"The muscular system lies at a 'functional crossroad' since it is influenced by both the PNS and CNS"
- Vladimir Janda
This quote should be one of many foundational thoughts for any clinician, trainer, athlete, etc... This is also of utmost importance for understanding one of the keys to a powerful, accurate and repeatable golf swing. There are three interconnected parts to general balance, consisting of 'propioceptive' balance, muscle balance and neurological balance. Within each of these areas of balance lie subcategories that allow us (practitioners, coaches, trainers) to fully understand and have impact on changing/improving athlete mechanics.
The emphasis in this article will be on neurological balance, and how to train or improve that balance in order to better the golf swing. This is directed towards golf, but it applies to all sports as well as every day life. Neurological balance is the push and pull between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, I'm leaving out the enteric system for this discussion. The parasympathetic nervous system is thought of as the "rest-and-digest" portion of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This means the parasympathetics control most of what happens when eating/digesting, sleeping and sexual arousal, sounds like my college roommate! The sympathetics are thought of as our "fight-or-fight" system, they control up and down regulation of vital hormones, as well as protective triggers such as the hair standing up on the back of your neck.
Now that we have a very brief description of the two, it also crucial to understand that a large majority of the general public today live in a state of 'sympatheticotonia' or a constant state of heightened activity of the sympathetic nervous system. This is due to our sleep deprived, mal-nourished (nutrient not so much calories) and over-stressed lifestyles. This body state lends itself to increased resting tone of the musculature, which means that we lack the ability to completely relax our muscles. Many golfers out there may have experienced an increased sympathetic state while standing on the first tee or hovering over that 3-footer.
All great golfers share many qualities that have pushed them to the top of their field, and one of those qualities is the ability to go through a cycle of 'relax-contract-relax'. Sounds simple, but the ability to control the pattern in which our body completely relaxes and contracts our muscles is crucial. As we move through a golf swing starting with take away and moving into the back swing, joint centration and the ability to relax all muscles except those crucial to moving into the top of the swing. As we move into the down swing the hips, then thorax, then arms, etc... are firing but still not at 100%, in this manner we still deliver the club in a free flowing, whip-like manner. Impact is a violent event and it is all hands on deck in terms of muscle recruitment, but immediately after impact almost everything should relax again to allow for an easy and full turn and follow through.
How do we tie the autonomic nervous system and this 'relax-contract-relax' idea together? Well, in a sense it is sports meditation, learning to harness the power of diaphragmatic breathing in order to restore some balance to the ANS. I will admit this is only a part of neurologic balance; chiropractic adjusting, sports psychology, nutrition, rest and many other elements play an integral part, but for our discussion we will focus on breathing.
When we breathe using our thoracic diaphragm, belly breathing, versus an apical or chest/neck dominant pattern we activate a few of the cranial nerves as well as the S2, S3 and S4 nerve root levels, which are all parasympathetic nerve fibers. This in turn releases certain neurotransmitters that decrease heart rate, constrict airways to inhibit hyperventilation and also reduce the resting tone or tightness of the musculature. Sounds like a deadly combo for a hand trembling, heart pounding amateur with a cutoff swing!
Another huge aspect to this parasympathetic activation is that it allows you to fully relax and contract the musculature as previously discussed. Just as a bullwhip builds a tremendous amount of energy from simple flick of the wrist, the goal of the golf swing is to take a supple musculoskeletal system, wind it up like a spring and let it explode, all in very controlled manner. Of course neuromuscular coordination and hand-eye coordination do play a vital role in the golf swing, or any other sport.
So how do you tap in to this parasympathetic power, the first step is learning to breathe like a baby. As an infant most all of our breathing, except the occasional blood-curdling cry, is performed from the belly. So take a look at the video below in order to start learning how to become a breathing ninja. I personally think that learning how to breathe properly, especially in an athletic and pressurized setting is paramount for optimum sports performance. The parasympathetic activation through diaphragmatic breathing is just one piece to the breathing paradigm.
Again, this is just one small piece of the puzzle as it equates to athletic performance and general wellness.
Until next time...
"And when I breathed, my breath was lightning"
- Black Elk
(famous Sioux medicine man)
Dr. Beau Beard, DC, MS
2011 Jul;17(7):623-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0666. Epub 2011 Jun 20.
Diaphragmatic breathing reduces postprandial oxidative stress.