Shoulder flexibility is essential for a consistent golf swing in golfers over 50. The shoulder joint itself is designed for mobility. With a very shallow socket, the ball of the "ball and socket" joint is allowed a lot of freedom to move in a large range of motion. However, even though the bones are designed for mobility, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments will become stiff as the golfer passes the age of 50 if not addressed.
Shoulder Stiffness: Consequences for the Golfer
Shoulder stiffness can wreak all sorts of havoc on the golf swing. The golfer with the stiff lead shoulder has 2 options in his/her backswing. He/she either has to live with a very short backswing (the "old man" swing), or has to make compensations. Compensations are changes to the golf swing in response to the bodies limitations. The most common compensation that is caused by stiff shoulders, is that the elbows collapse, or bend too much.
It's OK to allow the left elbow to bend to 10, or even 20 degrees. However, if the elbows bend more than that, the golfer loses the benefit of swing width and swing width is one of the keys to effortless power. Another poor swing composition occurs in the trail arm (right arm for right handers). With a shoulder that has poor rotational range of motion, the back elbow will "wing" at the top of the backswing.
If the right elbow is allowed to do this, the hole swing plane will be compromised resulting in a steeper swing plane, slicing or pulled golf shots, increased instances of hitting the ground behind the ball. Now that we have covered just a few of the problems that can occur with stiff shoulders, lets fix it.
Fixing Lead Shoulder Problems
The lead arm needs to reach across the body in the backswing without allowing the elbow to bend more than 10 degrees. This is a great stretch to fix it and it feels pretty good too.
Setup: If you are right handed, stand with a pole (or something to grab) just off of your left shoulder. Get into your golf stance and reach across the body and grab the pole. Then side step away from the pole until your elbow is straight. Golf action: Rotate your hips and head as far as you can in the opposite direction and hold the stretch. The textbook instruction is to hold the stretch for 30 seconds but I like to hold it for several minutes and try to increase the stretch every 20 seconds. You can also bend your knees more to get a slightly altered stretch.
Fixing Trail Shoulder Problems
As we discussed earlier, the elbow of the trail arm (right arm for right handers) needs to point straight down at the ground at the top of the backswing. A stiff right shoulder results in an elbow pointing somewhat behind the golfer. The range of motion in the shoulder that you need to accomplish this is called external rotation. Normal external rotation is 90 degrees but most of the baby boomer golfers we evaluate fall well short of that. Follow this stretch to improve your elbow position to get your swing back on plane.
Setup: Sit next to a table/counter that is 90 degrees to your right. Golf action: Bend forwards as far as you can keeping your forearm flush against the surface and hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. If you have a history of shoulder problems and this stretch causes you pain, try the wall angels stretch instead.
Setup: Stand with your back flat against the wall with both of your arms flush against the wall as shown (if you cannot touch the wall with your forearms flush and your back flat against the wall, you need some work, do the best you can). Action: Keeping your back flat, slowly slide your arms up and down the wall trying to reach as high as you can each time. Perform 10-20 reps. With all stretching, remember that it is MUCH EASIER to keep shoulder range of motion than it is to try to regain motion. However, I have worked with several 90 year olds that have made improvements with these stretches, so you can too!
I will leave you with a picture of a fellow baby boomer who's backswing is ideal...you might recognize him.
Dr. Ryan York is a physical therapist and since 2008 has been working exclusively with golfers between the ages of 50 and 75. He co-directs Age Defying Golf, which is dedicated to improving golf performance, reducing the effects of aging, and resolving golf-related pain in golfers .