How The Wrists Work In The Golf Swing

In this article, we’ll dive into the modern mechanics of how the wrists work in your golf swing. By the end, you’ll have a detailed understanding of how, and why, the wrists play such an important part in your golf swing.

This is a tough topic to cover, as we need to be precise with terminology, but I really wanted to keep it accessible and practical. It is the best I can do currently, it is still a bit ‘wordy’ but I hope it is of use in your golfing journey.

This is predominantly aimed at golf coaches, elite players and geeky amateurs. I must add a big thanks to Sasho MacKenzie, Scott Cowx, HackMotion Golf & Connor Black – they haven’t endorsed this work but a lot of their previous work has influenced this piece – keep up the great work guys.

Basic terminology

Your wrists have three planes of movement, one of these is actually in your forearms, but in golf and many sporting analyses, we tend to place them in with wrist mechanics.

The three ranges of motion are:

  • Flexion/extension
  • Radial/ulnar deviation
  • Pronation/supination

This is the language we’ll use throughout this article, so we’ll cover each in turn below.

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Flexion/extension

Flexion/extension refers to the range of motion you see below. When your palm moves towards your forearm your wrist is flexing and becomes flexed. As the back of your hand moves upwards towards your forearm we say your wrist is extending and moves into extension. Later, we’ll see this motion is key for controlling your club face and shot accuracy.

gif showing flexion and extension in the golf swing
Graphic from HackMotion Pro Sensor.

Radial/ulnar deviation

Radial/ulnar deviation is commonly referred to as wrist hinge or cocking our wrists in the golf swing. It plays a key role in generating clubhead speed and also determines the lie angle of your golf club through impact and affects the centredness of strike.

When your thumb moves towards your forearm you are moving into radial deviation. As your little finger moves towards your forearm you are moving into ulnar deviation. See the graphic below and watch how the blue number changes.

gif showing radial and ulnar devation in the golf swing
Graphic from HackMotion Pro Sensor.

Pronation/supination

This range of motion comes about from your forearm in the form of rotation. If you hold your hands out in front of you and rotate so your palms face the sky they are supinating. As you rotate your hands so your palms face the floor they are pronating.

This motion also plays a key role in clubface angle (open/closed) at impact, along with club head speed and to a lesser degree swing path through impact. Sorry, the HackMotion graphic below doesn’t display this number changing, but observe the motion of the hand and arm – this is pronation/supination.

gif showing pronation and supination in the golf swing
Graphic from HackMotion Pro Sensor.

Don’t worry if it takes you a while to get around these terms, this is a relatively new topic in the world of golf mechanics, feel free to refer back to this section.

Let’s now dive into how the wrists work within your golf swing.

Wrist mechanics and your backswing

Historically, you would find a lot of information on exactly how the wrists should work in your backswing, including the importance of a perfect backswing plane, and the need for a ‘neutral’ club face at the top of your swing. However, on tour, we are seeing more and more variation in backswing positions – Tony Finau, Matt Wolff & Viktor Hovland to name a few.

showing different wrist positions on PGA Tour players at the top of the swing
Left to right: Hovland, Wolff and Finau top of backswing with iron. Screenshots are from Mike’s 3D Life YouTube Channel.

This reflects more modern coaching whereby your wrists need to be hinged/set (radial deviation) to generate power, but beyond this, there are no textbook positions for your wrists and the golf club.

Don’t get me wrong, these positions do matter, but what is ideal is also dependent on your golf grip, how you start your downswing and your desired ball flight.

Classical backswing wrist mechanics

Below is my best attempt at a more classical backswing where the wrists move in the following order:

  1. Lead arm pronates, and trail arm supinates during the takeaway.
  2. Wrists radial deviate to ‘set’ the club halfway back
  3. There is little flexion/extension in the lead wrist at the top of the backswing.
Wrists in the backswing

We’re seeing more and more on the PGA and LPGA Tour that this isn’t needed to be an elite ball striker. I feel there are many potential good backswing positions, based on players’ downswing mechanics and physical constraints, but we’ll cover a few key concepts below.

Radial/ulnar deviation in the backswing

You should radial deviate (set) your wrists before you reach the top of your backswing for more control. If you are after sheer club head speed a faster backswing and later wrist set can be an option, but it has many trade-offs in control and accuracy. I would avoid a late wrist set and find other avenues to generate extra club head speed.

Pronation/supination in the backswing

Pronation of your lead arm, coupled with supination of your trail arm, will promote the club tracking more around your body and being more ‘laid off’ at the top and the club face appearing more open. Less of this action above will result in a backswing motion where the club travels steeper, is more across the line and the club face is more closed.

You can play around with this movement in your wrists and make a considerable difference to the position and orientation of the club during your backswing.

Flexion/extension in the backswing

The more flexed your lead wrist is, the more closed your club face will be at the top. The more extended your lead wrist is, the more open your club face will become. (On to a complicated topic) You would think this means slicers should flex their lead wrist during their backswing to neutralise their open club face – this can work, but it is actually more important that they move from extended into flexed during their downswing.

Wrapping up backswing wrist mechanics

You can play great golf from a range of positions mentioned above. Your ideal position depends on your:

  1. Desired ball flight
  2. Posture, setup and grip
  3. Downswing dynamics (wrists, arms & body)

Focus on downswing and impact mechanics first (covered below) and then fine-tune your backswing to optimise your ball flight if needed.

Wrist mechanics in the downswing & through impact

All the golf ball really cares about is impact – this will dictate where the golf ball goes and your ability to play golf. The wrists play pivotal roles in generating club head speed, controlling your swing path, strike and critically, your face angle through impact.

Once you can strike the ball near the centre of the club face, face angle at impact will become the biggest factor in determining the start direction and curvature on all your golf shots. The following section aims to explain the relationship wrist mechanics have on impact factors and shot outcome.

What follows is slightly over-simplified, but it is the best way I can explain this complex topic, in all the examples below we assume you’ve hit the centre of the club face. Grab a golf club and work through each of these when reading.

In each case imagine your wrists making these movements when your clubhead is coming into impact (2-3 feet before impact). Applying forces to create these positions before impact is a key secret in generating a great impact position.

Flexion/extension

Flexion and extension wrist angles on golf explained face and path

Changes in flexion/extension as you move through impact will affect your face angle to your target and to your swing path. If you want to close your club face work on extending your lead wrist pre-impact. If you need to open your club face work on keeping your lead wrist extended.

Curvature on your shots is caused by the difference between your club face angle and swing path through impact, meaning you can swiftly change your ball flight (curvature on shots) by tweaking wrist flexion/extension.

Flexion/extension can be seen as a principle variable controlling face angle to your target and swing path. Flexion/extension will have minimal affect on your swing path.

Pronation/supination

Pronation and supination wrist mechanics

Increasing or decreasing your lead wrist supination through impact alters your club face and swing path relative to your target line. However, unlike flexion/extension, it has minimal affect on the relationship between your swing path and club face.

More lead wrist supination will create more of an out-to-in swing path and close the club face to your target. Less supination (forearm rotation) will create an impact with a more in-to-out swing path and a club face more open to your target line.

This is subtly different to flexion/extension which alters your club face to your swing path, but this difference is critical in understanding why release patterns work or don’t work for certain players.

Radial/ulnar deviation

The magnitude of radial deviation you have approaching impact is important, but a very complex topic. We’ll start simple – this angle at impact will affect the dynamic lie angle of your golf club. More radial, the more toe up the club will be, the more ulnar more toe down the club will be.

Just remember that the constraint of making contact with the golf ball means, that if you altered your wrist angles, your hand positions at impact (aka whole swing) would have to change to still make contact…unless you are happy with air shots (see graphic below).

radial ulna wrist angles in golf and dynamic lie angle at impact

A more complex topic is that more radial deviation (wrist hinge / lag) pre-impact results in higher club head speeds. This has been evidenced empirically and through computer simulations, but how this occurs is complicated.

Some of the club head speed comes directly through the release of radial into ulnar deviation, accelerating the club head. However, holding onto the radial deviation later into the downswing also creates a longer lever, perpendicular to your forearm, for pronation/supination to work through.

radial devation wrist mechanics impact on speed

The result is the club head travelling further through space with the same amount of lead wrist supination, consequently, greater club head speed. You could read this section many times and it will not make sense. Instead, grab a club and supinate your lead arm with your wrist in radial and ulnar extremes – note the change in club head motion. This is shown in the graphic above.

Your ideal wrist mechanics in the downswing and through impact

That summarises how your wrist mechanics affect impact and your ball flight, and you are right to think…and now what?? The issue with giving precise instruction is that there is more than one effective way to consistently rip a golf ball at your target and a long way.

For more on what I mean by this, check out Scott Cowx’s excellent piece on 3 tour player wrist patterns. We’ll have a part 2 on Golf Insider with wrist mechanics and release patterns shortly. My simplified advice is to ask yourself the following questions:

Diagnosing your swing

  • Do I have a club face-to-swing path relationship issue (slices/hooks)? Focus on wrist flexion/extension
  • Do I need to change both my swing path and club face to my target (pulls/pushes)? Focus on pronation/supination
  • Do I need to alter my lie angle and/or club head speed? Focus on radial/ulnar deviation

A few important details before you leave

This article isn’t for everyone, but I wanted to put it out to share some knowledge that isn’t commonly known in golf coaching. The following pieces are some very important constructs that I haven’t seen elsewhere. They all play an important role in understanding how to improve your wrist mechanics.

Textbook explanation vs reality

One of the reasons this area is complex is because it is very difficult to isolate wrist actions. For example, if you really try to maximise radial deviation (wrist hinging), you’ll find your left wrist wants to become more extended – some humans have a better range in a extended position, but this extension also allows the club to exploit another lever system and travel along a longer arc.

Aiming for more pronation/supination with no changes to the other two ranges of movement is challenging in practice. And the constraint of having to make contact with the golf ball means your body will make adaptations on the fly.

With this in mind, take the concepts here as a solid guide to refine your impact and ball flight, but realise reality is a lot messier than theory.

Remember the other hand

For simplicity, we often just talk about your left or lead wrist, but remember both hands are attached to the golf club. If you want your left wrist to flex, your right wrist also needs to extend to allow this to happen.

Both hands are fixed to your golf club once you take your golf grip. They both apply forces to the handle of the golf club and they need to work in unison to consistently make the club move in the way you wish it to.

You can play around with a feeling more in your lead and trail hands or both to see what helps you control the club face best. This is a surprisingly useful hack for speeding up changes.

Grip pressure & wrist mechanics

Most golfers have an implicit understanding that grip pressure will affect how free and easy their golf swing feels. This is largely due to how grip pressure affects wrist mechanics at a physiological level.

To grasp an object, like a golf club, your fingers need to flex, this is largely controlled by the flexor muscles in your forearm, creating a torque in your wrists. To maintain a stable wrist position your forearm extensors also contract. This co-contraction essentially locks your wrist. The harder you grip an object, the more co-contraction is needed to stabilise the wrist, further limiting wrist motion.

A strong grip pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will limit the range of motion in your wrists and your potential club head speed.

Why a weak grip is doubly bad for slicers

I’ve never seen this discussed elsewhere so I feel it is important to share with golfers and coaches. A weak left-hand grip is a function of the golf handle being placed too high in the palm of the hand, rather than along the fingers. It results in a more open club face and your left wrist needing to become more supinated and flexed to square up the club face.

However, there is another reason slicers with weak grips struggle to square the club face. To grasp the golf handle when it is higher in your palm, your fingers are required to flex more towards your palm. This lengthens your wrist flexor muscles and actually prevents you from being able to flex your left wrist further.

Place a golf club high up in your left palm and then in your fingers and test how flexed you can make your left wrist. You’ll have far less range moving into flexion with the former.

This means as a slicer with a weak grip, you need more forearm rotation (supination) to square up the golf club and will have far less ability to flex your left wrist. I should note the same is true for golfers who hook and have a very strong right-hand grip – you won’t be able to flex your right wrist and as a result, will struggle to get your left wrist into an extended position – resulting in a closed club face.

Summary

You should now know the three planes of motion in your wrists and how they affect impact and your golfing performance.

  • Flexion/extension is a key factor in club face control and altering your face angle to your swing path.
  • Pronation/supination also affects club face angle, but tends to shift both swing path and club face angles relative to your target.
  • Finally, radial/ulnar deviation affects dynamic lie angle. It contributes considerably to your club head speed, both directly and indirectly, by creating a longer lever for pronation/supination to create work on the club.

It is hard to make this topic easily actionable, as it is complex and there are many potentially ‘correct’ ways to use your wrists in the golf swing.

However, I do hope this article serves as a great guide for you to better understand how to wrists work in your golf swing and potentially diagnose ways to improve your impact and golfing performance.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

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Further reading

Teu et al. (2006) The analysis of golf swing as a kinematic chain using dual Euler angle algorithm

MacKenzie (2012) Club position relative to the golfer’s swing plane meaningfully affects swing dynamics

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

6 thoughts on “How The Wrists Work In The Golf Swing”

  1. Hi Mr Shaw, I’m one of those geeky amateurs! I sense the simplification of an enormously complex topic running through this article, which is still (by an order of magnitude) one of the most informative i have read on a subject that infuriates me.

    I know this says “leave a comment” and not “ask a long and convoluted question” but….I’m going to try my luck.

    Ummm….OK so I can use “radius around ulna” to pronate AND supinate (I’d call that *book* in my notes…open and close a book) but I can also go the other way, with ulna (and thus also humerus and scapula movement) rotating around radius; I’d call that *key* as in using a key to lock / unlock. You can also readily have a combination of the two where both foreams bones are moving around a longtitudinal axis between them.

    These, to my mind, clearly have different knock-on effects?

    Meanwhile it’s hard for me to not think of the linkage between the hands as the focal point…pivot point…fulcrum point…….”FP”…where I effectively combine left radius and right ulna, leaving left ulna to “key” and right radius to “book” whilst left radius and right ulna are my linkages to the torso.

    If I’m honest, it feels to me like I make one new hand (left radius, two fingers and thumb, right ulna and two fingers) for holding the club so as to move it and the other hand split on either side in order to manipulate it, weird as I know that sounds.

    So I guess my question is, am I massively over-complicating my thoughts here? Or if I ploughed through the linked articles, would I get anywhere near these thoughts?

    I appreciate that you didn’t ask for questions….thanks for the article, I’ll be sure to go through the whole site now I’ve found it.

    Andy

    Reply
    • Hi Andy,

      I love how deep you are into this topic and at the same time, I doubt it is useful for freely swinging a golf club! I think you’ve thought more about this than most coaches. So let’s try to set you in the right direction to start climbing out of this black hole of swing thoughts.

      1) You are spot on with different forms of rotation in the arm. Hopefully, I have interpreted the movements described. In biomechanical terms you have
      a) Pronation/Supination in the forearm.
      b) Internal/external rotation of the shoulder.

      Both of these do in fact affect club face and path, but I would suggest ~70-80% of variability and freedom comes from the forearm, so great noticing but focus on the forearm. The next layer of complexity comes when you consider the role of shoulder rotation when your elbow is flexed vs extended…have a play around, but the secrect of a great golf game doesn’t lay here.

      You’re right, I didn’t feel there was a great guide on this topic, so I’m delighted it is of use. How to use this information?

      1) Whats your ball flight for good/poor shots?
      2) Are poor shots caused by path, face or a combination?
      3) What forearm motions will help improve those numbers?
      4) Go hit golf shots and see what the golf ball does.

      There are no secret formulas, as I sit here and type this reply I’ve had a great 6 hours of coaching at Exeter University and worked on two very different release patterns just in today’s lessons. In my humble opinion, it’s about finding a solution that gets the results, the player is happy with, and then committing to owning that movement.

      I hope that helps and moves you forward to some great golf scores.

      Kindest regards,

      Will

      Reply
      • Much obliged Will!

        Interesting conceptual revision for me to think of humerus / ulna (longtitudinal axis) rotation as int / ext rotation of the scapula. Huh. i mean it (as usual) is obvious now you say it. Shades of Cowan.

        I’m constantly amazed at how rotations spread throughout the body and especially how we seem to have a (hidden in plain sight) system of longtitudinal rotations when all the focus is on joint actions….at least in many descriptions I have read elsewhere.

        Thanks for the advice, I’ll dig out the salopettes!

        Andrew

        Reply
  2. Hi Will,

    Great article. I play off 10 and have struggled for years and through 3 different coaches with fat shots with a right to left ball flight. I think my missing piece is ulnar deviation of the left wrist as late as possible into impact and then through to long straight arms after impact. AS you have said above there are many ways to have a successful swing but is it ok to allow the left wrist to have this ulnar deviation?

    Reply
    • Hi David,

      Glad this was of use. Yes, if I’m reading this right you’re thinking you need to i) hold your ‘lag’ (radial deviation) late into impact, before allowing the wrists to release and ii) keep the club face square post-impact (again the above would help).

      The one addition I’d make is that when you’re making these swing changes like these remember that the biggest constraint you have is still making contact with the golf ball. To help change the above, make sure your weight is on your front foot at impact and focus on turning through all of your golf shots so your chest is starting to face the target at impact. If you practice this impact position you’ll notice you have to keep the hands leading the club in order to make contact.

      I hope that helps and best of luck with the winter work.

      Kind regards,

      Will

      Reply
      • Thanks Will,

        I have my weight forward, chest continuing to rotate and forward shaft lean.
        I try and hold the radial deviation as long as possible but I wasn’t allowing my wrists to transition to ulnar deviation as part of the release.

        Question 1. Am I now correct in assuming that the wrists need to transition from radial deviation to ulnar deviation as part of the release? I have started to do this and my contact has improved greatly. But I don’t want to fix a fault with a fault. Hence my desire to seek clarification. When you look at Tiger Woods just after impact his right wrist is in full ulnar deviation. I was trying to achieve this after impact rather than through impact.

        Question 2. Of the 3 wrist conditions you describe above, what do they look like prior to impact and then at impact?

        Thanks so much.
        Cheers
        David

        Reply

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