Loosening up a Tin Man's golf swing

 
By Des Bieler
The Washington Post
Posted9/6/2014 7:00 AM
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  • For hip rotation: On one knee and with your back foot out to the side a little, raise the club above your head and rotate toward your back leg, then tip away from your back leg. Hold for 30 seconds, repeat two to three times and repeat on the opposite side.

    For hip rotation: On one knee and with your back foot out to the side a little, raise the club above your head and rotate toward your back leg, then tip away from your back leg. Hold for 30 seconds, repeat two to three times and repeat on the opposite side. Washington Post Illustration/Images from Sports + Spinal Physical Therapy

  • For shoulder rotation: With your hips square, hold the club behind your upper back. Rotate your shoulders until you feel your hips start to move, 10 times in each direction.

    For shoulder rotation: With your hips square, hold the club behind your upper back. Rotate your shoulders until you feel your hips start to move, 10 times in each direction. Washington Post Illustration/Images from Sports + Spinal Physical Therapy

  • For abdominal control and to prevent back pain: Place a ball between your feet and the club behind your lower back. Lean slightly forward and squeeze the ball. Keeping your hips square, rotate slightly from your lower back, 10 times in each direction.

    For abdominal control and to prevent back pain: Place a ball between your feet and the club behind your lower back. Lean slightly forward and squeeze the ball. Keeping your hips square, rotate slightly from your lower back, 10 times in each direction. Washington Post Illustration/Images from Sports + Spinal Physical Therapy

  • For your shoulders and swing posture: Place the club above your head with your elbows pointing down. Keeping your shoulders down, raise the club for three sets of 10.

    For your shoulders and swing posture: Place the club above your head with your elbows pointing down. Keeping your shoulders down, raise the club for three sets of 10. Washington Post Illustration/Images from Sports + Spinal Physical Therapy

I was lying flat on my stomach on a treatment table as the physical therapist lifted my right leg. Then he lifted my left. So how'd I do, Doc?

"I'd give your right hip a D," Robert Gillanders said. "The left, I mean …"

He didn't finish the sentence, and he didn't have to. My left hip earned an F in flexibility.

A pertinent factoid: I'm stiff.

I am not a flexible person, which is a problem in many ways.

But on this day, I was seeking help for one particular problem: my golf swing. I would say I'm an average golfer, which, as any average golfer would tell you, means I'm not very good. I've spent dozens of hours at the driving range over the past couple of years, seeking to refine my technique, only to feel like I was taking one step forward, then two steps back.

Too many times to count, I've been convinced that I was thisclose to becoming that near-mythical creature known as a "good golfer," and I just needed to fix one thing. That one thing, at various points, being my grip, my stance, my take-away, my shoulder turn, my wrist cock, my downswing, my club head lag, my path, my weight shift or my follow-through. You know, my golf swing.

But what Gillanders showed me was that the main thing holding me back was probably my own body. Or, to be more precise, my body's inability to perform functions that are kind of necessary for golf.

A good swing requires a fairly broad range of motion, and as it turned out, I don't have that. On the golf course, I certainly have a broad range of emotions -- frustration, sadness, jealousy, shame, despair -- but a range of motion, not so much.

This was revealed to me upon my visit to Gillanders's office at Sports + Spinal Physical Therapy in downtown Washington. I didn't visit this clinic because I was suffering from any particular injury (apart from my ego), but rather, I was intrigued by a service it offers: golf fitness assessments.

As the SSPT's website says, "The main reason for most golf swing flaws is much simpler than you think: The average golfer's body cannot physically move the way it needs to in order to keep the club head 'on plane' throughout the swing."

The concept of "swing plane" is an important one for golf. If a golfer smoothly brings the club back and then forward, it traces an invisible ellipse around him or her, at an angle to the ground. Any herky-jerky motions will get the golfer off plane, usually with unhappy results.

As Gillanders explained to me, "If you are going through your swing … the body is going to go through the path of least resistance. So, in the instance of golf, if you have an area of your back or if you have an area of your hip or shoulder that's inflexible, then you're not going to go through that inflexibility -- you're going to go around it. That's where we see these common deviations for the swing."

This jibed with what I had been experiencing. I often felt that as I swung the club back, I was meeting a lot of resistance. That can cause tension, which is a death sentence for a good swing. I had generally interpreted what was happening as tension in my grip (i.e., holding the club too tightly), but I learned that I have more to work on than simply reminding myself to keep my hands loose.

It was quickly apparent that my visit to the clinic would be much different from my many lessons from golf instructors. The instructors would invariably begin by having me take some full, usually video-recorded, swings, and then would give advice on the parts of the swing they felt were deficient.

Gillanders began to take me through what he called "functional tests," which break down the individual pieces of the swing. If golfers "can't demonstrate to me that they can move their pelvis," he said, "or they can't demonstrate to me that they can move their shoulders, then I know they're going to be cheating when they go to the swing."

In other words, long before getting to video analysis, Gillanders will have a good sense of what movements cause a given golfer the most problems.

Jimmy Chuasiriporn of Elite Physical Therapy & Wellness in Washington painted much the same picture, telling me that he starts clients with "a combination of testing their core strength, their hip strength, their shoulder, as well as their range of motion with joints." But, Chuasiriporn added, "I do look at the golf swing. If I have to, I will videotape a little bit, and then make a few corrections to their swing. But overall, I try to teach people to move their bodies better for the golf swing."

Back at SSPT, there were a quadruple-bogey's worth of problematic body movements.

For my first exercise, I raised my hands, holding a club between them, then went into a deep squat, keeping my heels on the ground. That effort had Gillanders saying, "We know we've got to work on the mid-back, for sure." What he pointed out that many golfers may not realize is that mid-back flexibility is key to getting the most out of your shoulder rotation.

Subsequent drills involved rotating and tilting my pelvis, rotating my shoulders and touching my toes. I was asked to sit with my back, shoulders and head touching a wall and raise each arm straight out and up, so that the back of my hand (in theory) would end up touching the wall. I did a rotation of drills while half-kneeling, and I finished up with hip rotations while standing on one leg.

Suffice it to say, I didn't do well. But here is where years of golfing actually came in handy: I have learned how to withstand a fair amount of embarrassment.

For instance, it's now clear that my hips aren't quite up to the task of helping me turn my upper body perpendicular to the ball. I can't rotate my shoulders far enough around to get my hands in the right position at the top of my swing. Even greater stiffness on my left side is almost certainly inhibiting a proper weight shift and follow-through (I hit behind the ball with maddening frequency).

The legendary golfer Sam Snead used to tell players to develop an "oily" swing. At this point, I'm like the Tin Man, pre-Dorothy.

But Gillanders had some recommendations.

Many of the exercises Gillanders suggested had me on all fours, all the better to stabilize my body and let me isolate problem areas. One that he thought might be particularly helpful was lifting my right hand and reaching it back toward my left hip, then switching to my left hand. Another had me bringing my hips back toward my feet while stretching my arms in front (keeping my hands on the mat), then repeating the exercise while placing my right hand over with my left, then with my left over to my right.

Other exercises included a pair familiar to yoga practitioners: the bridge pose and the bird dog pose.

Gillanders also encouraged me to modify some of these exercises so that I could perform them at my desk at work. In fact, he ascribes many of the ailments he treats, across the athletic spectrum, to the plight of "professional-athletes."

According to Gillanders, "these are people that are professionals all day long, and then they try to be athletes either before work or after work. And I think that combination, there are some pitfalls to that. Because you take the triathlete who's training before work, and then they go to work, now these muscles have been warmed up and now they're put into a relatively shortened position for hours on end. There are going to be negative effects from that.

"Or you take the person who's golfing at the end of the day, or after lunch, and same thing." The body spends the workday getting a minimal range of motion and then is expected to perform out on the course.

With any luck, as these exercises cause my range of motion to increase, the opposite will occur to my golf scores. But what is more certain is that, at the very least, I will be lowering the likelihood of injury and overall weakness. And I can certainly get hip to that.

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