The skinny on golf fitness

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com 

Let’s face it. Golf for some of us is no more athletic than folding laundry. 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.

The only exertion happens when carts are confined to the paths, and we have to actually walk across the fairway to the ball, carrying half of our clubs because we don’t have any clue how far we are from the green.

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 wasn’t just 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 The paunchy beer-and-hamburger boys of yesterday have been replaced by lean, mean golfing machines.

And 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’s 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 a little 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 even by muscular imbalances between one side of the body and the other. 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’s 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 strength rather than active strength.

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.

Flexibility is the one component that most golfers recognize as important, even if they don’t 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’s cardiovascular endurance. This one is not as important for those cart-riding weekend warriors (except for their general health). A lot of us walkers, though, realize that the body and swing start to change by that 13th hole. Fatigue sets in, and the hills seem to be getting bigger. Most physical trainers suggest at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise (with somewhat elevated heart rate) 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 fitness instructor, or entering one of those golf fitness programs to enjoy golf and life a little more. And remember – no pain, no gain.

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