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The 5 Pillars of Golf Fitness

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Golf is a physically demanding game that requires explosive power, but at the same time, incredible precision and complexity.

During the swing, the average male recruits about 30 pounds of muscle and uses nearly every joint in the body to produce 2,000 pounds of force in less than 0.2 seconds. Research has found a relationship between:

  • Strength and driving distance and accuracy
  • Lower body power and total driving stats
  • Core stability and injury prevention
  • Aerobic capacity and chip shot efficacy and putting average

In short, there is a vital relationship between fitness and performance on the course.

From the research carried out in this area and the work I’ve done to improve the performance of my clients, I have identified the five key pillars of golf fitness.

Pillar #1: Flexibility

Flexibility is defined as the range of movement around a joint, and reflects the ability of the muscles and tendons to elongate within the physical restrictions of the joint. I’m sure you’re aware that the modern golf swing places many demands on the flexibility and mobility of the golfer. Indeed, as Paul Chek, an internationally-renowned expert in the fields of corrective and high-performance exercise kinesiology suggests, free movement around an adequate range of motion is vital in developing optimal swing mechanics.

To name but a few, golfers must possess good extension and rotation in the thoracic spine to permit a full shoulder turn. They also must have adequate internal hip rotation to allow the hips to function correctly in the swing, as well as a good degree of rotational movement in the shoulders. They especially need adequate external rotation, as a lack of shoulder rotation can affect swing plane and lead to many swing faults including the flying elbow, chicken winging and reverse tilt, which are also common causes of elbow and shoulder injuries.

The No. 1 issue with reduced flexibility ,however, is power, or the loss of it. Flexibility reductions within the shoulders, torso, hips and pelvis will prevent proper body turn and the disassociation between upper and lower body, ultimately costing golfers club head speed and distance. And you don’t just have to take my word for it; here is a quote from Tiger woods on flexibility in the golf swing:

 “I’m convinced that if you increase your flexibility, you’ll add power to your swing.”

Here are just two of the active mobilizations I use a whole lot with golfers. These two will challenge your thoracic spine and hip mobility, respectively, allowing your to make a better turn in your golf. They also incorporate a separation and rotation element.

Pillar #2: Strength and Power

To those of you who have read my previous articles, it will come as no surprise this is my favorite topic. It is my belief strength and power are absolutely essential for any golfer. The most obvious benefit of improved strength and power is an increase in clubhead speed, which can be increased dramatically with proper training.

However, research is starting to back up anecdotal evidence that stronger muscles also help improve fine motor control. In other words, because you are stronger, each swing is relatively less stressful, and the likelihood of making a mistake — or a small movement pattern error — is less likely. Fine motor control essentially means more accuracy, more greens and more fairways hit.

Let’s not forget issues of injury prevention too, as research shows a comprehensive strength training program working all muscles and joints will help reduce the chances of injury by ensuring that you have a strong, stable musculoskeletal system.

There is a difference between strength and power: Strength is your ability to contract a muscle, while power is how quickly you can achieve that maximal contraction. In short, power is the ability to apply a lot of force very quickly. The golfer’s need for power has the highest specificity of all sports. Few sporting movements have a higher need for power output than the golf swing.

A well-rounded strength program that includes squatting, deadlifting, push movements, pulls, lateral movements and core stability in low-to-medium reps will deal with the strength requirements. I usually rely on weighted jumps, lateral jumps and med ball throws to learn to apply that force quickly.

Pillar #3: Posture

Posture is defined by Paul Chek as the position from which movement in the golf swing begins and ends. The late golf fitness visionary Ramsay McMaster, however, defined posture as maintaining the primary and secondary curves of the spine.

Note the language of these definitions: “movement begins and ends” and “maintaining.” Good golfers are able to maintain an upright posture at address and throughout the swing. This is vital in order to consistently strike the ball.

Good postural strength is important for injury prevention, proper positioning and preventing any unwanted movements during the swing. As with many things, Ben Hogan puts it best:

 “Not only will good posture improve your ability to strike the ball more consistently, it will also improve power, stability and eliminate chronic golfing injuries.”

The golf posture is supported by many postural muscles in your cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (upper back), lower back (lumbar spine), shoulders and abdominal area. These muscles serve to hold the spine in position during the golf swing. The stronger they are and the greater degree of strength endurance, the more effective these muscles will be at this.

This Blackburn exercise series is great for developing strength in the postural muscles and helping to maintain posture.

If you want more information on golf specific posture work, take a look at the posture belt videos on Golf Fit’s YouTube channel.

Pillar #4: Core Strength and Stability

The optimum kinematic sequence involves transferring power from the pelvis (lower body musculature) up through the thorax (upper body) and finally the arms and club head. The abdominal muscles are king when it comes to allowing this power transfer.

Good core strength will allow the golfer to develop the most power possible during the swing. Furthermore, core strength will stabilize the hips and the spine, allowing more body control during the golf swing. Perhaps most importantly, good core strength will maintain back health and prevent injuries to the spine that can result from the golf swing.

In addition to developing strength in these muscles, one must focus on strength endurance. This is because these core stability muscles are used in most daily activities, as well as repeatedly with little rest during long practice sessions, and they can become easily fatigued predisposing golfers to instability, injury and poor mechanics.

When people think of core or abdominal training, they often think of performing endless sets of crunches and situps. However, the core muscles, in the golf swing and everyday life, are actually designed to stabilize the spine and prevent movement. As such, I use movements that challenge the core to do this. Additionally, the golf swing puts tremendous load and forces on the core so I train the core under load as much as possible.

Two of my favorite core exercises for golfers are simple weighted carries (pick something heavy up in one or both arms and take it for a walk) and Pallof presses.

Pillar #5: Cardiovascular Fitness

The aerobic cardiovascular system supplies oxygen to the muscles, which the muscles then use to produce energy for activities like walking, interspersed with recovering from intense bursts of exercise like the golf swing.

In a typical game, golfers will rely on their aerobic system to walk about 5 miles up and down hills and over varied terrain without fatigue. A strong cardiovascular system will also help deal with the mental stresses of golf, as it promotes a parasympathetic nervous system response that promotes relaxation under pressure and helps to achieve better rest.

In addition to the need for a strong cardiovascular system when playing a round of golf, the aerobic system is used extensively during practice when a golfer may be hitting shots repeatedly with minimal rest between practice repeats.

Optimal muscle recovery between shots is dependent on how efficient the aerobic system is working and this will help golfers practice more efficiently for longer periods of time.

A combination of interval training and steady-state cardio has been shown in numerous studies to be effective in increasing most measures of aerobic fitness. My recommendations would be 1-to-3 sessions a week alternating with 20-to-30 minute steady state cardio sessions and interval training with 30 seconds work periods followed by 60 seconds of rest for eight rounds to start. Golfers can then progress by increasing the length of their steady-state cardio sessions and decreasing the rest periods of your interval sessions.

Any type of aerobic activity such as running, swimming, cycling, or gym-based cardiovascular machine is acceptable.

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Nick is a TPI certified strength coach with a passion for getting golfers stronger and moving better. Through Stronger Golf he uses unique, research based training methods to create stronger, faster, more athletic golfers. Golfers who are more coachable, achieve higher levels of skill mastery, play injury free, and for longer as a result of improved physical fitness.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Think

    Mar 8, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    Looks like these exercises are a quick way to a neck or back injury. They look un-natural and non-productive. I love fitness. but the neck and back look very unsupported and in awkward positions. Just my observations.

    • Shawn Stone

      Oct 6, 2015 at 2:21 am

      Think,
      Which exercises in Nick’s article are you referring to? From what I can see in the videos, the spine/neck has remained neutral throughout the movements and is safe. Yes, there is stress around the joints where the muscles are properly supporting each segment, but that’s proper form.

  2. Louie

    Jan 13, 2015 at 11:45 am

    The videos aren’t showing up for me….

  3. Bob

    May 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Nice article Nick.

    I’m looking to design a more golf-focused workout program with lot more focus on flexibility/core/balance, but don’t know where to start. Any idea where I could find a good workout routine that will hit all these pillars?

    • Nick Buchan

      May 13, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks Bob.

      There are a few programs (two off-season programs and a home based program) available as posts on my blog http://www.strongergolf.org

      Additionally we run a personalised program design as part of our online coaching service. If you would like more information about a personalised program feel free to send me an e-mail at n.buchan@strongergolf.org.

  4. Pingback: » D'Lance GolfD'Lance Golf

  5. alex

    May 12, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Congrats on a useful series of exercises

  6. Tom Stickney

    May 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Fitness in golf is unappreciated; it should be as important as the time you spend on your long/short game!

    • Nick Buchan

      May 11, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Thanks for the comment Tom. Really enjoy reading your articles! Funnily enough I totally agree. Whats more, to be honest, many golfers are so badly conditioned for golf (relative to their short game/long game ability) it actually represents the most time efficient and easiest way for them to improve their golf!

  7. Sheldon

    May 10, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I would put posture as the number one pillar, the main source of injuries occurs due to the loss of posture and lack of strength in postural muscles. A lack of strength in the abdominal and glutes can cause lower back discomfort and injuries, it can also be a sign of forward tilt posture which will cause a much greater fatigue whilst walking and for some being debilitating.

    winged scapular, forward rolled shoulders, foward head posture is a sign of lack of strength in upper back and tightness causing flexibility issues. This would make an individual lose their posture during their transition and they will genuinely contract the muscles which are the strongest, whilst stretching the weakest muscles causing them to be less connected with the torso.

    My advice is too look at the injuries you have sustained due to golf and think why they have occurred, more then likely it’s due to loss of posture from a lack of strength in your most important muscles(over favouritism in strong muscles ). Remember the most important thing about going to the gym or any strength training is injury prevention.

    • Nick Buchan

      May 10, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      Hi Sheldon, thanks for the comment. The pillars weren’t really meant in order of importance, more in the order in which I would usually train them to be honest. Yes, as I said in the article good core strength will 100% help alleviate and prevent back injuries. Weak abdominals and short, tight glutes are often signs of posterior tilt not anterior tilt, and I have never seen any research to suggest pelvic tilt has any affect on rate of cardiovascular fatigue to be honest.

      Indeed flexibility and postural issues can often be intertwined, and both have a key role in allowing the golfer to appropriately maintain posture throughout the swing.

      A good strength program will both alleviate and prevent injuries – and of course this is of vital importance in all sport performance programming. However, these effects can be attained whilst concurrently improving many of aspects of performance and fitness.

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Learn to play like the pros by mastering course management basics

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The line that is drawn between amateurs and professionals certainly covers more than one aspect. However, there are some things that anyone can do in order play like the pros and shoot better scores. Knowing how to plot your way around the course from tee to green is something that not many amateurs take into consideration, though it is something that professionals do so well. Learning how to play to your strengths and learning to take what the course gives you will ultimately lower your scores, no matter what your handicap.

From the tee

-Use sound judgment when setting up on the tee box by knowing what your miss is and playing for it. For example, for those that fade that ball, teeing the ball on the right side of the box allows you to play for your shot shape with more room for the ball to work. This is also the case for playing away from trouble, in being that lining up on the side of trouble allows you to play away from it.

-In some cases on short holes, make a note to hit your tee ball to where you leave yourself with a comfortable yardage for your approach. You don’t gain anything from hitting a driver if it leaves you with a feel shot from 30 yards when you could hit a wood or hybrid and leave yourself with a full club in. (This is also the case when hitting your second shot on a par 5)

Hitting into the green

-Know which pins you should attack and which ones you shouldn’t. The biggest mistake that many amateurs make is trying to hit the ball at a tucked pin. Even the professionals choose which flags to go at and which holes to play safe, making sure they leave themselves a putt rather than short siding themselves.

Chipping/Putting

-The biggest thing that gets us in trouble around the greens or on them is trying to make the ball go in the hole. It’s easy to get greedy with your shot and create the mindset that you have to make it when, in reality, it’s much more feasible to play for a three-foot circle around the hole. Leaving you an easy tap in. There is nothing more infuriating than a 3-putt.

I hope these tips will benefit your golf game by allowing you to manage your way around the golf course. The pros use these same approaches when they step on each hole, and it is imperative that you do also. We all may not have the ability that professionals do, but we can certainly learn things from them that will lower our scores.

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Lesson of the Day: Improve right arm connection for a more consistent golf swing

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In our “Lesson of the Day” video series with V1 Sports, we match a different GolfWRX member with a different V1 Sports instructor. It’s extremely important to both V1 Sports and GolfWRX to help golfers improve their games and shoot lower scores, and there’s no better way to do that than getting lessons. While we not only want to provide free lessons to select GolfWRX members, we want to encourage and inspire golfers to seek professional instruction. For instructions on how to submit your own video for a chance at getting a free lesson from a V1 Sports instructor as part of our Lesson of the Day series, CLICK HERE.

About the pro

Clinton Whitelaw is the Head Teaching Professional at University Park Country Club in Sarasota, Florida. Clinton was a prolific junior player in South Africa before he attended UCLA on a full scholarship. He turned pro at age 21 and has recorded more than 55 top-10 finishes around the world, including winning the 1993 South African Open and the 1997 Moroccan Open on the European Tour.

Lesson synopsis

There are two main swing flaws identified in this GolfWRX member’s swing that can be improved. The first is a disconnected right arm in the body that causes the arms to be out of sync with the body. The second is a bent left arm in the follow through, which causes a loss in power. Two easy drills can be practiced to create a simple, repeatable, and consistent golf swing.

Student’s action plan

  1. Practice with a glove under the right right armpit to improve connection with the body
  2. Practice the “9 o’clock to 3 o’clock” drill demonstrated at the end of the video lesson

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Should you strive for a flatter transition in your golf swing?

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A lot has been said recently regarding flattening the transition in the downswing. As a teacher for many years, I totally agree that this is clearly what highly skilled players do. Sasho Mackenzie, the great biomechanist from Canada, explains that when the center of mass of the golf club gets UNDER the hand path coming down, we get a much easier squaring of the club face.

There is, however, a difference in the players we see making this move and average amateur golfers. Nothing in the golf swing happens in a vacuum, so to speak. That is, every move has to complement the other moves and balance the equation. So when we see Sergio “laying the club down” (flatten) in transition, it complements or is in sync with the “delivery” he has into impact.

Sergio has Hogan-esque “lag” in his downswing. That is, his wrists stay cocked very late as he approaches impact. with a great deal of forward shaft lean. While this may be characteristic of all great ball strikers, his “flat” action is more pronounced than most. He lays the club down, downcocks his wrists and voila, strikes it solid.

The point here is when the shaft is laid off and flattened in transition, it cannot then be released early. Those who cast, or release early from a laid off transition are staring shanks right in the face, and feeling heel hits with the driver. The reason is the club is being cast out, not down when it is coming in on a more horizontal plane. When a professional flattens it, they then tighten the delivery with hands in and a narrowed arc into impact. This is a huge distinction, and one I feel is little understood. If you are working on laying it down, but are used to an early release, you may accomplish the former, but are asking for trouble on the latter. It has to be released later and tighter after the transition to work.

Another common error I see quite often is the hand path issue. Here I’m referring to to how far from the body the hands move on the down swing. If you are a player who transition steep (too vertical), your miss is very likely the toe of the club. As a result you develop a habit of sending your hands out and away from your center (the distal and proximal, in biomechanist terminology) to compensate for the toe hit and in an attempt to find the center of the face. That swing habit is common and will, at times, compensate for the steep transition.  So you can see why the club will be more likely to hit the heel if it is delivered on a more horizontal plane.

The point here is this: it’s the same theme that I have seen and written about for many years:  Golf swing corrections, if that be your goal, are rarely singular; the come in pairs.  And the reason it can be frustrating is because we have develop two new feelings, not one. Many golfers abandon the effort because the accomplish one without the other.

If, for example, you decide your transition is far too steep, and you flatten it but then cast the club (remember now OUT not DOWN) and hit the heel of the club or shank a wedge, you may say: “Hey, that’s just not for me; or that was WORSE, not better”. And you’d be right, the RESULT is likely to be worse- but maybe not the effort.  If you are committed to a swing change, it rarely comes with a singular correction.

Be sure you know what you’re in for when working on laying the club down ala Sergio, or Furyk, or Ryan Moore, when you are told you’re too steep starting down.  My advice would be to try and work on one thing at at time.  For this particular correction, I have my students ht balls on a sidehill, above the feet lie. This can orient you to a more horizontal swing feeling and then an only then can start to work on keeping the hands, arms and body connected (the “inside moving the outside”) for the completion of the swing change.

One final note on this: I want to repeat that any change is optional based on your current ball striking, not what your video looks like. Phil Mickelson is one of the best players EVER, and his swing starts down as steeply as any club golfer, and he swings his hand path out away from him as a result every time. Let me me ask this question: who among us would change the swing of a 44-time champion and five-major winner on the PGA Tour? Whatever works…

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