(photo: Frank Peters - Fotolia.com)
It’s a new year, and that means new resolutions and high ambitions for your golf game. But before you sign up for lessons, make a quick self-assessment:
Can you hit your shots only so far? How often do you reach your target distance? And your back—how’s it been treating you? Be honest: Are you out of shape? If you are, or if you have limited strength and mobility, your game suffers.
Today there are shelves of books designed to help improve your game, and plenty of golf professionals to get you to the next level. But unless you’re committed to a serious fitness routine, don’t expect significant results, say the experts.
Following are some things to consider before you jump on a treadmill or hit the driving range in hopes of lowering your handicap.
“Being fit is a part of being healthy, which means being able to move well,” says trainer Roy Khoury of RFK Training in Newport Beach, who’s worked closely with golfers the last five years. “I’ve seen a lot of success stories, from weekend warriors to competitive athletes, and it starts on a foundation of proper movement.”
What hinders a golfer’s game is typically limited mobility, poor strength and not enough power. Khoury has seen scores of golfers plateau, sometimes even regress, during a regimen of lessons. Why? Unless you address a golfer’s specific physical limitations and create a plan to improve upon them, nothing will change, he says.
Another critical reason for improving one’s fitness for golf is longevity. Countless players complain about pain or injuries, and a proper fitness program may help prevent injury and address current problems golfers may be experiencing.
“Pain and improper movement can hold players back from improving their golf swing and performance on the course,” says Khoury. “It’s difficult for the average golfer to progress their game without knowing how they move. You can always upgrade your equipment or play a different ball but you only have one body. Focusing on that can be your biggest game changer.”
Trainer Stephanie Overbaugh, director of Orange County’s Body Balance for Performance in Irvine, agrees.
“Half of my clients come in to improve their game; the other half have suffered an injury,” says Overbaugh. “There are people who are aware of golf fitness, but there are more who are not.”
Generally, women need to improve their upper body strength; men should focus on lower body flexibility. However, says Khoury, “everyone is unique, and without a proper assessment you may be focusing on the wrong things and wasting time.”
An evaluation with a certified golf fitness professional will help pinpoint deficiencies and get players where they want to be and should be: competitive and having fun.
After all, if you don’t know what to improve, how can you improve your game?
Get a plan
Most golfers just want to play better.
“Golf is a sport,” says Overbaugh. “To play well, you need to be flexible in the right areas, strong in the right areas.”
Fitness professionals typically focus on flexibility first and then strength, which takes a little longer to build.
Have stiff hamstrings, tight pecs or hips that won’t quite turn enough? You likely need to focus on your core. Looking for more distance? Again, the core may be your problem area, along with flexibility.
Exercise is not enough; you’ve got to do the correct exercises. And most important, you need to stick to the plan. Your efforts will pay off, says Overbaugh. Just 15 minutes every other day, employing the right exercises, can increase flexibility exponentially.
“Typically it depends on what you’re working on, but if you get past three months, you’ll stick with a program and start to see results,” says Overbaugh.
Identify your goal, she says, and then get to work.
There are blocks, blades, boards, balance discs and so much more on the market to help with a fitness routine.
“You don’t need a bunch of high-tech stuff to work on fitness,” says Overbaugh. “You just need to understand your limitations and the exercises and work on that.”
Overbaugh prefers a core ball to work on the upper body and glutes, and resistance bands for strengthening the arms and legs. Medicine balls and small weights also work well.
When it comes to increasing mobility, Khoury’s go-to aids include a foam roll to address muscle adhesions or “knots” that form in muscles and restrict movement. “By addressing these knots, you can improve your mobility. Resistance bands are also great to strengthen your core, and I like good old-fashioned hand grippers for building finger and grip strength.”
And don’t forget about a good book. If you want to work on your physical fitness on your own time, there’s a seemingly endless supply of printed resources, some also available on DVD.
“Core Performance Golf” by Mark Verstegen is a great choice for golfers of all skill levels. It outlines a training program that targets the golf swing along with effective exercise, conditioning and nutrition regimens to increase power and strength.
Sean Cochran’s “Performance Golf Fitness” has more than 80 golf-specific exercises, drills to increase ball speed, back-strengthening exercises and a 15-minute fitness program for the golfer on the go.
“Golf is a game for the rest of your life,” says Khoury. “Make sure your movement health can keep up.”
≈ WALK IT OFF, YA SISSY! ≈
Or don’t. When it comes to golf, playing hurt is a tricky option.
Should golfers play hurt?
In other sports—football, say, or baseball—playing while injured is often considered part of the cost of doing business. In many cases, it’s praised.
But golf? Can a game that demands such a delicate balance of coordination, muscle control, strength and flexibility be played through a haze of pain?
For Stephanie Overbaugh, a physical therapist and golf performance specialist at Body Balance for Performance in Irvine, it’s not a black and white question. There are, she says, many variables.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand what they’ve done when they are out there,” says Overbaugh. “If you’ve pulled a muscle or strained a ligament, there’s a myriad of injuries you can do out there.”
Most injuries can be traced back to the swing, says Overbaugh. “The golf swing is a very explosive movement that can put extra stress on joints and muscles if they are not ready for action,” she says. The culprits: poor posture, faulty swing mechanics, ill-fitting equipment, muscle imbalances and “just plain overuse,” she says.
“The body must be prepared to meet the demands of the golf swing,” she says. “Golf is a physically demanding sport, and the truth is that most people who golf frequently will likely feel soreness at times. Your body will tell you if you can play or not.”
Ask yourself: Do you really want to play four hours of golf while nursing an injury, ignoring the pain and possibly making the injury worse? That can happen whether you begin a round with an injury or a slight soreness or sustain an injury on the course. “A little bit sore” can become a chronic problem that could take months to resolve.
Overbaugh stresses common sense and prevention in her dealings with golfers:
• Get in shape before beginning to play.
• Target the golf muscles with conditioning exercises.
• Seek professional guidance—from a pro, club fitter or fitness coach.
• Work with a PGA teaching professional or healthcare/fitness professional.
• Strengthen your core.
• Warm up with 10 to 15 minutes of dynamic stretching—no bouncing.
• Take some practice swings, but never warm up with multiple clubs.
• Know your physical limitations.
And know the difference between acute and chronic injuries. Acute injuries usually are associated with some type of traumatic or even sudden and extremely painful incident, and the pain persists over a 48- to 72-hour period. Chronic injuries are slow to develop and can progress from an acute injury that remains untreated. The chronic injury can be less severe at times and tends to cause dull pain or soreness. Chronic injury is often the result of repetitive poor swing mechanics.
“If injured on the course, a player may have pain, tenderness, swelling and inflammation,” says Overbaugh. “Ice is the best immediate treatment for acute injuries because it will decrease muscle spasms, decrease pain perception, decrease the metabolic rate and limits the bleeding at the site of injury,” says Overbaugh.
She adds that ice should be applied to the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. “Ideally, ice is more effective with some sort of compression—an Ace wrap or towel, for instance.”
Chronic injuries call for heat before an activity and ice immediately following an activity. “Never ice a chronic injury before exercise,” Overbaugh says. “Heat is generally used for chronic injuries that have no inflammation. Golfers with chronic pain or injuries may use heat therapy before exercise to increase the elasticity of joint connective tissues and to stimulate blood flow.”
Heat should be applied to the area of the chronic injury for 15 to 20 minutes, using enough layers between your skin and the heat source to prevent burns. But don’t apply heat after exercise, says Overbaugh.
See a doctor within 48 hours if an injury doesn’t improve or gets worse.
One last anti-injury tip, and likely the easiest: Stay hydrated. “Those of us who’ve had meltdowns during the last few holes of our round may not all be victims of swing faults or physical limitations,” says Overbaugh. Keeping drinking water in the bag or taking advantage of water stations on the course, she says, is vital.
– Cheryl Pruett