Within the last few years, golf club head and ball speed have gained large amounts of attention. Recently, Bryson Dechambeau attempted to drive a par 5 at the Bay Hill Invitational, achieving 194 mph ball speed; meanwhile, many other tour pros are pushing the envelope on driving distance.
Evidence suggests that distance is not only about viral social media videos, but also related to performance. Golfweek published data in 2018 and reported that for the 18 players who had a scoring average of less than 70, average driving distance was 302.57 yards—those with a scoring average above 70, however, averaged around 290 yards off the tee.1Evidence suggests that distance is not only about viral social media videos, but also related to performance, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
Clearly distance is an advantage at the highest levels. But what about the amateur game? In their 2020 distance report, with over 26 million shots, Arccos notes that “data suggests there’s a strong correlation between distance and handicap. Better players hit it farther across all age brackets. The best players are typically around 60 yards longer than the highest handicap group, and while the rates of decline are similar, better players are most typically longer players.” 2
In the world of competitive golf, physical training is now a must for success. Many top players in the world are traveling with teams of experts to help them optimize their training, swing mechanics, and other aspects to perform at the highest level. A large part of this is training for greater driving distance.
Video 1. Jon Rahm performs power training. (Video Credit: Spencer Tatum)
These players, however, have nearly unlimited funds and golf is their full-time job.
Where does that leave the amateur golfer who is already struggling to find time in a week to play a round or practice? How do they find the time to do advanced power and strength training in addition to the time commitment of golf? Many of these golfers only have a small amount of time each week to dedicate to their training, so what should they be doing with their limited options?
Overspeed for Golf
Due to the limitations mentioned above, training programs that are shorter in duration and easy to do at home are becoming commonplace in many strength training situations. Golf is no exception to this rule. With the connection between club speed, ball speed, and distance with regards to golf performance at every level, targeting a golfer’s ability to improve these components is essential. Consequently, overspeed training has become very popular in the last five years.Training programs that are shorter in duration and easy to do at home are becoming commonplace in many strength training situations, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
Basically, overspeed training means making the body move faster during a known movement to reset the normal neuromuscular reaction speed of the body. This method is commonly used in track and field sports, baseball, and now golf. In golf, overspeed methods involve using specifically weighted clubs swung at various velocities during specified training regimens.
Ideally, golfers would be able to do a little bit of everything; when given the choice, however, the benefits of overspeed training are clear and can help golfers maximize the limited time they have while also getting incredible results.
Top coaches are stressing the importance of learning to swing fast both as an adult and as a junior based on these benefits. The Titleist Performance Institute (TPI), the world leader in the certification of golf fitness professionals, has been at the forefront of the speed movement in golf. Amongst many areas of golf fitness, TPI has demonstrated a high success rate in developing champion golfers and teaching the skills necessary for speed creation. Their teachings involve the concepts of overload vs. overspeed training, athletic windows of opportunity, muscular loading, and The Big Break Theory.
The Big Break Theory suggests that the longest hitters in the world seem to have a history of speed training in the opposite direction. These players would train the left side of the body if they were a right-handed golfer, and vice versa. It is important to note that this theory focuses on velocity training on the opposite side and not solely strength training on the opposite side. The theory is that an athlete will only accelerate to the point of which their body knows it can safely decelerate and stabilize. Therefore, the stronger and faster the decelerators are, the faster one can develop their ability to accelerate.The Big Break Theory suggests that the longest hitters in the world seem to have a history of speed training in the opposite direction, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
While this theory can be qualitatively supported by looking at those individuals who utilize this type of training to their benefit, pinpointing the exact modality of improvement or injury prevention that may result is not as clear. The purpose of this article is to explore some of the research that may help bring clarity to the Big Break Theory of opposite side velocity and power training, while also sharing some initial findings in a lab measuring forces after a training protocol focusing on high velocity dominant and nondominant side training.
1. The Trunk
The trunk and core play a key role in the transfer of energy during a variety of rotational hitting and throwing sports. Training the trunk to provide stability as well as power throughout rotational movements appears to be a key component of any speed-type training program. Golf-specific training programs should utilize the core in a variety of movements and contraction types to achieve the stability and movement needed to transfer energy throughout a swing.
Stuart McGill and his colleagues provided an article in 2003 related to the need of muscle activations to assure stability in the lumbar spine.3 They suggest that:
The collection of works point to the notion that stability results from highly coordinated muscle activation patterns involving many muscles and that recruitment pattern must continually change depending on the task.
McGill did suggest that, most often, the rapid increase in joint stiffness suggests that large muscle forces are rarely required to ensure sufficient stability. Furthermore, the suggestion is that athletes must be able to maintain sufficient stability in all activities, with low but continuous muscle activation. This suggests that higher velocity training at low forces may be a wonderful way to improve the functionality of this core musculature. In fact, the authors suggest that:
Any exercise that grooves motor patterns that ensure a stable spine, through repetition, constitutes a stabilization exercise.
One may argue that the golf swing is not so much about stability as it is about the movement of various joints at the correct timing and magnitude. These authors mention that stability is a moving target and continually changes as a function of the torques needed to support postures, and the necessary stiffness required in anticipation of needing to move quickly. This statement is clearly one that supports the need for the intricate ability of the trunk during the golf swing.One may argue that the golf swing is not so much about stability as it is about the movement of various joints at the correct timing and magnitude, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
The question then becomes: how does one train the trunk to enhance these traits if they are so imperative to the golf swing?
A lot of research has been done on this topic related to baseball, which can provide some insights to the world of golf training. Baseball, like golf, is filled with athletes who spend much of their time rotating to one side of the body. Not surprisingly, core and trunk musculature has been shown to become stronger on one side compared to the other in these athletes. Glen Fleisig has spent his lifetime studying baseball throwing and hitting as a way to understand performance and injury risk. When he discusses the role of the trunk, he is very specific about the need for opposite side training for these athletes.4
Even though trunk rotation is asymmetric in baseball players, core training programs for trunk strength and flexibility always address activities in both directions of movement, performing the same exercises in the counterclockwise and clockwise directions. The authors of this study support this practice to optimize the athlete’s core stability. Overdevelopment of musculature in one direction will have increased unopposed torsional stress on the spine.
Dr. Fleisig clearly suggests that nondominant training is important to these unidirectional athletes and that they need to spend time doing rotational movements to the opposite side for the trunk to not be overdeveloped in one region. While there are many ways to accomplish this in a gym setting under the direction of a trainer, one simple and effective means is for golfers to spend time swinging the golf club to the opposite side.
2. Nondominant Training for Performance Improvements
There is some research suggesting the way in which our body might transfer training effects from one side to the other. A few studies will be presented here.
The first study followed two groups of competitive soccer players: one that trained with the non-preferred leg and one that trained only the preferred leg. At the end of the testing, the group who experienced the nondominant training had improvements in all tests, while the control group did not improve.5
The authors present a few narratives as to why these results were so strong and consistent among the nondominant training group. One suggestion was that there was more attentional focus placed on the nondominant training, potentially resulting in more motor learning because of the dynamic systems theory. They further argue that the learner of the skill is better equipped to pick up more relevant information from their environment during the task when they can use both the dominant and nondominant limb.The learner of the skill is better equipped to pick up more relevant information from their environment during the task when they can use both the dominant and nondominant limb, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
While it is difficult to pick out the exact mechanism of the improvement, the nondominant training leads to improvements in the dominant side. Thus, the nondominant swings may be a mechanism of the golfer learning the skill and feeling the proper movements and sequencing of the golf swing for successful shot making, similar to these soccer players. This is especially true when considering the learning of a higher velocity swing. Maximizing the motor learning component with nondominant swings, as seen in the soccer study, is an important piece of the speed training puzzle.
Another golf-specific example is a study performed in 2016, which compared a variety of training methods for golfers to increase driving distance. They reported that the group that trained both nondominant trunk and arm musculature improved more than the groups who did nothing, or who just trained the core.6 This shows another benefit for nondominant training to improve driving distance.
3. Is Asymmetry Important?
Some argue that those who need a stronger side for the performance of their specific sport skill would benefit from that side being stronger during performance; others, however, suggest that though this may be true, reaching high levels of asymmetry may increase risk for injury.
So, what is an appropriate level of asymmetry?
That is the golden question, and difficult to answer. Matt Jordan, the director for sports performance at the Canadian Sports Institute, suggests that we should be potentially worried when that asymmetry gets above a 10-5% value in athletes during various jumping/landing tasks. Others have also supported a similar number of asymmetry greater than 15% being a potential risk factor for injury.7
Research has shown conflicting results, but studies have shown an increase in injury risk with elevated levels of asymmetry. Edouard showed that handball players with imbalanced shoulder strength had an elevated risk of developing injuries.8 Another study in footballers showed that those who were injured scored much higher on tests of asymmetry (61) than their non-injured counterparts (30). 9Studies have shown an increase in injury risk with elevated levels of asymmetry, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
At the trunk—an important piece of the golf swing discussed earlier—research has shown an increased risk of low back pain found in those with an obliquus internus asymmetry. There was an average risk increase of almost 20 (2.4–167.9) and a linear relationship between length of time of low back pain and the level of asymmetry (r=0.75). 10
Finally, a study on the ability of professional cricket players to accelerate and change directions (a common need in a golf swing), were inhibited by asymmetry. The cricket players could not accelerate and change directions as effectively when asymmetry existed.11 One could argue that asymmetry should not only be present in cricket athletes who throw and hit with one side of the body but should be encouraged for performance improvements. Instead, this asymmetry was a limiting factor of their speed and accelerations in movement. Golf would be much more like cricket in terms of the movement sequencing of hitting and throwing from one side—as such, speed and accelerations in golfers might also be influenced by asymmetry.
It is also worth re-visiting the work done by Dr. Fleisig, which suggested that when asymmetry is present in baseball swings and throws, torsional stress on the spine will increase in the presence of that asymmetry. Thus, golfers would benefit from a training program that included both directions of rotation for strength and velocity training.Golfers would benefit from a training program that included both directions of rotation for strength and velocity training, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
4. Muscle Activation and Contraction Types
Most movements in sport require all different types of muscle contractions: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. When training athletes, many coaches will utilize the triphasic approach and incorporate all these contraction types during a training program. It is unlikely that expert strength and conditioning coaches would only target the muscles in the exact way used during the movement. Good training will utilize all different phases of muscle contractions, even going as far as focusing periodization on each of the different phases individually. Many have seen great benefit from this approach to training.
Thinking back to our recreational golfer already in a time crunch, how would they go about training this way?
There are many successful ways to train in these triphasic methods, but could it be possible that a nondominant swing or throw or backwards running might be a way an athlete with limited time could incorporate some triphasic training into their fitness routine? While not the only or best way, and not the methods typically used to create complete symmetry between sides, it can be a way to utilize different muscle contractions during their power and velocity training. Considering the recreational golfer, there might not be any other time to stress the neuromuscular system, and nondominant swings might help get some varied training into their routine.
One plausible explanation for some of these potential benefits from nondominant triphasic training might be the increases in EMG activity during concentric contractions compared to eccentric.12 Once again, as we think to our recreational golfer, if the goal of speed training is to really charge the neuromuscular system, incorporating concentric contractions would stand to increase the activity of the muscles utilized in the task. While there are several ways this could be done, utilizing a left-handed golf swing might be a simple way to generate increased muscle activity for a right-handed golfer.Utilizing a left-handed golf swing might be a simple way to generate increased muscle activity for a right-handed golfer, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
5. The Feel of Swinging Fast
If you are at all familiar with the world of golf coaching, the idea of drills and swing aids to help a golfer “feel” a movement pattern is commonplace. Francesco Molinari at the 2019 Masters used what looked like a cross between a countermovement jump and a golf swing. Alex Noren and Justin Rose are two more examples of using an extreme swing rehearsal drill to achieve a position, helping to get in the correct position on the downswing and through impact.
The feel of the golf swing is a crucial part of improvements in mechanics, sequencing, transition of forces, hand position, etc. To this end, I stumbled upon something in a recent data collection in my lab that made me think of this in the sense of dominant and nondominant swing training.The feel of the golf swing is a crucial part of improvements in mechanics, sequencing, transition of forces, hand position, etc., says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
A new, yet athletic, golfer came into my lab. I included him in a study on the use of SuperSpeed training clubs. SuperSpeed training clubs are three different weighted clubs designed to help golfers increase swing velocity. Two of the clubs weigh less than an average golf driver and one is heavier. Subjects swing these clubs at max velocities through a series of drills and training protocols. In addition to golf, SuperSpeed also has weighted bats used similarly for baseball. I started by having the golfer hit some balls on 3D force plates before going through the SuperSpeed Level 1 protocol.
For golfers, when looking at timing of vertical ground reaction, the peak force should occur prior to impact more in the range of club vertical or club parallel on the downswing. This ensures the golfer has transferred their force first through the ground and then up the kinetic chain through the rest of the body and to the club. Looking at his pre-training data, it was clear that the timing of his lead leg vertical force was maximized right around impact, which is too late according to much of the research that would look at the kinetic sequencing of the ground reaction forces.
After going through a warm-up, he took his first swings with the SuperSpeed clubs. On the first swing, his kinetic sequencing was improved drastically. The peak vertical ground reaction force occurred between club parallel and impact with the ball.
His second swing saw an even greater improvement as the peak vertical ground reaction force was almost directly in line with the club parallel on the downswing. Additionally, his maximum force had increased by nearly 25 percent. This resulted in a kinetic sequence that is much more indicative of speed and proper ball striking. This continued throughout all the swings with the SuperSpeed clubs.
The final test was to see what kind of transfer would occur when the golfer went back to swinging his own driver. Figure 4 shows those results, and when compared to Figure 1, shows a peak vertical force that was 32% greater than the pre-training and a peak that is occurring at or around club parallel instead of later than impact; a drastic improvement in both magnitude and timing of force.
After 6 weeks of the Level 1 training (including both dominant and nondominant swings), we observed:
- His kinetic sequencing was improved.
- His maximum force had increased.
- His driver swing speed had increased nearly 15 mph.
These outcomes can be attributed to neuromuscular training, but I also think it should be noted that this type of swinging can be a type of “feel” drill for a golfer: a simple, quick, and effective way to help golfers feel what it is to move that force forward to the lead leg.
There are numerous ways to do this, evidenced by various drills presented on golf forums and used by coaches. In this case, I did not provide any cues but instead just handed him the club and he was able to improve his kinetic sequencing in a matter of moments. The practice of swinging both dominant and nondominant with SuperSpeed is one way that a golfer can utilize a feel drill while swinging a club to improve vertical force production. This golfer did nothing more than make approximately 100 swings a week, at a time commitment of about 45 minutes for the entire week. This was 100 feel drills of getting that force forward onto the front leg—not 1000 drills, or 1000 swings at maximum velocity, just 100.
What Does All This Mean?
It is important to note that, first and foremost, club head speed and training for those increases does improve enjoyment and success of golfers of a variety of skill levels. With that as the main goal, it is essential to know what the most safe and effective methods of training club speed are. As mentioned previously, in an ideal world all golfers would utilize speed and power training as a part of all of their training. Unfortunately, that is not often an option for a vast majority of recreational golfers—they must choose how to spend their limited time, and when left with one choice, they need to choose swinging fast and safe.Club head speed and training for those increases does improve enjoyment and success of golfers of a variety of skill levels, says @StandifirdTyler. Click To Tweet
As such, simple plans of swinging clubs at high rates of velocity, when carried out correctly, provide a means to train club speed for those who do not have the time to devote to an entire power-building plan. The suggestions in this piece point out the importance of The Big Break Theory as outlined by Dr. Tom House and TPI. The research presented here offers some evidence as to why nondominant training should be incorporated as part of a power and velocity training protocol. This can look like single leg and arm exercise in the gym, plyometric-based training focused on single limbs, or it can be as simple as swinging a golf club on the nondominant side.
While training for club head velocity, remember that to swing fast you must swing fast. Also remember the importance of your Nondominant side as a potential means of reducing injury risk and seeing larger improvements in your club head speed.
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2. 26 Million Golf Drives Analyzed: Has Driving Distance Increased? Arccos. 2020.
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