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A Guide to Needs Analysis and Program Design for Training Golfers

Thu Mar 10, 2016 by Michael Carroll

Golf is changing. No doubt about it. Watch the coverage on television, look at the world rankings, listen to player interviews, or read what they say in the papers. Nothing gets more talk in golfing circles currently than distance. Players are hitting the ball further and further, and courses are getting longer and longer. 

The majority of top players, whether it be amateur or professional, have altered their approach towards achieving optimum performance. The long game in golf is a power activity. There is a reason why some players can swing the driver over 120 mph, and carry the ball over 300 yards consistently. This does not happen by fluke or accident. 

Genetics absolutely play a part in power based activities. There are some people, who with all the training in the world, will never achieve this level of power. There are others who will achieve it with little training. The vast majority of people, however, lie somewhere in the middle. This is good news as it means that intelligent training can harvest huge results. This is where strength and conditioning or physical preparation comes into play.

Everybody who plays golf loves hitting a big drive, and everybody wants to hit it further, more often. If you are a professional, hitting the ball further is a huge asset in terms of earning more money, or winning golf tournaments. For amateurs, you are looking at a lower handicap, and more enjoyment. Anybody who wants to argue this point, I highly recommend you check out Mark Broadie’s excellent book “Every Shot Counts”.

As a Sport Scientist and Strength and Conditioning Coach, my job is very simple in theory. I examine a movement(s), sometimes quite complex, sometimes quite simple, and try to deconstruct what the body is doing, both internally and externally to achieve this movement. Once this analysis is complete, one can then start to think about how the enhancement of this particular movement can be trained. 

Factors of needs analysis:

There are two basic categories that all movements must be assessed from during a needs analysis: Biomechanical and Physiological.

1) Biomechanical – 

This deals with the joints, and muscles primarily used, and in what fashion:

  • What is the primary plane of movement?
  • What direction force is being applied?
  • How are movements and body segments synchronised?

2) Physiological – 

This deals with what is happening internally, important concepts include: 

  • What is the duration of the activity.
  • How long a rest is there between bouts of this activity.
  • What % of maximum force is the movement generally carried out at.

All these questions will give us an idea what the primary energy system being used is, and what particular types of muscle contractions are taking place. This gives us a model we can base our program’s needs around. Then it is time to factor in how each individual will have particular structural, movement, and potential injury variances which will need to be taken into account. This is where screening becomes so useful.  

Now let’s look at this in slightly more detail. 

Biomechanical:

  • Joints and muscles: If we take a quick scan from a biomechanical perspective and consider the joints and muscles being used, very quickly we can ascertain that the ankles, knees, hips, trunk, shoulders, elbows and wrists are key areas involved in the set-up and execution of the golf swing. As a result of this, the muscles that control movements of these areas are going to be of huge importance. 
  • Plane of movement: The primary plane of movement is in the transverse plane. The transverse plane can be thought of an imaginary horizontal line that divides the body into upper and lower halves. In simple terms, this means that the golf swing is primarily a rotational activity.
  • Type of movement: As explained in my previous article, the golf swing uses a phenomenon known as the stretch shortening cycle as a means of power development. Muscles and tendons have an elastic component. In the backswing, muscles and tendons are rapidly stretched and tension is developed and stored. Then in the downswing this stored tension is released, similar to a slingshot effect. This rapid pre-stretching, followed by contraction of the muscles and tendons allows a more powerful contraction than if the pre-stretch did not take place. To illustrate this, think of a swing where a player gets to the top of the backswing, pauses for 5 seconds and then starts the downswing, as opposed to a regular swing. The elastic energy is lost with the pause, as opposed to exploited with the regular swing. The efficiency of one’s stretch shortening cycle is highly trainable which is great news for golfers!

Physiological:

The golf swing is a very short duration, high power activity, with long rest periods in between bouts. This makes the Alactic or ATP & Creatine Phosphate systems the dominant energy system. As a result of this, part of a golfer’s training should include similar explosive activities. This is crucial for getting athletes used to generating speed and for recruiting and developing their fast twitch type 2B/2X  muscle fibres. 

Putting it all together – How I structure programs for my golfers?

Every coach needs a philosophy or a basic system in regards to program design. This is a set of basic principles that govern what you ideally want your athletes to be able to do or improve on as a result of their training. This is not to say that programs are set in stone, there is just big rocks we like to care of in each program. The breakdown below is currently the system I use as my preference. 

*Disclaimer*- I am in no way saying this is the best or only way to structure programs. I am happy for people to give feedback both positive and negative about their thoughts on what I have outlined, and actually welcome it. This is a learning process for me, as much as it is for the people reading. 

  • Talk to the swing coach (When possible) - Gather information from the client’s swing coach in regards to what he/she is trying to accomplish with the client. An example of information a swing instructor might provide me with is “I need to get him/her turning in his backswing rather than swaying, but I don’t know if the cause is a physical restriction or just habit."  This sort of communication is an example of why working with a TPI team is so beneficial.
  • Talk to the Client – Get the client to fill out a questionnaire which requests information on any previous or current injuries, their sport and training history, the time they are willing to make available to training, any health/medication issues etc. Talk to the client about any info that is relevant.
  • Perform TPI Level 1 Screen – At this stage I bring the client through the TPI screen. I pay particular attention to any tests that might have a close relationship with some of the swing tendencies the swing instructor has informed me about. As the screen is taking place, I take notes about anything that stands out. If necessary, I will look at some tests outside of the standard screen to gather more information.
  • Review – Once the screen is completed, I take a couple of minutes to read over any notes I have taken, and try to consider possible links between movement habits I have seen during the screen and tendencies the coach has informed me about. 
  • Attack biggest issues – If the client had significant difficulty with some of the screening protocols, particularly any related to tests/movements which might be more closely related to physical issues underlying tendencies outlined by the coach, we work on some exercises/drills to help clean these up. As Dr. Greg Rose says, address the elephant in the room.  A classic example of this are people who tend to sway in the back swing, and/or finish the backswing with a reverse spine angle. They are regularly deficient in internal hip rotation on one or both sides in the lower quarter rotation test. 
  • Move into “main phase of the program” – Below is a very basic template of how I structure training sessions for my clients.

1) PREP/WARM-UP: Generally drills that were assigned in the "Attack Biggest Issues" section above. If people have specific elements of the screen or movement habits that are a problem, I like to use drill/exercises that encourage and groove better movement as a means of warm-up and rehearsal for the session to come.

2) POSTURE AND SET UP EMPHASIS: In this section, I am mainly concerned with the development of two things - Ensuring the client can assume good posture, and then geting them stronger at maintaining this posture. 

The exercise selection can change depending on the client’s needs but this block generally has 3 main components. 

Sample progression shown below:

2a) Hip hinge:

Dowel Hip Hinge (with 3 contact points on spine) > Kettlebell Hip hinge > Hex Bar Hip Hinge

 

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2b) Pelvic positioning, control, and strength: Usually an anti-extension exercise such as walk-out and plank variations:

Plank hold w/4 stability points > Plank hold w/3 stability points > Plank hold w/2 stability points

Milo Bryant demonstrates examples of these exercises here:

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2c) Thoracic spine positioning, control, and strength: More often than not trying to get people out of excessive thoracic flexion and strengthening the muscles of mid back

Band pull apart > Shoulder abduction in golf posture > Bent over row 

3) SEPARATION AND ROTATION EMPHASIS: The main aim of this section is trying to improve a client’s ability to “disassociate”, or separate pelvic rotation from torso rotation, and vice versa. This is, from my experience, the hardest ability for people to master in the program, and the biggest differentiator I see between low handicappers and pros, compared to average and higher handicappers.

3a) Pelvic Rotation (w/no torso movement): This is basically taking the Pelvic Rotation screening test movement, and trying to improve a student’s competency at it. I try to coach people to become more stable with their upper bodies and gradually increase the amount of rotation at their hips as they improve at this exercise.

Upper body supported pelvic rotation > unassisted pelvic rotation

 

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3b) Torso Rotation (w/minimal pelvis and lower half rotation): This exercise is used to teach people what a solid base feels like, how to rotate around an axis, and improve thoracic rotation. 

Generally, I don’t use a progression in exercise selection for this, I just try to get people better at it. Once they are very good at C1 and C2, I usually change the emphasis of the block a little bit. 

3c) Synchronisation of pelvic and torso rotation: Once a client has reasonable proficiency with rotation mechanics and understands what we are trying to achieve, I like them to do a cable rotation variation. This allows the client to put their new found movement capabilities into a more synchronised movement. 

Also, I think cable rotation variations are an excellent way to develop strength in the movements and muscles that drive the golf swing which is another reason for their frequent inclusion. 

 

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I utilise a lot of different cable rotation exercises in my programming and can demonstrate different variations in further pieces if people wish. A combination of standing, split stance, half kneeling, tall kneeling, and holding different positions of squats and split squats are all used depending on the goal.

4) POWER: Here, I am talking about power in the sense of using training to generate more club head speed, as opposed to the classic S&C definitions of power. 

In this section I prescribe exercises that have the client produce force in three primary ways. By increasing the amount of force the client can produce in these three directions, I hope that they will be able to transfer this new enhanced ability to produce force over to the swing. (This can sometimes take a little bit of time). 

4a) Vertical force/ground reaction force: There is nearly always an exercise that targets the ability of the athlete to push more force down through the ground, OR to be able to produce this force faster in programs I prescribe. Long hitters produce a lot of ground reaction force. This is important for two reasons, it gives the athlete a very stable base to rotate around, and Newton’s third law “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Pushing into the ground with more force will cause more force to be transferred back up through the body, all the way from the feet, through the legs and hips, into the torso, and then finally the arms, hands, and club head. 

Squat variations progressing to jump variations

4b) Lateral Force: This exercise will concentrate on the ability of a player to absorb or load force into one side of the body and then transfer it to the other. Think of a right handed player loading into their right side in the backswing, and then exploding into their left side on the swing. 

Lateral lunge variations progressing to lateral bound variations.

 

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4c) Rotational Force: Aimed at improving the power an athlete can rotate around their axis or mid line. These exercises often looks very similar to a golf swing in terms of general body movement. Many different throwing variations are included here. One of my favourite things about these throwing variations is that they often give the athlete a chance to put everything else we have worked on; posture, separation & rotation, and power into practice simultaneously. 

Rotational med ball wall taps to Rotational med ball throw to Rotational med ball throw w/step. 

The type of exercises prescribed in this section of the program largely depend on the strength or preparedness of the athlete. Let’s take vertical force production as an example. If the athlete is reasonably athletic, has good levels of general strength, and has a reasonably good movement mechanics, I might prescribe a weighted squat jump to work on the ability to produce force more quickly (RFD). 

On the other hand, consider a 65 year old athlete who has never been in the gym before, has knee issues, very low general strength levels and movement competence. In this scenario, a weighted squat jump is not only inappropriate, but isn’t even necessary to increase power. When general strength levels are low, just concentrating on increasing strength, as opposed to RFD will often increase power. In this instance, a goblet box squat or split squat will be a better option. Split or single leg variations can be extremely useful for developing balance, stability, and strength simultaneously.

When an athlete is already quite strong, further increasing strength levels may not carryover to increasing power very well. These types of athletes generally have better results incorporating more high velocity movements. They have the ability to produce lots of force, they just need to get better at producing it more quickly. In contrast to this, when an athlete has very low levels of strength, they can usually improve power just by getting stronger. Once a reasonable level of strength and movement quality has been reached, adding in higher velocity exercises can be a nice addition. The contribution of maximum strength levels to high velocity tasks such as the golf swing (and sprinting and jumping) is a hot topic for debate and something I don’t want to get into too much. In general, the stronger the athlete, the more high velocity exercises they need, whereas the weaker the athlete the more strength training they need. 

This article is currently the thoughts I have about programming for golfers in my head, written in black and white. If I was to write this article again in six months, 2 years or 5 years, I am sure it will have changed. I am also confident a lot of the principles will remain. This is all part of developing as a coach. 

In conclusion, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who takes the time to read this. I would be more than happy to hear feedback both positive and negative, and discuss some of the topics raised if anyone is interested. Also, I would be happy to provide some videos and more detail on some of the exercises prescribed in future pieces if readers are interested. 

For anyone interested in contacting me regarding training, both online, or physically, my contact details are below. 

Mike Carroll

Mike Carroll has a BSc in Sport & Exercise Science from the University of Limerick, and is an accredited S&C Coach with the UK strength and Conditioning Association. He works with golfers of all levels, in individual and group settings. Currently based in Fitnessworx Gym in Cork, Ireland.

Twitter: @fit_for_golf

Facebook: Fit For Golf Cork


  • ronnie

    Excellent article. A good addition to previous article on this site Fitness/x-factor essentials

  • Jim Nicholson

    Well written article with great detail! I really appreciate the emphasis on posture and set-up. I feel like the importance of a neutral spine and a correct set-up is overlooked by many personal trainers as they feel pressured by clients to achieve results sooner than later. Something as simple as learning how to create torque and engage the core muscles is another aspect that is over-looked, yet, it's essential not only in golf performance, but a healthier life with a reduced risk of injury. Golf fitness is a process like the game itself and needs to be approached with the same amount of detail. Your article was a great read! Thanks again!

  • Tiago Ogava

    I Linked your article and it as very useful for me! Thanks!

  • Brad Toepper, MS, ATC, TPI

    As an Athletic Trainer with mostly a medical background I am very appreciative of this article. Focusing on the fitness aspects, I unsure if I was on the right track with my programming. Reading this has helped reinforce that I am on the right path and given me a outline to follow moving forward with the various clients that I have been able to work with. GREAT ARTICLE!

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