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Golf Fitness Explained

Many golfers are searching for golf fitness ideas and the best golf exercises to help improve their golf game. However, there doesn’t appear to be much detail on why you should be doing these exercises, and how golf fitness links to your golf swing and performance.

In this article we’ll break down the biomechanics of the golf swing and discuss why you should choose certain golf exercises to help improve your golf swing and performance.

The biomechanics of the golf swing

Above is an analysis of an elite golf pro we worked with (I can’t tell you who, but they’re awesome at golf). This is the 3D modelling we used to determine how their skeleton moved during their golf swing, and what ground reaction forces they produced.

It’s a long process using over £250,000 worth of equipment, including Qualisys Motion Capture systems, Kistler force plates and a few other jazzy bits of software. The result is a stripped back video that allows you to see under the hood of their golf swing and explain what is going on.

In this article we’ll talk through four stages of golf fitness and link back to the video above. The video of the skeleton shows how each body segment moves during the swing. The blue arrows show the ground reaction forces created during the golf swing.

Golf Insider geek: in biomechanics, we call movements ‘kinematics’. We refer to forces as ‘kinetics’. It’s important to remember a body, or part of a body, such as the pelvis, will remain at a constant velocity until unbalanced forces are acting upon it. Between these two concepts (kinetics and kinematics) we can explain all motion we see. When we talk about our body segments rotating, or accelerating, this is due to unbalanced forces acting upon them. These forces come from 1) our muscles firing 2) gravity and 3) to a lesser extent the inertia of connecting segments. Such as, the pelvis unwinding and dragging the thorax with it. Tempo and rhythm are visual, abstract concepts that we often discuss, but no physical laws attach them to club head velocity.

4 stages of golf fitness

There are four stages of golf fitness, these are not entirely separate, but if you have severe limitations in one stage, you’re best to focus some time there before you move onto the next stage.

  1. Mobility
  2. Stability
  3. Strength
  4. Power

Golf fitness stage 1 – Mobility

The first stage of golf fitness is being able to move your body into a given position. A good level of mobility allows a person to perform movements without restriction. Golf swing biomechanics are poorly understood, in part, because we use the wrong language in coaching (I’m guilty of this too).

We talk about ‘shoulder turn’, ‘pivots’ and other terms which don’t match the movements your body is actually making. In this article, I’ll use the fancy physiological/kinesiological terms (for you golfers in the US & Canada). This will ensure you can search for the correct exercises.

There are three major joints that make up a large amount of the golf swing’s rotation:

Left hip – internal and external rotation

Right hip – internal and external rotation

Thoracic spine – rotation (both directions)

There are many other joints involved, but these three are the key joints where many golfers face limitations. Re-watch the video above, you’ll notice the pelvis rotates away from the target during the backswing, whilst the feet stay grounded. For this motion to occur you need your left hip joint to externally rotate and your right hip joint to internally rotate. The opposite occurs as we initiate the downswing.

For these movements to occur we need a good range of motion in both our hips. The following video provides a great set of stretches to improve your hip rotation and also use as part of your golf warm-up routine.
A shout out to HeadStart Sports Massage Clinic, Cambridge, UK. This is a great instructional video to help you golfers.

The next movement to focus on is the separation between the pelvis and the thorax (upper body or chest). We often call this ‘shoulder turn’ when coaching, but this is just plain wrong. This separation is due to the rotation of the middle part of the spine and is called thoracic rotation. Developing mobility in your thoracic rotation is another key factor in helping you swing a golf club.

Below is a great little exercise to improve your thoracic mobility. It will also reduce any asymmetry you may have from many years of swinging a golf club.

Once you have your hips and thoracic spine in order, I would move onto the following ranges of motion:

Right and left hip – flexion and extension

Pelvis – anterior and posterior tilt (this movement comes from your lumbar spine)

Your hips and pelvis have to do some funky tilting as you transition into your downswing and through impact. I won’t go into detail here, but if you want a really detailed stretching protocol, or are concerned about a bad back, add the additional stretches in the video above into your golf fitness regime. For alternative ideas on improving mobility, you may also want to check out this article explaining yoga for golfers.

Golf fitness stage 2 – Stability

Once you’re able to achieve a given position, you need to be able to stabilise your body in this position, whilst other parts of your body are moving.

Mobility relates to movement, whereas stability relates to control. Stability is defined as the ability to maintain control of joint movement or position by coordinating actions of surrounding tissues and the neuromuscular system.

A good example of this is a golfer having the range of motion to internally rotate their right hip into an ideal top of backswing position. However, they can’t maintain this hip position when they stack on the rotation of their upper body.

A lack of stability will lead to a loss of form. This may result in a golfer standing up (losing their golf posture), or doing some sort of reverse pivot movement.

Stability exercises give the golfer a base-level of strength to maintain a given position when surrounding forces are at play. I tend to find functional body weight exercises are really useful in developing stability. To build a great golf swing you require stability in the same areas discussed in stage one – hips and thoracic rotation.

This exercise below is great for targeting both of your hips and thoracic spine in one quick exercise. The reason I’ve selected this exact video is so you can see how well this guy keeps his upper body form (posture). If you lose your posture at any point, you need to reign in your rotation and focus on form.

Shoulder stability is the one additional area I would recommend for golfers wishing to build a solid foundation in their golf fitness regime.

Your right shoulder experiences a lot of force during the golf swing whilst it is externally rotated. Having good scapular stabilisation will be really useful in developing an athletic golf swing. 

The follow set of exercises are really beneficial for golfers of all levels.

These exercises can be done on a bench, or small versions completed on the floor with a pillow under your chest. Best of luck to anyone who is feeling bold and grabs 5kg dumbbells or above – these are killers. I suggest you start just with your body weight, or 2kg dumbbells.

Golf fitness stage 3 – Strength

Once we have the first two components of golf fitness in place we can now consider improving our strength. Strength is a concept that still appears to be misunderstood in golf. I don’t know if I can solve it for you all here, but I sure as hell want to give it a go.

What is strength?

Strength is the ability to generate a force. More specifically, strength is the maximum force we can generate at a given velocity (more on this in section 4). As we discussed in the opening section, an object will stay stationary, or stay at a constant velocity, until an uneven set of forces are applied to it.

So how can we take this information and turn it into something we can use in golf?  The first step is to take the whole golf swing and break it down into objects. 

The video below shows the 14 chunks/objects we break the body down into to analyse the golf swing – feet, shanks, thighs, pelvis, thorax, upper/lower arms, hands and the head. Add in the golf club and we have 15 objects or segments.

Our goal is to get the club head segment moving at a high velocity at impact, therefore it needs to accelerate from the top of the backswing to impact. We’re able to gain a serious mechanical advantage by using a sequence of movements that store and pass on energy from one segment to the next, until we reach the club head.

Elite golfers start by accelerating and rotating their pelvis toward the target. This provides a head start for the thorax (upper body) to add on more acceleration. This sequence continues to the arms, before it is finally passed onto the club head. We call this concept a kinematic sequence. The next section shows how strength forms the basis of your kinematic sequence in the golf swing:

The following hasn’t changed for the past 400 years:

Force = Mass x Acceleration (F = M*A) 
Therefore: Acceleration = Force / Mass

Each of our body segments has a given mass, the greater force we can apply to a given mass, the faster it will accelerate. Let’s take a simple example:

We have a golfer with a pelvis weighing 2kg, they are able to apply 10N of force to this segment.

Force / Mass = Acceleration
10N / 2Kg = 5 m/s/s 

Now imagine we doubled the force that they could produce and apply to their pelvis:

20N / 2Kg = 10 m/s/s

You’ll see that we would double the acceleration of the pelvis. This means that the more force you can apply to each segment of your body the greater the acceleration. This will lead to a higher velocity in a shorter period of time during your downswing. The ultimate result is the potential for a higher club head speed.

Golf Insider geek: for the section above I’ve kept things simple and described the concepts in linear motion. If you’re a geek (like me), you’ll realise all of the actions within the human body occur about an axis (our joints). Therefore, we are strictly speaking about angular motions and torques, but I think the examples above still gives the intended message.

The interesting point about setting out the equations above is that you’ll realise that another way to gain more acceleration is to reduce the mass of each segment. Hence, we want elite players to have more muscle mass to produce force but less fat (non-useful mass) within each body segment.

Justin Thomas is one example of a player who generates exceptional pelvis acceleration. I’m sure he produces some serious force, but he has much less mass in his pelvis to accelerate then someone like John Rahm.

low mass segments ~ high force application = high acceleration

Golf Insider geek: in theory, this does mean if you lose weight (specifically fat) you have the potential to increase your club head velocity. However, stage 4 may put a spanner in the works.

Where do I need strength in my golf swing?

On to the useful stuff.

Golf strength: lower body

You need to be able to apply high levels of force to your pelvis. This will all come from your lower body: knees and hips predominantly and ankles to a lesser degree.

Goblet squats are a good start for strengthening quads and your gluteals (bum muscles).

The exercises in the video below are superb for strengthening your medial glutes which are key muscles for accelerating and stabilising your pelvis.

You can buy the mini resistance bands here on Amazon. Or check out this product for a more heavy-duty version.

Golf strength: torso 

The next consideration is the strength required to rotate your thorax. Your obliques and latissimus dorsi (more commonly referred to as lats) fulfil this role, along with many smaller muscle groups.

Kneeling cable rotations are a great way to strengthen your obliques – check out the video below. Again, maintaining your form is key. Ensure you only work through a range of motion where you can maintain good posture and keep your arms fully extended.

For your lats we have the standard lat pull-down machine and good old fashion pull-ups. Lat pull-overs with a dumbbell also provides another useful range of motion.

Sorry I couldn’t find a Youtube video that performed this exercise well. I’ll keep searching.

Golf strength: upper body and arms

Here we hit a little controversy. Modelling how the shoulders work in the golf swing is really complex. The same too goes for the forearms. I’m going to be a little less specific here and just list some key muscles and exercises. Otherwise, I’ll be writing another 2,000 words:

Pectorals – bench press

Shoulder abductors – seated row

Shoulder internal/external rotation: see the video below.

Triceps – cable machine tricep extensions

Golf fitness stage 4 – Power

The last stage in our golf fitness quest is power. This is another term that is commonly misunderstood. There is an inherent trade-off between force and velocity. 

As we start applying force to an object, it starts moving away at a higher velocity. As this occurs we struggle to apply as much force to this object.

Power defines the ability to produce a high level of force at a high velocity.

Golf Insider geek: power is essentially being able to generate the force as fast as possible, whereas strength just involves generating the force, regardless of time taken. With club head speed being such an important factor in golf, strength is very meaningless unless you are able to exert it in a short period of time. Likewise, having no strength to exert is equally meaningless.

Strength will get your pelvis and thorax accelerating. You need power to accelerate your pelvis and thorax to a high velocity in a short period of time

The curve above shows how different types of golf exercises live on this curve. When you have a base level of strength, you can combine some power training into your golf fitness regime. 

For the most part this involves doing similar exercises, reducing the weight slightly and moving at a higher velocity. Great additions include:

Box jumps for the lower body, as shown below. Once you have mastered standard box jumps, add in box jumps with a rotation. These will target the muscles involved in rotating your pelvis.

For the upper body we tend to focus on medicine ball throws and slams. Both of these exercises will help you develop power in your lats, obliques and triceps. See the video below for a few examples.

Golf fitness: summary

That brings us to the end of our swift run through of the four stages of golf fitness: 1) Mobility 2) Stability 3) Strength and 4) Power. I can’t tell you how useful it is to build a solid foundation at stages one and two before you move into the later stages.

Hopefully, this guide has given you some more detail on how each stage of golf fitness relates to your golf swing and performance. For more detail on golf exercises, check out this article and read the following piece for more on how conditioning should fit into your overall golf training program.

If you would like to receive more articles like this one, come join the Golf Insider email list.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

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Will Shaw, PhD, MSc, PGA Pro

Will is a PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. He spent 10 years lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds in Biomechanics and Motor Control before becoming the Head of Golf for the University of Exeter. He currently runs Golf Insider UK, Sport Science Insider around wider consulting and academic roles in sport performance and motor control.

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