One of the most important questions we must answer when it comes to physical training for golf is which characteristics will have the most impact on improving a golfer’s health, safety, speed, and overall performance. As mentioned in my previous article, the game of golf is fast, and it’s getting faster every year. The speed increases seen at the junior level will soon creep up into the college game and developmental tours, and those with the most elite speed will not only be occupying the winner’s circle on the PGA and LPGA Tours, but dominating the playing field as well.
Bryson Dechambeau has certainly put a notch in the belt of this argument by dominating the U.S. Open. It was a course designed to penalize the longest hitters, and yet it gave him and Matt Wolff, another young bomber, a clear advantage over other competitors. Dustin Johnson, another lengthy driver, walked away with The Masters this past fall, as well as the Fedex Cup, the highest purse in golf.
When it comes to physical preparation, time in the gym must neither take away from sport-specific practice, nor cause players to need to decrease their practice time because they are fatigued or cannot perform at their best. Efficiency is super important to maximize both on- and off-course improvements due to the high practice time demands of elite golf.
Therefore, analyzing and assessing the physical performance metrics of a golfer is just as important as in any other sport. The downside is that, unlike sports with more established histories of training, the fitness world is still incredibly new to the golf community, let alone true performance training.
Our goal at Par4Success is to develop the most comprehensive and predictive model of performance assessments and training programs for golfers. To date, we have one of the most comprehensive and longitudinal databases of athletes across the age range of golf.
Jumping, for Golf?
One of our assessments is a standard countermovement jump. Many golfers, especially our older golfers, laugh at this concept: “I play golf specifically so I don’t have to jump!” While initially we believed it was simply a good substitute for general lower body strength and power, new understandings of the physics of the golf swing have proven why this test is so valuable.
Ground Reaction Forces in Golf
One of the biggest advancements in physical and technical training for golf has been the adoption of force plate analysis by many instructors and biomechanists, similar to its adoption for advanced analysis in track and field and team sports athletes. The golf swing is a unique movement in that it utilizes all three planes of motion while remaining relatively stationary. There is no mound to project oneself down, nor is there a ball to chase, at least while you are performing the sport’s main action. Subtle adjustments to the swing plane don’t need to be made at a moment’s notice like the swing of a baseball bat or tennis racquet, and there’s no running start like the javelin throw.The golf swing is a unique movement in that it utilizes all three planes of motion while remaining relatively stationary, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
After analyzing millions of swings, instructors, biomechanists, and performance coaches have come to understand the importance of the timing, duration, and amount of the three ground reaction forces—vertical, horizontal, and torsional. Trends have started to show amongst players, both male and female, with elite club speeds (greater than 130 mph for males and greater than 105 mph for females).
For years (really, up until recently), golf instructors focused their efforts on hand position, club position, shoulder tilt, and countless other body movements that are simply the result of an athlete’s interaction with the ground. Put simply, the focus was on kinematics and movement, instead of kinetics and forces. Now, armed with a better understanding not only of physics but also of the specific motions and forces that occur during the swing, we are all coming to realize how subtle changes in these forces can have drastic impacts up the body’s kinetic chain, even influencing the path of the club itself.
You have three options when it comes to interacting with a (relatively) stable and sturdy ground. You can push down into the ground or perpendicular to the surface, which we would call a vertical force. You can also push parallel to the surface in two directions. In relation to your body, the horizontal force would be side to side. What we deem a torsional force is really just a forward force with one foot (heel to toe) and a backward force with another foot (toe to heel). A common, simple way to understand these if you’re not already familiar with them is by using a swivel chair as shown in the videos below.
Videos 1a and 1b. What we deem a torsional force is really just a forward force with one foot (heel to toe) and a backward force with another foot (toe to heel). Using a swivel chair helps athletes understand this.
Forces in the Golf Swing – Why the Vertical Jump?
Of the three ground reaction forces, by far the biggest from a pure force production standpoint in the golf swing is, somewhat counterintuitively, the vertical force. For example, very high horizontal forces on one leg will be in the 400-500 Newton range, and extremely high toe to heel forces will be in the 200-300 Newton range. Even very low vertical forces will be more than 600 Newtons, with many high-speed females exerting more than 900 Newtons just in their lead leg, and high-speed males producing well over 1,300 Newtons! While all three forces play a critical role in optimizing a player’s swing and speeds, by far the factor that contributes the most of the three is the vertical force, purely from a force production standpoint.
Interesting Database Findings
Long before we had our force plate analysis system, we were seeing a trend in our athlete testing database, which hosts more than 1,200 data points from golfers aged 9 to 79. As I mentioned previously, we test all our athletes on a vertical jump test. Validity of the jump mat aside, we saw a slight trend that increasing vertical jump height in our countermovement test related to changes in club speed. Sadly, it was not consistent enough to latch onto as an integral and key part of our programming.
While sifting through the numbers one day, a simple idea came to mind—what if, like in many other sports, a value was calculated that took into account an athlete’s body weight and their jump height? Golf is also a fairly unique sport in that many different body types are asked to do the exact same thing, and many different body types can be successful in this sport with that same task. Compare this to a sport like football, where one body type is not remotely ideal across the position spectrum, and while players can be grouped, you’ll never ask an offensive lineman to run a downfield comeback route. In contrast, every golfer must hit their shots off the same tee box during a competition.Simply calculating an athlete’s peak power, which factors an athlete’s weight with their jump height, produced our single greatest relationship between changes in that athlete’s club speed. Click To Tweet
Sure enough, simply calculating an athlete’s peak power, which factors an athlete’s weight with their jump height, produced our single greatest relationship between changes in that athlete’s club speed. Furthermore, it was our strongest differentiator between athletes with similar characteristics but different swing speeds. For example, given two high school female athletes with similar scores on golf-specific mobility tests (which have been well established by Titleist Performance Institute and others) and similar playing levels, the athlete with the higher “jump score” was almost guaranteed to swing faster. Further, and where a big shift in our training focus occurred, was that this jump score was the biggest predictor of increases in club speed for each individual golfer. Based on statistical analyses, an improvement of 1,100 watts of peak power calculated by the jump score guaranteed at minimum a 1 mph improvement in swing speed, regardless of age, technique, and skill level.
More Database Proof
The entire point of sports science, in our opinion, is to improve decision-making when it comes to programming both on a micro and macro level for athletes, and a benefit of a database this large is to start differentiating between high and low performers. Looking further into our jump power score, we wanted to see if having a certain level of power could almost guarantee a specific club speed. If these measurements are actually valuable, then the highest jumpers will also have the highest swing speeds.
When looking at the top 95th percentile of jump scores for males (which ended up being over 9,000 watts), this group’s average swing speed was 118.8 mph, with a range of 99.9-133.1 mph. For our entire sample of 700 male golfers for whom we calculated a jump score, the average swing speed was 98.7 mph, lower in fact than even our slowest male with a high-end jump score.
For the females, with a sample of 312 ladies for whom we calculated a jump score, the average swing speed of our top performers (jump score over 7,000 watts) was 96.4 mph, far above the average for the entire data set of 84.1 mph. Our minimum swing speed in the high-end jumping group was relatively lower than their male counterparts, at 77.3 mph. This means the relationship was not as concrete for the females as the males when it comes to having both high-end (for this population) jump power and swing speed.
To give an idea of where this puts athletes in terms of weight and jump, a 185-pound athlete will need to jump 28 inches to reach the 9,000-watt threshold. As you can see, for most sports this is a relatively low threshold.
Isn’t This Obvious? Almost Every Sport Tests and Emphasizes Vertical Jump!
While it is accepted in most sports that jumping is a vital performance metric, sadly this is not yet the case in the golf community. Part of our interest at Par4Success in joining forces with SimpliFaster was hopefully to draw more golf performance training professionals into the realm of track and field and team sport performance measurement and evaluation. Lower body power tests such as a vertical jump are not standard operating procedures in most golf fitness analyses but are rather substituted for things that look far more “golf-like” and make sense to the average golfer for looking enough like a swing to probably be helpful. It is also our goal to combat the utter lack of data that exists for these golf-like movements and drive the industry toward accepting data-backed outcomes as the main determinants of performance.
The beauty of using our scaled score was that it also brought up conversations with our athletes about their weight. For our juniors, it drove a bigger emphasis on fueling their high activity levels in order to produce good muscle mass and protect their bodies. With many of our juniors playing and practicing four or more hours per day, they burn a serious amount of fuel, especially in hot and humid North Carolina. Without the proper caloric intake, we saw a stall of weight gain, or even worse, weight loss. Despite the players’ best efforts in the gym, their speeds were not increasing. After even a few weeks of focusing on basic nutrition concepts, we saw an increase in speed and energy levels and a decrease in common overuse injuries like low back pain and wrist pain.
For our adults, our conversations turned into ways to keep their entire body healthy. We wanted to make sure their nutrition backed up the efforts they regularly put into the gym. For them and our juniors, there seemed to be a tipping point in our data where more body mass was beneficial up to a point—Bryson Dechambeau is certainly doing his best to find out where that line is! Focusing on better nutrition, while some folks lost weight, aided in producing better recovery from workouts, better improvements in jump height, and overall better scaled jumping scores, which saw an improvement in swing speed as well.
Mass = Gas?
This phrase is gaining popularity as more data is collected on the relative sizes of the fastest pitchers and hitters on the planet in baseball, and many golfers are asking questions about gaining mass based on Bryson’s recent success and the subsequent attention drawn to the hulking figures that compete in the sport of long drive.
During our initial data investigation, what also stood out when it came to weight was an overall positive correlation between weight and swing speed in our junior athletes, but a negative correlation between weight and swing speed in our adult and senior golfers. However, once we settled on the jump score, it became effortless to determine if weight gain was useful for golf performance or not. If an athlete gained weight and jump height either remained the same or even increased, then a higher power output would be recorded, and we would see a corresponding improvement in swing speed. However, if jump height decreased by too much, almost regardless of weight gain, then the power output would decrease and, usually, we would see a corresponding decrease in club speed.When communicating this to athletes and other golf performance professionals, mass does not in fact equal gas. It is only the amount of mass that can be accelerated that will lead to gas. Click To Tweet
When communicating this to athletes and other golf performance professionals, mass does not in fact equal gas. It is only the amount of mass that can be accelerated that will lead to gas (assuming technical timing and force production metrics are still met in the golf swing).
Improving Vertical Power in Golfers
Things are only worth measuring if action can be taken to improve them. There are three simple ways to increase vertical force output that most team sport strength coaches are probably familiar with. Sadly, these methods are seriously underutilized in the golf fitness world.
Scroll through a social media feed related to golf fitness and you will not see a significant number of posts focused on increasing maximal force output, improving rate of force development, or utilizing the stretch-shortening cycle. Since most performance coaches are familiar with these methods, the scope of this article will focus on how they relate to golfers and hopefully get other golf fitness professionals to think about their own methods in a new light.
1. Maximizing Force Output
The majority of golfers have next to no physical training background, and many of those who do are not emphasizing the right physical characteristics. A typical golfer’s fitness routine includes, incorrectly, a significant amount of cardiovascular exercise and high rep exercises in an effort to reduce fatigue felt during a 4- to 5-hour round of golf. While being able to walk 18 holes multiple days in a row is important for the competitive player, this can easily be accomplished with sufficient practice time on the course. Much more important is maximizing lower body force outputs, also known as maximum strength.
Two of the most common problems we run into with golfers are the overuse of the low back and a lack of both relative and absolute strength.
First, similar to my previous article about the hip hinge for golfers, it is important to make modifications to the squat exercise such that the athlete does not further fatigue and over-use their low back any more than they already are in their sport-specific practice. While strengthening the low back is important, I find it hard to believe many performance coaches would argue a loaded squat is the best way to do so.
We frequently use goblet squats as a main movement or warm-up to get our athletes to disengage their low backs as a prime mover during a squat. It is advantageous in golf to have a mobile spine, especially into lumbar extension, and many athletes new to squatting will attempt to use this strategy to move the load. Again, taking into account sport-specific versus general adaptations, it is usually our goal in the weight room to minimize lower back involvement as a main mover, especially for lower body exercises.
Goblet squats can certainly be loaded heavily, but after a certain point a landmine squat variation or, if appropriate mobility and stability exist, a front squat variation can be used. A previous SimpliFaster article went into great detail about how to improve and coach athletes into better front rack positions, which was spot-on with what we see in the golf population. Many golfers have tight and weak thoracic spines, so while we work on building a better base before loading those tissues with a true front squat, we also love using a zombie squat. The back squat is also a staple in our programs but only if an athlete can create the correct amount of external rotation at the shoulders to have proper bar placement.
Videos 2a and 2b. Many golfers have tight and weak thoracic spines. We work on building a better base before loading those tissues with a true front squat, and we also love using a zombie squat.
Inspired by the work of Matt Rhea and others in the world of sprint performance, we have set ourselves on a journey to determine a ceiling effect of squat strength as it relates to improving speed and power output. Despite our large number of participants and their dedication to their programs, the number of athletes who can squat the proposed ceiling effect of 1.7x body weight is so small it is not a general concern for us! However, we do not work with many World Long Drive professionals, with men moving a driver at 140+ mph and women at 115+. These athletes almost always have a background in powerlifting, weightlifting, or other rotational field sports such as shot put or discus.
Lastly, single leg strength must be analyzed, especially due to the different demands placed on the trail leg versus the lead leg in the golf swing. We have run into many cases where the golfer struggles to increase speed or deals with frequent back pain because their lead leg is weaker and less powerful than their trail side. In the golf swing, especially vertically, the lead leg generally produces anywhere from 300-800 Newtons more force than the trail leg. Currently, in our research and programming, any athlete who exhibits less than 95% limb symmetry in our jump tests gets flagged, and as always, our goal is to quantify how a specific training program can reduce these asymmetries and improve golf performance.
2. Increasing Rate of Force Development
Many other articles have explained in much greater detail the shortcomings of this concept, but I will use this term until another is created. Most importantly for the golf swing, there is a finite amount of time during which force can be applied to the club, and there are only small improvements you can make to change that amount of time. For example, increasing a golfer’s thoracic rotation may help them create more shoulder turn, but this may provide only an extra 10 degrees of arc in which to produce force—in the grand scheme of things, this is very small.
Therefore, the amount of force a golfer can apply only matters if they can apply that force during that short amount of time in the golf swing. Impulse is becoming a more important metric by the day when using 3D force plate technology to analyze a golf swing. If a golfer can create 4,000 Newtons of force generally, but they can only express 800 Newtons of it during the downswing, it would be much more time efficient, safe, and effective to work on expressing that force quicker than it would be to try to add more force!
All sorts of jumps and medicine ball training (but only under 8 pounds—anything else would be too heavy (just kidding)) can be useful to improve a golfer’s rate of force development. Many golfers enjoy this type of training as well because the application to the golf swing is much more evident than when performing a back squat. Debates can be had about the weight of the medicine ball that athletes should use, especially when the heaviest of clubs doesn’t even weigh 1 pound, and this is another question we hope to answer through our research at Par4Success. One of our most recent 12-week in-house studies investigated the improvements made by junior golfers who emphasized rotational med ball work or more sagittal plane upper and lower body power development. Let’s just say the results were so surprising we are running the study again with different athletes to confirm the results!We put much of our effort toward developing basic skills such as jumping and landing that will in turn create better jump heights and impulses during the golf swing, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
Plenty of other resources talk about jumping and plyometric progressions. My addition to this body of work is to say that most golfers do not have extensive multi-sport history—it is a sport like few others in its drive for early specialization. Much of our effort is put toward developing basic skills such as jumping and landing that will in turn create better jump heights and impulses during the golf swing. Start simple, and you will often see better-than-expected results.
3. Utilization of the Stretch-Shortening Cycle
One of our future areas of interest is determining the differences in high- and low-swing speed players with regard to their reactive strength index (RSI) and eccentric utilization ratio (EUR). While these tests have been used to drive training recommendations and differentiate athletes in jumping and team sports, little to no work has been done to evaluate these and other measures of the use of the stretch-shortening cycle of the lower body in golf.
One popular measurement uses biomechanical sensors to determine a golfer’s X-Factor Stretch. X-Factor is the difference between the golfer’s hip angle and torso angle in relation to their position at address, and the X-Factor Stretch is the difference between a golfer’s peak X-Factor and the measurement at the top of their backswing. As evidenced by research from Dr. Phil Cheetham and others1, X-Factor Stretch is a determinant in club speed differences in amateurs compared to professional players—pros tend to have a much higher and more consistent Stretch value than their amateur counterparts. This is an interesting line of research in that it looks at, from a physiological standpoint, the stretch-shortening cycle utilization of the trunk in the golf swing, whereas most tests are focused on the SSC utilization of the lower body, specifically the ankles and knees.
Again, the golf swing is relatively static compared to other sport movements, and it is also unique in that almost the entire speed of the movement is determined solely by the athlete and nothing else—there is no reactionary component to it. Some research has looked at classifying golfers into different categories based largely on their swing mechanics and tempo in an attempt to drive training into either high-speed or low-speed plyometrics. What is interesting is that relatively high swing speeds can be achieved in a lot of different ways. Hopefully, we will find more answers to these questions backed by evidence-based performance tests.The golf swing is unique in that almost the entire speed of the movement is determined solely by the athlete and nothing else—there is no reactionary component to it, says @bprengle. Click To Tweet
Changing the Game of Performance Training for Golf
For team sport athlete coaches, I don’t think most of this information should come as a surprise to you—the vertical jump is a well-established means to testing your athletes’ explosive capabilities and even fatigue levels during hard training blocks. In fact, it is such a basic test that years of research has been spent on creating better tests!
For those in the golf fitness realm, I beg you to begin collecting objective data that will guarantee success for your clients. The game of golf is only getting faster and spending precious training time on BOSU balls and with low load rotation belt movements promising improved “feel” in the golf swing will not prepare your athletes for what the game is going to become in five years or less.
You may be lucky to come across an athlete who is so naturally powerful and flexible that you will still see improvements even though training time is spent on exercises with little carryover to the physical requirements of swinging a golf club, but these athletes are once in a lifetime. In order to reach their potential, I would staunchly argue that they would make even further improvements if training time was spent on evidence-based techniques designed to improve the three major ways to improve vertical force I outlined above.
Lastly, if you are a golfer who stumbled upon this article, I hope it encourages you to learn more about your body and how it affects your golf swing. If you want to improve your performance on the golf course, I would highly recommend utilizing a program that not only trains vertical power production but measures it as well.
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1.Cheetham, P.J., Martin, P.E., Mottram, R.E., and St. Laurent, B.F. “The importance of stretching the ‘X-Factor’ in the downswing of golf: The ‘X-Factor Stretch’.” Optimising Performance in Golf. 2001:192-199.