Though the argument should have long since been settled, it rages yet: Are golfers athletes? Of course they are, and that’s why the New York Sports Science Lab is such a valuable, expert resource for so many top-level players — or anyone who seeks them out to help realize their physical and mental potential.
We’re not just talking about PGA and LPGA Tour stars like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka or Lexi Thompson. They are extreme examples, dedicating their daily lives to preparing for the next tournament through practice, diet and, yes, fitness. But the calculus for success for the rest of us — whether it be breaking par or breaking 100 — is no different from theirs. The golf swing is a purely athletic move, and to exe-cute it efficiently and repeatedly, you must be in some semblance of “shape.” Good old-fashioned workouts and stretching sessions help, but first you must know what muscle groups and connective tissues need the most attention, with as few compensations and as little pain as possible.
That’s where the New York Sports Science Lab excels: Analyzing a golfer’s body and mind to discern where they are on the fitness spectrum, where they’re weak or out of balance, then developing a plan for improving their swing biomechanics and avoiding injury. Based in Staten Island with a satellite office in midtown Manhattan, the lab works with athletes from just about every sport imaginable, from college football players to the Columbia University archery team. Most of the golfers they work with are collegians as well, but as they expand — plans call for a West Coast site in the next few years — they expect to get a broader base of clients, including top pros and serious amateurs.
FOCUS ON STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY
For Rushi Shahiwala, a clinical Instructor at Columbia and sports physiotherapist, helping golfers maximize their potential holds a special place in his heart … and in his once-overworked muscles. “When I was young I started hitting the golf ball without knowing much,” he said from the lab’s headquarters. “A friend took me to the range and I started having some back issues and inflammation. Then I got into the physical therapy field and learned biomechanics. The technology and knowledge changed my life. I was just swinging with-out training from a golf pro; I was using my back instead of my right hip and other muscles. It screwed me up and caused me to get into more detail.”
Shahiwala, Certified Biomechanist Michael Greene and the rest of the New York Sports Science Labs staff comprise perhaps the most tech savvy and knowledgeable team of its kind in the U.S. Using the freshest diagnostic and rehabilitative equipment available, they literally analyze every athlete from head to toe, establish a foundation of data and build a plan from there.
“Essentially when we’re training golfers, or any athletes, we put them through a comprehensive sports-specific global athletic assessment,” Greene said. “We analyze from the feet all the way up the kinetic chain, as well as their neuro-cognitive efficiency. That process is one hour to and hour and a half long. Once we identify objectively where the athlete is strong, weak and at risk for injury, we develop a training program specific to the athlete that fit with their goals. We look at their body composition — their muscles compared to their fat and their water content … what segments of their bodies are leaner than others. It’s a baseline. Via training or activity, we monitor the changes. After that we go into strength and flexibility.”
Those two words are familiar to any modern-day golfer who is at all clued in to the basics of round-ready fitness. Shahiwala explains why in physio-geek detail, and how he and his colleagues turn the words into action. “We know that to be a good golfer and hit the ball more yards, you have to have a certain degree of motion in the thoracic spine, lumbar spine, hips, ankles. First thing we do is strength and flexibility motion analysis, starting from the big toe, the ankle, proper movement in the hips and lower back, plus all the major muscles required for the swing — latissimus dorsi, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves. My background is as a physical therapist, so I’m familiar with what muscles to look for and what we need for golfers — rotator cuff activation, hip muscles, knee muscles. We check them the old-fashioned way, physically, just to get a basic idea of where they’re lacking. After the body composition, I briefly look them over to see if there’s a missing component — tightness somewhere that we should avoid. The third thing we do is 3D motion analysis and surface EMG (muscle response analysis/electromyography).”
THE PICTURE OF POSTURE
Added Greene, “The 3D analysis gives the sports scientist some X-ray vision to track joint angles and functional movements. This includes the Y balance (mobility, motor control and function asymmetries that could be a factor in increased risk to injuries and efficiency of movement). We look at posture — rounded shoulders, hip rotation, flat feet that cause the knees to turn in and down. We get an idea of capabilities and propensity to injuries. In some cases we’ll look at the golf swing in 3D analysis. This is where Surface EMG comes into play; we look at muscle activity during the motion. We can see if certain muscles are firing in the proper sequence, what’s overactive and underactive. We correspond that information with the joint angle, head movement, spinal rotation — making sure everything’s firing in the proper sequence according to our research.
Shahiwala says that research on just what that “proper sequencing” is reveals, at least so far, three protocols. “ For instance, we know that from the backswing through the follow-through, a lot of action needs to come from the hips, the glutes and the spine, so through the surface EMD we can see if the muscles we need to work more are working in the proper sequence. Some golfers with injuries use the hips the wrong way — swing them forward or sideways while other muscles fire more. We can easily capture these things and use them for their benefit — let them know they’re firing the wrong the muscle group, train them correctly and prevent further injury.
“Posture is the number one thing golfers don’t keep in mind. They think that once they work on their hips and back, everything else falls into place. But they have rounded shoulders, which puts their scapula, or shoulder blades, in the wrong position. That eventually affects the firing pattern of shoulder stabilizers — they’re interconnected with the rotator cuffs, which are very important when you’re doing any kind of hitting, impact or follow-through. So if your posture is bad, there’s a very high chance of injury due to poor rotation in the thoracic spine [chest area], and poor control of the rotator cuffs.”
Once the Science Lab team develops a clear picture of one’s muscular deficits and needs, they move on to the electric impulses behind every human movement — the nerves.
FINDING THE RIGHT RHYTHM
“The last aspect of our testing is neural efficiency — timing, rhythm, coordination,” Greene says. “It combines principles of music, sports and neural elasticity to identify inefficiencies. We test them with and without distractions. When we identify where they are in terms of timing, and incorporate that into training. We find that certain sports have trained inherent characteristics within the athlete — they have good timing — then you have the outliers who have poor timing. From our research and experiences, we notice that after they’ve been on our neuro-cognitive trainer, their ability to control emotions, maintain consistency of mechanics, coordination, focus and rhythm improves.”
But, just as with muscles, the nerves need a warm-up, and we’re not talking three cups of coffee. At the Science Lab it means some quality time on what’s called the Huber Motion Lab, which utilizes a technology called neuro-priming. The subject wears a device that improves the connections between the brain and the muscles. The Huber is the only device in the world that trains 180 deep core and spinal muscles; the majority of professional sports teams own one now. “Athletes are experiencing 13 percent more gains by using the neuro-priming device,” Greene reported.
The next step in the protocol involves what the Greene called “isoinertial training.” “Instead of lifting free weights which fight gravity, with this training you’re fighting the resistance provided by a flywheel. Wherever you are in the range of motion, the resistance is the same. It sort of works like a pendulum; whether you’re working the core or the swing, the athlete is getting trained in each range of motion — concentric and eccentric. It’s all measurable; and we can scale their training appropropriately if they’re getting fatigued.”
So how long does it take the average athlete to travel through the entire, intensive Sports Science Lab regimen? “We have programs of 12, 24 or 36 sessions,” Green said. “It depends on the athlete and what they’re preparing for. We see results very quickly and it’s a testament not only to our staff but to the equipment giving us the information on balance and weakness, so it takes the guesswork out of training for us.”
Once the program is completed, Shahiwala says that his team gives clients “the full flexibility and strength training program to do at home. We also have a rehab center; if a golfer comes in with carpal tunnel issues, wrist injuries or back injuries, we have a chiropractor and physical therapy. We have a big recovery component here as well, plus cryotherapy to help with pain reduction and healing.”
So does all this high-tech training at Sports Science Lab replace your favorite teaching pro back home? Heck no, Shahiwala said; their job is to complement what happens on the practice tee. “We don’t interfere with golfers’ swings as far as technical detail,” he said. “Though through our analysis we know how the golf swing should work, we don’t work with their stance, tech-niques, clubs — we aren’t trying to take that away from pros, we make it clear we’re there to help them and their students.”
THE SPORTS SCIENCE LAB AT WORK
Brain Training With Sound
Training one’s timing is an important but often neglected aspect of performance. This protocol utilizes music elements such as the metronome to prime the brain and improve movements and performance by improving the signals going from the senses (hearing, vision, touch) to the brain and the subsequent responses (sensory-motor skills) such as driving the golf ball and timing the swing.
Brain Training Using Golf Club
By using visualization along with auditory stimulus, timing is bound to improve. Our proprietary protocol exercises combine auditory and visual feedback by using the sounds of a metronome as cues, while tapping the receptor mat with the golf club at the same time. The resulting signal will be translated to the screen, where the golfer can see if his timing is on point or if he is late/early. It primes the frontal lobe and the motor cortex (areas in charge of voluntary movements) as well as the cerebellum (in charge of balance). Neuro-priming allows a state of autopilot for the athlete’s brain, to perform in a more effortless and effective manner.
3D Motion & Kinematics
A proprietary combination of 3D motion analysis and surface EMG (muscle response analysis/electromyography) analyzes every detailed aspect of the three components of a swing, from the back swing to the downswing and follow through. Technicians measure hip and spine rotation and the activation of important muscles that give power and explosiveness to the swing like the Latissimus Dorsi, glutes, forearms and arms and legs to maximize the golfer’s biomechanics for a more efficient and accurate swing.
Depth Perception and Sensory Motor Skills
Improving the golfer’s sensory motor skills is a point of emphasis for the golf program. An important aspect of these sensory motor skills is depth perception. A golfer’s ability to discern distances to modify and adapt their swing and power to reach the desired distance is what separates elite golfers from the rest. Visual stimulus training primes the brain and helps the golfer’s vision to become more rapidly adaptable and efficient, both for short and long distances, central and peripheral fields of vision.
Isokinetic Extremity Testing
Certain imperceptible muscle imbalances can cause a swing to go south. This protocol focuses on functional muscle imbalances that can affect the force and muscle activation used during a shot or swing. Isokinetic extremity machines determine risk of injury, power-produced fatigue index and work done by muscle groups that pertain to specific sports, such as golf. In this photo, analysis determines the usage and power that the golfer can create with his hips, which will translate into a more powerful and balance swing.
Golf Specific Prehabiliation & Rehabilitation
A typical physical therapy protocol starts with a physical assessment, which includes a full postural analysis, gait scan analysis, and muscle control with weight transfer analysis. The proper use of ground reaction force and lower limb alignment analysis can affect how far golfers can hit the ball. Hip and core control with strength analysis and thoracic-lumbar mobility with hip mobility analysis are also very important for the golf swing. In addition, flexibility analysis of quadratus lumborum muscles, hip rotators, hamstrings, calves, etc. are critical elements in golf, as tightness can lead to back/hip injuries. These detailed assessments help trainers formulate custom programs for golfers to improve their swing biomechanics and pre-vent any injuries such as back pain, wrist pain, and golfer’s elbow.