Golf PerformanceMobility and Movement

Why Golfers Need Superb Shoulder Mobility

When looking at the best golfers in the world there are commonalities that stand out in their golf game. They all have incredible distance and accuracy, a crisp short game, and immaculate feel on the greens. When you break down their swings, another common theme is that they all have superb shoulder mobility. Of course, there is a spectrum on tour of golfers with more and less shoulder mobility, but they all posses enough shoulder mobility to suit their swing type. Although I am not preaching that every amateur golfer should emmulate the swings of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, I want to highlight the fact that it is crucial to have superb shoulder mobility for your swing type. Each golfer must have adequate shoulder mobility for their swing type. Without it, compensations will occur elsewhere.

As I’ve discussed in my previous blog, the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint is an inherently mobile joint, able to move in all the planes of movement. The shoulder joint complex (glenohumeral joint and scapulothoracic) plays a crucial role in the transfer of power to the golf club in the golf swing. If an athlete lacks adequate shoulder mobility in a few key planes, this can manifest itself in difficulty getting into ideal positions in the take-away and backswing, leading to potential sub-optimal compensations during the transition and downswing into impact. This can lead to poor ball striking, big misses, and an inconsistent ball flight to name a few. Research reports that shoulder injuries account for 17% of all golf related injuries, and shoulder injuries tend to be overuse injuries, developing from repetitive stress on the shoulder with each golf swing.

I will discuss what motions at the shoulder are important for your golf swing, what limitations in these motions can lead to in your swing, and what may contribute to these limitations.

Crucial Shoulder Motions

Shoulder External Rotation (ER) and elevation

For a right handed golfer, the right shoulder (trail shoulder) is moving into elevation and external rotation in the back swing. The amount of external rotation in the trail shoulder is dependent upon the swing style and swing plane of a golfers swing. For example, if a golfer has a very steep plane and gets the arms higher overhead, they may need more external rotation at the trail shoulder to maintain their swing plane and drop the club into the slot on the downswing. A major muscle that can limit overhead elevation is the latissimus dorsi (lats). The lats act to extend, adduct, and internally rotate the shoulder when they contract. Therefore, if the lats have restricted flexibility, a golfer can present with limited overhead elevation, abduction, and external rotation. This is why tight lats can be a major problem for golfers.

Lead shoulder elevation, horizontal adduction and internal rotation. Trail shoulder elevation and external rotation.
A flatter swing plane, characterized by less trail shoulder overhead elevation.

When I assess a golfer, I look for at least 90 degrees of active shoulder external rotation range of motion without any compensations occurring at the mid-back or scapula. I test active shoulder ER in upright standing and in golf posture to assess for differences. For me, 90 degrees is basically the minimal acceptable amount of active ER that I’m looking for in golf posture. If a golfer has 90 degrees or less, this is definitely something that we need to clean up and improve.

When assessing overhead elevation, I am looking for full, smooth motion of 180 degrees with no compensation from the lower back. If a golfer has tight lats, I usually find that they will be able to achieve between 160-175 degrees of clean overhead motion. If they are struggling to get to this amount of elevation or have any shoulder pain with the motion, I start to consider more of a joint or rotator cuff issue that is limiting motion rather than pure lat tightness. If this is the case, I highly recommend seeing a qualified PT to assess and treat the issue.

Shoulder Internal Rotation (IR) and horizontal Adduction (HADD)

During the backswing, the left shoulder (lead shoulder) is moving into horizontal adduction and internal rotation. This can actually be a provocative position for the shoulder and golfers with a previous history of lead shoulder injuries may complain of pain during the backswing. Limitations in IR of HADD may lead to difficulty keeping the lead arm relatively straight during the backswing which can lead to issues at the top and during the transition.

Obviously DJ is an absolute freak. I’m not encouraging anyone to try and reach this position at the top because for 99% of people this is just not going to happen. But, we can see that his lead arm is in near maximal horizontal adduction (across his body) and in slight internal rotation.

Relation to the Golf Swing

There is no magic number of shoulder motion that each golfer needs to have in order to be successful at hitting the golf ball consistently. However, and this is a big however, a limited amount of shoulder motion in relation to your swing type and style can have a significant impact on injury risk and performance.

Limitations in shoulder mobility have been linked to these major swing faults:

Loss of Posture, Flat Shoulder Plane, and Reverse Spine Angle

Loss of posture in the back swing. Photo credit: TPI

Loss of posture is characterized by the golfer standing up out of their address position during the back swing. Typically, this is characterized by standing more upright. A more upright posture can lead to a flat shoulder plane by placing the shoulders more horizontal in relation to ground. Both loss of posture and flat shoulder plane can lead to an altered swing plane resulting in the club being out of position. The golfer must compensate on the downsing in some way in order to hit a straight shot. These compensations can often decrease the efficiency of the swing and decrease the distance of the shot

Flat shoulder plane at the top of the back swing. Photo Credit: TPI

Reverse spine angle occurs when the golfers trunk is excessively bent towards the target in the back swing. This position at the top of backswing places the lower body in a disadvantageous postion and the swing usually becomes upper body dominant. The reverse spine angle swing fault is also a primary contributer to low back pain as it makes it difficult to use the lower half to generate power and increases torque through the lumbar spine.

Reverse spine angle for a right handed golfer. Photo Credit: TPI

These swing faults happens in golfers who have limited shoulder mobility because they are desperately trying to get the club back further than their shoulders will allow in order to generate power to increase distance. Since their shoulders do not have the available mobility to get them in this position, they are using the rest of their body to mimic shoulder rotation. This creates the illusion that the golfer has achieved a good position but at the cost of putting the rest of the body in a bad position. This can lead to inconsistent ball striking, blocks and hooks, and even low back pain.

Where to Start

When I work with golfers who come in with one of these swing faults, I always look at shoulder mobility limitations as a possible contributer to the issue. The most common causes of limitations in shoulder mobility include:

  • Soft tissue/muscle restrictions
  • Shoulder Capsule Tightness
  • Poor shoulder blade stability/rhythm
  • Limited thoracic motion
  • Previous shoulder injury or surgery

If you think you may have a shoulder mobility restriction or have shoulder pain during your golf swing, I highly recommend seeking out a physical therapist in your area who has experience working with golfers. A thorough assessment and professional treatment can have a huge impact on your shoulder health and golf performance.

I will discuss how I go about assessing and treating this issue to put the golfer in a place to make meaningful swing changes in a future blog.

Stay tuned!