2005: Features - Core work brings strength, stability

Let’s get to the core of the matter.

Golfers everywhere are talking about core fitness, core training and core muscles. Many don’t know exactly what they are talking about, but this modern exercise philosophy sounds important and can result, as distance-starved golfers are learning, in longer drives.

That’s the core of the matter: Golfers want to hit the ball farther, and core fitness is one way to gain extra distance. However, this emphasis on core offers much more.

Core means center. It refers to the trunk of the body, the area between the thighs and chest. It encompasses the important abdominal muscles and three areas that have a huge impact on the golf swing – the lower back, pelvis and hips.

Core training, when done correctly, can enhance flexibility. It can provide additional strength and stability in the golf swing. It can result in extra swing speed and yardage. Protection of the spine is another benefit. It can help prevent joint and muscle injuries and boost stamina. It can improve balance.

In the beginning, most of the exercises do not involve weights or machines. Inflatible exercise balls and heavier medicine balls are used for stretching and strengthening. In many of the prescribed maneuvers, the body’s own weight provides resistance. The routines involve an array of positions, such as laying on exercise mats, leaning against walls, or simulating moves in the golf swing.

In advanced stages of training, there is more emphasis on strengthening, but core training is not weightlifting or part of the grunt-and-groan circuit. Slow, deep breathing is a consistent and essential part of core training.

Harry Dichter, 61, splits his time between Gearhart, Ore., and La Quinta, Calif. Dichter is a veteran tournament player who was bothered for years by lower back pain.

That pain, plus drives that were shorter than he wanted, eventually led Dichter to the doorstep of Rob Mottram. A former head trainer at the mobile PGA Tour fitness trailer, Mottram owns the Golf Health & Performance Center (www.golfpt.com) in Palm Desert, Calif. Introduced to core training, Dichter felt like a new man.

“I have not experienced lower back problems since,” he said, reflecting on more than three years of painless golf. “Furthermore, my turn radius became greater, and my posture became much better. I noticed a big improvement in my balance, and I started feeling that I could stay in the golf swing longer.”

And what about distance?

“I picked up almost 20 yards,” Dichter answered. “I’m not exaggerating.”

Enthusiastic comments like this are the reason core training has developed a cultlike following.

“Every golfer in the world who cares about his golf game should also be interested in core training and flexibility,” stressed Roger Fredericks (www.fredericksgolf.com), a fitness adviser to Arnold Palmer and many other tour pros.

“Why?” Fredericks asked. “Because there are moves in the golf swing that the body simply cannot do properly without flexibility. If the body cannot do something, it will make a compensation. One compensation often leads to another, and there goes your swing.”

Fredericks said “the No. 1 fault and problem is a tight iliopsoas (hip flexor) on the right side. The golfer develops too much imbalance. Basically it is a tight right hip, and it is very difficult to stretch this out.”

The remedy: core training.

Expanding on this theme of core training and proper balance, David Ostrow controls a network of training facilities in the United States and Canada, concentrating primarily on golfers. Ostrow is president of Body Balance for Performance (www.bodybalancegolf.com), a franchise operation with its headquarters in Exton, Pa.

“If some muscles are strong, others weak, still others tight, it will change how the balance and equilibrium systems function,” Ostrow said. “This affects your ability to swing consistently. Your body will steer your golf swing in the direction of your imbalances.”

Ostrow’s advice: Find a trainer who understands the relationships between the body and the golf swing.

“Our core training in its early phases consists of reeducation exercises for the trunk,” Ostrow said. “Core training in later phases includes strengthening and reeducation. Core training will make little difference in the golf swing if the balance of the body, symmetry in the body, and good flexibility in the body are missing, so we concentrate on creating this balance.”

If this sounds somewhat complicated, well, it can be. Every golfer needs to know that core training is a long-term commitment to golf fitness. Although the exercise program for each individual will change frequently, a golfer must continue to exercise.

Most golfers will begin to pick up yardage within the first two or three months. However, optimum results depend on optimum devotion to training. Those who neglect or abandon their exercise programs will become fitness casualties.

Clearly, there is more to evaluating core training than just driving distance. Here are some insights:

Hitting the ball farther is not enough. Accuracy should be maintained or improved. Scores should be lowered. Because core training is associated with stability and balance, core training programs always should be asked about their accuracy and their success on the course. If they aren’t hitting fairways and greens, and they aren’t making birdies, their fitness training deserves to be scrutinized.

Disciples of core training should feel better, on and off the course. Any tightness and soreness in their bodies should be reduced. Core training is not an antidote for arthritis, but it can work miracles for those who for years have handicapped their golf games with deskbound or couchbound lifestyles.

There can be other benefits. Ostrow uses what he calls “reeducation exercises” that ultimately can improve balance, coordination, control, posture and movement patterns.

Injury prevention can be an important part of core training. Dr. Tim Sell is a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (www.upmc.com), which has coordinated the establishment of a new fitness lab at Pinehurst Resort (www.pinehurst.com) in Pinehurst, N.C.

“Sometimes what happens at the hip affects what happens at the knee,” said Sell, an expert in knee injury prevention. “A certain movement of the hips can put you at greater risk for knee injuries. So we would strengthen the muscles around the hips.”

Sell and his fellow doctors at UPMC, led by Dr. Scott Lephart, have scientifically validated their program through research groups that were trained and tested for strength, flexibility and range of motion.

Gym strength is not the same thing as golf strength. A weightlifter who can bench press 400 pounds might not be able to drive a golf ball 250 yards.

“There are plenty of examples of athletes who are strong in their external muscles, but weak in the core,” Fredericks said.

Bill Hartman, a fitness coach (www.yourgolffitnesscoach.com) in Westfield, Ind., near Indianapolis, observed that “just because (long drive champion) Jason Zuback is three times stronger with a bench press, it doesn’t mean that he’s three times longer when he hits a golf ball.

“My job is to get a golfer to train at the appropriate (muscle) speed so that he can demonstrate his strength (in the golf swing) more quickly,” Hartman said. “This, along with the right kind of core training, will bring him even closer to Jason Zuback.”

Not all trainers are equipped to teach core fitness for golf.

“As the fitness component of golf has grown,” Hartman explained, “the general fitness terminology has crossed over into golf training. So golfers are talking about the core.

“Some trainers are jumping on this bandwagon, but they’re coming in unprepared. They can cover general concepts, but they can’t take it to the level a golfer needs.”

Although Hartman has argued against using yoga and Pilates in extensive golf training, many golfers have successfully pursued core training through these exercise disciplines. Expert guidance is the key to all exercise routines.

Let’s get back to driving distances. There is no question that core training can enable a golfer to create more body torque using the core muscles. This can create more clubhead speed and more distance.

A word of caution, though: For almost all golfers, core training of the body needs to be coupled with core training of the golf swing. The golf teacher should understand and endorse what the golfer is trying to accomplish in the gym.

A common yardstick for golf fitness is driver swing speed. Progressing from little or no exercise to a complete stretching and strengthening program, most golfers can expect an increase of somewhere between 5 and 10 miles per hour in driver swing speed. This can translate into as much as 20 extra yards off the tee.

But it requires dedication. This is no Cinderella story.There is no overnight transformation.

“Everybody has to stick with it,” Body Balance’s Ostrow said. “In general, youth and women need to do more reeducation and rebuilding in the entire body. Most of them do not have many flexibility problems. Well, maybe some mild flexibility issues, but they are easily resolved with stretching done right.

“Middle age men – I’m talking about 40 to 65 – generally are very tight. They need gads of deep tissue work to make the stretching be effective and produce meaningful range of motion changes. We see this more in white-collar types, but it is prevalent in most middle-aged men. Exercise programs should vary with age, with individual needs, and with the goals of the golfers. Everyone has slightly different needs, but they all have to understand what it takes in order to change.”

Core training can make golfers stronger and more flexible. They can hit the ball farther. Their golf careers can last longer. With this kind of reward, who needs Cinderella, anyway?

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