Story & photo by Mattew Thayer
How often do we golfers rush to the course with just enough time to sprint to the first tee? We take a couple practice swings that make our backs go snap, crackle, pop, then step up to the ball and fire away.
I spent an afternoon at a driving range recently, watching what sort of warm-ups golfers do when there is no rush to tee off. The answer? Not much. Most set their bags down and immediately started whacking balls. The few who did stretch generally relied on a few practice swings to get limber.
Kurt Higa, owner of Island Strength and Conditioning, says that routine just does not work. Despite advances in golf technology, he says average handicaps in the United States haven’t budged in forty years, and that nearly 80 percent of golfers play with one sort of injury or another, including aches and pains in their shoulders, low back, hips, knees, wrists and forearms.
Higa is a certified strength-and-conditioning specialist and a certified golf biomechanic. When I met him, I expected to discuss how golf training can lower scores. He says going low is great, but injury prevention is priority number one. Become stronger and more limber, and the scores will take care of themselves.
“One swing of the driver takes 90 percent of [a golfer’s] peak muscle activity,” Higa says. “It’s traumatic on the body, and that’s why so many people get injured. If there is anything golfers should invest in, it is their bodies.”
Higa spends an hour and a half with his clients, conducting a full assessment before he helps them find a stretching and conditioning regimen that fits their specific needs. He looks for each golfer’s strengths and weaknesses to pinpoint imbalances that could result in injury.
“I’m not a golf instructor,” he says. “Picture me as the mechanic. I’ll fix the car as best as I can, and the driving instructor will teach you how to drive.
“When they start having better range of motion and the achy joints are no longer there, [clients] see the benefit of the strength and flexibility training. When you are older, flexibility is a lot harder to come by. It is a ‘use or lose it’ kind of thing.”
Higa works out of physical therapy offices in Wailuku and Kihei, and also conducts on-site training. We met recently on the Wailea Golf Club driving range with Wailuku golfers Ellerey and Michiko Skog for a clinic on stretching techniques. Starting with an easy stretch to loosen up our ankles, Higa took us through a series that seemed to pump lubricant into our joints from toe to head. We stretched for about twenty minutes, then hit the range for a light warm-up, starting with our wedges and working up to driver.
When we took the first tee an hour later, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so flexible and ready to play.
“I felt more relaxed, more flexible” said Michiko, a new mom who says she rarely shows up at the course with more than a few seconds to take a practice swing or two. “I thought it was really fun. We’ve been doing Kurt’s stretches at home.”
Husband Ellerey provides a shining example of how conditioning and weight training can improve golf scores. A year ago, he searched for websites on golf conditioning. After gleaning tidbits from several sites, he developed a regimen that includes bench presses, curls, alternating squats, incline sit-ups, Russian twists and biometric push-ups.
Although the new father plays much less golf than he used to, he has added thirty yards to his drives, and his handicap has dropped six strokes to hover between nine and ten.
“I’m definitely in better shape,” Ellerey says. “There’s not a lot of cardio, but I’m definitely getting stronger. Lifting weights strengthens your grip and your forearms, and having a strong grip and forearms are a big part of the golf swing.”
Ellerey works out about forty-five minutes, twice a week, using dumbbells and Olympic-style weights.
“After the first couple weeks, I [felt] stable, more in command. I don’t feel like I have to swing as hard to hit the ball far.”
Ellerey’s progress shows there is more than one way for golfers to improve strength and flexibility. Some use Gyrotonic training, some combine regular walking with stretching, and some turn to yoga. Higa says golfers need to find what works and keep at it.
“Every discipline has its place,” he says. “You’re probably not going to hear about Tiger Woods using yoga, because he is flexible enough. For a guy like me, who is not so flexible, yoga would have its place.
“Any physical activity can benefit your golf game, if done with proper technique. For example, using a weed whacker can strengthen your core, shoulders, arms, and legs, not to mention your coordination and balance.”
At the end of our session, Higa delivered us to our golf carts with a final word of advice: When it comes to stretching and golf, don’t stop.
“I stretch all through the round,” he says. “When you sit in a golf cart, the abdomen muscles shut off and relax in a shortened state. When you stand up, your abdomen and hips feel tight. Think about how much time you spend in the cart, compared to swinging a club. Do some stretches when you stand up. Walking is very helpful too; that’s why playing Waiehu [Municipal Golf Course] is great.”
Looking for a big payoff? Get in shape, work on your flexibility, arrive early at the course to warm up, and stretch throughout your round to keep blood flowing to your joints and muscles. You’ll play better and find greater enjoyment from the sport. You’ll also be able shake your head knowingly while your frantic opponents button their shirts and tie their shoes on the first tee box.
Before you incorporate flexibility and strength training into your golf regimen, it’s vital to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all remedy. Aches, pains and injuries result from different physical conditions and movement habits.
“What may seem a simple lower-back injury could be the result of something as simple as not bending your knees during the golf swing,” says golf biomechanic Kurt Higa. “It could also be something as complex as a rotator-cuff injury limiting shoulder turn, making the golfer overcompensate by over-rotating at the lower back.”
That is why it is important to consult a physician or professional like Higa before you try to treat your injuries with an exercise regimen off the Internet or out of a book. Make a mistake with your self-diagnosis, and you can quickly turn a small problem into a big one.
In helping with this story, Higa spotted a part of the workout Ellerey Skog gleaned from the Internet that could have shut down his game.
“Military presses [can] do major damage to the shoulder girdle,” Higa says. “Since the military press is performed [with the bar] behind the neck, it puts the shoulder blade in an unnatural position. Load on weight, and an injury is waiting around the corner.”
Higa’s six basic suggestions for starting a training routine:
1. Learn proper golf techniques (mechanics).
2. Maintain flexibility.
3. Maintain conditioning.
4. Maintain strength.
5. Listen to your body. A minor “tweak,” if not addressed, can lead to a game-ending injury.
6. Stretch before and during your round.