Coaches Corner Enhancing competitive with seasonal training

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By: John Stemm

I have been working with golfers for 10 years as a physical therapist and athletic trainer, and I continue to be amazed at how the fitness side of golf has evolved. Current PGA tour players have embraced the concept and have revolutionized professional golf. This has drastically changed the perception of fitness in the golf industry. Although each year my programs change to better suit the needs of my players and their goals, one thing remains the same: playing better golf through better fitness. The difference comes with the increase in focus, demand, intensity and timing applied to each physiologic parameter.

Success in the game of golf requires a higher level of fitness than the average player is prepared for, or even acknowledges. In a single round, a golfer can walk seven to eight thousand yards, the equivalent of four miles or more. This distance alone is a significant task for most people, but when combined with pulling or carrying the weight of a fully loaded golf bag, traversing the inclines and declines of a course, and executing 70 to 100 swings, the physical stress load becomes substantial.

Walking the course does provide some physical fitness benefits that can help your game, but if you ride a cart there is virtually no fitness improvement. It is important for young players who are competitive to embrace walking the course as an avenue for improved fitness.

What steps can an amateur player take to improve his/her game? Purchasing more expensive equipment may make you look better, but it does not necessarily improve your game. Over the years, the national handicap average hasn’t changed much at all, despite the advancements in equipment. Spending more time on the driving range or on the course, is obviously one goal golfers have if they want to improve their game; however, it is often tough to find the time.

Sessions with your golf instructor are also another goal for golfers wanting to improve, however, yet again, lessons need to be reinforced by consistent practice and weather does not always permit that, nor does the hectic schedule of juniors. Even if you were able to take lessons and get out on the course with your new clubs three times a week, if you have not addressed physical fitness deficiencies, your game may not improve to its potential and may actually weaken with each hole throughout a round due to fatigue.

The challenge for the amateur player who has decided to start a physical fitness training program is knowing what to do, and when to start each phase of their program within the year. The most common error people make is starting at a level that is too advanced, and/or focusing on the wrong parameters at the incorrect time of the season.

It appears that a common trend in the conditioning of golfers is that they are often instructed on exercises that they are unable to perform correctly and consistently. The assumption that most golfers (even low handicap golfers) have sufficient core stability is false. Conversely, the assumption that high handicappers have poor core stability is also false.

Like every sport, golf has its different seasons. These seasons may change due to the geographic area in which you live, but there are still times of heavier play and times of lighter play. In order for your specific program to work, there must be emphasis on certain physiologic parameters at different times of the year, or a seasonal routine. The way to emphasize this is to divide your typical year into seasons, or blocks of times based on the amount of time you spend at the golf course. 

As a reference, we consider a “recreational golfer’s” off-season (winter) as defined by golfing less than twice a month if at all, pre-season (spring) as one to two times a week, In-season (summer) as two or more times a week, and post-season (fall)as one time a week.

Specific Training For Specific Seasons

As I have explained, during certain times of the year, focus should be on different areas of your golf fitness routine. The following, will list the season and then I will break it down into what area you or the competitive golfer, should be focusing on during that time period.

Off-season is the time of year you should focus your attention on flexibility and strengthening. This is the best time to commit to getting stronger without risking your fitness program and adversely affecting your golf game. 

Flexibility refers to tissue’s ability to withstand a stretch. Mobility is your joint’s ability to move through a range of motion. Although these terms differ, they can be used interchangeably in the world of golf. Golfers must possess excellent flexibility and mobility in order to play at a higher level and remain injury free.

A golfer’s ability to move through a greater range with little resistance allows him or her to generate a greater force, which in turn increases power. Good flexibility aids in maintaining good posture throughout the golf swing. The ability to swing through the motion without placing abnormal forces on one area (due to the tightness of your muscles.), will significantly reduce the chance of injury and prolong your golf career.

Strengthening refers to the amount of force a muscle or muscle complex can produce at one moment in time at one point within, or throughout a body part’s range of motion. “Functional strength” plays a major role in your golf game. Functional strength is not determined by how much you can bench press, but by your body’s ability to repeatedly produce force during the performance of any golf skill. The performance edge gained by developing a strong foundation can range from decreasing your risk of injury to helping you get out of the “lies” that your weaker counterparts are unable to do.

Pre-season

It’s the time to get ready to start playing golf. Your fitness program should reflect exercises that will immediately affect your game. These parameters are flexibility, power, balance and cardio-respiratory conditioning. We have defined flexibility above, however, power, balance and cardio-respiratory conditioning are defined as follows:

Power is determined by the formula of force multiplied by distance, divided by time and is an accepted measure of strength and speed. Training your muscles to contract in an explosive manner will help increase club head speed, which ultimately increases driving distance. Additionally, power training can also help prevent injury because the training stresses of speed and force closely resemble those experienced on the course.

Balance, as it refers to pre-season training, is the ability to maintain correct postural alignment, essential to accomplishing any movement pattern. The body relies on three systems to maintain balance: vision (the eyes), vestibular (the inner ear), and proprioception (sensory receptors found in joints and soft tissue). Maintaining position and alignment is a learned and trainable fitness parameter.

Any change and/or loss of balance within the golf swing will change the relationship of club face to the ball and have a dramatic effect on the ball’s direction of flight. Training your body’s “balanced position” and mid-section stability both with and without a club in your hand, will translate to a more controlled and stable swing and fewer trips to the rough and/or the pro-shop for new balls.

Cardio-respiratory conditioning: Golf is a game of nerves, both mentally and physically. Mentally, you need to be able to “see the big picture,” but still be able to focus on the details of the moment. Physically, you need to have control over both gross and fine motor skills, which are affected by the fitness level of your cardio-respiratory system.

The affects of your aerobic (with oxygen) fitness level on your golf game tend to be evident during the course of a round. As you combat fatigue, all aspects of your game quietly erode. As you get tired you tend to change your posture, your relationship to the ball and your gross motor skills. Hence, your swing changes and your game is negatively affected.

There have only been a handful of studies that have examined the affects of anaerobic (without oxygen) fitness, on your game. However, it is evident that a lack of anaerobic capacity can trigger a decrease in fine motor skills (short game) within a single shot at that critical moment between address and ball strike.

In-Season

It is at this time that you begin playing more and that your fitness program should become secondary. Your valuable time should be focused on practice. There are however, a few physiologic parameters that you can work on during this time. This is an excellent time to continue improving or maintaining your flexibility as well as improving your motor control/core stability.

Motor Control/Core Stability is enhanced through anchoring exercises, which are designed to build the functional relationship of each joint to its related muscles. This phenomenon is illustrated by Michael Jordan soaring through the air from the foul line to one of his patented dunks. As Michael makes his way to the hoop, his lower body moves in one direction, his head in another and his arms in yet another.

Have you ever wondered how he moves around without a limb anchored to the ground? Have you ever wondered where his anchor is, and from where the movement is initiated? The answer is that as he moves through the air he dynamically stabilizes his center, and using it as the keystone to his movement.

The greater the muscle’s ability to work, separately and collectively with its related joints, increases the body’s ability to maintain correct alignment throughout the performance of any movement pattern, especially throughout a golf swing. This stabilization is started from the center of your body, referred to as your “core.” Core stabilization is vital to the performance of many athletic skills.

The ability to contract your trunk musculature is essential to providing a stable base from which your extremity musculature can pull. Not only is establishing this stable base important from a strength perspective, but also from a motor control perspective. Mastering the ability to instinctively contract your core muscles will significantly improve your chances of being able to replicate your golf swing over and over. 

Post-Season

The last season or is one of rest and recovery. However, I feel that flexibility is such a vital component to the program it should be a part of every season including the Post-season. 

The key to improving your physiologic parameters such as strength, flexibility, power, balance, motor control/core stability and cardiovascular levels is to receive immediate and consistent feedback. The trick for any golfer is to “put it all together” the same way, at the same place, each and every time, over and over and over again. The consistency comes from an adequate fitness level within each physiologic parameter at the correct time during the golf season. Most golf-conditioning programs neglect these important physiological parameters as well as their link to the “seasons of golf.”

As you can see, golf fitness must be planned based on your volume of play. It is not just a collection of “golf-specific” exercises it is a collection of traditional fitness exercises done at the correct time. This is what makes them “golf-specific exercises.” You now understand the physiologic parameters that your program should consist of and when you should perform the exercises.

Improvements in your physical deficiencies will peak during your highest volume of play; thereby, improving your play through better fitness. Incorporating Seasonal Training into your golf game can lead to better golf as well as a healthier lifestyle.

The previous article is written by the strength and conditioning coach for the 10-time NCAA champion, men’s golf team at Oklahoma State University. The insight on how to plan your training around the seasons is very informative for those competitive amateurs. Though the majority of us are not training as competitive amateurs, the information that follows is still very useful for all golfers, especially those that feel the effects of “snow” on their golf game.


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