If there was ever a failure to communicate between a sub-discipline and a sport, it would be strength and conditioning and golf. When athletes in top-flight sports reveal their supplementary work, we often see explosions in fad diets, gadgets, training methods, and workouts—such is the desire to emulate and imitate other players. No other sport’s athletes receive criticism and hostility for expressing involvement in supplementary gym work like the golfer does, and it’s usually from other golfers or pundits.
Some Impressive Performance Changes in Professional Golf
I’ve worked predominantly with collision athletes in the past; collision athletes “get” strength and conditioning. Its utility is apparent as soon as you lay hands on an opponent. To them it seems self-evident.
I’ve had conversations with athletes involved in other sports who are bemused when the subject turns to my work in golf; the idea of the hyper-fragile golfers throwing around iron is apparently a novel one. This trend persists even now, and it is spectacularly misinformed. Due to the physical culture surrounding golf being a traditionally sedate one, it’s seen as an activity for retirees and business executives.
This is not to say strength and conditioning isn’t over-emphasized in other sports; physicality, while important, is obviously not the be-all and end-all. But there is little risk in golf of a S&C takeover—such is the nature of technical primacy. This technical primacy, this “otherness” in golf, means that strength and conditioning orthodoxy is overlooked for more novel “golfish” approaches.
Much is sold on the back of this to well-meaning coaches and athletes looking for any edge. The onus may lay with golf coaches unwilling to explore territory unfamiliar to them. To quote Jordan Peterson, “…the thing you most need is always to be found where you least want to look.”The demand for increased physicality in golf is becoming increasingly evident. Click To Tweet
We see the writing on the wall when we note that the master’s course distance was 7,435 yards in 2016 versus 6,985 yards in 2000: As a result of (and excuse the cliche) “Tiger-proofing,” golfers now have to hit farther with more regularity. The golf press is full of complaints about how long golf courses are now. In 1980, Dan Pohl had the tour driving average at 274 yards; in 2016, Dustin Johnson had it at 313 yards. Pohl’s career was later ravaged by back problems. The demand for increased physicality in golf is becoming increasingly evident.
My colleagues at the European Tour Performance Institute are doing excellent work trying to meet this demand with both information and intervention at an elite level. There are also those working at a grassroots level to inform coaches, athletes, and parents. These tips are not exhaustive but cover some of the main concerns I’ve heard from touring professionals and coaches.
Strength and Conditioning and the Golf Athlete
The point of strength training is not just to hit the ball further.
You need to get stronger! Strength is the basis for preliminary athletic improvement for all sports, even golf. Strength is a raw material and its use is manifest in many forms of force expression further along the velocity curve. Being stronger has a correlation to club head speed (CHS) and yardage. At a minimum, a strength program is a long-term robustness strategy.Strength is the basis for preliminary athletic improvement for all sports—even golf. Click To Tweet
Being stronger allows you to decelerate and accelerate effectively; this equals efficiency, which means more effortless golf. Once you are strong, you can employ specific and advanced training methods to improve performance: Fundamentals before abstraction.
Eighty percent of golf injuries are overuse-related. With this in in mind, many golfers’ first port of call in supplementary training is a well-meaning physiotherapist who will often deal with the issue at hand, but not steel the athlete against its reoccurrence. Physiotherapy’s dominance in the sport can be witnessed when a golfer’s go-to piece of equipment after their clubs is their foam roller.
This has come from what I see as a twofold issue: a culture of golfers leaning on a physiotherapist to inform their performance-related training and golfers’ flawed perceptions of strength and conditioning orthodoxy. This is because many athletes only take supplementary work on board once they have been injured, and not before. But many therapists are now exploring strength and conditioning as an avenue for injury reduction, especially when evidence dictates that these overuse injuries can be reduced by half with strength training.
Speaking in the broadest sense, strength and conditioning and physiotherapy have similar concerns but different focuses.
The strength coach’s priorities, in order, are:
- Improved ability to reduce and produce force that improves play
- Increased ability to express explosive power
- Increased joint stability
- Significant contribution to injury prevention and rehabilitation
The physiotherapist’s priorities, in order, are:
- Injury diagnosis, prevention, and rehabilitation
- Increased joint stability
- Improved ability to reduce and produce force in a manner that allows play
This is the reason that much of what is presented as golf strength and conditioning has a very therapy-focused bent. Tools such as Swiss balls and Bosu balls are ostensibly used as rehab tools, but divorced from their original rehabilitative intent. They are pushed onto the golf populace as performance tools despite present research suggesting that they just don’t work.I always take it as a good sign if a physiotherapist values the barbell as part of their practice. Click To Tweet
This excellent post on instability training by Bob Alejo discusses why in more detail. So please, no swinging a golf club on a Bosu ball. To quote Coach Alejo: “Coaches [are] implementing unstable strategies with higher-level athletes, expecting outcomes that just won’t happen.” I always take it as good sign if a physio values the barbell as part of their approach to their practice.
Less In-Gym Rotation, More Bracing
Following on the above point, golf strength and conditioning greatly overemphasizes core training and we should question its efficacy, especially in well-trained individuals. Rotation training dominates golf S&C: If someone spends thousands and thousands of reps rotating through one movement, is the best thing doing more rotation? Recall that 80% of injuries are from overuse and the most commonly injured area is the lower back.
Golf is conceptually like track and field throwing events, baseball, and martial arts—the body uses a sling effect to project force into an implement or a fist. However, the purpose of S&C is general strength applications before specific ones; being stronger will allow for even greater rate of force development later on. Learning to squat will probably do you more good than more cable chops. This is the same mistake MMA fighters make; trying to emulate on-field movements in the gym never ends well. It’s all one-leg balance, pelvic tilt, and rotating cable exercises… oh-so-many rotating cable exercises.
So, what alternatives do we have? Much has been done with anti-rotation, anti-extension training, with sports such as baseball leading the way.
Video 1. The ability to perform an overhead throw while rotating is crucial to link force transfer from the floor to an implement held in the hands. Athletes can do this kneeling or standing.
Stoping the rib cage from flipping open like a trash can lid is an underrated ability of the core. Also, the movement is keenly felt when someone throws a soccer ball overhead for the first time in years, especially if they have an Instagram-worthy hip tilt. The ability to do this while rotating is crucial to link force transfer from the floor to an implement held in the hands. Athletes can do this while kneeling or standing.
Video 2. The anti-rotation chops exercise is one of the best orienting movements for how anti-rotation is supposed to “feel.” The wide stance increasingly limits contribution from the legs.
I first “stole” anti-rotation chops off Eric Cressey years ago, when delving into the world of anti-rotation exercises. I still find it one of the best orienting exercises for how anti-rotation is supposed to “feel.” The wide stance increasingly limits contribution from the legs.
Video 3. The Farmer’s Walk is useful for athletes who carry clubs and walk a lot as part of their sport. I employ offset and single arm to encourage lateral stability.
The Farmer’s Walk is a classic that is, thankfully, a weight room stalwart these days. I employ offset and single arm largely to encourage lateral stability. It’s useful for athletes that carry clubs and walk a lot as part of their sport.
Video 4. Pallof presses are a classic anti-rotation exercise that also involve the hip and shoulder positions.
Pallof presses are the classic standing anti-rotation exercise we are all familiar with. They are not only anti-rotation, but both the hip and shoulder positions are thrown into the challenge as well.
Lifting Heavy, Specificity, and the Golfer
I usually suggest one to three reps, and probably no more than five, with varying loads depending on whether you want to achieve maximum velocity, power, or strength. Why? The golf swing is a very short duration, high-power, explosive activity clocking in at around 7,500N in a full swing. (Keep in mind this force measurement is from a 1990 study, so it may be higher still.)
In the gym, training occurs at much lower velocities than it does during an actual sport. The average punch is around 10 m/s (a movement I understand well), whereas the average dynamic effort bench press may only reach 0.8-1 m/s. A golf swing (a movement I’m working to understand better) of a club travelling at 100 mph will be 44 m/s. The theory of dynamic correspondence suggests that as we approach a competition, velocity must increase to make the nervous system more specific in the way it produces force. Strength work for golf has often put the figurative cart before the horse.
As strength coaches, we know the attainment of general physical qualities can enhance sport performance in some individuals—particularly beginners—but training modalities focused on more specific exercises may in fact be needed for the continuing improvement of optimal transfer to more advanced athletes. This is where the athlete or coach using high-velocity peaking can be particularly useful, turning gym time into real-world performance statements. I am not a golf coach: My athletes don’t come into the gym to practice golf—they come to build physical capacities that transfer well to golf.
The In-Season Dilemma and Manipulating the Residual
Golfers have varying times between golf competitions, plus travel time, which makes training with regularity difficult but, if planned properly, very possible. I encourage golfers to have some sort of off-season, especially as juniors, so that they can work on gross strength qualities during the winter months. This works well with developing players. It means that as they grow up, they will have a good strength base and can make the most of training residuals to plan training around travel schedules.Golfers need an off-season so they can work on gross strength qualities during the winter months. Click To Tweet
Training residuals are the amounts of time it takes to see qualities start to diminish from an established set point. The residuals vary, but give us a rough idea of how long athletes might have to work on certain qualities. I have known athletes to take very long breaks and see only small decrements and others take short breaks and see big regressions. What is important is that once a quality is trained, it is easily regained. Stronger athletes have to do less to keep their strength levels at an acceptable standard in season than athletes who might be trying to retroactively attain strength during the season.
Travel itself can add a lot of stress to the athlete: dehydration; nutrition challenges, especially when visiting more exotic locations; changes in time zones; and disrupted sleep due to these changes. This can lead to lethargic athletes who have little desire to visit a weight room or hotel gym. Players often travel on a Sunday/Monday to try and settle into some semblance of normality before starting practice sessions or a tournament.
After a long flight to an event, I often suggest that an athlete head to the hotel gym and have a simple wake-up workout or “move around.” To counter the detrimental effects of travel, we need more than a few minutes on a foam roller. There is no reason such work can’t be performed outside or in a hotel room, if needed.
A playing week will usually start on a Thursday and end on a Sunday, if the athlete makes all subsequent cuts. Generally, I suggest an athlete lifts on a Monday or Tuesday. Golf athletes need to learn that lifting in and around tournaments, when habitual, will only enhance performance in the long run. Athletes who avoid lifting will be rewarded with fragility.
A cut in the field will occur generally after Day 2. Missed cuts are not an opportunity to lick wounds; instead, use the time to prepare physically and get in a heavy session in order to keep related physical qualities in good order before the next tournament.
Hotel Gym Navigation
The hotel/golf club gym represents a challenge in and of itself. Those of you who have experienced the delights of such training venues will be familiar with the usual half-baked investment most hoteliers make in their gym facilities. Rather than write it off because it lacks any one piece of equipment or doesn’t have a rack, I encourage athletes to be pragmatic and creative when it comes to Plan B or Plan C workouts.
For instance, here’s a simple hotel gym workout. I encourage athletes to take bands, suspension straps, and a skipping rope with them, as these take up very little luggage space.
Warm-up: Prehab, mobilize, foam roll, etc.
A) Skipping: 3 x 1:00
B) Goblet squats or DB front squats: 3 x 10-12
C1) Press-up or suspension press-up: 3 x 6 4-sec eccentrics
C2) Pull-up or ring row:3 x 8-12 4-sec eccentrics
D) DB goat belly swing: 3 x 15 paired with :30 side planks
While social media keeps me contactable, I consider 10:00 p.m. calls from co-dependent athletes unsure how to get on with a 20kg dumbbell set and no squat rack somewhat infantile. The key is for the athlete to keep the intent the same despite a change of exercise selection. You can achieve a lot with supplementary bodyweight training, an understanding of tempo training, bands brought in a suitcase, and knowing your way around a dumbbell rack.
I often encourage athletes to scout the surrounding area for suitable gyms as strength and conditioning gyms are easier to find now than ever and CrossFit boxes are common the world over. These places usually welcome a traveling athlete, often charging a nominal drop-in fee or even no fee in exchange for some social media promotion.
A continual concern I hear from both coaches and athletes is the notion of the “muscle bound” or “stiff” athlete. I tell them that “golfers shouldn’t do bicep curls as it will shorten their swing.” The nuanced nature of the golf swing means that specific notions of “feel” trump everything else, movement variability is derided, and anything affecting that delicate equilibrium is often discouraged.
Additional stress like lifting will obviously impact “feel,” at least initially, and this is enough to distress some coaches and athletes. Hence, the gravitation towards fluff and “golfish” gym movements that don’t offer much in the way of stress or real change. Once an athlete is lifting habitually, this concern is quickly overcome; however, just getting them to this point in the first place can be tricky.
Presently, the biggest swingers are in the sub-discipline of long-drive competitions, with club head speeds at around 150mph—25-40mph faster than their PGA counterparts—and ball speeds of nearly double the average golfer. Mass has a strong association with increased club head speed, so it’s no surprise that the average long-drive field is filled with bigger men and women, despite no formal analysis.Golfers have little to fear from adding mass: It helps them get more distance and adds robustness. Click To Tweet
Coming back to professional golf, a lesson from this is that there is little to fear from adding mass. It’s probably one of the best weapons I’ve used in helping undersized athletes turning pro to get more distance to match their taller compatriots. It also adds a robustness factor, as mass can be protective and confidence-building. I’m not suggesting that anyone undertake German volume training or anything extreme, but increased calories, appropriate rep prescription, and the use of tempo-based lifting for a quiet period on a tour schedule can help add much-needed size.
Moving Forward with a Golf Strength and Conditioning Culture
Golf has a disparate strength and conditioning culture, which varies based on the national governing body amateur program, coach predilection, and conjecture, hearsay, and misconception. Many of the young golfers I meet who have studied and been part of American university golf programs or come through countries that have comprehensive NGB input usually have a handle on appropriate strength and conditioning. On the other hand, many golf coaches, even at high levels, still hold perplexing ideas on the subject. This article reflects the topics I’m asked about most often; I hope we can make the coming culture shift in golf S&C smoother.
Gosheger, G., Liem, D., Ludwig, K., Greshake, O. & Winkelmann, W. “Injuries and overuse syndromes in golf.” American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2003. 31(3): 438-443.
Lauersen, J.B., Bertelsen, D.M. & Andersen, L.M. “The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2013.
Prieske, O., Muehlbauer, T. & Granacher, U. “The Role of Trunk Muscle Strength for Physical Fitness and Athletic Performance in Trained Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports Medicine. 2016. 46(3): 401-419.