Pilates For Golfers


Not until Tiger Woods stepped onto the golf course were golfers ever thought to be considered amongst the super fit of high performance athletes.  Most professional golfers maintained only a modest level of fitness because it was never considered to be a requirement for success.  So does it surprise you to learn that just a decade ago research showed golf related injuries to affect 60 percent of all amateur golfers?  Fact was, golf injuries ended the careers of approximately 50 percent of professional golfers, often urging them into retirement prematurely long before their youthful years would have merited.

Tiger Woods leads a new generation of golfers, who are demonstrating that a fitness program designed with golf-specific exercises in mind can not only improve a golfer’s game, but may even help keep the swing in his or her stride through the longest and toughest of par 5s despite what may be an inevitable fact of advancing years.

All sports including golf are about using physics to one’s advantage.  Golfers as athletes, and like dancers and all souls currently inhabiting earth,  contend with the mutable forces of nature and more specifically with the consistent forces of gravity on a daily basis.  As three dimensional vessels of weighted matter, blood, flesh and bone, golfers grapple with the impact of gravity every time they swing a club just as any ball player does when throwing or batting, kicking or catching a ball.  Their three dimensional bodies move in a three dimensional environment that is not only governed by gravity but filled with often shifting and unpredictable elements of wind and rain.

For avid golfers improving ones golf swing and preventing injury to ones body in the process results when an effective fitness program develops the golfer’s kinesthetic awareness and assists his or her ability to maintain optimal alignment of his or her upper body with his or her center of gravity properly placed over a steady yet supple base of support dynamically balanced between his or her feet and legs.  Gym based fitness programs using machines, work muscles in isolation and fail to integrate whole body proprioception which in essence does not significantly improve kinesthetic awareness nor does it necessarily improve athletic ability. When performing a golf swing, groups of muscles are recruited in sequence, coordinating them in a unique and repeatable pattern much like the rehearsed choreography of movements in a dance or the performance of sequential notes notated on a musical score.

Pilates practice unlike free weight training or the singular isolated actions of exercise machines works to integrate the body moving it as a whole vessel similar in fashion to how the body functions when playing a sport such as golf.

To be an excellent golfer one must have both flexibility and strength.

Golf relies heavily on torso rotation, spinal mobility, shoulder and hip flexibility, core muscle support and gluteal strength. Golfers who cozy up to a pilates conditioning program will be fit and healthy out on the greens longer, swinging in style, staying in shape, looking good and feeling better.

Working with a professional golf coach may help improve the golfer’s swing and even trim down a few strokes off his or her game but learning pilates coached by a professional practitioner can also help improve the golfer’s performance by developing flexibility, facilitating stability and core control, enhancing proprioception and awareness, while increasing power, stamina and endurance.  These benefits of pilates practice help clients drive the ball farther and avoid the disastrous sand pit of injury and fatigue.

There are many pilates inspired exercises that greatly benefit golfers.

Consistent pilates performance will facilitate coordination, build muscular strength, improve joint mobility and correct anatomical imbalances that may arise due to the habitual one sided nature of the movements engaged in the sport of golf. The first thing a pilates practitioner does when working with a new client is to assess and identify these muscular imbalances.  Sometimes these inequities are extremely exaggerated due to years of habitual repetition.  They may be readily apparent to practitioners yet appear subtle enough especially to the lay observer.  Often it is not until the golfer experiences discomfort or pain that he or she will seek some form of therapy to alleviate the noticeable problem. After an assessment is made a program can be designed to strengthen the weaknesses that caused the problematic situation bringing the physique back into a healthy balance.

An excellent essential exercise that I believe is of great benefit to most everyone as well as all golfers is basic bridging and the single leg variation. The principle objective of bridging is to integrate movement through the pelvis, spine and shoulder girdle in a sequenced pattern.  The goal is to engage the core musculature sequentially articulating connections throughout the distinct body parts and spinal articulations.  This basic exercise will prompt awareness, alignment and integration of the primary body masses, facilitate spinal mobility, cultivating both strength and flexibility in the hip and spine.

The hamstrings and gluteals are also very active throughout this exercise and thus are very much developed in the process. Strong leg and gluteal muscles are important because they are necessary for balance. Balance is key to an excellent golf swing. Strong leg and gluteal muscles help to stabilize the golfer during a stroke’s backswing and follow-through. Swaying the body too much side to side moves the torso away from the ball making it more difficult to place an impact on the ball in a powerful and consistent fashion. Weekend golfers who have sedentary jobs sitting behind computers all week long may have weak gluteal muscles and tight hip flexors. This exercise will help to fire up and strengthen the gluteal muscles and elongate the hip flexors.

To begin the bridging exercise lie supine on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Your arms are down by your sides. Take a full breath in and broaden through your ribcage filling your chest cavity expanding it outward to the sides laterally, while scooping and hollowing out your abdominal.  On the exhalation, flex your lower (lumbar) spine sending your sit bones upward toward your knees engaging the pelvic floor as you curl your coccyx (tale bone) up toward the ceiling pressing your waist and lumbar spine into mat. Continue to exhale as you tilt your pelvis more and sequentially roll up through your spine, peeling up one vertebra at a time.

As you lift your hips be sure to keep the abdominal active and to maintain uniform alignment of your ribcage with your pelvis. On the next inhalation elongate your spine, while widening the back of your ribs. Exhale, softening through your sternum (breastbone), opening the space between your scapula (shoulder blades). Slowly roll sequentially down through your spine one vertebra at a time returning to neutral and full spinal extension. After performing a few bridges with both feet on the ground do the same with just one foot down and one leg extended over your hip toward the ceiling. As you roll up be sure to keep your hips even and your abdominal muscles engaged to support your back.

Since rotation is so important in golf another excellent exercise for golfers would be torso rotations. Torso rotations can be performed sitting, kneeling or standing. Torso rotations are trickier than one might think because there are so many moving parts that one needs to be aware of. The principle objective of torso rotation is to awaken an awareness of the dynamic relationship between all the parts involved in core torsion: spine, pelvis, ribcage and shoulder girdle. Torso rotation exercises are designed to accentuate the options of stability and mobility in the action of core torsion and how each effects core engagement, spinal rotation, alignment and integration of the different body parts. The benefits of torso rotation exercises include the strengthening of core muscles while facilitating their flexibility through an optimal range of controlled twisting and extending the spine.

Pilates oriented rotation exercises help golfers learn to move more from the core and power center. Many golfers lack thoracic mobility. They have difficulty mobilizing the mid section and thus rotate more at their hips and shoulders. Simply put, they shift in the hips and hit with their arms. When the core is left out of the mix they are more prone to injury. Since they do not have the control or power in their torsos they may end up with hip issues and lower back pain, shoulder injuries and or neck problems. With enhanced mobility of the thoracic spine and greater core control, more strength, power and support comes in the rotation. Not only is the golfer’s swing improved but the discomfort from a lack of core agility and integration dissipates. The player may even receive the unexpected surprise of an additional benefit when his or her handicap drops a few strokes.

The simplest rotation exercise is performed sitting. If sitting on a mat with your legs crossed is uncomfortable you can sit on a stool with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Arms are best bent with your elbows out to the side chest level and your hands in front also chest level. Your spine is elongating vertically with your shoulders and shoulder blades sliding downward  into your back. Your pelvis is upright with both sit bones grounded. Your belly is taught and your ribcage is lifted stacked over your pelvis.

Initiate the rotation by elongating into the vertical as you take in a deep breath. Filling with air broaden through your back while pulling your belly up and in. As your lungs fill expand your ribcage up and out broadening into the sides of your torso. Scooping and lifting your abdominal up and in, exhale flattening across your hipbones pulling the transverse taught across your pelvis like a leather band pulled across a drum. Continuing to exhale as you spiral the spine from the waist rotating the ribcage around carrying the shoulder girdle as a unit. Rotation of the torso is initiated from the large muscles of the back and obliques.

During rotation there is an ideal balance of forces with a sense of twisting in two directions both forward from one end and backward at the other, each at the same time with the base staying still. As you twist to the right the left hip presses deeper down stabilizing the pelvis and then vice versa when you twist in the other direction. Allow the head to rotate in line with the spiraling path of your spine following with the gaze at horizon level. When you have twisted as far as you can without moving the pelvis inhale, returning to center. Repeat alternating side to side. Concentrate on making the rotation happen at the waist not from the hips or at the shoulders. Attend to kinesthetic distinctions sensed between the distinct parts of the torso and the varying articulates of the spine.

Push ups are another excellent exercise for golfers. Push ups whether modified and performed on the knees or full out performed on the toes will strengthen the chest, triceps, neck and shoulders as well as the back, core abdominal muscles and pelvic floor. Strengthening the midsection will assist the spine during rotation protecting it from the potential distress of compression.

A strong core will help prevent injury and enable golfers to effectively lift the back and elongate the spine throughout rotation in the execution of a powerful swing. Performing push ups properly will facilitate better stabilization of the scapula (shoulder blades) and a strong synergetic integration of the core with the movements of the limbs, all of which will improve coordination in the sport of golf.

One more pilates inspired exercise to strengthen the core and work the deep abdominal muscles, internal and external obliques, back and shoulders is the side stretch and pilates star. You can start with a basic side plank which is an isometric balance on one arm with the body facing perpendicular to the floor. A side plank will not only strengthen your core and arms but it will improve your alignment and control. It can be performed fully extended balancing on your toes and an extended arm or also modified performed on the knees and elbow. Since the exercise is done on one side and then the other it strengthens the core bilaterally and facilitates enhanced kinesthetic proprioception which can be of great benefit to anyone wanting to improve their game.

The star is a more challenging side plank with the addition of a side leg lift balancing on one foot or knee in the modified version. The classic pilates side stretch involves moving from a seated position lifting the hips and extending the legs into a fuller side stretch laterally bending the torso arching the whole body balancing on the one arm. Once you have reached full extension you reverse the movement returning to a seated position. A more advanced version involves another movement flow after the side stretch has been performed in which the hips pike upward as the upper body twists with the free arm wrapping around the waist under the arm that is sustaining the balance. Returning in the reverse path the exercise can be made even more challenging by lifting higher through the side stretch to incorporate a bit more spinal rotation and extension. This is a more advanced exercise but an excellent one for golfers because it involves a full range of motion through lateral bending, rotation and extension, working bilaterally balancing on the one side and then the other.

I hope you have found these references, principles and exercises helpful. To learn more about the how pilates can improve your game get the Pilates Instructor Manual for Golfers.  Find out how you can identify and correct faulty dynamics and possibly improve your golf swing using the pilates method.

Improve your swing, play longer, stay in the game stronger, practice pilates!

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