The swing shift Featured

12:08pm EDT September 27, 2004
There have been plenty of advances in recent years in golf equipment designed to improve scores and increase driving distance and accuracy. Now, a group of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh is poised to tackle the next frontier for golfers -- the swing itself.

And they're not relying on lessons to help duffers better their game. After collecting reams of data about golf swings and developing technology to analyze the subtleties of a golfer's swing, Pitt researchers have opened the Golf Fitness Laboratory at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side.

While their effort is aimed at helping golfers trim their handicaps, the more important purpose is to help players condition themselves and avoid injury.

The bad news for golfers is that more than 115,000 of them were treated for golf-related injuries last year in the United States at a cost of $1.7 billion, including medical, legal, liability, pain, suffering and work loss expenses, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The good news is that many of these injuries can be prevented with a few warm-up exercises, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

"We are now able to take our 15 years of sports medicine research data and three years of golf-specific research data from protocols that have been proven effective for injury prevention and performance improvement and make them applicable and available to golfers at all levels in the community," says Scott Lephart, director of UPMC's Neuromuscular Research Laboratory.

The Golf Fitness Laboratory facility's technology includes the AboutGolf simulator and swing analysis instrumentation, which uses an eight-camera infrared high-speed video capture system for measuring joint and body segment movement. The system is used in conjunction with a ball and club tracking system to evaluate ball flight and club characteristics using high-speed microwave technology.

The Golf Fitness Lab staff includes researchers with clinical expertise in athletic training, biomechanics, exercise physiology and physical therapy. The staff uses state-of-the-art technology to identify, assess and compare key biomechanical and physiological factors integral to the golf swing. Of particular interest are muscular strength, flexibility and balance because these areas are directly related to optimal golf performance and golf-related pain and injury prevention.

Lephart says the golf swing is a complex, demanding and repetitive athletic movement that can cause chronic injuries to professionals as well as weekend golfers as they strive to continually improve their performance. With applied research and technologically advanced assessment tools, says Lephart, biomechanical and neuromuscular deficiencies can be identified.

A conditioning program consists of a battery of golf-specific exercises designed to enhance those characteristics identified as suboptimal through a personal assessment. After undergoing eight weeks of the conditioning program, participants return to the lab for post-conditioning evaluation.

There appears to be reason to believe that the regimen can improve fitness as well as game performance. A study of 15 golfers enrolled in the conditioning program conducted by Lephart and his team revealed improved strength, flexibility and balance during the participants' follow-up evaluation. And as far as performance goes, the study showed evidence of improvement with an average increase of 20 yards, or 10 percent, in driving distance.

"The Total Golf Fitness program is designed to induce changes in physical and performance characteristics," says Tim Sell, coordinator of the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory. "The conditioning program incorporates exercises to improve hip, shoulder and torso strength, flexibility and body composition while promoting improvements in club head and ball speed and driving distance." How to reach: Golf Fitness Laboratory, www.pitt.edu/~neurolab/golf.html