Golf and Fitness

Better Golf from a Better Body

December 8, 2004

Golf, for some of us, is no more athletic than folding laundry. Take a swipe, jump on a golf cart, drive over to the tree line on the right, kick the ball from under a cedar, a quick practice swing, take a rip, jump back in the cart, and head over to the left rough; keep repeating this routine until we get within three feet of the hole, consider it holed, and scoop the ball up with the back edge of the putter, and start over on the next tee.

But golf has experienced a change in recent years. It started on the Tour with the arrival of the fitness trailer. Tour players who competed for ever-growing purses realized that curls can be done in more than 12 ounce increments, and stretching was not exclusively done sitting on the edge of the bed with a yawn. They increased their performance and competitiveness by going into the fitness trailer and working out. The paunchy beer-and-hamburger boys of yesterday have been replaced by lean, mean golfing machines.

fitness-qAnd just like those hot new drivers and golf balls, what makes a splash on tour eventually makes its way to the general golfing population. It is not so rare anymore for a golfer to ask his pro what he can do from a physical fitness standpoint to improve his game. And physical therapy offices offer fitness programs specifically for golfers, saying crafty things like, “your body is your most important piece of equipment.” A few of us have even traded in the riding cart for a pull cart. Times they are a changin’.

For those of us ready to sweat to play better golf, there are a few important fitness categories to consider. These include balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance.

Few golfers give much thought to balance, and even fewer realize that it is something that can be improved. A person with poor balance tends to be unstable during the swing, and when the golfer is unstable, he might as well be hitting a moving ball.

A golfer’s ability to maintain balance can be a tricky thing to understand—it is affected by his ears, eyes, and by muscular imbalances from one side of the body to the other; poor balance often results when the arms and shoulders are stronger and more active than the muscles in the trunk of the body. A lot of factors go into maintaining balance during a golf swing, but it is true that balance can be improved through training.

Strength training is another important part of golf fitness. If there is a misconception about strength training for golf, it is because a lot of golfers have an instinct to use the wrong muscles to begin with. How many of us wield the iron like an axe, straining every muscle in the hands and arms until veins pop out like Conan the Barbarian?

Strength is better used for stability in the swing rather than brute force. The legs need to provide a strong foundation, the core muscles (abs, back, etc.) provide the ability to stay in posture during the swing, and the hands and arms keep the club from getting “loose” or “disconnected” from the body. In a sense, the important muscle groups provide stabilizing force rather than applied force. I like to call it “defensive” strength, which limits our unnecessary moving parts.

Unfortunately the glamour muscles that guys like to build up (chest and biceps) are not as important in golf. Notice how few tour players are barrel-chested, with wrestler-like guns. Tall and thin with strong legs, core muscles, hands, and forearms is they way to be for this game. Strength training can provide at least some of those things.

fitness-q2Flexibility is the one component that most golfers recognize as important, even if they do not have it. A full range of motion for the arms and shoulders, and full trunk rotation are some of the fruits of flexibility. Like strength, flexibility also has a preventative role—it helps keep the pain out of the lower back, and prevents injuries in other parts of the body as well. Golfers would do well to put at least as much time into flexibility training as any other part of golf fitness.

And finally there is cardiovascular endurance. This aspect of fitness is crucial for the general health and energy of all of us, even if it is not quite as important golf-wise for those cart-riding weekend warriors. Those of us who walk the course, though, realize that the body and swing start to change on the back nine. Fatigue sets in, and the hills seem to get bigger. To keep energy throughout the round, most fitness trainers would suggest at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise (with somewhat elevated heart rate), at least three times per week. Those treadmills, stair climbers, and stationary bicycles are not just furniture; they are a way to improve a golfer’s performance.

So, any golfer looking to get a leg up on his regular foursome might want to consider following the lead of the tour players, and thousands of other dedicated golfers who are headed to the gym. Consider working with a personal trainer, or entering a golf fitness program to enjoy golf and life a little more. And remember—no pain, no gain.

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