The 6 new rules of core training for golfers
There’s a myriad of different core exercises, a wealth of opinion on how to train the core and body of knowledge that has increased dramatically during the past decade or so and continues to grow, so it’s no wonder core training is a somewhat contentious and confused subject.
The problem with a lot of golfers’ core training stems from not understanding the anatomy and function of the core, and not utilizing proper progression strategies to actually improve core function over time. Static exercises like planks and side planks are great, but doing them for ever-increasing lengths of time in the name of progression invites fatigue and loses many of the benefits of the exercise with regard to muscle activation and spinal control. Hyper specific “core” exercises that mimic the golf swing may have a place, but if you don’t posses the segmental stabilization to execute them in the first place they aren’t going to do anything for you, and may even leave you worse off.
With that in mind, this article will be presenting the rules of core training I have developed and used with all the golfers I train. Live by these when training your core and you will move better (we need proximal stability to demonstrate distal mobility, so yes training your core can make you more flexible!), keep your spine healthier and generate more club head speed.
New Rule No. 1: Train the function of the core, not the anatomy, for back health and performance
The muscles of the core and lumbopelvic hip complex work in tandem to protect the spine, particularly your lumbar spine, which isn’t actually designed to move all that much. Most notably, these areas protect your spine during movements in the form of anti-rotation, anti-flexion and anti-extension.
Of course, we don’t want to avoid moving into rotation, flexion and extension at all costs during our daily lives or the golf swing. That’s not my point. However, spinal injury has been linked to the number of these moments we do so it make sense to:
- Not increase that number in the gym (particularly by doing sit-ups or crunches).
- Train to be strong in resisting these movements, which will reduce injury potential.
The work done by Dr. Stuart McGill proves this. By performing core training exercises that force your trunk and spine into excessive flexion (i.e., crunches and sit-ups), the facet joints and vertebral discs within your vertebral column take a beating. The same can be said for excessive extension.
The standard front plank is a great anti-extension exercise, but you have to do it right. The aim of a plank should be to teach the core musculature to hold the spine in neutral posture where the spine, hips, and legs are linear, not arched or drooping. Common compensations are shrugging the ribs up, shrugging the hips up, rolling the shoulders or hips forward, or pretty much anything that’s not neutral.
A good front plank should make your glutes incredibly tired from forcibly making them contract so that your hip flexors stretch and the abs bite down harder. For most, this will also encourage a slightly posteriorly tilted pelvis to prevent them from setting up with hips low and anterior pelvic tilt.
New Rule No. 2: Earn the right to rotate
Power lives in the transverse plane. If you want to unleash strength, power and force, you must harness control of rotation. The keyword here is control: concentric and eccentric control. To put it another way, rotational stability ensures rotational forces are transferred effectively, thereby reducing energy leaks that slow down your swing.
As research from the aforementioned Stuart Mcgill shows, no core muscle has a primary vector for trunk rotation. Trunk rotation, and resisting it, are carried out by a blend of all core muscles. The abdominal obliques are primary drivers of torso rotation and anti-rotation, along with deep stabilizer muscles in the back. When you want to rotate to the right, you engage the left external oblique and the right internal oblique. Rotation to the left uses the right external oblique and the left internal oblique. They work as functional pairs.
As you know, the torso connects to the rest of the body (arms and legs), so you have cross-body connections from the gluteus maximus to the opposite side latissimus to generate force transmission on the posterior chain. This force transmission system is known as the posterior oblique subsystem and is a primary reason you can move your arms and legs together. This movement pattern sling is crucial to stabilization. Stability always precedes force production. When it doesn’t, you have decreased performance and become more vulnerable to injury.
Variations like Pallof presses and chops are obviously great for this, however, single-arm presses and pulls are hugely underrated in this regard. Utilizing half- and tall-kneeling positions are also great for dialing in that neutral pelvic and spine position so important for efficient power transfer. One of my favorites to tap into anti-rotation and the posterior chain connection is the tall-kneeling, single-arm cable pull.
New Rule No. 3: Master your breathing
Credit to Dean Somerset for putting me on to the importance of breathing techniques in both core work and performance.
A go-to response for many when doing core exercise is to hold their breath. While this isn’t a bad response per se, especially if they’re trying to use a valsalva to increase spinal stability during a movement like a deadlift, not being able to inhale and exhale in pace with an exercise can actually reduce the effectiveness of a core intensive exercise.
Additionally, the speed of breathing can dictate whether a movement is more of a relaxation or mobility movement, or whether the goal is speed and reactive capability development. In either case, being able to breathe through an entire set is vitally important to see the best potential improvements. For core control and stability exercises (planks, side planks, dead-bugs, etc.), I usually prescribe the exercise be done for 5 times with 3-5 second inhalations and 3-5 second exhalations rather than simply holding the position for 20 or 30 seconds. Try it. You’ll be amazed at the difference.
For speed and power work (see Rule 4), inhales are best with more of a sniffing action where air is taken in quickly and with some development of negative pressure through the ribs and abdomen, and exhaled forcefully and quickly. This short, sharp exhale causes the abdominal muscles to brace very hard and very quickly, this improves stiffness and therefore the efficiency of power transfer through the core.
Try this while you’re reading this article: Place a hand on your stomach and sniff in quickly through your nose and feel what the abdominal muscles do. Then exhale sharply through pursed lips, like you would if you were throwing a very crisp jab. Did you feel how hard the abs became for the second you inhaled and exhaled? That’s your power center.
New Rule No. 4: The glutes are also a part of the core
The ability to forcefully extend the hip, while maintaining position and neutral spine, is vital for efficiently generating and transferring force in the golf swing. The collective role of the glute muscles is to extend the hip, abduct (bring the leg away from the middle of your body), externally rotate and internally rotate the hip joint, all of which are involved in the golf swing so you can see how their function maybe important for golfers.
I am a big believer in the role of the glutes as the primary hip extender, allowing hip extension without losing neutral spine. The use of the lumbar spine, for example, to extend the hips can place the lumbar spine in a more compromised position, with the increased possibility of low back pain that accompanies this, while it also places the pelvis into anterior tilt and places the abs in a stretched position affecting their ability to transfer force. Utilizing the quadruped position teaches athletes to set the core and fire the glutes. Extrapolating this function and applying it to the golf swing is exactly what we want to accomplish.
New Rule No. 5: Follow proper progression
First, you’ll want to organize your spine and find a posture that feels best for your body. These two areas are very important if your goal is to achieve a strong core that functions well.
Next, your goal should be to achieve proper core stability. If you can stabilize the muscles in your core in the presence of change (i.e., movement), then you’ll achieve a greater level of health and a happier lower back.
After that, it’s the right time to emphasize strengthening your core by adding forms of external resistance (i.e., medicine ball, resistance band, cable column, Valslides, etc.). When you have a good foundation of all of these elements, you can begin to add power and explosive movement patterns into your core training routines.
This progression is important, as it will help to bulletproof your spine for long-term health and performance. Let’s think about a basic core exercise, such as the Plank Hold. During this exercise, your job is to brace your core muscles, create full-body tension and to hold posture, while gravity and your bodyweight try to tell you otherwise. On a higher level, you’re performing an anti-extension exercise, where you’re deliberately trying to avoid spinal extension, specifically in the lumbar spine. Basically, you don’t want to let your hips dip down toward the floor.
In order for you to be able to properly perform all of this at the same time, it’s necessary for you to have core stability. That’s the key. That’s also why I believe it is imperative to learn how to stabilize your core before adding strength. Similarly, just like training any other movement, we want to develop strength and force production before we work on power and the ability to develop that force quickly. Be sure to master exercises at each stage before moving forward along the progression line.
New Rule No. 6: Core training should be vector, load and speed specific
This one piggy backs on the previous rule. Training movements like a Pallof press to overhead raise or half-kneeling cable chop that require the core to produce force or resist motion through transverse and frontal plane, is great for golf as the game is after all a multi-plane movement, and as such it make sense to train this way. However, all of this occurs in a relatively slow and controlled manner.
Athletes who compete in relatively specific directions and actions without the elements of contact and chaos (i.e. golf), can benefit from training with a high degree of specificity to their goal activities. Take a look at the speed/strength continuum (pictured below) and picture where golf sits in that continuum.
Hopefully, you would agree that golf makes most sense categorized as a high-speed, low-force activity (force most easily equates to load, i.e. how heavy the implement being used is, in this case the golf club). As such, it makes sense to train the core to perform at high velocity. Here are a few great options:
Once again, make sure you have mastered the earlier progressions before moving onto power work.
Now, take a look at your current core training and ask are you:
- Training core function in a multi-directional manner?
- Earning the right to rotate?
- Utilizing breathing properly?
- Training the glutes, too?
- Following a good core training progressions?
- Does that progression end in a high-velocity, high-performance core?
If not, put some of the exercise and ideas discussed here into practice. And if you have any further questions feel free to post them in the comments section or drop me an email at [email protected].
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Kelley: Recycle old drills to capture that feel
Sometimes it can be beneficial to re-introduce an old swing drill back into your training. Regardless if you felt the drill clicked or didn’t click at that time, you will more than likely notice a difference this time around.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for its not the same river and he is not the same man.” – Heraclitus
Let’s apply that famous quote to the golf swing. The first part, “not the same river” can apply to the physical swing itself. Chances are your swing has changed since first learning or practicing the swing drill. You can be more comfortable with the motion, or you could have made swing changes over time, making the drill feel vastly different now.
The second part of that quote, “not the same man” applies to you, yourself. More than likely, your physiology is different today and now at this very moment. Each new day you have changed. Players have gone back to a drill from years ago to find they have discovered a completely different feel and understanding of that particular drill.
For example, here is a baseline drill I have students revert back to on a regular basis. The foot-back drill both cleans up the set-up angles and gets the lead and trail side of the body moving efficiently.
This is a great drill to get the feeling of set-up angles and how the lead and trail side of the body can move in the backswing. However, further down the road, this drill can be used to get the feeling of covering the ball at impact, a multi-purpose drill depending on where you place your attention or how you feel.
As Nick Price once said, “Every player has two to three habits that cause problems, we have to be on the lookout for them.” Developing baseline drills you can revert back to helps these tendencies stay in remission and can help keep the structure to your swing.
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You hear this all the time! When there is no ball, I have an amazing golf swing but when the ball is there, my swing goes into the toilet. Remove that ball from your sight and enjoy some great ball striking!
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Jul 5, 2016 at 2:52 pm
Excellent info. Luckily my education allows me to understand it, where most cannot. High level info for people with the appropriate background. Very difficult for the vast majority of golfers to understand, unfortunately.
But I loved it.
Jul 4, 2016 at 2:09 pm
I’d love to see pics or a video of separate moves I should be doing
Jul 6, 2016 at 12:18 pm
Somebody lock him and lose the key
Jul 15, 2016 at 12:05 pm
I’d like to kiss her abs!
Jul 4, 2016 at 10:25 am
I don’t have the vocabulary for this… may I suggest expanding each rule into a separate article that provide layman-friendly explanations and perhaps an illustration showing where in the swing a particular Rule targets?
Jul 4, 2016 at 11:35 am
“As you know, the torso connects to the rest of the body (arms and legs), so you have cross-body connections from the gluteus maximus to the opposite side latissimus to generate force transmission on the posterior chain. This force transmission system is known as the posterior oblique subsystem and is a primary reason you can move your arms and legs together. This movement pattern sling is crucial to stabilization. Stability always precedes force production. When it doesn’t, you have decreased performance and become more vulnerable to injury.”
Seems like valuable information. A translation to English would be very welcome.
Jul 4, 2016 at 10:00 am
100 bucks a month to get some videos?! Talk about a rip off
Jul 4, 2016 at 9:45 am
Thank you for writing an article that actually says something. I usually just scan fitness articles, since so many of them say the same thing. But, when I saw your mention of Dr. McGill, I stopped and paid attention.
Keep up the great work and please do continue writing.
Jul 4, 2016 at 7:38 am
I think the reason for so many “shank” votes is the dearth of imagery. With so much informative theory, a balance needs to be struck with exercise examples and photos/video of the exercises/movements/positions. I’m quite intrigued and look forward to follow-up articles.
Jul 8, 2016 at 9:15 am
Jul 3, 2016 at 8:07 pm
Very technical but very informative. Thank you. I am amazed so many people dislike information that is useful for becoming a more fit and better golfer.