swing when control of thoracic extension and rotation need to be maximal. The pelvis should also stay relatively neutral throughout the swing to allow the body to rotate around a neutral spine axis. Note that the pelvis stays neutral despite changes in hip position and its directional orientation throughout the swing.

Pilates for Spine Control

The Pilates Arc™ is a wonderful tool for golfers, since they can stretch the spine and work on core control in a variety of spinal orientations. Pilates mat exercises such as the mermaid and saw are helpful for encouraging spinal rotation and pelvic control, whereas the swan and swimming are helpful in working with spine control in extension.

Pilates instructor assists client using the Pilates arc while extending limbs on a reformer

Hip Range of Motion and Control

Good hip range of motion, particularly hip internal rotation and hip extension, is very important. A tight iliotibial band combined with weak hip abductors can be a culprit for many swing faults. What is often overlooked is the importance of also working on hip and lower extremity control in weight bearing positions.

Pilates for Hip Control

Functional Footprints® are a favorite tool with golfers. They allow golfers to work on hip control in a weight bearing position and in varying degrees of hip rotation, whether they’re used on their own or in combination with other apparatus.

The reformer is the obvious place to work on hip flexibility, whether performing the supine legs in straps series or the standing lunge/hip flexor stretch. Performing hip work on the reformer with the client standing in their golf address position is helpful for training muscular control with the hips in flexion and spine in neutral — think speedskater or the standing splits series.

Cervical Mobility and Scapular Control

Integrating postural exercises is necessary for any sport, but with golf, the added complexity of the head moving in an opposite direction of the arms and thoracic spine makes it critical. Also, the potential for repetitive upper extremity injuries exists if the golfer doesn’t have good scapular control.

Pilates for Neck and Shoulder Control

Pilates offers several options to strengthen the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back.

  • Lying supine, parallel to the foam roller is a great place to start for most golfers, as it allows them to engage their core stabilizers while mobilizing their mid-back and stretching out their pectorals.
  • Prone exercises on the combo chair are helpful to encourage scapular stabilization while the spine moves into spinal extension and rotation positions.
  • On the mat, the spine twist is excellent for working on good spinal mobility in neutral. Performing variations with neck and arm position can make it very functional for the golfer.
  • Arm springs on the trapeze table can be used in standing or kneeling to work on scapular control in a variety of directions.

Pilates instructor assisting clients pushing their chest up while laying pelvis across a Pilates chair

In general, a non-specific, but balanced Pilates session with good form and cues will benefit golfers, whether or not the instructor has ever played the sport. However, it is helpful for the instructor to have a deeper understanding of the complexity of the golf swing if they choose to specifically target golfers or frequently have golfers as clients. Pilates instructors can take lessons, talk to a pro, take golf-specific fitness courses, and try it themselves to understand what is physically required to have a good golf swing and to maximize results with golfing clients.

About the Author

Ada Wells, MPT, owner of ProBalance, Inc., graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. in Physiology. She received her MPT from Chapman University. She is Polestar certified and a member of APTA and PMA. Ada specializes in combining manual therapy with Pilates-based exercise for sport-specific rehabilitation and performance programs with a special interest in golf. For the past 7 years, she has provided Pilates services to the celebrity golfers at the American Century Golf Championship.

As seen in the Fall 2009 Balanced Body Pilates COREterly