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Seniors Improve Their Golf Game Through Strength Training



An estimated 40 million American men and women play golf each year, and many of these participants are seniors. The good news is that golf is a most interesting athletic activity that requires high levels of both mental concentration and physical skill. The bad news is that many golfers, especially those over age fifty, experience a variety of playing related injuries, typically affecting their hips, back, shoulders, elbows and necks.

Golfer Injuries

One reason for the numerous golf injuries is the explosive, body-torquing action required to swing the club for a powerful drive.  However, assuming proper swing mechanics, a more likely explanation is the low level of personal fitness and the lack of physical conditioning characteristic of most recreational golfers.

Not surprisingly, many golfers spend their free-time playing golf. When they can’t enjoy a game, they may go to the driving range, practice putting, watch golf videos, read golf books, or at least talk about golf. There is a misconception that playing or practicing golf provides some conditioning benefits, but this unfortunately is not the case.  Like all sports, you do not get in shape by playing golf; you get in shape to play golf, at least to play golf more safely and successfully.

Most golfers, although always concerned about time away from the course, are willing to do a few stretching exercises to enhance their joint flexibility. However, golfers have traditionally resisted recommendations to try strength training. Regrettably, the popular consensus among golfers is that strength training is more likely to harm their game then help it. 

They are concerned that strength exercise will give them large, tight muscles that cannot be smoothly coordinated in skilled golf actions.  Older golfers also fear that strength training will increase both their bodyweight and their blood pressure, as well as adversely affect medical conditions such as low back pain and arthritis.

Of course, strength training has actually been shown to reduce bodyweight, lower resting blood pressure, alleviate low back pain and ease arthritic pain (Westcott and Guy 1996, Risch 1993, Tufts 1994).  For more information we decided to do some specific research studies examining the effects of strength training on golfers and golf performance.

Golf Research Studies

Beginning in the winter of 1995, we conducted four separate studies with a total of 77 golfers (average age 57 years).  Each study was eight weeks in length, and completed during the months of January and February when none of the participants were playing golf. All of the subjects trained three days a week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), and performed one set of 8 to 12 repetitions of 12 Nautilus exercises for the major muscle groups of the body. Table 1 presents this information as well as the practical application of the exercise to the golf swing.

The results of this brief (25 minute) strength training program were nothing short of remarkable. After just two months of strength exercise, these senior golfers experienced significant improvements in their body composition, blood pressure and muscle strength. As shown in Table 2, the participants replaced four pounds of fat with four pounds of muscle, reduced their resting blood pressure by four mm Hg, and increased their muscle strength by almost 60 percent. 

Those who did strength training alone enhanced their driving power (club head swing speed) by 2.6 mph, and those who did strength training plus a few stretching exercises enhanced their driving power by 5.2 mph.

Due to the better golf performance results obtained by those who did both strength and stretching exercises, we recommend a combination training program. In fact, further research with 155 subjects has shown that combining stretching exercises with strength exercises can produce 20 percent greater strength gains as well as enhanced joint flexibility. We therefore recommend a stretching exercise following each Nautilus exercise for the muscles just worked.

For example, after completing the leg extension exercise perform a 20-second stretch for the front thigh muscles, and after completing the leg curl exercise perform a 20-second stretch for the rear thigh muscles.  Doing a strengthening and stretching exercise for each major muscle group should ensure balanced physical development for greater performance power and better body coordination for increased skill refinement.

Although many of the golf study participants had prior golf related injuries, there were no physical problems reported during the playing season following their conditioning program.  That is, the golfers who improved their physical fitness reduced their injury risk and actually enjoyed more pain-free playing time than they had experienced in previous years.

Summary

The findings from these four studies showed similar and significant benefits to golfers who participate in a brief program of basic strength exercise. The 77 senior golfers who completed two months of sensible strength training added four pounds of muscle, lost four pounds of fat, reduced their resting blood pressure by four mm Hg, and increased their muscle strength by almost 60 percent. 

Those who did strength training alone improved their driving power by 2.6 mph, and those who also did stretching exercises improved their driving power by 5.2 mph.  All of the program participants were injury free during the following season, even though their improved physical fitness enabled them to play considerably more golf.

Based on these findings, golfer’s concerns that strength training will add bodyweight, raise resting blood pressure, aggravate arthritis, cause low back problems, reduce flexibility, impair body coordination, and decrease swinging speed seem unfounded. 

In fact, research clearly shows that a simple program of strength and stretching exercises is most desirable for improving physical fitness, reducing injury risk and enhancing playing ability in senior golfers.
Table 1. Machines, muscles and movements for improved golf driving performance.

Nautilus Exercise Target Muscles Relevance to Golf Swing
Leg Extension Front Thigh Power Production
Leg Curl Rear Thigh Power Production
Leg Press Front Thigh Power Production
Rear Thigh
Buttocks
Low Back Extension Lower Back Force Transfer – Legs to Upper Body
Abdominal Curl Front Midsection Force Transfer – Legs to Upper Body
Rotary Torso Sides of Midsection Force Transfer – Legs to Upper Body
Chest Cross/Press Chest Swing Action
Super Pullover Upper Back Swing Action
Lateral Raise Shoulders Swing Action
Biceps Curl Biceps Club Control
Triceps Extension Triceps Club Control
Neck Extension/Flexion Neck Head Stability

Table 2. Changes experienced by senior golfers following eight weeks of either strength training alone or strength training plus stretching exercises (77 subjects).

Factors Strength Training Only (N = 52) Strength Training and Stretching (N = 25) All Participants (N = 77)
Club Head Speed (mph) + 2.6 + 5.2 + 3.4
Percent Fat (%) – 2.3 – 1.7 – 2.0
Fat Weight (lbs) – 4.6 – 3.0 – 4.1
Muscle Weight (lbs) + 3.9 + 4.0 + 3.9
Mean Blood Pressure (mm Hg) – 4.4 – 4.8 – 4.5
Muscle Strength (%) + 56 + 56 + 56

About the author:
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and Club Industry magazines.

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