Balance And The Golf Swing
I went to a golf seminar recently. It’s just something you have to do to keep up with what is being taught out there as “The Gospel of Golf According to [place name of semi-famous golfer here].” I find it incredibly interesting how complicated some golf pros try to make the golf swing seem. Now don’t get me wrong. The golf swing is an amazingly complex task. It takes a great deal of practice to learn it well, and it takes even more ongoing practice to keep swinging well. I also think it is imperative that you get professional instruction to help you on your way.
My beef, I guess, is that some (not all) pros seem to be trying to convince you that they’re really smart. Perhaps by overloading you with an infinite number of cues and swing thoughts, they feel that it will give you incentive to pay them a visit and pay them for their overly complex advice.
Back to my story. This golf pro was talking about balance and how important it is during the golf swing. I totally agree. You certainly can’t swing a golf club if you’re falling over all the time (sorry, I couldn’t resist). While I agreed on the level that balance is important, I was more than disappointed in his method of how a golfer should improve his balance.
Here’s what he did.
He flops these two dyna-disks down on the floor and stands on them. Now for those of you who don’t know what a dyna-disk is, it looks like a frisbee that went back for a third helping at Thanksgiving. It’s round, a couple of inches thick, and mushy. If you stand on them, there is a constant shifting of your feet in an attempt to maintain your balance. The pro says that he performs controlled (in other words slow) swings while standing on these mushy frisbees, and it improves his balance when he stands on the ground taking his regular swings. Better balance means you can generate more power.
Well that just sounds like a brilliant idea! In fact, if you watch him do it, it looks like it’ll work.
Nope. It makes for a nice circus trick, but if you’re not rehabilitating some type of injury, it won’t make you a better golfer.
In fact, it could very well screw up your swing AND reduce your power.
Here’s what’s wrong with this type of balance training for golfers.
To maintain balance on an unstable surface, your brain uses what at called feedback mechanisms. Feedback mechanisms use information from your eyes, central nervous system, and proprioceptors (position sensors in muscles and joints) to help you maintain your balance. This is an ongoing process for as long as you stand on the squishy disks without falling off. The problem here is that during a dynamic activity like a golf swing we use what is called feedforward mechanisms.
Because of the high-speed nature of a golf swing (less than 2 seconds), golfers don’t have time to react with feedback mechanisms. They must rely heavily on a visualized and internalized image of the swing. In other words, you feel and see the swing in your minds eye before it occurs.
Therefore, using this type of balance training doesn’t even apply to task like a golf swing so you are wasting valuable time that you could have used to actually practice more effectively.
Now if you’re playing a bad lie off a waterbed, this dyna-disk type of balance training may just be the ticket.
Remember how I mentioned before that the golf pro would perform slow swings while balancing on the disks? The reason he did them slowly was because if he did them fast he would lose his balance and fall.
Let me ask you a question. Is timing a very big issue during a golf swing?
Of course it is.
Do you think that trying to swing a club on a constantly shifting surface would alter the timing and pattern of the muscles that you recruit to swing a golf club?
Of course it would. The activity of the muscles would be dependent on which way your body was swaying at the time (feedback) and not necessarily how you intended them to function in you predetermined swing (feedforward).
The end result is poor timing of your swing which is something we don’t want to carry over to our game.
Another comment on the slow swing concept;
Al Vermeil, strength coach for the world champion San Francisco 49’ers and Chicago Bulls, uses a saying, “Train Slow, Be Slow”. What he means is that training the muscles in slower motion versions of the actual task (golf swing) will teach the muscles to function slowly.
Balancing on a dyna-disk forces you to slow down your swing. Your weight shift from back foot to front foot will be slower. Teaching muscles to function slowly in a golf swing will reduce your ability to load and unload key muscles, which generate your power, which in turn reduces club head speed. That means less driving distance.
When you stand on an unstable object, you brain uses any number of strategies to maintain balance. It may make an adjustment in the ankle or knee or hip that will cause alterations in your trunk posture to maintain your balance over your feet.
Attempting to perform golf swings on the dyna-disks will force you to alter your swing axis during your practice swings. The concern here is that you may be creating a negative transfer to your golf game by teaching yourself an ineffective postural strategy resulting in hitting fat or thin shots during your game.
So what does science and experience tell us?
- Balance training on a moving and deformable surface (like stability balls and dyna-disks) does not necessarily enhance balancing skill on a fixed and rigid surface.*
- Balance training on a moving and deformable surface may disrupt sport specific nervous programs (golf swing), and alter the profile of force-time (timing), rate of force development (a component of club head speed), and other biomechanical curves for sport specific application.*
- Balance training on a moving and deformable surface might be less effective than other forms of more conventional training in achieving specific motor skill goals (in other words there are better things you could be doing).*
- Balance training on a moving and deformable surface deals with relatively slow displacements from positions of balance and does not necessarily equip one to handle the more rapid disturbances under different conditions of loading encountered in actual sport (it may negatively alter your balance when you swing faster).*
- Balance training on a moving and deformable surface may inappropriately modify the musculoskeletal and kinesthetic systems (it may make your golf-specific balance worse).*
- Very few, if any, of the world’s top athletes in any sport perform balance training on a moving and deformable surface.*
So what can you do to improve your golf-specific balance?
Play golf. There is not a gadget or exercise which will improve your golf-specific balance like playing golf.
Because nothing can duplicate the demands of playing golf other than playing golf.
I know, it sounds silly doesn’t it. If you look at other athletes in any sport from martial arts to gymnastics to hockey, you’ll find that they simply perform their sporting skills over and over to acquire their amazing balance skills. They don’t rely on silly, useless gadgets.
If you were a tightrope walker, would you practice on a wooden beam or stand on a stability ball. Of course not, because it would not duplicate the demands of tightrope walking. The rope has its own “feel” and sway that nothing else but a tightrope can duplicate.
So if you want to improve your golf-specific balance, play golf.
*Reference: Siff, MC. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Fifth Edition. 2002.
About the author: Bill Hartman, is a Physical Therapist who has a degrees in Movement and Sports Science. Training golfers since 1990, Bill is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NCSA), USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach and a Level 2 Active Release Techniques Practitioner (ART). Bill also has advanced training in shoulder, knee and spine rehabilitation as well as many methods of strength, power and speed training.