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Jonas Blixt Case Study: From Back Pain to PGA Tour Win

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This is a case study on professional golfer Jonas Blixt and his eight-month journey from severe and persistent back pain to a PGA Tour win. It was written to offer insight into the work that a dedicated professional put into his body and his game after a setback due to a significant injury. The case study also serves to highlight the importance of training for posture, spinal strength, and shoulder girdle stability: three areas of training that are often misunderstood and under-appreciated.

The majority of Jonas’ rehab and progression forward was performed using GravityFit exercise techniques and products. GravityFit is an Australian-based company that specializes in a science-based approach to training the body for spinal strength, injury prevention, posture, and golf movement patterns.

Background: Jonas, 32, and is in his sixth season on the PGA Tour. He’s won three times in his career (2012 Frys.com Open, 2013 Greenbrier Classic, 2017 Zurich Classic), and his best finish in a major came in 2012 when he finished T2 at the Masters.

Strengths: Putting, Around the Green. Career-average rank of 33rd in Strokes Gained Putting. Career-average rank of 36th in Strokes Gained Around the Green.

Weaknesses: Off the Tee, Iron Play. Career-average rank of 143rd Strokes Gained Off the Tee. Career-average rank of 158th in Strokes Gained Approach the Green.

Physical Training History: College program at Florida State University. Exposure to various different methods of training stability, mobility, strength, and power since turning professional.

First Contact

Jonas came to see me with after having received two cortisone shots for back pain resulting from herniated discs leading to nerve compression in his lower back. He also received another shot for pain referring into his left glute/hip, suspected at the time to be caused by facet joint inflammation. His desire was initially to return to a pain-free state, and then to improve his long game by hitting more fairways and greens, thereby gaining strokes on the field in the Strokes Gained Off the Tee and Strokes Gained Approach the Green categories. If that outcome could be accompanied by an increase in distance, then that would be a bonus.

After conducting the initial screening and assessment, I highlighted the following areas as priorities for improvement:

  • Lumbar and cervical spine posture (lower back and neck).
  • Core awareness, stability, and control.
  • Arm and body connection movement pattern in rotation.
  • Quality of rotation movement pattern from thoracic spine (mid and upper back).
  • Mobility in right shoulder (external rotation), thoracic spine (rotation and extension), ankle (dorsi flexion), and quad tightness.

I believed that improving these areas would not only help Jonas move better in his golf swing, but more importantly at that stage, help take strain away from his lower back.

Of particular interest was how Jonas performed in a series of tests for awareness control and stability of the lumbar core (think core muscles and lower back). This seven-stage series of tests is called the Core Body Benchmark. It was developed by GravityFit to provide a more objective measure of core control that could be easily administered in any setting.

Jonas failed the last four tests in the series:

  • Hinge Forward
  • Hinge Forward with Rotation
  • Single Leg Hinge Forward
  • Single Leg Rotation

Despite a history of core training, Jonas was unable to use his core muscles effectively in the movements that he repeated up to a thousand times per week: hinging forward, balancing, and rotating (the key components of the golf swing). Click through for more info on the Core Body Benchmark testing protocol.

Initial Program: These assessment findings, combined with the recent back injury, immediately lead me to write Jonas’ first program using predominantly GravityFit tools and techniques, which are specifically designed for strengthening the spine and improving posture. Luckily, we had a few weeks before the first tournament of the 2017 season, so it was time to go work. Below is a snapshot of the initial program, including a few photos of Jonas and myself demonstrating the exercises.

Program 1

A very basic daily program that focused on establishing good posture, as well as training basic spinal stability and quality of rotation. This program also included a 20-minute walk in the soft sand (Jonas lives near the beach) and a range of self-massage and stretching exercises. The exercises are below and were performed using the Gravity Cap and GravityFit TPro.

Movement Patterns

  • 1A: Gravity Cap Walk
  • 1B: Gravity Cap Knee Lifts
  • 1C: Stomp and Pulse
  • 1D: Split-Stance Backswing
  • 1E: Split-Stance Follow Through

Conditioning

  • 1: Beach Walk
Program 1.1

Figure 1

Gravity Cap Knee Lifts (Figure 1): This exercise establishes a solid upright posture, stretching tall against the resistance provided by the Gravity Cap.

Program 1.2

Figure 2

Stomp and Pulse (Figure 2): Here I’m training golf posture using the TPro for postural feedback and scapula/shoulder stability and control.

Program 1.3

Figure 3

 
Split-Stance Backswing (Figure 3): Training dynamic rotation using the TPro while working on balance and control with the split stance.

Program 2

After two weeks of the initial program, we progressed into more traditional exercises (squat, lunge, push, pull) with the addition of the GravityFit TPro and Core Awareness Belt (CAB) to give audio and kinaesthetic feedback on quality of movement and postural control. We also advanced the specific posture and rotation exercises to add some more complexity and challenge. As you can see in the video below, at this stage even a simple bodyweight squat was a challenge for Jonas.

Strength

  • 1A: Body-Weight Squat
  • 1B: Push Up
  • 1C: BW Backward Lunge
  • 1D: Cable 1-Arm Row
  • 1E: Mini Mountain Climber
  • 1F: Pallof Press

Movement Patterns

  • 1A: Gravity Cap Hurdle Walk
  • 1B: Split-Squat Rotate
  • 1C: Jonas Backswing Drill
Program 2.1

Figure 4

Jonas Backswing Drill (Figure 4): Jonas is using the TPro and the Core Awareness Belt (CAB). Notice the hand position: right palm up, left palm down. This was a custom feel for Jonas that he wanted to train in his backswing.

Video 1

Body-Weight Squat (Video 1): Jonas initially struggled to squat while maintaining his posture. A combination of ankle mobility restriction and lack of core control made it very difficult for him.

About 5 weeks after our initial session, the fall series events came around Jonas decided to play. We continued to gradually increase the complexity of the exercises, each program requiring a little more from the perspective of stability and postural control. The majority was still only using bodyweight and some light band resistance.

Programs 3 and 4

At this point, Jonas was really starting to improve his movement quality and balance.

Program 3.1

Figure 5

Split-Hand, One-Foot Push Up (Figure 5): An advanced version of a push up, again using the TPro and CAB to provide feedback on the quality of posture and movement. This is a fairly typical example of advancing an exercise’s difficulty without adding external load.

Program 3

Strength

  • 1A: Overhead Squat
  • 1B: Split-Hand, One-Foot Push Up
  • 1C: Lateral Lunge with Knee Lift
  • 1D: Single-Arm, Split-Stance Pulldown
  • 1E: Prone Turn Under
  • 1F: Split-Stance Pallof Press
  • 1G: Lying Glute Bridge, Foot Up

Movement Patterns

  • 1A: Gravity Cap Hurdle Walk
  • 1B: Jonas Backswing Drill
  • 1C: Follow Through

Program 4

Stability

  • 1A: Knee Band Crab Walks
  • 1B: Crawling

Strength

  • 1A: Goblet Squat
  • 1B: Resistance Band Push Up
  • 2A: Bulgarian Split Squat
  • 2B: Cable 1-Arm Row
  • 3A: 1-Leg Band Push Out
  • 3B: Pallof Hold

Video 2

Lateral Lunge with Knee Lift (Video 2): This exercise is really quite challenging to perform with balance and control while avoiding the audio feedback that the CAB provides when the core isn’t working properly.

Video 3

Single-Arm, Split-Stance Pulldown (Video 3): Again, a variation on a simple exercise with the aim of introducing a balance and co-ordination challenge.

Return to Playing

Jonas’ transition back to golf wasn’t exactly smooth. Despite showing significant signs of improvements in his movement quality and overall back pain, he was still struggling with occasional flashes of pain into his left glute during play and when getting up and down from a low, seated position. His results and Strokes Gained statistics tell the story of on-course performance.

  • Results: Four events, three missed cuts and a T48
  • Strokes Gained Off The Tee: -1.441
  • Strokes Gained Approach the Green: -0.464

Over the six-week Christmas break, it was decided that a complete rest from golf was a good idea. This would allow Jonas’ back more time to heal and also offered him the opportunity to receive some treatment and advice for the occasional flashes of pain that seemed to be hanging around. Dr. Craig Davies and the Swedish Spine Institute had very effective input into helping resolve the issue, which was eventually identified as a glute med/min tendonitis. Meanwhile, we continued to progress the difficulty of the training programs and added some more significant load.

Program 5

We moved into more traditional strength movements and methods of loading. These were all done still using the GravityFit equipment to provide postural feedback.

Stability

  • 1A: Fall to Wall – 2 Arms
  • 1B: Single Arm Turn Under

Strength

  • 1A: BB Front Squat
  • 1B: DB Bent Over Row
  • 2A: DB Step Up
  • 2B: Torsonator Shoulder Press
  • 3A: Suspended Leg Lift – Bent Knee
  • 3B: Prone Hold 2 Limb Switch
Program 5.1

Figure 6

Barbell Front Squat (Figure 6): This is a classic strength exercise that requires excellent squat mechanics and postural control to be performed safely.

Program 5.2

Figure 7

Torsonator Shoulder Press (Figure 7): Using a uni-lateral (one-sided) external loading technique requires more from the core and postural stabilizers. It was a big step forward when Jonas was able to comfortably perform these exercises. 

2017

With the New Year came a return to practice and first start in the Sony Open. All traces of pain by this time had been eliminated, and Jonas’ elusive long game seemed to be showing significant signs improvement through his first few events of the year.

  • Strokes Gained Approach Green: -0.217 (his career average was -0.44)
  • Strokes Gained Off the Tee: +0.242 (his career average was -0.24)
  • Club Head Speed: Increased to 112.5 mph from (108.5 mph at first event of 2017 fall season)

Building to a Win

As we moved forward into the spring tournaments, I progressed Jonas on to much more traditional strength-and-conditioning training sessions while still using the GravityFit equipment to provide feedback on posture and technique. We also continued to retain the daily exercises that focus on postural control with spinal strength and stability.

Program 6

Strength

  • 1: Barbell Squat to Box
  • 2: Dumbell Reverse Lunge
  • 3: Barbell Hip Thrust
  • 4A: Underhand Pull Up
  • 4B: Plate-Weighted Push Up
  • 4C: Dumbell High Row

Core

  • 1A: V Sit
  • 1B: Split-Stance Pallof Press
  • 1C: Back Hyperextensions – Arms Up
Program 6.2

Figure 8

 

Plate-Weighted Push Up (Figure 8): We moved to standard variations of exercises like this and adding more external load with the aim of eliciting a strength and muscle growth response (as opposed to stability before).

Video 4

Barbell Squat to Box (Video 4): We used the box to avoid the lower-back strain that is most acute at the bottom of a squat. This is a natural progression toward full squats.

Jonas should be applauded for his tenacity, conviction, and work ethic during this tough time. He has used a potentially career-threatening injury as an opportunity to improve his body to new levels. He’s also become more resistant to injury using the GravityFit techniques and equipment to develop superior postural awareness and control, plus strength and stability around his spine, shoulders, and hips. These improvements, combined with better rotational movement patterns, have improved his body for golf and seem to be having a positive transfer to his ball striking.

This all went along way to helping Jonas collect his third PGA Tour win at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans with partner Cameron Smith. Cameron is also a client of mine, and he has been using GravityFit equipment and techniques for years to train his posture and movement patterns.

For more information on the GravityFit exercise tools and techniques I used with Jonas, as well as Cameron Smith, click through to GravityFit’s website. For more information on my online training, service check out my Golf Fit Pro website.

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Nick Randall is a Strength and Conditioning Coach, Presenter, Rehab Expert and Massage Therapist contracted by PGA Tour Players and Golf Australia. Nick also works with club level and casual golfers of all ages and abilities to help them get the most out their bodies and improve their golf. Nick has developed the world’s most comprehensive golf fitness app, along with other golf fitness resources and products which available on his website. WEB - www.golffitpro.net EMAIL - nick@golffitpro.net

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. rosey

    Aug 30, 2017 at 7:25 pm

    great article!
    And in case anyone cares, I’d definitely buy the “swing kit” off gravityfit if were half price. But $111 is crazy expensive!

  2. Gnam

    Aug 30, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Was Tiger right about his glutes not activating? 🙂

    • EngineerBob

      Aug 30, 2017 at 3:40 pm

      Vertically or horizontally? Now that he’s on all those prescription and recreational drugs he must be totally limpid …. if you know what I mean.

  3. BH

    Aug 30, 2017 at 8:54 am

    Overall, this is an informative article. I appreciate this because I am someone who has back pain and is constantly working to make sure I keep it in control.

    What I don’t appreciate is that the article implies that using GravityFit is THE way to do all of this. I incorporate most of these exercises into my workouts even without your product. So it’s frustrating for me to read this and get the impression that he had to use this product to get back to game shape. Any good fitness instructor could have worked with him and got him back all without that product.

  4. Scott

    Aug 30, 2017 at 8:26 am

    Yes, proper rest after hitting a thousand balls is overlooked, especially by the young. There are always exceptions to the rule, but most will not escape the inevitable physical breakdown

  5. Oppai

    Aug 30, 2017 at 1:55 am

    Geez, with all these exercises he had to do get fit and pain free, you would have thought he was a lazy fat slob of a weekend warrior trying to cut it on tour. Unbelievable that a player has to do all this just to stay with it on tour now.

    • Chris

      Aug 30, 2017 at 7:46 am

      It’s only in this particular case. Not every tour player need to go through all this.

  6. SH

    Aug 29, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Great article.. we hear that these guys train, but rarely get a glimpse into their regiment. Very cool!

    • Brad

      Aug 29, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      Visualize the training regimen and you too will be great in your mind.

      • SH

        Aug 29, 2017 at 4:07 pm

        I don’t think being great in our mind is an issue for any of us

  7. Brad M.

    Aug 29, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    I’ve been a fan of bodyweight work for a long time. Adding resistance bands and the occasional extra load of weight (like in the standard pushup) is great after strength/stamina and fixing general fitness deficiencies have been accomplished. For the non-pro who may play/practice 2-10 times a month, are free weights and intensive weight training advised? Especially if we can’t afford (or simply won’t use) an expert for ongoing technical assistance?

    • Brad

      Aug 29, 2017 at 3:34 pm

      The average recreational play will never make a commitment to conditioning and training because they ‘don’t have the time’. They simply play for fun with their equally decrepit buddies and yukking their way painfully slowly down the course.
      Of course a new set of SGI clubs ($1395), latest driver and fairways ($795) and a studio putter ($395) should make a significant improvement in their game. Oh, and ProV1s($50) for total tour quality WITB weapons. It’s a shame the clubs will get scratched up.
      Instructors. trainers? Forget it, better to buy a rangefinder and great shoes and nifty clothes.

  8. Boss

    Aug 29, 2017 at 10:56 am

    So, what you’re saying is, he wasn’t very fit before. LOL
    Now he’s a bit more fitter, stronger.
    But why not also change his swing and have him lift his left heel and swing with a more classic swing and let go of the finish and not strike a pose with feet down and torque twist that caused his problem like all modern swingers with the same problem?

  9. Brad

    Aug 29, 2017 at 10:53 am

    Pro golfers injure their spine because they practice in an insane obsessive-compulsive manner. It’s all due to overuse, overstress and breakdown injury which is not given enough time to heal. IOW, they are oblivious to their injurious mental state and just continue on a downward spiral. These guys just fail and fade away. Blixt is an exception, but his chronic injury will haunt him forever.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers to many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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Be Curious, Not Critical, of Tour Player Swings

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After a foul ball by a tour player, the talking heads on TV are often quick to analyze the “problem” with that swing. Fair enough, I suppose. Even the best players are human and our game has more failure than success. But I’d like to offer a different take on swings of the best players in the world.

First, let’s remember how good these guys and gals really are. If you met up with the lowest ranked player on any professional tour at a public course one day, I’ll bet that golfer would be the best golfer most of you have ever played with. You’d be telling your buddies in the 19th hole about him or her for a very long time. These players have reached a level of ball striking most people only dream about. That’s why I’m more curious than critical when it comes to a tour player’s swing. I’m not thinking about what he/she needs to do better; I’m thinking, “How do they do it so well?” In other words, I want to know how they put their successful move together. What part goes with the other parts? How did their pattern evolve? What are the compatible components of their swing?

Let’s use Jim Furyk as an example. Furyk has what we might call an “unconventional” move. It’s also a swing that has won nearly $70 million and shot 58 one day. But I’ll offer him as an example because his swing illustrates the point I’m making. From a double-overlapping grip, Furyk picks the golf club up to what might be the most vertical position one would ever see from a professional. Then in transition, he flattens the club and drops it well behind him. Now the club is so flat and inside, he has to open his body as quickly as he can to keep the club from getting “stuck.” Let’s call it an “up-and-under loop.”

Let’s take Matt Kuchar as a counter example. Kuchar’s signature hands-in, flat and very deep takeaway is pretty much the total opposite of Furyk. But he comes over that takeaway and gets the club back into a great position into impact. We’ll call that an “in-and-over” loop.

Both are two of the best and most consistent golfers in the world. Is one right and the other wrong? Of course not. They do have one thing in common, however, and it’s that they both balanced their golf swing equation.

What would happen if Kuchar did what Furyk does coming down? Well, he wouldn’t be on TV on the weekend. If he did, he’d be hitting drop kicks several inches behind. That doesn’t win The Players Championship. The point is that the Furyk downswing is incompatible with the Kuchar backswing, and vice versa, but I’m guessing they both know that.

How can this help you? My own personal belief and the basis of my teaching is this: your backswing is an option, but your downswing is a requirement. I had one student today dropping the arms and club well inside and another coming over the top, and they both felt better impact at the end of the lesson. I showed them how to balance their equation.

My job is solving swing puzzles, a new one very hour, and I’m glad it is. It would be mind-numbing boredom if I asked every golfer to do the same thing. It’s the teaching professional’s job to solve your puzzle, and I assure you that with the right guidance you can make your golf swing parts match. Are there universal truths, things that every golfer MUST do?  Yes, they are the following:

  1. Square the club face
  2. Come into the ball at a good angle
  3. Swing in the intended direction
  4. Hit the ball in the center of the face (method be damned!)

But here’s the funny part: Let Kuchar or Furyk get off base and watch every swing critic in the world blame some part of the quirkiness of their move that has led to their greatness. When players at their level get off their game, it’s generally due to poor timing or that they lost the sync/rhythm that connected their individual parts. The same holds true for all of us. We have to find the matching parts and the timing to connect them. You might not need new parts.

After all, weren’t those same parts doing the job when you shot your career low round?

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The numbers behind “full scholarships” in NCAA men’s college golf

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If you are in the world of junior golf, you’ve probably heard about a young man you know who’s getting that coveted full ride to college, maybe even to a Power-5 school. With all the talk in junior golf about full scholarships, and a lot of rumors about how many are available, we decided to poll coaches and gather some real data about “full scholarships.”

So, what did we find out? In total, we got responses to a voluntary online survey from 61 men’s D1 coaches, 19 men’s D2 coaches and 3 NAIA coaches (83 total). On average, the coaches in the survey had 11.8 years of coaching experience. Of the coaches that responded, 58 of the 83 coaches reported having zero players on full ride. Another 15 coaches surveyed reported having one player on full ride. This means that 69 percent of the coaches surveyed reported zero players on full scholarship and 18 percent reported one player on full scholarship, while another four coaches reported that 20 percent of their team was on full ride and six coaches reported between 2-3 players on full ride.

We then asked coaches, “what percent of golfers in Division 1 do you think have full scholarships based on your best guess?” Here’s what the responses looked like: 25 coaches said 5 percent and 36 coaches said 10 percent. This means that 73 percent of respondents suggested that, in their opinion, in men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA, there are less than 10 percent of players on full ride.

Next, we asked coaches, “what was a fair scholarship percentage to offer a player likely to play in your top 5?” The average of the 83 responses was 62.5 percent scholarship with 38 coaches (46 percent) suggesting they would give 30-50 percent and 43 coaches (52 percent) suggesting 50-75 percent. Only two coaches mentioned full scholarship.

The last question we asked coaches, was “what would you need to do to earn a full scholarship?”

  • Top-100 in NJGS/Top-250 in WAGR – 41 coaches (49 percent)
  • 250-700 in WAGR – 19 coaches (23 percent)
  • Most interesting, 17 coaches (20 percent) noted that they either did not give full rides or did not have the funding to give full rides.

The findings demonstrate that full rides among players at the men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA levels are rare, likely making up less than 10 percent of total players. It also suggests that if you are a junior player looking for a full ride, you need to be exceptional; among the very best in your class.

Please note that the survey has limitations because it does not differentiate between athletic and academic money. The fact is several institutions have a distinct advantage of being able to “stack” academic and athletic aid to create the best financial packages. My intuition suggests that the coaches who responded suggesting they have several players on “full rides” are likely at places where they are easily able to package money. For example, a private institution like Mercer might give a student $12,000 for a certain GPA and SAT. This might amount to approximately 25 percent, but under the NCAA rules it does not count toward the coach’s 4.5 scholarships. Now for 75 percent athletic, the coach can give a player a full ride.

Maybe the most interesting finding of the data collection is the idea that many programs are not funded enough to offer full rides. The NCAA allows fully funded men’s Division 1 programs to have 4.5 scholarships, while Division 2 programs are allowed 3.6. My best guess suggests that a little more than 60 percent of men’s Division 1 programs have this full allotment of scholarship. In Division 2, my guess is that this number is a lot closer to 30 percent.

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