GOLF TRAINING PART 1 – WHY SHOULD GOLFERS STRENGTH TRAIN
Golf and I
Golf is likely the last activity most of you would associate with me. However, it used to be my main sport, along with football. Football in autumn and golf in the summer. I played seriously from the age of 13 to 19, at which point I started taking weightlifting (Olympic lifting) seriously, bumping my training up to 6 days a week, often twice a day. So, I stopped playing golf… for 23 years.
I just got back into it, and the way my brain works is that when I get into something, I need to understand everything about it. And in the case of golf, it led to blending my passion for training and my resurrected love for golf.
Sadly, my quest for more information about golf-specific training left me on my appetite. I see way too much majoring in the minor, tons of balance and stability exercises, but very little focus on strength and power work (there are exceptions).
In this article, I will present my views on how one should train to improve golfing performance.
SHOULD GOLFERS LIFT HARD?
Golf has always been seen as a precision and skill game, more than one of raw power and strength. I remember when I started playing, no pro golfer exercised, let alone trained. And the likes of Craig Stadler, Rocco Mediate, and Corey Pavin did nothing to reinforce that golfers needed to be in good shape to be successful.
But the game has changed. The top pros now differentiate themselves from the rest of the field in large part because of driving distance.
To be among the best, you need to hit it long (and straight, of course). Rory, DJ, Rahm, Koepka, Bubba, Finau, Dechambeau, Adam Scott, etc., all drive it way over 300 yards on average, routinely reaching 350+ competition play.
And I’d go as far as saying that the average player who is passionate about the game would gladly give one inch of penis size to gain 20 yards of driving distance!
That’s why you have tons of amateur players buying a new 600$ driver every year: they hope to get a few more extra yards with every upgrade.
Surprisingly (or not), over the past 15 years, the average driving distance for the average golfer has not improved at all while that of the pros went up 10-15 yards.
One significant reason for that is the increase of strength and conditioning work among high-level golfers. From the S&C programs that are part of the college golf programs to the regimen that the tops guys are doing even in-season, the top guys understand that training can help them hit it farther and avoid injuries.
The best example of this is Bryson Dechambeau, who was first ridiculed for wanting to “bulk up” during the 2018 off-season… only to prove everybody wrong by gaining 20 yards of driving distance in one off-season. For someone who was already hitting it close to 300 yards on average, that is huge.
Here’s the scoop
Drivers are tightly regulated. A driver’s face has a limit to how “reactive” it can be. It’s called the coefficient of reactivity (COR), which is correlated with ball speed. Simply put, drivers cannot become ‘hotter” than they are now. Drivers from 2015-2016 are just as long as the brand-new models on the market. The only thing they can play with to increase distance is to improve the aerodynamic of the head and the length of the shaft (that is also regulated, though). Look at Taylor Made: their drivers come with a stock 46” shaft instead of the more normal 44 – 45” length, which can give you a few miles per hour of clubhead speed (but less control).
The newer drivers are more forgiving, but not long, and it will continue on this path.
If you want to gain driving distance, you should not look for a new driver as a solution, but physical training.
DISTANCE AND THE VERTICAL JUMP CONNECTION
The Titleist Performance Institute found an exciting correlation after analyzing many PGA pros: driving distance is correlated with vertical jumping capacity.
Those who jump the highest normally hit it the farthest.
Why is that? After all, golf is a rotational sport, while jumping is linear.
It has to do with the way the modern pros swing to hit it further.
The longest hitters, from the big guns on the PGA Tour to the gorillas on the long drive circuit, apply a lot of force on the ground with their front leg during the downswing. They do that to increase rotational speed. I will explain how in a second.
The guys who hit it long all do it. It is more visually striking because their front foot leaves the floor. After all, the push is so powerful.
The two best examples on Tour are Bubba Watson and Matt Wolff, who jump back when they drive.
Here is a video of Matt Wolff. Look at his left foot.
Its same thing with Bubba Watson:
While Rory doesn’t jump like Bubba and Wolff, look at his left leg; we can see the powerful leg extension. And while he doesn’t jump, his left heel leaves the ground when he extends.
On the long drive circuit, it’s even more noticeable. Look at Kyle Berkshire; he literally jumps back around 6-8”!
Here, Jaimie Sadlowski does a smaller jump back, but it’s still noticeable.
What is interesting about Berkshire and Sadlowski is that they were world champs despite being on the smaller side, in large part because of their dynamic lower body action.
But even the bigger guys do it. Look here:
Why is the jump back creating clubhead speed?
The reason is simple when you understand how a rotational system works.
Here is what a rotation system looks like. There is the axis of rotation in the golf swing, that’s your spine, and then one “lever” on both sides. For golfing purposes, imagine that this is looking at you from the top of your head and the “A” lever is your left hip, and the “B” lever is your right hip. Both levers being part of the same structure; they rotate together around the axis, your spine.
If I apply force on one of the levers, the other side will move in the opposite direction, just like a teeter-totter:
If one side goes down because you apply more force, the other goes up, just like if one side goes up because the kid jumps, the other side goes down.
Now, imagine that this image represents your hips. The axis is your spine, the “A” side is the right/lead hip (for a right-handed golfer), and the “B” side is the left/trail hip.
If you push into the ground with your lead leg with a combination of vertical and horizontal forces, you make your lead hip moves back. And if your spine stays stable, this will make your trail hip move forward in a rotational pattern.
The more force you can apply to the ground, the faster your lead hip will move back and, consequently, the quicker your trail hip will move forward. This means a faster hip rotation.
In reality, the golfers who jump back are really driving that front big toe forward and into the ground, making the foot move back and up. If you do it with enough force and speed, the foot will leave the ground and move back.
This will help you hit it longer for three reasons:
1) a faster hip rotation makes the whole body rotate faster. The faster the body rotates, the faster will the clubhead speed be.
2) the faster the hips are relative to the torso and arms, the more you stretch the core and upper back musculature. Stretching a muscle creates a stretch reflex that increases speed even more.
3) When the hips rotate faster than the torso (and especially, arms), that’s when you create lag. I’m not a golf coach, and this is supposed to be a training article, but those of you who know golf know how important creating lag can be.
Those who can jump higher can apply more force into the ground, which means that they can make their hips spin faster. That’s why there is a connection between jumping high and hitting it long.
HOWEVER, this is for those who use the ground well during their swing. An amateur golfer who doesn’t use his lead leg to apply force into the ground will not improve his driving distance by improving his jumping capacity.
I believe that proper golf training depends on the person’s swing. More on that later.
GOLF, SHOT PUT, DISCUS THROW, FIGURE SKATING, BASEBALL
People believed that getting stronger and more powerful would not help you hit the ball longer for a long time.
Which is not unlike how baseball was 40 years ago. Yet, nowadays, every baseball player worth his salt is engaging in serious training.
Also, consider that the biggest hitters in baseball all tend to be large and strong. Aaron Judge is 6’7” and a lean 285lbs, Mike Trout is 6’2” and a jacked 240lbs (he also hit the gold ball a looooooong way), Pete Alonso is 6’3” and 250lbs, Jorge Soler is 6’4” and 230lbs, and so on.
And need I mention the “steroid era” hitters. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are looking monstrous, and Barry Bonds are turning from a contact hitter to the best slugger in baseball after gaining 30lbs of muscle mass.
That’s another issue, right? If strength didn’t help you hit it longer, why use steroids to play baseball?
I’m not suggesting that baseball players or golfers take steroids; what I’m saying is that these are rampant in baseball indicates that strength will help with hitting longer.
Steroids do not improve technique or reaction time; they make you stronger and more muscular. And the fact that they became rampant in baseball indicates that they worked at improving performance and, therefore, that getting stronger indeed helps you hit it further.
Of course, what I suggest is getting stronger via training, not drugs.
While the baseball bat is heavier than a golf club, both movements are very similar in mechanical structure and the physical capacities required.
“In the past, a lot of golfers hit it very long without strength training!” you may say.
But a lot of baseball players hit it far without training too. Since training started in baseball, a lot more players hit it long, and the longest hitters hit it longer. Those with the natural gift to hit far might not need training that much. But these are the minority. The people with average genetics will need all the help they can get.
I can also point out another rotational sport in which strength training was frowned upon for a long time but is now part of every serious participant: figure skating.
Figure skaters were among the first athletes I got to work with.
I worked alongside Martin Gervais, who incidentally had been my golf coach and has been a competitive golfer for over 30 years.
While we used a lot of abdominal and rotational trunk work, we also used strength exercises like the power clean, power snatch, squat, split squat, and push press. A few of our skaters were good enough to qualify for the Quebec Games in weightlifting! One of the girls went as high as a 185lbs power clean and jerk and a 135lbs power snatch… at 15 years of age.
One of the skaters we trained was Joannie Rochette, who ended up winning silver at the Vancouver Olympics.
Why am I talking about figure skating? While the connection between hitting a baseball and hitting a golf ball is quite obvious, the link between skating and golf is not as apparent.
However, the jumping part of figure skating is very similar to the modern golf swing.
In many jumps, the Axel series, for example, skaters use a plant and push off the leg to speed up their rotation, allowing them to spin 2 or 3 full turns in the air before landing. For women to land a double Axel, they need a lot of leg strength/power, not to jump higher but to create more rotational speed so that they can spin faster in the air, getting more turns in before landing. Those who can hit the triple Axel have solid and powerful legs.
While we think of the core, especially obliques, when it comes to spinning in the air, a large part of the rotational speed comes from a strong leg drive combined with the horizontal movement before planting the leg.
It’s similar to the golf swing. The same things that will make a skater spin fast will make a golfer turn his hips fast.
If you look at skaters’ training, it gives us our first clue about how to train for golf performance. While skaters do indeed use plenty of stability/balance, abdominal/core, and rotational work, they also perform quite a bit of basic strength (squats, split squats, deadlifts) and power (power variations of the Olympic lifts, plyometrics, throws) work.
Obviously, they don’t jump into those later exercises right off the bat, but they must work toward them to reach elite performance.
Figure skaters need even more flexibility, coordination, and stability than golfers. Yet, they include a good amount of significant basic work in their training. There are no reasons for golfers to be afraid of strength training.
To me, another excellent comparison for golfers has shot putters and, especially, discus throwers—both rotational sports like golf. And if you look at the lower body action, it is very similar to the modern golf swing.
Throwers are among the strongest and most powerful athletes in the world. They often power clean in the high 300 and even 400lbs range (some shot putters have cleaned in the 500) and squat in the 600-800lbs range. And despite their size, they also are incredibly explosive and fast. Often registering vertical jumps in the 36 – 40” range (remember the TPI vertical jump vs. driving distance connection) and broad jumps of 10 feet or more.
And if you look at the delivery phase of a throw, it is very similar to the downswing action, especially with the modern technology with the front leg explosion.
Obviously, there is a difference between throwing a 16 lbs shot or a 4.5 lbs discuss and swinging and a 0.6 to 1.1 lbs golf club. The formers obviously are more strength biased and do require a greater level of strength. But still, both actions are similar, and golf swing speed can be enhanced by getting stronger, just like a thrower can gain distance by working on their strength and power. Golfers just don’t need to reach the same levels as the throwers. The same exercises will be beneficial: power cleans/power snatches, squats and partial squats, jumps, core work, medicine ball throws, and specific Overspeed actions. Throwers throw implements lighter and heavier than their competition weight; golfers should do the same with underweight and overweight “clubs” (more about that in part 2).
FORCE = MASS X ACCELERATIONThis is one of the most well-known physics formulae, and it is super important for golf performance, specifically for clubhead speed.
It means that the force applied to an object (the golf club for us) is equal to the weight of that object in kg (mass) multiplied by the acceleration imparted to that object in m/s2. Force itself is given in Newtons.
What is important for us to understand is that since the mass we are moving will not vary (unless we change driver at every shot, and even then, most drivers are approximately the same weight), the more force we apply, the greater the acceleration will be.
For example, let’s compare someone who applies 50N of force versus one who applies 75N of force to a 0.3kg mass (300g, roughly the weight of a driver).
50N (the Force) = 0.3kg (the Mass) x Acceleration
In which case acceleration will be 166,67 m/s2 giving us the formula 50N = 0.3kg x 166.67m/s2.
In the second case, we have:
75N = 0.3kg x Acceleration
And now the acceleration goes up to 250m/s2
Quite a big difference. And even more important is that the greater the acceleration is, the more velocity (clubhead speed) you can create.
By the way, that formula also explains why you swing a lighter club faster without even trying. For example, if you have 120 grams steel iron shafts and then go to 80 grams graphite shaft, you will swing a few miles an hour faster with the same effort. Why? Because if I lower the “mass” part of the equation but maintain the same “force” output, then “acceleration” goes up.
Let’s go from 340 grams down to 300 grams:
75N = 0.34 kg x Acceleration
Acceleration will be 220m/s2
75N = 0.3 kg x Acceleration
Where acceleration will be 250 m/s/2
Your muscles and levers create force. And all other things being equal, the stronger your muscles are, the more force you can create. The more force you can create, the more acceleration you will produce, and the higher will be the resulting velocity.
This explains why getting stronger, i.e., improving your muscles’ capacity to produce force, can help you increase your clubhead speed.
An extreme example is 5-times world long drive champion Jason Zuback. In his prime he could power snatch 127,5kg (281lbs), clean & jerk 172.5kg (380lbs) and squat/deadlift way over 600lbs.
Here are some common “doubting comments” that will arise when you mention strength training to golfers.
I’ve tried weight training, and it didn’t help me hit it further.
This will be addressed more in the “What is specific to your swing” section of part 2 of this series. But the fact is that what will be effective in the weight room depends on how you swing the club.
In the introduction to this article, I talked about the modern swing technique in which the golfer applies a lot of force into the ground to speed up hip rotation. People using that approach will be able to improve swing speed by making their legs more powerful. However, if you don’t apply the same ground force with your legs (pretty much no mid-handicapper does it), gaining leg strength and power will not significantly improve swing speed.
However, getting the core and back stronger will very likely help.
If producing a lot of force is so important, then why aren’t powerlifters, strongmen, and bodybuilders good at hitting a golf ball (in most cases)?
For the same reason, bodybuilders and powerlifters are not necessarily great baseball players, sprinters, or football players.
The capacity to produce force is one thing. But it’s not the only element that is important.
The first and most important factor in excelling in golf is to have an efficient and repetitive swing. Applying a lot of force to faulty mechanics will simply amplify mistakes. That’s why you see many athletes from other sports who can hit it a long way but are often 50-60 yards offline and hit the ball correctly once every 10 shots.
Also, strength is only the foundation. Past a certain point, getting stronger will not increase clubhead speed. Why? Because a golf swing is fast and doesn’t last long. Meaning that you have minimal time to apply force in the downswing. Often less than a second.
Here’s the thing: the faster you need to go, the less force you can apply. To use your force production potential, you need to go slower; you need time to ramp up force production. This is called the Force-Velocity relationship.
You can be super strong; if you can’t produce force rapidly, it will be wasted.
That’s where explosive work comes in. Stuff like jumps, throws, and the power variation of the Olympic lifts. These can improve your body’s capacity to produce force rapidly and allow you to use more of your strength during explosive movements, like a golf swing.
That’s why getting a stronger will, at first, certainly be helpful. But eventually, your focus will need to shift to explosive exercises (still keeping some heavy work to avoid losing strength).
Sticking to only heavy lifting forever is a mistake. But focusing on jumps, throws, and other explosive movements when you don’t yet have a foundation of strength is also a mistake.
See, explosive exercises are often called the “bridge” between strength work and sport skill. The explosive work essentially develops your body’s capacity to use a greater proportion of its strength during fast movements. Have a very low amount of strength to start with, jumps, and other explosive movements will lead to very little improvements in clubhead speed: because even if you increase your capacity to use the strength you have in a fast movement, it will not do you much good if you don’t have much strength in the first place!
Plenty of golfers hit it long and are not doing a lot of strength work; why should I?
Look at any sport where speed and power are involved, and you will always find examples of elite athletes who didn’t use strength training and still reached the highest level.
Kim Collins ran a 9.84 / 100m without ever lifting heavyweights.
Pretty much every baseball slugger before the 1970s did it without lifting.
Let me be clear: if you have genetic advantages for your sport, you will be able to perform at the top level without strength training, often being a lot better than workout warriors without the same advantages.
For example, if a sprinter is born with 5-10% more fast-twitch fibers than other high-level sprinters and naturally has a more efficient stretch reflex, he will not need much (if any) strength work be explosive.
In golf, the ratio of fast-twitch fibers can make a HUGE difference in swing speed. That’s one of the reasons why a guy like Jaimie Sadlowski can swing it so fast despite being all of 170lbs.
Another thing that can be huge for distance is height and arm length.
If you are tall and have long arms, you will have a distinct advantage when driving distance. That’s because longer arms increase the length of the clubhead path, which allows you to build more speed. And also, because in a circular system, the further away the end of the chain is to the axis, the faster it will move.
I’ll give you an example. If you increase the length of your driver’s shaft by 1”, going from 45” to 46”, your clubhead speed will go up by a few mph (2-3 mph) without changing your swing (it makes it harder to have a quality impact though).
Same with the irons. If you look at the table below, you will see that a PGA pro will swing his five-iron four mph faster than his seven iron. The swing is likely not different (it’s not like comparing an iron to a wood). The difference is the length of the clubs. 36.75” for the seven iron and 37.75” for the five iron (normally). In that case, one more inch led to 4 more miles per hour.
If you have long arms, you essentially have the same benefit as having a longer shaft because the arms are connected to the club and spin around your spine.
If you are a guy like Dustin Johnson, who is 6’4” with long arms for his height AND lots of flexibility, you start with the golden ticket for distance! And if you add to that his explosiveness on jumps (he can do some spectacular dunks), you have the recipe for 350-yard bombs down the middle of the fairway!
But we are not all born with optimal levers and muscle fiber make-up. For those who are less gifted, anything that can help increase clubhead speed will help even the field. And don’t forget that, when it comes to the driver, each mile per hour will give you 2-3 yards on solid hits; you don’t need something to give you 10 mph to be beneficial.
What about golfers who have never used resistance training? Or seniors? Surely, they can’t focus on heavy and explosive work.
Well, there is a difference between golfers who have never lifted and seniors. Someone who is 25 years old and has never lifted will work up to fairly heavy strength training relatively quickly, provided that they don’t have injuries or limitations.
If someone is 70 years old with a bad back, heavy and explosive work is likely not in the cards. But the good news is that these people have a very low threshold for performance gains, meaning that even doing lighter work while doing the variations of the basic movement patterns that they can do safely will help them because their starting point is so low that any increase will have an important effect.
But obviously, the key here is scaling the exercise selection and training parameters to their level and capacities.
A golfer needs to train the squat movement pattern, the hip hinge movement pattern, and the single-leg movement pattern. However, that doesn’t mean that they have to use the back squat, power snatch from the hang, and walking lunge!
Look at the table below for an example of a regression/progression you can use for these patterns. </p
I play golf 4-6 days a week, and I sometimes practice on top of that. I have no time to train.
That is a real concern. I find myself struggling to find time to train too. I have a home gym, which makes things a bit easier. But I get how that can be problematic.
And we can’t all be investing 6-7 hours a day on training and playing like Tiger is doing (Tiger does his training program at 5 am before he starts his practice).
You might find yourself in two possible situations: you can live in a country where the golf season is 4 to 7 months long (like me in Canada, for example). In that case, you can train seriously during the off-season—three or even four solid workouts per week. And when the season starts, you can keep one workout per week to maintain what you developed during the off-season.
Maintaining strength is quite possible with one weekly workout per week.
That might mean playing one less round per week, but if it allows you to perform better at every other round, isn’t it worth it? And if you are dead set on playing almost every day, once or twice per week, you can play nine holes instead of 18, and you will have enough time and energy for a workout (that’s what I do).
The second possibility is that you live in a place where golf is played year-round. Florida, for example. In that case, the fact that you can play year-round means that you don’t need to play 5-6 days a week all the time. Why not play 4 times a week and train once or twice? Any solid training is better than no training at all. Afraid of “losing your game” if you play less? To be honest, how much has it improved recently?
WHAT do YOU nEED TO TRAIN THE MOST?
In part 2 of this series, I will address the best exercises for improving golf performance and plan training. But I want to conclude this first by talking about what muscles will be the most important for improving your golf.
I already addressed the importance of strong legs. If you use proper ground force application, getting those legs stronger will absolutely help you hit it further. But other benefits of stronger legs include being more stable against strong winds and uphill and downhill lies.
The core (abdominal, lower back, quadratus lumborum, transversus abdominis, etc.) is the second most important region. It needs to both be stable and strong/explosive. A stable core is important for injury prevention (nothing will kill your game faster than a bad back) but also for performance; we all think about swinging fast to hit it far, but once you’ve hit the ball with maximum velocity, you need to decelerate the club to avoid tearing something in your back or hip.
To quote golf strength & conditioning specialist Jason Glass: “Your body will only allow you to accelerate what you can decelerate.”
A strong and stable core is one of the key elements to decelerating the club once you’ve hit the ball. The stronger it is, the better you can decelerate, the more your body will allow you to accelerate.
The upper body (torso, shoulder girdle, arms) is not as important as the lower body, although it is always decently strong overall.
But two upper body parts play a significant role in your swing: the upper back (latissimus dorsi and, to some extent, the rear delts and rhomboids) and the forearm/hand muscles.
When you properly sequence your swing, the hips rotate faster than the torso and arms, which will stretch the latissimus dorsi.
This muscle is connected to the hips (iliac crest, sacrum), the spine, and the arms (intertubercular groove of the humerus), so when one part to which the lats are attached rotates faster (hips) than the other (arm), you stretch the muscle. Stretching a muscle is like stretching an elastic band or pulling on a bowstring: it increases power potential.
Having a strong upper back will make the latissimus dorsi more rigid (higher muscle tone), which increases power potential, even more when stretched: if you take a loose elastic band and a tight one, and you both stretch them by the same amount, the tighter one will produce a lot more speed when you release it.
As for the forearms and grip strength, both can help you keep the clubface square when you hit out of thick lies. It will also help prevent the clubface from opening up when you hit it on the toe part. And for those with a lot of wrist hinge in their swing, stronger forearms and hands can help produce more speed.
Honestly, there is very little need to spend too much effort training the pectorals, deltoids, and arms directly. You can certainly train them, but gaining too much size can hurt your swing from experience. Look at my backswing here. Mechanically it’s fine, but the size of the deltoid makes it impossible to keep seeing the ball.
By the way, I have changed my mechanics to involve more hip rotation since then. That was at the beginning of the season.
Pectorals that are too big could also make it harder to keep the lead arm connected to your body (well, it will be connected, but if the chest is bulging too much, the arm will be too far forward). And finally, too much pectoral work could decrease your external shoulder rotation range of motion on the trailing arm while will make it hard to shallow the club on the way down.
Lower body, core, upper back, forearms, in that order. This is what you need to focus on if you want to improve your performance.
Sorry for being so long-winded without even yet discussing training, but I feel that to get the most out of training, you need to trust that investing your time and effort will work. This article was in large part to explain why golfers should strength train. Thrusting the process is the first pillar of motivation, which is the real key to successful training.
In part two, we will see the best exercises to improve golf performance and how you should program training sessions, weeks, and phases.