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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 [email protected].

  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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Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 2)

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Golf is very much a monkey-see-monkey-do sport. If you ever go to the local range, you are sure to see golfers trying to copy the moves of their favorite player. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. While I understand the logic of trying to mimic the “secret move” of the most recent winner on tour, I always balk when the person trying to create their best impression fails to realize the physical differences between them and the best golfing athletes in the world.

Read part 1 here. 

In addition to most golfers not being at the same fitness levels as the best players in the world, they also do not have bodies that are identical to their favorite player. This single statement proves why there is not one golf swing; we all are different sizes and are going to swing the club differently due to these physical differences.

You have to understand your swing

The biggest reason I believe that golfers are better than they think is most golfers I meet do not understand what their swings should look like. Armed with video after video of their golf swing, I will always hear about the one thing that the golfer wishes they could change. However, that one thing is generally the “glue” or athleticism of the athlete on display and is also the thing that allows them to make decent contact with the ball.

We are just coming out of the “video age” of golf instruction, and while I think that recording your golf swing can be extremely helpful, I think that it is important to understand what you are looking for in your swing. As a young coach, I fell victim to trying to create “pretty swings”, but quickly learned that there is not a trophy for prettiest swing.

It comes down to form or function, and I choose function

The greatest gift I have ever received as an instructor was the recommendation to investigate Mike Adams and BioSwing Dynamics. Mike, E.A. Tischler, and Terry Rowles have done extensive research both with tour-level players as well as club golfers and have developed a way to test or screen each athlete to determine not only how their golf swing will look, but also how they will use the ground to create their maximum speed. This screen can be completed with a tape measure and takes about five minutes, and I have never seen results like I have since I began measuring.

For example, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a golf swing that tracks more to the outside during the backswing and intersects the body more towards the trail shoulder plane during the backswing. A golfer with a shorter wingspan than height will have a swing that tracks more to the inside and intersects the body closer to the trail hip plane. Also, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a more upright dynamic posture than a golfer with a shorter wingspan than height who will be more “bent over” at the address position.

Sport coats and golf swings

Have you ever bought a sport coat or suit for a special occasion? If so, pay attention to whether it is a short, regular, or long. If you buy a long, then it means that your arms are longer than your torso and you can now understand why you produce a “steeper” backswing. Also, if you stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your middle-finger tips touching the top of your kneecaps, you will have perfect dynamic posture that matches your anatomy. If it appears that you are in a taller posture, then you have your second clue that your wingspan is greater than your height.

Translation to improvement

Using this and five other screens, we can help the athletes understand a complete blueprint of their golf swing based off their anatomy. It is due to the work of Mike, E.A., and Terry that we can now matchup the player to their swing and help them play their best. The reason that I believe that most golfers are better than they think is that most golfers have most of the correct puzzle pieces already. By screening each athlete, we can make the one or two adjustments to get the player back to trusting their swing and feeling in control. More importantly, the athlete can revisit their screen sheet when things misfire and focus on what they need to do, instead of what not to do.

We are all different and all have different swings. There is no one way to swing a golf club because there is no one kind of golfer. I encourage every golfer to make their swing because it is the only one that fits.

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How golf should be learned

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With the COVID-19 pandemic, golf is more popular than ever. Beginners being introduced to the game often find that golf is very hard, much harder than other sports they have played. To simplify the golf swing and make the game easier, it needs to start with a concept.

Golf should first be learned from a horizontal position. If the ball was placed four feet above the ground on a large tee, players would naturally turn in an efficient direction with the proper sequence to strike the ball on the tee.

Take for example, a person throwing a ball towards a target. With their eyes out in front of them? having an awareness to the target, their body would naturally turn in a direction to go forward and around towards the target. In golf, we are bent over from the hips, and we are playing from the side of the golf ball, so players tend to tilt their body or over-rotate, causing an inefficient backswing.

This is why the golf swing should be looked at as a throwing motion. The trail arm folds up as the body coils around. To throw a ball further, the motion doesn’t require more body turn or a tilt of the body.

To get the feeling of this horizontal hitting position or throwing motion, start by taking your golf posture. Make sure your trail elbow is bent and tucked with your trail shoulder below your lead shoulder.

From here, simply lift your arms in front of you while you maintain the bend from your hips. Look over your lead shoulder looking at the target. Get the clubhead traveling first and swing your arms around you. Note how your body coils. Return the club back to its original position.

After a few repetitions, simply lower your arms back to the ball position, swing your arms around you like you did from the horizontal position. Allow your shoulders, chest and hips to be slightly pulled around. This is now your “throwing position” in the golf swing. From here, you are ready to make a downswing with less movement needed to make a proper strike.

Note: Another great drill to get the feel for this motion is practicing Hitting driver off your knees.

Twitter: @KKelley_golf

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Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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