By Adam Ridgewell, DO, ND, Golf Biomechanic (C.H.E.K)
“Tension” is probably not a word that most teaching pros use, when walking someone through the basics of the golf swing! Believe it or not, we are actually stretching and ‘tensing’ muscles when creating any sort of purposeful movement, especially when that movement involves rotation. Furthermore, when a movement requires refined, powerful movements, a much bigger demand is placed on the nervous system and the soft tissues of the body. So what is “Tension”? A Dictionary definition in engineering terms, offers the following meaning:
Tension is a pulling force that acts in one direction; an example is the force in a cable holding a weight. Under tension, a material usually stretches, returning to its original length if the force does not exceed the material’s elastic limit. Under larger tensions, the material does not return completely to its original condition, and under even greater forces the material ruptures. (Source- MSN Encarta Dictionary)
With any throwing/hitting motion, there has to be a starting point and an end point. We achieve this starting point by shifting weight and do the same to achieve the end point. In other words, we must load one part of the body in order to store or create potential energy that will determine the amount of energy that we can put back into our throwing or hitting movement.
As we start to shift weight one way, we simultaneously create ‘stretch’ in the tissues that will be used to provide the energy for the throwing motion. This happens naturally, otherwise, we wouldn’t move! The only way this can be achieved efficiently, is to apply what is called “body-part disassociation”, i.e. when one part of our body is moving one way (shoulders and arms), another part (hips) is moving the opposite way. Of course there are some players who are more flexible and coordinated than others, and will have less difficulty in executing this type of movement. So, in the definition above, the ‘cable’ is the chain of muscles that run from the inner knee to the opposite lower abdominals, and the ‘weight’ is the mass of the moving upper body, arms and club-head, going into the backswing. (see pictures below)
What happens to our muscles as we move?
In simple terms, as a muscle comes to the end of its potential length and its ability to offer a counter-stretching force, movement in that vector slows down and any further movement is transferred to other body-parts. If the muscles and ligaments in those other body-parts are not flexible enough, movement then stops altogether and this is how a muscle strain/ ligament sprain occurs. Different pain tolerances in different individuals determine how they will deal with the ensuing injury in terms of how many times they can execute this movement before tissues start to breakdown and permanent changes are set up. If the learned movement/ skill is performed repetitively over a long period of time, the tissue breakdown occurs in the same vectors/ planes of movement. This is why cross-training is so important to reduce these types of injuries.
Specifics in Golf
Let’s try to understand the build up of ‘TENSION’ in the backswing, and the importance of having good flexibility and strength to achieve this. Some basic anatomy first though- (this is for a right-handed golfer; lefties, just flip it around!)
Depending on the teaching pro you speak to, the backswing movement may start as a move back with the club-head onto the swing path or as a one-piece take-away, but for the purposes of this article, the upper body will move on top of a relatively stationary lower body.
In order to shift weight to your right hip in the backswing, the movement originates from the left shoulder rotating under your neck. The movement then travels down by rotation of the spine, until it reaches your lower abdominal muscles on the right, which have by now, created ‘TENSION’ as they come to the end of their potential length.
Ideally, considering that your lower body is still stationary at this point, the left knee-cap should fall just in-line with the your left, inner ankle. Further rotation of the body occurs by loading your right pelvis onto its adjoining hip joint thereby stressing the tissues in the back of the hip (buttock muscles/ ligaments). At every stage of movement, stretching commences and stops to create ‘TENSION’ in each body part, by starting and stopping their vectors of movement.
In doing so, and this is the point I am trying to make, this creates the ‘TENSION’ between the adductor (groin) muscles in the left leg, remaining nearer the target and the right side of the lower trunk moving away from it. Here we have a “mini power factory” of potential energy that can be unleashed, to move the hips dynamically and at speed. See the white rubber band attached to my left knee and upper attachment in the right lower abdominals? This demonstrates the potential energy created in this chain of muscles if ‘TENSION’ is allowed to build, by keeping the left foot rooted to the ground.
Here’s the important part: TO CREATE TENSION IN THE HUMAN BODY, YOU NEED FLEXIBILITY AND STRENGTH!!!
Now let’s just say that you don’t have any flexibility in your right hip and spinal muscles. Well, you’re thinking “If I get more rotation in my backswing, I’ll generate way more coil and I’ll be able to hit that ball at least 270!” The problem for the nervous system, which by the way, has been orchestrating things ever since you picked up the driver for that tee shot, is- to do this with no hip and spinal flexibility. Mmm.
In years gone past, the left ankle would be raised off the ground to complete a fuller turn in the backswing. There is many an amateur who still employs this move in their golf swing. The bottom picture demonstrates that, as the player brings their left heel off the ground it allows the body to load the right hip further and hopefully get that club parallel. In doing so, even if you have good shoulder, neck and spinal flexibility, you may move off the ball by moving too far right, thus creating neck and eye strain, as you try and keep your eye on the ball. If you don’t have shoulder/spine flexibility, you move into the infamous “reverse-C” position and more than likely end up having to make last-second changes in your downswing to achieve a square club face and prevent that all-embarrassing slice. Most importantly though, no anchor-point is created by leaving the left foot and knee behind, so no build-up of TENSION takes place in the chain of muscles running from the left knee to the right abdominals.
Most amateurs will also have a coinciding shoulder problem, as they start to use their shoulders, arms and hands to generate the potential power that has been lost in the lower body. So if you have a shoulder problem that is aggravated by playing golf, you should get your hip flexibility looked at!
If this thing called ‘TENSION’ is the missing link in your never-ending quest for more distance, a simple set of stretches and exercises will get you on your way. It can be achieved by many means, but it’s the DOING IT that counts! Just as you see your teaching pro on a regular basis, practice on a regular basis, you need to be exercising on a regular basis for the potentially damaging effects of this leisurely pastime, golf!
This article, I know, will create a barrage of comments, which I welcome, as I try to understand this game to the greatest of my abilities!
Thanks for reading!