Pilates promoting flexibility for golf

ORLANDO, FLA. – What in the world is Pilates for golf?

In short, it's a fitness program – including dozens of individual exercises that can be done without machines – in which the golfer lies mostly on his/her back, stomach or side. The body is then extended, spread out or stretched to concentrate on specific muscles and muscle groups. Increased flexibility is the major goal.

“The exercises are simple and easy,” Pilates teacher Sarah Christensen said, “and the benefits are huge.”

Added fitness instructor and stretching expert Roger Fredericks, of La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif.: “Pilates is more active than most forms of yoga. It’s more aggressive, if you will.”

On the eve of the 2008 PGA Merchandise Show at the Orange County Convention Center, Christensen was bending and gesturing and trying diligently to educate a group of golfers about Pilates.

When she invoked the name of PGA Tour player Camilo Villegas, a green-reading contortionist, her audience went from snooze to full alert.

Two years ago, Christensen’s task might have been impossible. Most golfers never had heard
of Pilates. Now, at least, it has joined the mainstream golf vocabulary and even is starting to gain a foothold in contemporary golf.

Named after German fitness trainer Joseph Pilates (1880-1967), it is a series of body movements that focuses on deep and effective breathing, proper posture and strengthening of the core muscles. It began to boom mainstream in the 1990s.

A summary of personal objectives for golfers on Pilates: Learn to breathe deeply and evenly; use proper breathing to enhance clear thinking on the course; create better posture and concentrate on maintaining the correct spine angle throughout the golf swing; increase overall flexibility and balance; focus on range of motion in the hips and shoulders; and strengthen the abdominal and back muscles.

What does this mean for modern golfers?

Villegas, one of the longest hitters in pro golf, had an answer: “A lot of guys are getting in shape for golf these days by lifting weights,” he said via phone. “What they don’t realize is that you need both strength and flexibility. And, of the two, flexibility is more important for golf. I’m talking about maximum flexibility and core strength.”

Villegas started practicing Pilates while at the University of Florida and has aligned himself with Christensen in a venture called Hole In One Pilates. This is Pilates for ordinary golfers, although Christensen is quick to claim that the benefits go beyond golf.

“I never felt like I had good posture until I learned about Pilates,” said Christensen, who previously owned a company that manufactured laser devices. Then she turned over her life, so to speak, to Pilates.

Instructor Butch Harmon subscribes to the “benefits beyond golf” philosophy. And John O’Leary III, director of instruction at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, also is a convert to Pilates.

“It is beneficial for long-term health, both on and off the course,” O’Leary said. “I still do some strength training, but Pilates has helped me round out my personal program. Flexibility and greater range of motion can help all golfers, and I am starting to incorporate Pilates into some of my teaching.”

Here is the weekly program that Christensen recommends:

• An injury-prevention warmup every day, lasting about 10 minutes.

• Two or three times per week, a 45-minute workout that uses Pilates techniques, which can be done at home or in a gym that includes Pilates equipment.

La Costa, for example, has its own Pilates studio. There, the details of Pilates are taught to all, with the sessions coexisting with a popular big-muscle stretching program conducted by Fredericks.

“I actually use some Pilates in my training, because flexibility is essential for everything I teach,” Fredericks said.

Joseph Pilates was interned in England with other German nationals during World War I. He taught wrestling and self-defense, and he converted springs from hospital beds into exercise tools for his fitness agenda.

“If you train with (Pilates) machines, it is still a spring-based system,” Christensen said, “but the beauty of Pilates is that you don’t have to do it on the equipment. I show people how to do it on their own.”

Christensen offers classes at two Pilates centers: Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston, Va., and at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. In addition, she sells training DVDs (www.pilatesforgolf.com) and certifies Pilates instructors.

Perhaps most intriguing is Christensen’s assertion that Pilates can help nearly all golfers become better putters.

“Golfers need precision in putting,” she said, “and that’s what Pilates is all about – smaller movements, control, good alignment, good posture.”

Golf equipment manufacturer TaylorMade has become so interested in Pilates that TaylorMade Performance Labs has joined Christensen in a study involving everyday golfers. They are measured for flexibility and stability in the golf swing, then given a Pilates program to follow before being remeasured.

So your back is strong, your spine is stable, your abdominals are rock hard and you have the flexibility of a snake. What else do you need?

A golf swing, of course, but that’s a mission for another day.

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