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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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Faults & Fixes: Losing height in your swing

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In this week’s Fault and Fixes Series, we are going to examine the issues that come with losing your height during the swing and its effect on your low point as well as your extension through and beyond impact.

When a professional player swings, there is usually very little downward motion through the ball. Some is OK, but if you look at this amateur player you will see too much. When the head drops downward too much something, has to give and it’s usually the shortening of the swing arc. This will cause issues with the release of the club.

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Dangers of overspeed training revealed: What to do and what not to do

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Speed: a key factor to more money on tour. The key component sought after by many amateur golfers to lower their scores. The focus of many infographics on social media this past PGA Tour season. A lot of people say speed matters more than putting when it comes to keeping your tour card and making millions.  

Overspeed Training: the focus on tons of training aids as a result of the buzz the pursuit of speed has created. The “holy grail” for the aging senior golfer to extend their years on the course. The “must do” training thousands of junior golfers think will bring them closer to playing college golf and beyond.  

Unfortunately, overspeed training is the most misunderstood and improperly implemented training tool I see used for speed in the industry. Based on the over 50 phone calls I’ve fielded from golfers around the world who have injured themselves trying it, it is leading to more overuse injuries in a sport where we certainly don’t need any help creating more than we already have. Luckily, these injuries are 100 percent preventable if you follow the few steps outlined below.

Don’t let your rush to swing faster get you hurt. Take five minutes to read on and see what the industry has not been forthcoming with until now.  

Understanding how to increase your speed safely and with as little work possible is the path to longevity without injury. If you could train 75 percent less (to the tune of about 8,000 fewer reps a year) and still see statistically comparable results, would you rather that? 

I would.

Would it make sense to you that swinging 8,000 times fewer (low volume protocols versus high volume protocols) would probably decrease your risk of overuse injuries (the most common injury for golfers)?  

I think so.

But I’ll let you draw your own conclusions after you finish reading.   

Your Challenge

Your biggest challenge is that the answer to more speed for you is not the same as it is for your friends. It differs depending on many factors, but there are four main ones that you can start with. Those four are 

  1. Your equipment
  2. Your technical prowess
  3. Your joint mobility at your rotary centers (neck, shoulders, spine, and hips) 
  4. Your ability to physically produce power  

If you are not totally clear on these, I’d recommend checking out the earlier article I wrote for GolfWRX titled Swing speed: How do you compare? Go through the testing as outlined and you’ll know the answer to these four areas in five minutes.

Basically, you have the potential to pick up speed by optimizing your equipment (ie. find the right shaft, etc), optimizing the technical element of your swing for optimal performance (ie. launch angles, etc) or by optimizing your body for the golf swing. Understanding how to best gain speed without putting your body at risk both in the short and long term is what 95 percent of golfers have no idea about. It is the single biggest opportunity golfers have to make lasting improvements to not only their golf game but their overall health.

Are You a Ticking Time Bomb?

In my earlier article (link above), I described three main categories when it came to physical factors. Step one is to determine what category you are in.

The first option is that you might be swinging faster than your body is able to control. In this case, you are a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode in injury. We all know that friend who just has a year-round membership to the local physio or chiro because they are always hurt. If this is you, DO NOT try overspeed training, it will only make your visits to the physio or chiro more frequent. There are much better areas to spend your time on.

The second situation might be the rare, sought-after balanced golfer. You might have great mobility in the four main rotary centers (hips, spine, shoulders, and neck) and your swing speed matches your physical power output abilities. It should be noted that based on our mobility research of almost 1,000 golfers, 75 percent of golfers over the age of 40 don’t have full rotary mobility in at least one of the four centers. When you age past 50, that 75 percent now applies to at least two rotary centers. Hence why “the balanced golfer” category is elusive to most golfers.

The final option is the sexy, exciting one; the “more RPMs under the hood” golfer. This is the one where overspeed training is your fountain of youth and you can pick up 10, 15, even 20 yards in a matter of weeks. You might have more RPM’s under your hood right now. Being in this category means you physically are able to produce way more power athletically than you are doing in your golf swing currently.  

The Good News

The “more RPMs under the hood” golfer describes over 50 percent of amateur golfers. Most of you sit at work and don’t train your body to move at maximal speeds outside of when you swing the golf club. The number of adults and senior golfers who train maximal speed at the gym, run sprints and train with plyometrics (correctly) is under five percent.

Why is this good news?

Because if you don’t move fast at any point in your life other than on the golf course right now, doing pretty much anything fast repetitively will make you faster. For instance, you can jump up and down three times before you hit a drive and your speed will increase by 2-3 mph (6-9 yards) just from that according to a research study.

This means that for the average amateur, adult golfer in this category, picking up 5-8 mph (12- 20-plus yards) almost immediately (it won’t stick unless you keep training in though) is incredibly simple.

The Bad News & The Fine Print

Remember earlier when I mentioned you needed to “also have full mobility in the four main rotary centers” and that “75 percent of adults over the age of 50 lack mobility in at least two rotary centers?” 

That’s the bad news.

Most golfers will get faster by simply swinging as hard as they can. Unfortunately, most golfers also will get hurt swinging maximally repeatedly because they have to compensate for the lack of rotational mobility in those rotary centers. 

This should be a big bold disclaimer, but is often not. This is the fine print no one tells you about. This is where the rubber meets the road and the sexiness of overspeed training crashes and burns into the traffic jam of joints that don’t move well for most amateur golfers.  

Your Solution

The first step to your solution is to make sure you have full rotational mobility and figure out what category of golfer your body puts you in. As a thanks for being a WRX reader, here is a special link to the entire assessment tool for free. 

After you determine if you have the mobility to do overspeed training safely and you know if you are even in the category that would make it worthwhile, the second and final step is to figure out how many swings you need to do.

How Many Swings are too Many?

Concisely, you don’t need more than 30 swings two times per week. Anything more than that is unnecessary based on the available research.  

As you digest all of the research on overspeed training, it is clear that the fastest swing speeds tend to occur with the stronger and more powerful players. This means that first, you need to become strong and be able to generate power through intelligent workout plans to maximize performance, longevity and reduce injury likelihood. From here, overspeed training can become an amazing tool to layer on top of a strong foundation and implement at different times during the year.

To be clear, based on the two randomized overspeed studies that Par4Success completed and my experience of training thousands of golfers, it is my opinion that overspeed training works in both high volume (100s of swings per session) and low volume protocol (30 swings per session) formats exactly the same. With this being the case, why would you want to swing 8,000 more times if you don’t have to? 

The research shows statistically no difference in speed gained by golfers between high-volume overspeed protocols compared to low volume ones. Because of this, in my opinion, high volume protocols are unnecessary and place golfers at unnecessary risk for overuse injury. This is especially true when they are carried out in the absence of a customized strength and conditioning program for golf.     

Rest Matters

In order to combat low-quality reps and maximize results with fewer swings, it is necessary to take rest breaks of 2-3 minutes after every 10 swings. Anything less is not enough to allow the energy systems to recover and diminishes your returns on your effort. If these rests are not adhered to, you will fatigue quickly, negatively impacting quality and increasing your risk of injury.  

Rest time is another reason why low volume protocols are preferable to high volume ones. To take the necessary rests, a high volume protocol would take more than an hour to complete. With the lower volume protocols you can still keep the work time to 10 minutes.   

The Low Volume Overspeed Protocol

You can see the full protocol in the full study reports here. It is critical you pass the first step first, however before implementing either protocol, and it is strongly recommended not to do the overspeed protocol without a solid golf performance plan in place as well in order to maximize results and reduce risk of injury.

This is just the first version of this protocol as we are currently looking at the possibility of eliminating kneeling as well as some other variables that are showing promising in our ongoing research. Be sure to check back often for updates!

Commonly asked questions about overspeed training…

Once initial adaptations have occurred, is there any merit to overspeed training long term?  

None of the studies that I was able to find discussed longitudinal improvements or causation of those improvements. This is the hardest type of research to do which speaks to the lack of evidence. No one actually knows the answer to these questions. Anyone saying they do is guessing.

Do the initial gains of overspeed training outperform those of traditional strength and conditioning?  

There appears to be a bigger jump with the addition of overspeed training than solely strength and conditioning, by almost threefold.  In 6 and 8 weeks respectively, the average gain was just around 3 mph, which is three times the average gain for adult golfers over a 12 weeks period with just traditional strength and conditioning. 

Can we use overspeed training as a substitute for traditional strength and conditioning?

No. Emphatically no. It would be irresponsible to use overspeed in isolation to train golfers for increased speed. First off, increasing how fast someone can swing without making sure they have the strength to control that speed is a means to set someone up for injury and failure. Secondly, if they are appropriate and you increase someone’s speed, you also need to increase their strength as well so that it keeps up with the demands the new speed is putting on their body.   

Are long term results (1 year+) optimized if overspeed training is combined with traditional strength and conditioning vs in isolation or not at all?  

It would appear, based off our longitudinal programs that using overspeed training periodized in conjunction with an athlete-specific strength and conditioning program and sport-specific training (ie. technical lessons, equipment, etc—not medicine ball throws or cable chops) in a periodized yearly plan maximizes results year to year.  

In order to keep decreases in club speed to no more than three-to-five percent during the competitive season (as is the normal amount in our data), it is imperative to keep golfers engaged in an in-season strength and conditioning program focused on maximal force and power outputs. By minimizing this in-season loss, it assures that we see gains year over year.  

It is unclear if overspeed training in conjunction with strength and conditioning during the season further decreases this standard loss due to nervous system fatigue, but this would be a great area for future research.  

What sort of frequency, protocols or volume should one utilize for maximal benefit and minimal risk of injury?  

Most of the studies that I was able to find specifically on swinging looked at about 100 swings three times per (baseball). The Superspeed protocols which are the most popular in the golf world, follow a similar volume recommendation after an initial ramp up period. It is a concern, especially with untrained individuals, that adding more than 11,000 maximal effort swings over the course of year might increase risk for injury due to the incredible increase in load. Especially for the amatuer golfer who only plays on the weekends and does not engage in a strength and conditioning program, this is a significant volume increase from their baseline.

The Par4Success studies in 2018-19 found no significant difference in swing speed gains between high volume protocols and a lower volume protocol which required only 30 swings, 2x/week but required a 2 minute rest between every 10 swings.

More studies beyond these two need to be done looking at this, but it would be my recommendation, specifically in golf, not to engage in the high volume protocols as it does not appear to increase speed gains while also increasing load on the athlete significantly.  

Do any potential gains of overspeed training outperform the traditional methods that are proven to transfer to sport?

It does not appear that overspeed training is superior to any one training method, but rather a tool to use in conjunction with other proven methods. The key here is to assess yourself and look to implement this type of training when mobility is not an issue and the physical ability to produce power is higher than the ability to generate club speed. In the right scenario, overspeed training can be a game-changing tool. In the wrong scenario, it can be a nail in a golfer’s coffin.

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Faults and Fixes: Arms too far behind body at the top

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In this week’s Faults and Fixes, we’ll look at the issue of the older player getting the arms too far behind the body at the top. When this happens, the clubhead speed is compromised, and the ability to create height, spin, and distance is diminished. For older players, Brandel Chamblee has the right idea by wanting the left heel to raise and the arms to work themselves into a more upright position.

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