Before I became a professional golfer, I was a computer engineer and before that I went to college to be a pharmacist.
Little did I know at the time that the pharmaceutical courses I took covering physics, anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, etc., would serve me well in my golf career as far as understanding things like angular momentum, pendular motion, coil springs, lever types, joint functions, etc.
In this article I want to spend a little time going over six actions of the wrists and forearms and then discussing how those actions can affect the golf club.
Medically speaking, the six actions are pronation versus supination, radial deviation versus ulnar deviation and palmar flexion versus dorsiflexion.
Now for the big questions — what do those actions mean in simpler terms, what effect do they have on the golf club and what are some pros and cons of one versus another?
Supination is the rotation of the hand and forearm (not to be confused with rotating from the shoulder socket) so the palm faces upward. The mnemonic I use to remember this one is to rotate the palm up to hold soup in it.
Pronation is the opposite rotation of the hand and forearm (also not to be confused with rotating from the shoulder socket) so the palm faces downward. This action would pour the soup out of the palm.
In golf terms, these are often expressed by telling someone to roll the wrists over through impact.
Another analogy that you may have come across that has the same rolling effect is to shake someone’s hand on the backswing (which rolls the club open) and then to do the same on the opposite side of the through swing (which rolls the club back over).
Pronation and supination are very commonly taught. One reason why some instructors teach these hand actions is that they say speed can be added to the club head. While it can be argued that this is true in that the toe of the club would be moving faster through the hitting zone than the heel, hitting the ball consistently straight becomes much more difficult because the club face is constantly pointing to a different spot when you pronate and supinate.
Also, the extra club head speed may not even correlate to more ball speed. Despite impact happening in approximately 1/2000th of a second, that’s still enough time for a club with a high rate of rotation to have a glancing impact blow (the center of gravity of the club probably wouldn’t be driving directly through the center of gravity of the ball) and adversely affect the shot.
That being said, there are no doubt many PGA Tour players that use this type of hand action through the impact area. However, most that do it have likely been doing it for a long time and they also practice and play more than the majority of people. Rolling can work, but it’s also a type of action that I would consider to be high maintenance and these type of players can be streaky.
If you are struggling to hit the ball straight and have unpredictable and inconsistent curvature, I would look to minimize the amount of rotation you are using in your swing, especially through the hitting area.
Be careful when looking at club-face rotation in your swing to not confuse it with the club-face rotation that can come from the ball and socket joints in your shoulders. In my observation, that has a tendency to happen in the back swing from people that pull their lead arm well across their chest and conversely when the trailing arm gets pulled well across the chest in to the follow through.
On the flip side of wrist rolling, perhaps you have also heard of counter-rotating the club on the back swing. This action wouldn’t have the same level of directional problems with the club face as rolling and I would definitely advocate it to my students over rolling. However, it is still a level of manipulation that may or may not be worth doing.
Ulnar and radial deviation are also fairly common. Ulnar deviation is a bending of the wrist toward the pinky. I remember ulnar deviation by thinking that the pinky is under the thumb when I grip the club.
Radial deviation is the opposite bending of the wrist towards the thumb.
Golf-wise, you may hear of radial deviation referred to as cocking and ulnar deviation as uncocking.
These hand actions are often used together with pronating and supinating. For example, someone might say:
“Rotate the club open on the way back and cock it upwards on the back swing. On the way down, uncock the club, roll it over through impact, and re-cock it in the follow through.”
That’s all four actions being used.
Using radial and ulnar deviation by themselves aren’t all that bad. For one thing, there aren’t the directional and timing problems that come with the wrist rolling of pronation and supination. But personally, assuming a neutral grip position at setup, for some reason I find radial deviation difficult to conceptualize and I lose sense of where the club is in the back swing. However, with a stronger grip (where I turn my lead hand clockwise around the grip as per my vantage point), radial deviation with my lead hand in the back swing works great for me.
Lastly, palmar flexion is a bending of the palm towards the forearm or inside of the wrist. I think of this one as flex the palm.
Conversely, dorsiflexion is the bending of the back of the hand towards the forearm away from the inside of the wrist.
Palmar flexion is sometimes referred to in golf as having a bowed wrist, where as dorsiflexion would be having a cupped wrist.
A related taboo golf term for these hand actions through impact would be flipping. Although, in many cases I don’t think flipping is so much a problem with the hand and wrist action as it is an inactive lower body. If you look closely at swings of various Tour players and golfers like Graeme McDowell, Dustin Johnson, Vijay Singh or Mike Austin you’ll see some hit, slap or flip in all of their swings as they move through the hitting area. It’s just that they’re not stalling with their lower bodies.
I would characterize players that flip as golfers who might generate more spin and who could be high-ball hitters depending on some other variables.
Like ulnar and radial deviation, it’s also nice that palmar and dorsiflexion don’t have the directional problems associated with the club face as when pronating and supinating. Some might argue that palmar and dorsiflexion will cause trajectory problems, but I don’t think this is always the case assuming you swing in a pendular fashion. If you don’t try to over-control the pendulum, gravity can take care of getting the club face back to the same place every time. Besides, on average, there is more of a full-swing problem with directional ball flight control than distance control. Palmar and dorsiflexion can be a good choice for having directional control.
Assuming that each of the six actions has a neutral position, that’s 27 different combinations per wrist/forearm not counting the degrees of variation between all of the positions.
Depending on where you start your wrists and hands at setup, there are certainly a lot of different things you can do throughout the entirety of the swing, each with their own pros and cons.
This may be a lot to take in, so here are a few final summary comments and general suggestions that you might consider, at least for the part of the swing when the club is coming through the hitting zone.
- Excessive rolling through impact can be inconsistent for controlling shot curvature. Sometimes rollers will try to play only a draw or only a fade because they will likely have the most difficult time controlling the accuracy and precision of their shot curvature. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but certain swing styles and teaching methods have come about that focus more on hitting only a draw or only a fade versus learning to hit straight.
- Despite the taboo term, a flipping action can give you more spin, shot height and pop on the ball presuming your lower body isn’t stalling and possibly some other variables. Mike Austin, the man who hit a Guinness World Record 515-yard drive in the U.S. National Senior Open, is a good example of this. Austin hit the ball really far, high and was all carry. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good putter (he three-putted for bogey on the par-4 he hit the 515-yard drive) but that’s another story.
- Going from a cupped-lead hand position at the top of your back swing and bowing through impact will probably spin the ball the least (some guys do it well but I have a hard time doing this).
- Having a non-wrist action can be good for pitching or where you need consistency and control of direction and trajectory but not power. Steve Stricker uses a little bit of rotation during his swings and pitches, which I wouldn’t advocate, but other than that he’s a pretty good example of the success of relatively passive hands and wrists.