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Increasing Strength, Flexibility Will Get You in the Swing

August 28, 2000|Stephanie Oakes

Once considered a "gentlemen only" game, golf has been redefined in recent years by young professionals like Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam. Their skill, charisma and youth have transformed this centuries-old game into the sport of choice for a growing number of Americans of all ages and backgrounds.

Woods, in particular, has also changed the nature of golf training. Players in the past, though they were certainly athletic and spent long hours on the practice range, didn't do much to build muscle or endurance. But Woods' daily regimen of sports-specific exercises and his ensuing successes have driven home the importance of strength and flexibility. Now, most of the touring pros weight train and, to prevent injuries, stretch before hitting the links.

"Almost all the younger players work out extremely hard," says Keith Kennedy, who has trained LPGA pros for six years aboard a mobile gym at tour events.

"The new attitude is: Training will get you in shape for golf both mentally and physically."

Even beginning golfers--be they preteen or middle-aged--know they have to condition their bodies if they're striving for the much-sought-after "Tiger swing."

Developing muscular strength is essential for generating club head speed--a determining factor in how far you can hit the ball. Similarly, a muscle that is longer, stronger and more elastic is less likely to be injured.

Those new to the sport would be better off imitating the silky-smooth swing of Sorenstam than the explosive one of Woods. While launching a Tiger-esque, out-of-site drive is one of the pure pleasures of golf, over-swinging an unfit body can cause long-term injuries that take the fun right out of your newfound passion.

Injuries are most likely to occur at joints or tissues that don't have sufficient strength and flexibility. One of the most common sites of such injuries is the lower back. Driving the ball causes a side-to-side tilting of the body, and the improper stance and swing can maximize the twisting motion and resulting "crunch" on the spine. Furthermore, golfers often fail to rotate their hips at all during the backswing and, instead, generate power by sliding their hips back and then forward. This places the spine in a vulnerable position because the twisting motion occurs later in the swing.

To prevent injuries, take a lesson or two to improve your swing, and add these exercises and stretches to improve your back flexibility. You'll be hitting 'em longer and straighter in no time.

Back: More difficult exercises can improve the strength in your back, but stretching can help prevent injuries and, in any case, must come first.

* Lower back stretch: Lie flat on the floor with your knees bent. Flatten your lower back against the floor by contracting your stomach muscles. Gently pull both your knees into your chest. Hold this stretch. Exhale slowly, and gently release.

* Rotational stretch (lower to middle back): Sit in a chair or on the floor, place your feet flat on ground with your back straight and shoulders square. With your arms bent at about 90 degrees, turn slowly to the right and then back to the left; hold for 30 seconds, increasing your range of motion as you progress.

Shoulders: Our shoulders generate club head speed, which requires a quick, full-shoulder turn. The stronger and more limber your rotator cuff muscles are (which connect the arms to the shoulders), the less likely you'll be to get hurt. Here's one exercise and one stretch to help you along.

* Shoulder side lift (abduction lift): Start with your arms at your side, your elbows straight, and your thumbs pointed out. Raise your arms out to your side, going as high as possible without pain. Slowly lower and repeat.

* Horizontal abduction stretch (shoulder, upper back): Bring your left arm across your chest; place your right hand on your upper arm and pull toward your body gently but firmly. It looks like you're hugging yourself. You'll feel the stretch in the rear part of your left shoulder, as well as across your upper back. Switch arms and repeat.

Abdominals: Several studies confirm that stronger abdominal muscles will help minimize and, in some cases, eliminate lower back pain.

* Lie on your back and cross your arms lightly over your chest. Press the small of your back against the floor. Slowly lift only your head and shoulders off the floor to a height that feels comfortable. Do not do a full sit-up. (Full sit-ups stress the back.) Exhale on the lift. Hold for a count of three. You also might want to try a few abdominal crunches to the left and right sides to work the oblique muscles.

Neck: Neck injuries are common among golfers. Keep in mind that our neck joints and muscles are smaller and more fragile than the larger muscles in our bodies, so be cautious and do these stretches slowly.

* Side to side stretch: With your body facing forward, look as far as you can over your right shoulder and gently push against your chin until you feel a stretch. Repeat for the left side.

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