While many people may see golf as a sport for former athletes and retirees, golf at the professional and amateur ranks requires high levels of skill and very high levels of speed. The latest comprehensive data shows that the average swing speed on the PGA Tour with a driver is 113 mph, and 94 mph for the LPGA. The speeds in golf are trending seriously upward, with many of the top young competitors on the PGA and Korn Ferry Tours reaching 120-mph club head speed and the women of the LPGA and Symetra Tours creeping closer to 110 mph. Our in-house data at Par4Success, which spans five years and has more than 1,100 data points, shows that the average competitive male golfer in their 50s is not terribly far off, swinging close to 100 mph.
To reach these speeds, golfers need a combination of technical abilities and physical qualities, which is precisely where we come in. Data by biomechanics researchers looking at kinematics show that elite golfers use their hips more consistently and at higher speeds than recreational golfers in what is called the “kinematic sequence.”1,2 A proper kinematic sequence involves not only driving the downswing motion with the large, powerful muscles of the hips, but also stabilizing into impact by decelerating the hips first before slowing down adjacent segments and whipping the club through the ball.
As we can expect with a high-velocity, multi-planar sport, golfers are not immune to numerous injuries. It is estimated that about 34% of golfers will experience low back pain during their golf career, and as physical therapy research comes more into the modern age, physios as well as strength coaches are understanding the need for better hip hinging technique and strength3. At Par4Success, where we almost exclusively work with golfers, our data collection over the past five years has started to show interesting links between hip hinging strength, club speed, and injury risk.We have found that the hip hinge is one of the most important weight room exercises when it comes to strength training in golfers, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
Through our work, we have found that the hip hinge is one of the most important weight room exercises when it comes to strength training in golfers. Later in this article I will discuss the early relationship that we are seeing between hinging strength, injury, and swing speed very specifically.
The goal of this article will be to look at different options for assessing the hip hinge, explain the important impact it has on performance and injury, and provide early data findings relative to body weight and speed, as well as assessments to help you determine which type of hinge is most beneficial for the golfer in front of you. While almost all of my own experience is in the field of golf rehab and performance, any athlete who rotates and extends in their sport will benefit from these assessments.
What Is a Hinge?
Let’s begin with defining the hinge. Ask 10 strength coaches and physios what a hinge is, and you will probably get at least five different answers. Personally, I like Dan John’s approach the most, as it encompasses the biggest differences between a squat and a hinge with few words. A squat involves both maximal knee and hip movement, while a hinge involves maximal hip movement and minimal knee movement. Notice there’s no mention of bar placement (are we even using a bar?), foot position, torso position, or where the weight starts. Trying to define a hinge or a squat using any of these modifiable variables is what gets people into arguments over which lift is what.
My philosophy, especially when it comes to explaining this to my athletes, is to keep it simple. Again, a hinge is maximal hip movement and minimal knee movement, and a squat is maximal knee and maximal hip movement. Thus, the hinge puts more strain on the posterior leg musculature, such as the glutes and hamstrings, while the squat puts more emphasis on the anterior leg musculature, specifically the quadriceps.
Goals of the Hinge
We are not training powerlifters at Par4Success; we are training athletes to be elite-level golfers. Our goals are to first, create a stronger and more powerful athlete, and second, help with the amount of sport-specific practice that is necessary to play golf at a high level. Therefore, we want to have maximal strain on the targeted muscles in order to build strength, and then power, and take extraneous load off of areas that the particular golfer already heavily utilizes in their golf swing, particularly in-season.
There are also two major concepts that drive programming when it comes to blending the worlds of physical therapy and performance: movement variance and movement threshold.
In his Human Matrix Foundations course, physio Zac Cupples explains movement variance as “the ability to put the body actively and passively into all physiologically possible options.” This concept is in contrast to movement variability, which he defines as “differences in body strategy among similar actions, or repetition without repetition.”
In a sport such as golf, movement variability is an awful thing. No one wants to stand on the tee box and have even three possible outcomes for where their ball will end up, let alone an infinite amount. Thus, precision and structured repeatability are absolutely critical on the course. For competitive purposes, removing movement variability is very important.
However, for general life and physical training, such rigidity is not only impractical, it is harmful, which is why we need movement variance. Imagine that you are changing apartments and have to get 40 or so boxes of various shapes, sizes, and weights from your old apartment into your new apartment. You would want to have at least a few different ways of picking up those boxes available to you so that you don’t get too tired in any particular area.
Similarly, you would not want to approach the box filled with 10 rolls of toilet paper the same way you would approach the box of 10 50-pound kettlebells you keep in your apartment to stay in shape at all times. Approaching the box of toilet paper with maximal intensity and heavy bracing would waste a significant amount of energy and might cause the box to go flying out of your hands, while approaching the 500-pound box of kettlebells with a rounded back and loose grip would most likely not even make the box budge.
In short, we need to balance eliminating excessive movement (minimize movement variability) while enhancing the ability to use the full capabilities our bodies possess (maximize movement variance).
Just as we want to have various physiological positions available to us when we move, we also want different bracing and energy taxing systems so that we can conquer a variety of tasks in our day-to-day lives. Continuing with the analogy of moving boxes, we want to only use high-threshold strategies (think heavy bracing, strong grip, maximal effort) when the situation requires it, while we want to conserve as much energy as possible and use a low-threshold strategy (very relaxed breathing, calm neck and core musculature, loose grip) when appropriate as well.Golf requires simultaneously high- and low-threshold strategies. Instructors preach the benefits of a relaxed grip (low threshold) while also exploding and driving into the ball (high threshold). Click To Tweet
Golf is an interesting sport in that it requires simultaneously high- and low-threshold strategies. A golfer must exert high levels of muscular effort while remaining fluid in their movements and allowing for proximal to distal energy transfer. Golf instructors preach the benefits of a relaxed grip (low threshold) while also exploding and driving into the golf ball (high threshold!). Thus, with our training programs we need to make sure golfers not only have the capacity to access multiple energy systems and thresholds, but for their general health they should maintain at least some semblance of movement variance so as not to overload one area of the body to the point of breakage.
Video 1. High vs low threshold strategy. Performed correctly, this movement should be very simple and easy.
Basic Assessment Protocols
Most golfers spend hours and years of practice perfecting technique, while only a few are introduced to regular strength training from an early age. As part of our basic assessment, we evaluate each golfer’s club head speed, general flexibility, sport-specific mobility, and total body power and strength. In an effort to focus on the hip hinge in this article, I’ll look specifically at those assessments that relate to the hip hinge.
First, we perform an assessment of general spine movement using two main tests: a toe touch and a back bend. Golf is a very extension- and rotation-based sport, as the follow-through of aggressive swings can put an athlete in end-range extension and rotation in the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spines, as well as the hips. For the purposes of this article, we want to understand how these movements affect a hip hinge pattern.
Most high-level golfers are what many physios would call “extension biased,” in that they prefer lumbar extension as an optimal bracing strategy for movement. This is advantageous for their sport because of the extension demands the swing places on the body. However, the goals of our physical performance program are to 1) increase performance and 2) not get in the way of sport-specific practice.
What we have seen countless times is an overuse of lumbar extension during sport-specific practice that becomes problematic if it follows the athlete into the gym. For general population trainees and other team sport athletes, the concern with a loaded hinge is that the athlete will fault into excessive lumbar and thoracic flexion. Thus, the deadlift is frequently classified as an “anti-flexion” movement—we try to get the athlete stronger at resisting the flexion moment created by the bar. In my experience with golfers, however, they much more frequently utilize excessive lumbar extension to lift the weight.
Golfers playing at a high level have hit thousands of golf balls yet may have performed no more than a few dozen hinges. Thus, their bracing and motor patterns are much more accustomed to lumbar extension than maintaining a neutral spine, which for them will often feel like flexion. If we allow golfers to use their preferred sport-specific bracing strategy in the weight room, we excessively load these tissues even more, and we fail to work the posterior chain in a way that increases performance and allows them to practice as needed. In the following tests, we most commonly see an inability to get away from lumbar extension and hip flexion, and into lumbar flexion and hip extension.
To loop back to our previous discussion on threshold strategies, it is important to note the tension—or complete lack thereof—the athlete feels while they perform these movement assessments. Many of our young athletes are very flexible and come to us with lower swing speeds and absolutely no strength training background. Many of these athletes struggle to tap into their high threshold reserves, or these qualities are so undertrained that they have none to tap into in the first place!
Similarly, many of our professional and older players are very tense and exert maximum amounts of energy in an attempt to touch their toes. I usually jokingly ask if they are attempting to pick up 500 pounds or tie their shoes! In both cases, proper loading of a hip hinge pattern becomes even more necessary to restore more appropriate energy uses both in their sport and in their daily activities.The toe touch can expose an athlete’s tendency to rest in an anterior pelvic tilt. Almost all of these athletes complain of hamstring tightness and years of failed attempts to stretch the hamstrings. Click To Tweet
The toe touch can expose the issue of an athlete having a tendency to rest in an anterior pelvic tilt, as golfers of all ages either cannot come close to touching their toes or report a significant pull in their lumbar erectors when attempting a toe touch pattern. Almost all of these athletes complain of hamstring tightness and years of failed attempts stretching the hamstrings. Ultimately, we find that their limitation simply comes from an inability to control their lumbopelvic flexion and posterior tilting.
Often this is due to “weakness,” as the muscles of the posterior chain have never been trained; hence the importance of a strong hinge movement. We can all argue about how strong is “strong enough,” but I think we can all agree that an athlete who cannot pick up a 25-pound kettlebell using predominantly their hips is a problem! Again, these athletes have hit countless golf balls over the course of their careers by the time they reach our facility, and the first hip hinge we assess is more often than not the first hip hinge they have ever thoughtfully performed.
There are many specific isolation tests you can perform following the toe touch to create a better idea of where this athlete’s limitations are. The most common are the supine straight leg raise, the supine knees to chest, and even a glute bridge test to check active hip extension capabilities. At Par4Success, our staff of physical therapists performs these tests in order to determine local structural or tissue limitations that we need to address via soft tissue work or specific mobility and stability drills. This also medically clears our athletes for performance training.The back bend can expose sensitivity to extension in the lumbar and thoracic spines—these athletes often lack hip extension, which is crucial for their golf swing, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
The back bend can expose sensitivity to extension in the lumbar and thoracic spines. Often, we see limitations in these movements because our extension-biased athletes have no more range of motion to achieve! This is not an issue with the back bend itself, but another sign that this athlete does not have proper lumbopelvic control. Similarly, for these athletes it is often an assessment of their ability to extend their hips rather than their lumbar spines—pay close attention to the angle between the greater trochanter, the ASIS, and the navel. More often than not, these athletes lack hip extension, which is absolutely crucial for their golf swing.
Video 2. Back bend assessment. Assessing the athlete from a side view, we can take note of their resting postural position.
Conventional Deadlifting for Golf and Implement Modifications
Circling back to our definition of a hinge, the “conventional” stance deadlift with a straight barbell is the most commonly taught technique when it comes to increasing hinge strength. Specific to the golf population, grip width and foot width should be assessed. Many golfers are used to expressing maximum power in the stance they take with a driver; thus, that is often a good starting point for these athletes to learn from. This is not to say our training needs to look like the golf swing, but rather a good starting place for many of our young athletes to further develop stability is where they are used to expressing power.
Video 3. The conventional stance, straight bar deadlift is probably the most commonly taught straight hinge exercise.
The use of dumbbells or a kettlebell is an easy modification for the conventional stance deadlift, but employ the same stance and “bar path” to be consistent across implements. Don’t allow the athlete to move the dumbbells laterally outside the thighs, as this will change the lever arm between the athlete’s center of mass and the weight. Also, don’t allow them to assume a sumo stance with a kettlebell, which may be difficult with heavier kettlebells unless you are trying to simulate a sumo stance deadlift or a hex bar variation.
If the athlete can maintain a neutral low back but struggles to get proper hip flexion all the way to the ground with a straight bar, another easy modification is simply putting plates or blocks under the weights to eliminate range of motion. However, if elevating the lift still causes compensation in the lumbar or thoracic spines or the hips, that’s a good indicator that the straight bar conventional stance deadlift is not optimal for that athlete.
Again, we are attempting to create elite level golfers, not powerlifters. There is no need to pull from the floor for all athletes. Countless athletes have successfully learned and implemented the straight bar conventional stance deadlift, but it is important to know when to “cut bait” and move on to another style, implement, or pattern that still works as a hinge.
A few questions arise when an athlete consistently has issues with the conventional deadlift. First, can they pass the general mobility tests? If they cannot pass on a consistent basis, then we need to look for other styles of hinging that are more appropriate.
Are they consistently reporting strain in the low back? This can be a sign, especially in golfers, that they use too much lumbar extension during the lift and, combined with their sport-specific practice, that puts too much strain on the lumbar extension.While many powerlifters may consider the sumo stance ‘cheating,’ there are instance when this is the preferred stance in golfers, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
While many powerlifters may consider the sumo stance “cheating,” there are instances when this is the preferred stance in golfers. Again, our goal with the deadlift is to strengthen the hip hinge pattern (maximize hip movement and minimize knee movement) in order to strain the posterior chain, but in this case with an athlete who has low back concerns, we want to reduce shear and torsional forces on the low back. With the sumo stance we can keep a much more upright chest and sink lower than a conventional stance in many cases, reducing the lever arm between the center of mass of the athlete and the bar. This has been very successful for us in a number of cases.
Video 4. Another great modification to move the center of mass of the object closer to the center of mass of the athlete is by using a sumo stance deadlift (or a wide stance deadlift).
Another option is to utilize a hex or trap bar, as this again shifts the center of mass of the implement closer to the center of mass of the athlete and reduces shear and potentially torsional forces on the low back.
Video 5. The hex bar deadlift (or trap bar deadlift) is a useful alternative if your athlete struggles to maintain good lumbar position with a straight bar.
This is not simply a deadlift article—this is an article on the hinge. Thus, it is important to work on explosive hinge strength, since golf is a speed-dominant sport. Power and strength are only useful so far as they increase speed and reduce injury concern in our athletes.
We frequently utilize complex training methods for our golfers not just to make training more efficient, but because a recent meta-analysis showed this type of training potentially leads to greater power outputs than separating power and strength work in a contrast training style.4 Complex training utilizes a heavy strength exercise followed closely by a light-load power exercise targeting similar muscle groups. I will expand upon a few examples here without going into too much detail, with a focus on how it helps our golfers hinge and become more explosive.
The kettlebell swing is probably the exercise that first comes to mind. However, this movement so closely mirrors a deadlift that it is important to monitor load in those athletes who are sensitive to high deadlift volumes and prone to lumbar hyperextension already. We like using a band to reduce arm swing and provide an eccentric control component to the exercise. These are a good option for athletes who are on the road for tournament play, since most hotel gyms will have a dumbbell that they can substitute, and bands, even with high tension levels, are very easy to travel with.
Video 6. An explosive exercise we frequently use to train the hip hinge pattern is a banded kettlebell swing.
Caveman throws are a great low-impact option for our adult golfers who we don’t necessarily want box jumping due to age or significant previous surgeries. For example, we work with a number of golfers who have had knee replacements and who we don’t want jumping onto boxes, regardless of the box height. We can emphasize translating a hip hinge into driving vertical power versus a more upright vertical throw to be even more specific.
For those athletes with natural, operation-free knees, there are almost endless options when it comes to jumps, such as depth jumps, regular jumps, adding assistance, or adding resistance. These are outside the scope of this article, but we regularly use them as well. What is in this scope is determining whether you want to emphasize a more knee- or hip-driven jump.Working on multi-planar lower body explosiveness is of major concern, since all golf swings use all three ground reaction forces to varying but high degrees, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
P3 in Santa Barbara, California, and other facilities have looked at explosive athletes to determine if some are more knee-dominant or hip-dominant jumpers. While we can endlessly debate this research and other studies looking at whether hinge strength or squat strength translates more to jumping, we take a simplistic approach—why not work on both? Our athletes don’t jump during their contests (unlike the NBA and MLB players working at P3); thus, specifically working on the skill of jumping is of minimal importance once they achieve a certain level of competence. However, working on multi-planar lower body explosiveness is of major concern, since all golf swings use all three ground reaction forces (vertical, horizontal, and torsional) to varying but high degrees.
Strength and Speed Matching Up in Elite Female Golfers
At this time, our team at Par4Success has collected data on more than 1,100 athletes, with more added to our database each day. Two of our most important metrics to drive training decisions for our athletes are club head speed (or swing speed) and, if appropriate, estimated 1RMs, which are generally tested each three months. In our database, we have seven female athletes who swing over 100 mph, which is 6 mph faster than the latest averages presented by the LPGA.
These athletes range in age from 17-27 years old and compete at the highest level possible for their age group. All except one of these athletes can deadlift more than 200 pounds for reps and have, on average, a relative estimated hinge strength of 1.5x body weight. None of these ladies came to us with “elite” speed—over the average of 3.5 years that we have worked with this group, they have gained (again, on average) 8.5 mph of club speed, which equates to at least 30 extra yards of distance on drives for good ball-strikers (which these athletes very much are). Interestingly, we only have one woman who can deadlift 200 pounds for reps and has yet to overtake the 100-mph swing speed barrier.
Three interesting points of note arise from this group of athletes. Four of the seven have a relative deadlift strength above 1.5x body weight, while three are below this level (hence the average). The three below this level have all dealt with lower back issues over the course of their careers. Taking things a step farther, the athlete with the lowest relative deadlift strength in this group of females had the most significant injury, and she had to take multiple months off of competitive golf before beginning a comprehensive soft tissue and hinge-focused strength program. Not only has this program gotten her back on the competitive circuit, but her strength also has increased to 1.25x body weight on the deadlift.
Having had a moderate amount of statistical education in my graduate work, I know that these cases and correlations do not equal causation. The golf swing is a multiplanar explosive movement, and one sagittal plane strength exercise will never explain the entirety of an athlete’s swing. However, these numbers should cause us to pause and think, and we will certainly continue to track them as many of our younger athletes begin to mature and approach these thresholds.
An Ongoing Investigation for Better Performance
Hinging strength and power are almost universally recognized as important pieces of the performance and injury-reduction puzzle in golf. At Par4Success, we are seeing the connection to actual performance metrics and injury prevention starting to take a very tangible form. Special considerations should be taken for explosive, rotational sport athletes such as golfers to make the exercise more specific and less detrimental to an athlete’s practice and performance schedule.
Returning to our cases for a moment, we very much look forward to tracking the development of these athletes and our younger athletes as they continue to grow and develop longitudinally. Two of the five “100-mph swing – 200-pound deadlift club” (commemorative T-shirts are currently being ordered) started with us during their early high school years and now compete at high D1 level programs. As speed and distance become an even greater focus in the competitive golf landscape, we are obviously interested to see just how fast hinging strength can help our junior athletes swing faster safely.As strength training becomes more accepted in the world of golf, it is important to maximize results and remove risky exercises that have little to no performance benefit, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
There is a group of about six young female golfers who are all approaching the 100-mph barrier with hinge strength around the 1.3x body weight mark, and since we test our athletes every three months on average, it will be even more interesting to see how their speeds, and low back health, correspond to changes in their hinge strength.
As strength training becomes more accepted in the world of golf, it is important to maximize results and remove risky exercises that have little to no performance benefit. At Par4Success, we are waging war against time-consuming and results-empty “golf-ish” exercises. Over the next 12 months, we will keep sharing new findings as we continue to investigate the early relationships between physical performance metrics and the golf swing, all in an effort to help golfers swing faster than they ever thought possible, play better than ever before, and hurt less while doing it all.
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1. Cheetham, P., Rose, G.R., and Hinrichs, R.N. “Comparison of kinematic sequence parameters between amateur and professional golfers. Science and Golf V,” in Crews D, Lutz R (eds): Proceedings of the world scientific congress of golf. Energy in Motion, Mesa, AZ (2008).
2. Lynn, S.K., et al. “Rotational kinematics of the pelvis during the golf swing: skill level differences and relationship to club and ball impact conditions.” International Journal of Golf Science. 2013; 2(2):116-125.
3. McHardy, A., Pollard, H., and Luo, K. “Golf injuries.” Sports Medicine. 2006;36(2):171-187.
4. Cormier, P., et al. “Complex and Contrast Training: Does Strength and Power Training Sequence Affect Performance-Based Adaptations in Team Sports? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2020;34(5):1461.