The 5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning.
5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning
There is mass confusion and conjecture in the world of golf fitness. Everybody, regardless of education or qualification seems to have an opinion. Golf media is by far the biggest culprit. Too often while watching golf on TV I hear an ex player or commentator make a statement that is completely misguided or downright incorrect. We must remember that being a current or ex golf professional does not make you an expert on the optimal ways to enhance the athletic qualities desirable for the sport, or to help injury prevention. In addition, just because a successful golfer may train in a certain way, does not mean this is an ideal way of training. There is many cases of athletes reaching a high level of success in spite of questionable training practices.
I wrote this article as a way to communicate the different physical qualities (aka different types of “fitness”) golfers should focus on. My opinion is based on my research, education, experience, and biases. Hopefully golfers, trainers, swing instructors, physios, and fitness enthusiasts can benefit.
All feedback and comments are welcome and I hope you gain something from reading.
Enough rambling, here are my “5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning”. Many of these pillars overlap and are difficult to isolate, but I have tried my best to break them down.
By gaining a basic understanding of these 5 Pillars, you will have a framework for how to view fitness training for golf. You can compare your current training to what I have outlined below, and see where you may be deficient.
Pillar #1 – Motor Control: Motor control is the ability to carry out the movement you intend to. Motor control is an issue when you have the required physical qualities for a movement available to you, but find it difficult to access and coordinate them to produce it.
An analogy often used to explain this, is that motor control is like the driver in a race car. You can have an excellent car with great acceleration, horsepower, brakes etc, but without a competent driver you will never get to see the car operate at its full potential. This is similar with how humans work for optimal performance. Someone can have a great frame and leverages, lots of speed, power, strength, mobility, etc available. but without the ability to funnel these into coordinated movements that match their intentions, they will never operate at their best.
The Pelvic Tilt Test (video below) in the TPI Movement Assessment is an excellent examination of motor control. Most people have the necessary physical qualities (in this case mobility) available to perform this movement, but find they cannot perform the movement correctly even after it has been demonstrated and explained to them. Interestingly, once the person learns how the movement feels by going through some easier to perform regressions of the exercise, it’s like a light bulb goes off, and they can do it no problem. When someone learns to successfully perform a movement that minutes earlier seemed impossible, it’s a good sign that the brain has played the most important role in the change. The athlete has not changed much physically i.e flexibility or mobility in those couple of minutes. They simply learned how to do the movements. When this is the case, we know motor control, not a physical limitation is the reason why.
Motor control is extremely important for golfers (and other athletes). Having higher levels of motor control makes it much easier to follow cues from your swing instructor on the range, making technical change more achievable. The same holds true for your physical training. When an athlete understands and owns their movement, increases in physical qualities like speed, power, strength, always improve much faster. Good news all round.
For golfers, I emphasise motor control during the warm-up phase of their training sessions. In my opinion the most important movements for golfers to have great control over are:
-Pelvic Tilt: The ability to control the position of your pelvis, is crucial for desired muscle recruitment and stress distribution in both the golf swing and many training exercises. For example, excessive posterior pelvic tilt or lumbar rounding during a deadlift / hip hinge movement will reduce the contribution from the hamstrings, glutes, and abdominals and increase the stress placed on the lower back.
Additionally I often see excessive anterior pelvic tilt or arching in golfers set-up positions, which they are unaware of. This can reduce their ability to rotate the pelvis and torso, increase the chance of early extension and losing their posture, and again, increase the stress on the lower back.
-Pelvic Rotation & Torso Rotation: The ability to separate (disassociate) pelvis rotation from torso rotation, and vice versa. Both of these abilities are crucial for creating x-factor, and x-factor stretch which are very important factors in producing high levels of club head speed. I wrote an article on x-factor and x-factor stretch for the TPI website which can be found here.
If you cannot get the pelvis to rotate towards the target before the torso in the downswing you are more likely to come “over the top” and may have a severely out to in swing path.
You can assess your ability to differentiate between pelvis rotation and torso rotation in the two exercises below.
– Hip Hinge (with neutral spine): The hip hinge is the movement we use to bring ourselves from standing upright to our golf posture. It’s also the foundation for a lot of common exercises prescribed in training programs. While creating a positive training effect is certainly possible with athletes who struggle with the hip hinge, it is infinitely easier to accomplish when a client has competency and understanding of how to move at the hips rather than their lumbar spine. There is much debate in golf instruction circles about what a golf posture should look like, but from a physical standpoint, maintaining relatively close to our neutral curvatures will be useful for both force production, and injury prevention. I have seen many players who complain of lacking hip or shoulder turn make large improvements just from changing their posture at address.
The Dowel Hip Hinge tests and develops your ability to hip hinge while keeping a neutral spine. The dowel should stay on your tailbone, between your shoulder blades, and ideally on the back of your head. If it doesn’t rest on the back of your head, don’t worry, and do not hyper extend you neck to get it there. The two crucial contact points are the tail bone and between the shoulder blades.
Once somebody shows proficiency in this I usually get them to perform a weighted hip hinge variation. This has the added benefit of training ground reaction force – vital for club head speed, strengthening the hamstrings, glutes, back, shoulders, and grip.
Pillar #2 Mobility & Flexibility: Mobility and flexibility are terms often used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. Mobility deals with the ability to actively go through a certain range of motion (ROM) in a particular movement. It usually blends flexibility, stability, and strength. Flexibility on the other hand can be passive or active and may just show how much ROM is available at a particular joint, or how much stretch a particular muscle group can tolerate.
The Active Leg Raise (ALR), and the Passive Leg Raise (PLR) are good examples of this. The ALR requires mobility at the hip, stability at the trunk, and strength in the hip flexors to achieve a desirable range of motion. It is not a hamstring flexibility test, although many people would view it this way. The PLR test, which goes through the same movement, but is guided by a practitioner, rather than actively done by the athlete is completely different. With the assistance of the practitioner, the stability and strength demands are absent, morphing the move into a flexibility test.
The video below is the Active Leg Raise which is a mobility test. The Passive Leg Raise would be the same movement except somebody else would be holding your leg and guiding through the range of motion for you – you would be passive. Most people can get a far greater range of motion in the Passive Leg Raise. This is a useful illustration of the difference between mobility and flexibility. If your mobility is much worse than your flexibility, how valuable do you think static stretching is? Not very.
The golf swing like most sporting actions requires mobility rather than flexibility. We need adequate range in very specific, coordinated movements. Flexibility in isolated joints or muscles is only part of the equation. Just as importantly however, we need strength and stability to go actively go through and control these ranges. Many people who think they aren’t “flexible” enough to achieve a particular position in the swing or ROM in an exercise are often not strong or stable enough, as opposed to it not being available to them.
A further point on this is that even if mobility or flexibility is a problem, how will it or should it change a training program? Appropriate strength training exercises, with good technique through the maximum “safe” ROM is very effective at improving mobility. Depending on the exercises used and protocols followed they also come with the added benefits of increased power, strength, muscle mass, body composition (possibly), and general fitness. The client also gets to actually train and feel like they worked out. The importance of this should not be over looked. A training effect needs to take place. The reverse is not true with how most people try to improve their mobility – through stretching. If strength training can provide many of the same benefits as mobility work, plus all the additional ones outlined above, where are you going to place the majority of your limited time? While soft tissue work, stretching, and “corrective exercise” all have their place in a training program, they must be accompanied with progressive strength training for long term improvements in function for both golf performance, and everyday life. Don’t forget to actually train.
The half kneeling shoulder circle is an example of a useful mobility exercise for golfers. The half kneeling position makes it easier to avoid arching of the lower back and rib cage, a common cheat.
Pillar #3 Stability & Balance: My definition of stability is the ability maintain a position when a force is trying to disrupt it. Balance and lower body stability are similar and I often don’t differentiate between the two. Lower body stability is very important but I don’t spend a lot of time prescribing what most would deem “balance exercises”. Balance is often improved as a by product of the overall training program and gets a very strong stimulus from things like split squats, rotational medicine ball throws, etc. There is more to stability than maintaining balance on our feet however. It’s very important that we look at the pelvis/trunk. For golfers, pelvis/trunk stability is mainly about controlling pelvic tilt, pelvic rotation, and torso rotation (see motor control).
Our bodies centre of mass (COM) is located around our hips. If we cannot maintain stability at our COM it makes generating maximum power and efficiency very difficult. Ideally, a golfer can use their trunk to transfer power from their lower body to the upper body, and eventually into hands, club and ball. When someone is lacking pelvis/trunk stability we often see “power leaks”. Kids are common victims of a lack of pelvis/trunk stability, often due to the rate they are growing. This makes controlling the COM much more difficult. Their limbs are often capable of producing more power than their pelvis or trunk can stabilise. Due to this, large improvements in strength and power can be seen in kids from working on pelvis & trunk stability. It gives them a chance to use and control the raw materials that are already present.
This is returning to motor control slightly but another important element of pelvis/trunk stability is allowing us to get maximum contribution from the desired muscle groups, and reducing injury potential. If a golfer does not have the strength to control and transfer force through their trunk, they may have a tendency to fall into excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt during the swing. When this occurs they will not be able to use their glute and abdominal muscles optimally, and put more stress on the lower back. This is disadvantageous for power production, and injury prevention.
Here is an example of a pelvic/trunk stability exercise I often prescribe, plank with arm raise. It trains the trunk and pelvis to resist anterior pelvic tilt, and to resist rotation. If this is too difficult for you to do with correct form, try raising your hands onto a box or bench.
Pillar #4 Strength: Strength is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated physical quality for golfers in my opinion. The main reason for this by far are Tiger Wood’s injury woes, misinformation spread by golf media, and the common dogma that strength training is dangerous. It is extremely frustrating when people with no qualification or expertise in an area spread their mis/uniformed opinion to millions of people. This has lead to convincing the golfing public and general public the benefits of getting stronger a harder task, in spite of all the high quality scientific literature we have readily available to us.
Increasing the force that can be produced in a movement is largely determined by two factors.
1) Neural Factors: In very simple terms this is the quality of the signal sent from the brain to the relevant muscle groups to carryout the requested movement. There are a number of different mechanisms that underpin improving force production from a neural standpoint. One of the most important ones is increasing the amount of muscle fibers you can recruit. When a untrained person tries to produce maximal force in a movement, they do not recruit/use all of the muscle fibers in the muscles used. This is obviously not good for strength or speed. As a result of consistent training, we learn to recruit higher and higher amounts of the muscle fiber we already have, leading to more force production.
Appropriate training is especially important for learning how to recruit the elusive “fast twitch” muscle fibers which are so essential for high force and high velocity movement. These muscle fibers are not used in everyday life, in cardio activities, or in many gym routines, meaning a lot of people have lots of untapped potential. To target these muscle fibers in training we need to carryout the exercise we are doing with as much explosiveness as possible. Unless you are trying to produce 100% maximal power in an exercise, you will not be stimulating the fast twitch fibers as well as you could be.
It is through these neural improvements that significant increases in muscular strength and power can be realised, without increases in muscular size. As your brain learns to recruit a greater proportion of your already present muscle fiber, strength and power levels can hugely increase. This can be hugely beneficial club head speed.
2) Muscle Fiber Size: Bigger muscle fibers have potential to be stronger muscle fibers, and stronger muscle fibers have the potential to produce more force in a particular movement. This is critical because club head speed is the expression of force in the golf swing.
It should be noted that training to improve neural factors, and muscle fiber size can and will often overlap, but depending on the type of training performed, one can be significantly emphasised over the other.
For older golfers a loss in muscle strength and muscle size due to biological aging is the primary reason why people don’t hit the ball as far as they get older. The good news is that there is an abundance of research proving that with appropriate exercise and diet interventions (increased protein intake) this decline can be hugely delayed, reduced, and even reversed. I have worked with golfers in their 70’s who have made huge increases in strength, power, distance, and everyday function. I’m sure many of the people reading this have too. Please do not let your age discourage you from engaging in strength training. It is one of the best investments you can make for golf and health in general.
Here is a strength exercise I commonly prescribe for golfers, the Hip Hinge. It does an excellent job of training the hamstrings, glutes, back, and shoulders. It also does a great job of training the ability to push force into the ground, important for power production. Great exercise for helping reduce the risk of / rehab lower back injuries as well.
Pillar #5 Rate of Force Development: Strength is how much total force can be produced in a given movement, regardless of time taken to produce it. Rate of force development (RFD) on the other hand is the change in force with time. In practical terms it is how quickly you can produce force. This is important because due to the very short duration of the golf swing, we do not have enough time to rely solely on strength. An average PGA Tour swing takes 0.75s for the backswing, and 0.25s for the downswing. A typical club player will likely be a little bit slower in both directions.
RFD and strength are usually closely related however. If an athlete cannot produce high levels of force in the first place (strength), it is highly unlikely that they can produce high levels of force quickly (RFD). Strength is equivalent to the top speed of a race car, and RFD the 0-60 mph. Just like you don’t see race cars with 100mph top speeds having fast 0-60mph times, you don’t often see players with low strength levels, have high rates of force development.
My clients engage in some RFD and strength development/maintenance in every training session, year round. Most golf seasons are very long and these qualities can drop off quite quickly if untrained. The good news is that maintaining them can be accomplished with quite a low training volume. This is important, as it means it’s possible to keep players strong and powerful during their competitive season without wearing them out for practice and play. It will also have a positive effect on injury prevention and fatigue management if organised appropriately. Having better conditioned muscles definitely enables faster recovery rates, vital for the competitive golfer trying to maintain a large volume of play & practice.
Golfers who have not previously engaged in strength training, but have played a lot of golf often benefit more from strength training in the beginning stages of their training. Swinging the golf club is basically a form of RFD training in itself. By giving the player a bigger base of force to draw from through strength training, club head speed often increases.
To give a practical example of the difference between training for strength and RFD, think about a heavy squat and a body weight squat jump. The squat movement pattern is an excellent one for golfers to develop high levels of strength and RFD, as it has excellent transfer to the ability of pushing force into the ground during the swing. As we know this is an important element of attaining high club head speeds.
To train for strength in a squat movement, using a resistance that only allows you to perform a low number of reps e.g 1-6. When the resistance is high relative to your current strength level, subsequently your movement velocity is low (even if you are trying to move as fast as you can, which you should be, the amount of resistance will not allow you move quickly). Under these constraints you have no choice except to produce high levels of force to stand back up from the bottom position. This is the nature of strength training, you gradually teach yourself how to produce more force.
In contrast, when training the same movement for RFD think about a squat jump with just your body weight. When you squat down and then try to propel your body weight as high as you can in the air you reach much faster movement velocities, but don’t produce as much ground force as in the heavy squat. This leads to jump training having more of an effect on producing force at high speeds, as opposed to total force like in strength training.
In summary: Heavy strength exercises mainly improve your force production ceiling. Lighter or unweighted exercises done with the intent of maximum velocity improve how quickly you can produce this force. Both play a very valuable role in training if your goal is to increase club head speed.
As well as using jumps to improve RFD in lower body exercises, I also program many different variations of medicine ball throws for developing full body power.
Here is an example of an RFD exercise for total body power in a rotational movement. Think doing this regularly would increase your club head speed?
That brings us to the end of “The 5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning”. I hope you enjoyed the read and found some useful information. All questions, comments, tagging, and sharing are welcome.
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All the best,