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Golf biomechanics - common swing patterns

Updated: May 29, 2020

Over the last little while, I have been asked by numerous of you to publish the common patterns that I observe whilst working with players and what the correlations are between swing dysfunction and poor body structure. Therefore, a common question I start most sessions with is “Is it the body framework making the golfer move in the way they do, or is the golfers swing causing the body structure to adapt?” This question is normally subject to what evidence the service provider has available to them and how they then interpret and apply such information. The initial part of the question is a common cause as why golfers move in the way they do, the latter part of the question is the most common cause of golf related injuries, more on this later.....Additionally, what compensations (secondary patterns) exist and what are the common recovery moves (peripheral patterns) that the player makes to ‘find impact and make it all work’, something skilled golfers do exceptionally well. Over the next series of articles I’ll publish, I want to talk about the common patterns that I encounter and whether you are a player, coach, physio, S&C etc... how you can follow these patterns to understand why players do what they do and why as service providers we see what we see. From this the aim is to make more informed judgements and be better placed to solve the problems presented to us.

In a previous article, I referred to what influences a players movement patterns for example concepts, structure, environment etc... however regardless of the pattern, below are the key ingredients of how golfers function and make it all work despite these influences. This information is pivotal in helping guide you through the mysterious web that is the players movements and to best diagnose the cause and effect sequence.

  1. Never change what you see or feel, as this is invariably the player’s way of moving around the problem. Effectively, the ‘error’ happened the frame if not more before the golfer feels it and you see it. So, figure out what the player is reacting to and why they have moved in the way they have.

  2. To solve the problem, you have to work away from the problem. Arguably the most important question once you have been presented with data, is what is making the segment, joint, muscle, club, ball etc. behave in the way it does? This allows us then to identify where the mis-matches are and where the first breakdown happens. I divide segments into two initial sections, the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guys are the areas that do not do their job properly (due to the influences mentioned earlier) which leads to the good guys moving in such a way to accommodate what the bad guy is/isn’t doing. Unfortunately most people when making change attempt to change the good guy, as this is the one seen to be moving in a bad way, however all it’s doing is a form or self-regulation in an effort to match things up so it all works, in simple language a form of homeostasis. This comes back to what you may have heard me say on numerous occasions, never change the compensations, as it’s the compensations making the swing work! Therefore as I mentioned, to solve the problem work away from the problem as once you understand what is making the segment behave in the way it does invariably the source will be located elsewhere, therefore the segment in question it attempting to do its job properly despite interference.

  3. My PhD work looked at the correlation between postural adaptations (effectively faulty body structure) and swing patterns. The evidence showed that if you had a certain postural imbalance, then typical swing patterns would exist. Therefore with this information available, can we predict movement patterns from observing postural patterns and does the player’s golf swing reflect their posture? Out of interest, one of the subjects in my studies was a golfer with ‘neutral posture’ at the start of the process, what was fascinating was to see their frame change as a result of golf and the nature of a one sided repetitive sport therefore allowing us to observe how golf changes body structure.

  4. Language used in coaching (much more on this in future publications) one challenge with words is they are subject to interpretation and in my experience, golf appears to have adopted its own exclusive language over the years. The difficulty with this is often phrases come attached with preconceived ideas of what to do, due to interpretations and how they are passed on. Common golf phrases which I believe do more harm than good are:

  5. 4.1 ‘Shoulder rotation’ instead of how the ribcage rotates around the spine, as this is what rotates in the swing. Shoulder rotation comes in many forms, (external, internal, ab/adduction). Effectively shoulder rotation in golf is how the humeral head moves inside the glenoid fossa which is why scapula control is vital for scapulo-humeral rhythm alongside good set up posture etc...

  6. 4.2 ‘Hip rotation’ instead what actually happens is the pelvis rotates around the femoral head. Therefore how the pelvis moves is the important part and how it matches up with the ribcage.

  7. 4.3 ‘Wrist hinge’ which is often interpreted as wrist extension, this being one of the worst patterns the wrist can move into in golf due to injury patterns and other swing compensations. Right wrist extension during the first move is one of the biggest influences on poor connection between the right scapula and ribcage in swing. The right wrists primary pattern in the backswing is radial deviation with an amount of supination then pronation, remember the wrist is a condyloid joint and in the golf swing it functions best with limited amounts of extension due to the loading forces placed through the joint and surrounding soft tissue and the effect it then has on external shoulder rotation/scapula control.

  8. 4.4 ‘Weight transfer’, it’s important to remember that you cannot change the weight of the object so to ‘transfer weight’ is very difficult. Most good scientific literature shows that there is no consistent ‘weight transfer’ in elite players, so for me a better phrase to use it the transfer of pressure/compression through the body and how it matches up with rotation and dynamic postural control. How to golfers feel change in pressure/compression as they rotate?

  9. 4.5 Bowed/cupped wrist. This is wrist flexion/extension. Understanding wrist physiology and what the effects of poor scapula control have on the wrists is crucial. I believe that bowed and cupped invariably hides the impact this pattern has on the wrists and it’s one of the reasons why it’s one of the high risk areas that is subjected to injury.

  10. 4.6 Strong grip/weak grip, surely enough said!

There are a plethora of other phrases that defy anatomical function and physiology. I believe that when we can start using correct language then this will help to reduce misconceptions attached to this terminology and allow players to help connect their body feels with their swing feels much better, essentially help them do their job properly.

So with these references in mind, let’s look at the first of the patterns I see and what the influences are.

Case study one – Forward head posture and its influence on hand and club path.

Observations made by coach via video feedback and presented to me at the start of the session.

  • Weight on toes

  • Club head moves excessively to inside at start of backswing

  • Pelvis moves towards the target in backswing.

  • In transition pelvis moves away from the target and club head path moves on the outside.

  • Players shot pattern was a heavy pull with evidence of left wrist and right side low back pain.

With this information in mind, the player perceived that they have several faults and many things wrong, to which I completely disagreed with. There are no faults- simply patterns. What they have is a pattern made up of an initial breakdown in the chain, which led to a series of compensations and recovery moves which was their way of making it all work. Not that I am a psychologist, but to be under the impression there are many things wrong vs. one area of misbehaviour which leads to a few compensations surely must put the player in a better place to make the subsequent improvements? As earlier stated, what is the segment reacting to and what is influencing the segment to act and behave in the way is. For me this is the vital part of the process. So, once the 3D data was collected and some simple questions were asked of the player and coach, we were then able to untangle the web and tell the story as to what their pattern is.

The first reference I work towards is always:

  • What are their postural imbalances, this is straightforward to assess with some simple ‘body reading’, what are their swing concepts – effectively what are they attempting to do and from the data what is the first breakdown, which is invariably linked to the points just mentioned. Below are the posture charts I use to help establish some common golf posture. Charts courtesy of Ramsay McMaster.

Secondly, is it the body reacting to what the club is doing, or is the club adapting to what the body is doing, once again the data will identify this for me by correct interpretation of the data and seeing what segment misfired first.

In light of the above, the player showed signs of a forward head posture and internally rotated shoulders. Much of this was caused through the player’s physical training values and what they perceived as ‘good training’. Due to the head position in relation to the cervical spine, this caused two main reactions, firstly it caused overload through the muscles around the neck, front of the ribcage as well as blockage around the thoracic spine. Secondly because of the head position it resulted in the weight moving forwards when in golf posture, hence the weight being on the toes.

Below is the set up position, you’ll note how far forwards the head sits in relation to the neck and upper spine. This is commonly referred to as forward head posture.

Therefore, working back through the coaching observations, adjusting the weight distribution would actually solve nothing apart from aesthetics, as the structural imbalance around the head was causing reaction through the feet. Thus, never change what you see or feel!! Because of the head posture, this caused certain muscles to become overactive and others underactive leading to the shoulders internally rotating and upward rotation of the scapula. These imbalances created a structural adaptation around the joint resulting in it not being able to do its job properly. In simple terms, poor positioning of the left scapula and a blocked up thoracic spine which found it hard to rotate (remember, the thoracic spine is the rotational part of the spine, not the lumbar as the lumbar vertebrae/facet joints have approximately less than 3°) resulting in the wrist moving into flexion due to the scapula protracting/moving around the trunk at the start of backswing. Coupled with the internally rotated right shoulder, this restricted the ability of the right shoulder to externally rotate (shoulder rotation) which forced the right wrist into extension. Consequently, this moved the club excessively to the inside as due to wrist function and the weight distribution at set up as it this was the path of least resistance for it to follow.

Below are two examples of good postural balance around the ribcage and neck, on the left you’ll see good postural symmetry, the scapula resting well on the trunk with muscles doing their jobs properly, on the right you’ll observe a protracted and upward rotated scapula with overactive pec minor (green muscle) causing the arms to internally rotate.

In the graph below, the blue curve represents the pronation/supination of the left arm, you’ll see the blue curve drops rapidly which designates excessive pronation (palm down). The green curve reflects the flexion/extension of the wrist, here you’ll note how the green curve moves up steeply as soon as the backswing starts, and this indicates the moving into abnormal amounts of flexion.

The body likes to maintain balance, with the centre of gravity in the body being approximately one inch behind the belly button. In an attempt to restore balance, due to the hand and club path, the body helped balance the books by creating a cross pattern with the pelvis by moving excessively towards the target. I’m sure you can now start to see a pattern is developing, all from one breakdown. As I have outlined in previous articles, the brain works a little like a SatNav, it knows where impact is and when it detects that the club is lost it will very quickly and accurately recalculate and find a new route to achieve impact. Due to the position of the pelvis, poor structure around the right shoulder and mismatching of arms and body at the top of the backswing, the player found impact by moving the pelvis away from the target and the right arm to disconnect from the trunk through impact. Ultimately, this is the player’s recovery move in order to make it all work. Due to these recoveries, it caused overload through the left wrist and low right side of back due to the poor positions they were forced into in order to find impact.

Below highlights the orientation of the pelvis (where it is in space as it rotates). The blue curve denotes the swaying motion of the pelvis. You’ll see the curve goes up as the player moves into the backswing, this is signifying the pelvis moving towards the target, however look at the behaviour of the pelvis half way into downswing, the curve drops showing the pelvis moving away from the target.

Now on reflection, this would appear to concur with the coach, that there were lots of issues occurring however I offer a different view. There was a breakdown caused by misconception, this resulted in a couple of compensations which was the players way of moving around the problem, the Satnav then kicked in and did its job properly by working out how to recover and find impact. This is a pattern of movement, not a series of faults!

So, how do we solve the problem? In this instance, some postural drills were given to help with the player’s feels and awareness of matching up the head and upper spine. This allowed the weight to then be distributed correctly through the feet as it no longer had to recover for something that was no longer breaking. Due to the improved postural awareness and symmetry, some biofeedback was given to help match up the right wrist and improved loading around the right hip joint. Once the player could find set up and had the necessary awareness of the initial move in backswing (this was all done through self-discovery which was created by biofeedback and drills) therefore no interference of words, the player could then find impact without the required recovery moves as there was nothing now for the player to recover from. Admittedly, in the early swings post intervention the player had the same downswing pattern as previous as there was an element of ‘rewiring needed’ Resultantly, the left wrist and low back could now do their jobs properly and not be subjected to excessive load leading to the removal of the injury. So the moral of this story was

  1. Identify the first breakdown and what is making this happen? What is it reacting to and stopping it from doing its job properly?

  2. Understand how the player is moving around the problem. As described earlier, what are being perceived as the bad guys, left wrist, right wrist and pelvis are simply accommodating the poor body structure and the set up position employed. Therefore they are actually the good guys as they are allowing the swing to work, despite the poor shot and injury patterns.

  3. How is the player recovering to make it all work?

  4. Never change what you initially see or feel.

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