5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning for Golfers
Thu Mar 30, 2017 by Michael Carroll
I wrote this article after developing a series of training programs to be made available for purchase online (available here). Preparing these programs was an excellent way to solidify my current thoughts on the physical qualities golfers should focus on, and a progression system for the methods that are in my opinion, an efficient way of accomplishing this.
As with my other articles, I am not claiming this is the only or best way to train golfers, it is simply what I am currently using. All feedback and comments are welcome and I hope you gain something from reading.
Here are my “5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning”. These pillars are beneficial in almost every sport so my goal is to outline how they relate to golf, specifically. Many of these pillars overlap and are difficult to isolate, but I have tried my best to break them down.
Pillar #1 - Motor Control
Motor control is the ability to carry out the movement you intend to do. 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. 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 in the TPI screen is an excellent examination of motor control. Most people have the necessary physical qualities available to perform the movement, but find they cannot replicate the movement you have just demonstrated and explained to them. Interestingly once you teach them how the movement feels by going through some regressions they can usually do it no problem. When someone can perform a move 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 in those couple of minutes. The progressions outlined in TPI Fitness Level 2 are excellent for this.
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 know what position your pelvis is in, and change it to what you desire is crucial for desired muscle recruitment and stress distribution. For example, excessive posterior pelvic tilt or lumbar rounding during a deadlift 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 their pelvis and torso, maintain their posture, and again, increase the stress on their lower back.
-Pelvic Rotation & Torso Rotation: The ability to separate (dissociate) 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.
- 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 basis 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 easier to accomplish when a client has competency moving at their 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 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 on the back of your head:
Dowel Hip Hinge:
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.
Pillar #2 - Mobility & Flexibility
Mobility and flexibility are terms used synonymously 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 Straight Leg Raise (ASLR), and the Passive Leg Raise (PLR) are good examples of this. The ASLR requires mobility at the hip, stability at the trunk, and strength in the hip flexors to achieve a desirable range. 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 more of a flexibility test.
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 the strength and stability to go through and control these ranges. Many people who think they aren’t “flexible” enough to achieve a particular ROM, are often not strong or stable enough to access the range as opposed to it not being available.
A further point on this is that even if mobility or flexibility is a problem, how will it change our programming? Appropriate strength training exercises, with good technique through the maximum “safe” ROM is usually very effective at improving mobility. Depending on the modality 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 overlooked. A training effect needs to take place. 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 thoracic rotation is an example of a useful mobility exercise for golfers. In golf language this works on the ability to separate shoulder turn from hip turn, important for developing “X-factor” or coil. The half kneeling position makes it difficult to cheat by not allowing your hips to turn much:
Half Kneeling Thoracic Rotation:
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. 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 and 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 gluteal 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 dumbbell row. It trains the trunk and pelvis to resist anterior pelvic tilt, and to resist rotation:
Plank w/Dumbbell Row:
Pillar #4 - Strength
Strength is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated physical quality for golfers in my opinion. The main reasons for this are Tiger Wood’s injury woes, misinformation spread by golf media and instructors, 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/uninformed opinion to millions of people. This has meant that convincing clients the benefits of getting stronger is sometimes an uphill battle.
Increasing the force production that can be attained in a movement is largely determined by two factors. One of these is neural factors, in very simple terms the quality of the signal sent from the brain to the relevant muscles to produce the requested movement. This entails improving synchronisation of the involved muscle groups, and increasing the recruitment of the fibres (especially fast twitch/type 2x) in those muscle groups. It is through these neural improvements that enable significant increases in muscular strength and power, without increases in muscular size. Why can someone like Justin Thomas at 5'10 and 145lbs/65kg swing the driver at 118 mph on his fastest efforts? A large reason is neural efficiency. He must be good at recruiting all of his available muscle fibre, and I bet he has a decent proportion of fast twitch fibres. Thankfully this ability is highly trainable.
The second factor that nobody seems to like to talk about for golfers is muscle size. Bigger muscle fibres have potential to be stronger muscle fibres, and stronger muscle fibres have the potential to produce more force. This is critical because club head speed is the expression of force production in the golf swing. The golf swing is an explosive powerful move, which our physical preparation should reflect.
For older golfers the 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 this decline can be hugely delayed and reduced. In addition, depending on your current training level, physical qualities can actually be improved as we age. 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. If you get some professional guidance 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 lateral lunge. It does an excellent job of training the hips and thighs, and the ability to push force into the ground. All important for power production:
Lateral Lunge: No necessity to use the bar, you can start with just your bodyweight or a dumbbell in front of your chest.
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. It can take a few seconds (3-4s approx.) to produce maximum force in a given movement. 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. From what I can find, an average PGA Tour swing takes 0.75s for the backswing, and 0.25s for the downswing.
RFD and strength are usually 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.
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 bodyweight 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, use a load that only allows you to perform a low number of reps (low being approx. less than 6), and even though you may be trying to move quickly, the load does not allow you to. When the load is high relative to your current strength level, subsequently your movement velocity is low. 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 bodyweight. 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.
From my experience, increasing the total amount of force you can produce in a movement through strength training, and the rate at which you can produce force through RFD training is an excellent way to develop the physical qualities that enable faster club head speeds.
As well as using jumps to improve RFD, I also program many different variations of medicine ball throw movements for developing rotational power.
Here is an example of an RFD exercise for rotational power:
Rotational medicine ball throw with run up:
That brings us to the end of my “5 Pillars of Golf Strength and Conditioning”. The aim of this article provide an insight into how I currently organise the physical preparation of golfers. Hopefully golfers, trainers, swing instructors, physios, and fitness enthusiasts enjoyed the read and found some useful information. All questions, comments, tagging, and sharing are welcome.
All the information to the programs I built based on these 5 pillars can be found here:
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 Hansen Fitness For Golf, Irvine, CA.
Facebook: Fit For Golf Cork