“Dear The Golfing Doc. I’m having a tough time keeping my elbow in the right position during my backswing. It keeps flaring out and upward so I can’t really set my club in the right position. Do you have any exercise recommendations? Thanks. John R., Seattle, WA”
The “flying elbow” is a common swing fault that gets many golfers into trouble. If you are not exactly sure if you have this or not, take a quick video of your own golf swing from down-the-line (so you can see your profile). If you are a right-handed golfer, watch what happens with your right elbow as you take the club to the top of your back swing. Take note of the position of your elbow. Is your right forearm vertical while maintaining your golf posture? If it is not, is your forearm angled forward? If it is angled forward, the back of your elbow will then be pointing backwards. This then creates a “flying elbow” because it is flaring outward. This then makes it difficult to set the club in the proper position at the top of your backswing and can cause a number of issues during the downswing.
So what causes the flying elbow? Well, that is a loaded question because it can range from a physical limitation to simply inefficient swing mechanics. If we take a look at the shoulder, if you do not have full range of motion or sufficient range of motion within normal limits, then it will be hard to get set into that ideal position where the forearm is vertical. The main movement the shoulder must do is called external rotation. If you are standing with your arm straight out by your side, bend your elbow to 90 degrees, then try to rotate your forearm backwards. That is external rotation of your shoulder.
If you have good range of motion, then you might not have sufficient strength in the surrounding shoulder muscles to actually hold that position. If this is the case, then you have to build more strength in the rotator cuff muscles and the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade.
With respect to swing technique, I have learned from working with Tour players that it doesn’t actually matter what the swing looks like. However, there are a few basic fundamentals such as getting the club into the correct position at the top of the backswing that are still important. If you have a flying elbow and have not yet taken a golf lesson to address this problem, then start with that. You might learn that the flying elbow is happening due to another technique issue.
Coming from the physical side of things, I tend to begin working on improving the shoulder range of motion and stability so that you can actually perform any changes that your golf instructor advises. Sometimes an instructor tells you to do a certain move but it is impossible to do because of a physical restriction. If you can address that limitation first, sometimes the flying elbow clears up on its own.
If you have had shoulder or elbow or even wrist injuries, I recommend you get evaluated by a medical professional first. That will determine whether the changes you intend to make will be safe and actually possible. Sometimes the body avoids certain movements and positions because it is avoiding pain or further damage that you are not necessarily aware of until it is too late.
Here are a few exercises you can try to help improve your shoulder range of motion, stability, and motor pattern to help create a better position at the top of your backswing. The key with any of these exercises is to take your time and do not force the motion. You want to build and engrain clean and proper movements so do not rush the exercises.
If you experience any pain while performing any of these exercises, stop immediately and consult your physician.
Dr.Harry Sese is the Clinical Director at the Washington Golf Performance Institute in Bellevue, WA.