Golf Sports Performance: Functional Exercise Training Improves Ball Accuracy and Flight Distance

By Dr. John R. Mishock, PT, DPT, DC

Golf is a popular sport in the US, with over 32 million participants annually (National Golf Foundation, 2020). The most critical determinant of golf performance is the resulting combination of ball accuracy and driving distance. A significant amount of skill and deliberate practice is needed to hit a golf ball accurately. Some golf pros and golfers believe that resistance exercise training will “mess up” their golf swing; however, this dogma could not be further from the scientific truth. In this article, I will debunk that myth and demonstrate how the appropriate golf exercise training program can enhance your game.

In the golf swing, many physical attributes significantly influence driving distance. The ability to hit a golf ball far from a body’s morphological perspective comes from large amounts of a range of motion, explosive muscle contraction, segmental sequencing, and stacking of forces.

Optimal range of motion and flexibility is needed during the swing to create segmental body separations (ankle-knee, knee-hip, hip-torso, torso-shoulder, shoulder-arm, and arm-wrist) that amplify explosive power (strength x velocity/time). The power starts from the ground reaction forces at the foot and ankle, transitioning up the kinetic chain to the hips.

Next, the kinetic energy (movement force) passes from the trunk or torso to the shoulders. The force continues to move into the arms, hands, and eventually the club head. Elastic energy amplifies the power during the swing by winding up and unwinding soft tissues (muscles, tendons, fascia), much like a “rubber band”.

Full range of motion and flexibility allow optimal muscle length-tension relationships (muscle lengthening for contraction) for maximum muscle contraction force development. The full range of motion also enhances the stretch-shortening cycle (elastic energy of muscle and tendon), which tricks the nervous system into amplified muscle contraction power. Flexibility, range of motion, balance, muscle power, and a mechanically sound golf swing optimizes clubhead speed and ball flight distance.

Many elite golfers use resistance exercise training programs to improve their power in hitting a golf ball. Studies have shown that specific exercise training programs can increase club head speed by 1.6-7% and increase driving distance by driving distance 4-8%. Research demonstrates that those with the most muscle power in the trunk/torso, hips, legs, and hands had the greatest swing speeds among elite golfers. (Wells, J Strength Cond, 2009).

Will weight training negatively affect my golf swing?
A common myth is that weight training negatively affects an individual’s golf swing by reducing flexibility and range of motion. Some believe that weight training will create bulky, tight muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger or “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson; however, this is not true.

First, most adults will have difficulty putting on significant muscle. Secondly, strength gains happen slowly over months to years. In the first six weeks of training, minimal muscle hypertrophy (growth) exists. The changes in strength are neurological, aka a motor learning effect in lifting weights. Muscle hypertrophy takes good genetics with high amounts of fast-twitch muscle (powerful muscle type). Increasing amounts of protein (1.6 g per lb.) are needed to optimize protein synthesis (muscle-building process).

Athletes also need adequate amounts of quality calories and optimal hormonal levels (testosterone, insulin growth factor, and growth hormone). Even with all of this, the most an adult will gain is 1-2 lbs. of muscle per month.

With proper functional sports-specific progressive resistance training, this 1 – 2 lb. of muscle gain would be over the whole body, not one given region. The type of muscle the golfer would gain would be lean muscle, not bulky tight muscle commonly depicted in bodybuilders.

What is the best way for a golfer to exercise?
The optimal exercise prescription would be sports-specific functional progressive resistance versus bodybuilding exercises. Bodybuilding exercises focus on isolated body movements (i.e., one joint body movement, the biceps). This exercise training creates strength and hypertrophy in a specific muscle group without concern for function or sports-specific movement patterns.

However, sports-specific functional exercise trains multiple joints simultaneously in specific movement patterns that create strength and power relative to the individual’s sport. ( Emery et al. Br J Sports Med, 2002) Functional exercise training would include balance, flexibility, posture, core stability, strength, power, and cardiovascular training.

Functional exercise training is based on the principle of specific adaptation to an imposed demand. (SAID principle). The SAID principle means that our body will respond specifically to how we train. So, train specifically to the needs of the sport!
(Cook G. Movement: Functional Movement Systems. Aptos, 2010.)

Will sports-specific functional exercise prevent or minimize golf-related injury?
The golf swing is a complex motion of the whole body that transfers power through all the limbs and most joints of the body. A recent large epidemiological study found that 60% of professionals and 40% of amateurs experienced injuries that removed them from play.

Overuse injuries account for up to 82% of all golf injuries. (Ludwig et al. Am J Sports Med. 2003) A study demonstrated that the injury frequency is based on handicap (59% injury rate with handicaps >18, a 62% injury rate 10-17, and 68% <10). (McCarroll et al. Phys Sports Med. 1990) For a right-handed golfer, the injury occurs more frequently in the lead arm, i.e., the left shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand. (Theriault G, Lachance P. Golf injuries: an overview. Sports Med. 1998)

Low back pain is the most frequent injury due to the significant torque and rotational range of motion on the trunk and lumbar spine during the swing. Many golf-related injuries are due to ill-prepared or improperly trained athletes. (Caine et al. Clin J Sports Med 2016.)

Several research studies have indicated that if trained appropriately (conditioning, strengthening, muscle imbalance correction, balance, coordination, and correcting training errors), 50% of injuries could be reduced. ( Chan et al. Concept, 2006,
Olsen et al. Br Med J, 2011)

Bottom line, sports-specific functional progressive resistance exercise will enhance a golfer’s ability while increasing athleticism and preventing golf-related injury.

At Mishock Physical Therapy, our doctorate-level TPI-certified physical therapists will perform a thorough physical movement exam to assess movement limitations and weaknesses. They will then provide an individualized exercise prescription to meet your individual needs. The TPI exercise training program is scientifically proven to improve strength, power, flexibility, balance, and postural control. These changes will help you improve your golf game, prevent injury, and return to a healthy lifestyle.

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Dr. Mishock is one of only a few clinicians with doctorate level degrees in both physical therapy and chiropractic in the state of Pennsylvania.

He has authored two books; “Fundamental Training Principles: Essential Knowledge for Building the Elite Athlete”, and “The Rubber Arm; Using Science to Increase Pitch Control, Improve Velocity, and Prevent Elbow and Shoulder Injury” both can be bought on Amazon.

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