The golf swing has many moving parts and each part builds upon the previous to create a fluent and efficient delivery of power through the clubhead to the golf ball. Amatuer golfers often struggle with consistent ball striking, ball flight, and accuracy on the range and on the course. The root of the problem can often be traced back to a few key inter-related factors: swing mechanic faults, kinematic sequencing, and mobility and stability restrictions.
If you’re a total golf nerd like I am, you may have tried to hit a ball starting in the top of the backswing position just for fun. I think we’d all find that this method of swinging lacks power and accuracy. Enter the backswing.
The backswing is crucial to a successful golf shot and primarily serves two important purposes:
- Set the plane of the golf swing
- Create momentum for the downswing; generating power by storing elastic energy in the muscles to be released during the downswing and impact phase.
To get a solid grip on the backswing, we must first have basic knowledge of the biomechanics of the human body during the backswing. For simplicity’s sake, I will describe a right-handed golf swing with the “lead side” being the left side of the body and the “trail side” being the right side of the body.
In an ultra-simplified version: the backswing is initiated with the clubhead moving away from the target, followed by pelvic rotation resulting in left hip external rotation and right hip internal rotation. From here we move into significant right trunk rotation. Our left shoulder is moving into horizontal adduction and internal rotation while our right shoulder is moving into near maximal horizontal abduction and external rotation.
Power development in the backswing relies upon dissociation of lower body (pelvis and legs) and upper body (spine and arms) to create torque and generate maximal club head speed. This dissociation allows for our muscles to store elastic energy by becoming dynamically stretched and then almost instantaneously concentrically contracting and shortening.
Okay… we made it to the top. Confused yet?
In a study by Brumitt, J et al, researchers examined shoulder range of motion and trunk turn during the backswing. They found that college-aged golfers had a shoulder turn away from the target of 106+/-10 degrees while senior-aged golfers achieved 85+/-12 degrees. I think a lot of this decrease in turn can be attributed to the normal aging process; we get stiffer as we get older. But I think that it also means that it’s even more important for older golfers to implement some type of drill to restore trunk rotational mobility, stability, or both.
A lack of mobility or stability in key areas can lead to a backswing that is off plane, resulting in an often catastrophic compensation within the swing mechanics during the downswing. As a golfer, it is paramount to get a thorough assessment of your movement quality specifically related to the golf swing. As a physical therapist, strength coach, or swing coach it is crucial to understand how physical limitations of an athlete can lead to sub-optimal swing mechanics.
Titleist Performance Institute explains that limitations in movement can have two main causes:
Can be caused by limitations within the joints, joint capsule, and/or muscles. Simplified, a “mobility problem” can be considered the inability of an athlete to physically get into a desired position passively or actively. For example, if an athlete can not achieve passive trunk rotation, we can rationally conclude that the passive structures (ie joints, joint capsule, ligament) are restricting their movement. This is a common presentation of aging golfers who, as part of the normal aging process and through learned positions, lose mobility through their thoracic spine and hips. These athletes will typically benefit from targeted mobility and flexibility drills, starting at more basic drills that utilize gravity to assist movement and then progressing to more active drills once they have the available range of motion and mobility to acquire the desired position.
Can be caused by weakness or poor motor patterning. On the flip side of a mobility problem, if an athlete can be passively moved into position but has difficulty getting there actively, we can conclude that their joints are functioning normally. This type of athlete may attempt to compensate through sub-optimal movements to achieve the desired outcome. I commonly see that athletes lacking trunk rotational mobility will attempt to compensate through shoulder/scapular rotation or trunk side-bending coupled with trunk extension. Both of these movements give the illusion of rotation, but in fact little rotation is occuring at the thoracic spine. It just so happens that these movements have been shown to lead to early extension in the downswing, a major culprit of low back pain in golfers. These athletes will benefit from more active mobility and motor control drills which I will get into in How to Improve Your Shoulder Turn: Part 2.
Movement Quality vs. Quantity
When I take an athlete through an assessment, I closely examine movement quantity and movement quality to tease out the difference between a mobility and stability issue. Movement quantity can be defined as the amount of available range of motion that can be achieved. Movement quantity, as the name suggests, is a quantitative measurement and can often be expressed as a number, either in a percentage of normative range or in degrees of movement.
Movement quality, however, can be slightly more subjective and might be more difficult to express. Let’s take an example of an 18-wheel tractor trailer. Obviously, the truck has 18 wheels to improve the ability to carry a large load with a smooth ride. However, if just one of the wheels has a slightly bent axis, it will move differently than the rest of the wheels and the wheel will begin to shake in different directions. Although the truck is still able to drive, the smoothness (quality) of the ride has been compromised by one shakey wheel. The same concept occurs in the body, where one segment that lacks appropriate stability and/or strength can effect the way the whole body moves.
If we don’t assess a golfer and determine what area or areas of their body are moving suboptimally, we can’t prescribe targeted exercise in a meaningful way. We also must need a baseline to measure any progress the golfer makes against. This is crucial!
Key Areas to Assess
If a golfer comes to me at Champion PT and Performance and has a limitation in shoulder turn in their backswing, there are a few key areas I would need to assess.
Trunk Rotational Mobility
If they have a backswing problem, I will be most concerned with trail side rotation (right rotation in a right-handed player). Trunk rotational mobility is usually simplified to mean thoracic spine rotational range of motion, although there are many components that contribute to and can limit trunk rotation. I prioritize my trunk rotational assessment like this:
- Thoracic spine joint restriction: This is a very common area of restriction in golfers of all ages, but probably most common in aging golfers. I like to assess this globally in standing and then progress to assessment techniques that target the thoracic spine.
- Soft tissue restriction: I look towards the abdominal obliques, quadratus lumborum, paraspinals, latissimus dorsi, etc for any restriction in muscle length. This will help tagret any soft tissue interventions that may be appropriate for this golfer.
Check out my blog Why Golfers Need Superb Shoulder Mobility for a detailed description of why this is important.
Hip Rotational Mobility
Again, with a backswing limitation, I would focus mostly on the trail-side hip internal rotation and lead hip external rotation mobility. I prioritize my hip assessment like this:
- Joint restriction/anatomical variations: I want to know if they have a certain anatomical structure that will inherently change the way their hip moves. For example, a variation like increased acetabular retroversion may alter the amount of rotation available at the hip. The most important reason I NEED to assess this is to determine what I can change and what I can’t change. No PT can change the structure of a person’s bones. I want to make sure the exercises I give a person are reasonable, appropriate, and won’t cause more harm than good.
- Joint pathology: Pain is a major limiting factor of range of motion in the hip joint. If the golfer is in pain, I need to narrow down the structures involved and come up with a game plan to address the problem.
- Soft tissue restriction: The hip joint is surrounded by some of the largest muscles in the body. Muscle groups like the adductors, depe hip rotators, hamstrings, hip flexors, etc are important to assess.
How Do I Improve Shoulder Turn?
Now that we have an idea of why a golfer is restricted, what do we do about it? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post to find out how I treat these different restrictions and work towards improving a golfers movement.