We must all shoulder responsibility for our golf swing and recognise that it is an explosive movement sequence that demands extreme ranges of motion and a highly co-ordinated stabilization and mobilization of the shoulder complex. Since the human body always seeks the path of least resistance, if a golfer attempts these extreme ranges of motion without biomechanically sound movement patterns, their body will seek compensatory movements in other body parts, thereby compromising consistency and increasing the risk of injury.
Nowadays, owing to the excessively sedentary nature of our modern lifestyles, a great many golfers have poor shoulder alignment and almost as many have poor scapular (shoulder blade) control during overhead movement. Unfortunately for them, much of the golf swing is performed with the arms above horizontal and so improving shoulder stability by training the rotator cuff muscles to control the movement of the shoulder blades ought to be a priority for these golfers. With improper shoulder mechanics, it becomes difficult to position your arms correctly in either your backswing or follow through and, of course, reduced stability correlates to reduced accuracy and power.
The shoulder joint can move in several directions with a significant range of motion. Consequently, it is less stable than many other joints. It has a shallow socket, which allows flexibility, but not the stability of a ball and socket structure like the hip. The entire complex has no direct connection to the spine around which it must rotate, therefore its stability and range of motion relies on the muscles of the rotator cuff and shoulder girdle. The four, relatively small, rotator cuff muscles are required both to stabilize the shoulder joint and move the upper arm. As such they provide both control and power in the golf swing and are highly susceptible to injury. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shoulder is third in the list of body parts most often-injured in golfers (behind the lower back and wrist).
A brief examination of the biomechanical complexity of shoulder function in the swing will help us to appreciate why most golfers’ need to improve shoulder conditioning if they hope to achieve the levels of co-ordinated stability and mobility that a balanced and powerful swing requires.
The shoulder blades must freely retract, protract and rotate around a stable point of axis, while the arms must have the requisite mobility to abduct, flex and rotate both externally and internally through extreme ranges of motion. There must be a co-ordinated activation of the shoulder blade, chest, rotator cuff, and upper arm muscles and for this to happen, the shoulder girdle and shoulder joint must be stable with balanced muscle function and normal mobility.
If the muscles that support the shoulder blade or collar bone are not balanced correctly, not only will the golfer be more susceptible to injury and range of motion be restricted in both the shoulders and arms, but imbalances can also cause unwanted swing faults, such as coming over the top and a flying elbow, while difficulty in getting through the shot properly can lead to a chicken wing and a weak, lofted scoop.
As always it is almost impossible to dissociate shoulder from upper back function. Restricted rotation of the upper back often causes shoulder dysfunction and instability, which results in the much smaller shoulder rotators becoming hyperactive, as when a golfer tries to compensate by excessively protracting the lead shoulder blade and pressing their arm across their chest in the effort to complete their backswing. A poorly controlled, ‘armsy’ swing and, in time, rotator cuff or labral tears are the likely result.
Golfers desperately seeking to improve their swing and performance should be aware that failure to address muscular imbalance in the shoulder complex, will not only make them increasingly vulnerable to degenerative conditions and eventual injury, but also make compensatory motions almost inevitable, so that even if they understand correct technique, know what they are trying to accomplish and practice hard, they may still struggle to make the swing changes they are seeking.