There’s a growing realization in golf that hitting the gym to improve your golf fitness and strength can be a valuable shortcut to performance gains on the green. At the same time, there are a few misleading myths that have grown up around golf fitness and strength.
RSNG spoke to ‘Dr Golf’, AKA Dr Zachariah Gould whose golf career extends from early years as a pro (playing alongside Rory McIlroy, no less), to being a leading golf fitness, strength & conditioning coach – he even picked up a PHD in sports science along the way. So, get ready to bust some myths…
MYTH 1: ‘You Need To Do Loads Of Cardio For Golf Fitness’ When pro players and amateurs started to get serious about golf fitness, there was an assumption that because they spent so many hours marching around golf courses, then doing cardio would help them to build the stamina and focus required to play 18 holes.
While it’s true that cardio exercise (long, steady-state runs, cycles etc) makes you more aerobically fit, it’s also true that the parts of golf that are the most demanding are not, in fact, aerobic. “Golfers were doing lots of long-distance running and cycling, but the energy zones for that are at the other end of the spectrum to walking a golf course,” says Gould.
“I say to my golfers: ‘If you’re fit enough to walk 18 holes, maintaining your focus through good nutrition and hydration as you play, then you’ve already got enough aerobic capacity to play the game.” In other words, focus on the specific qualities that underpin your golf swing.
MYTH 2: ‘Strength Training For Golf Is Somehow Bad’ There’s still some suspicion of hitting the weights room among golfers. “You see comments on social media, where a golfer will be lifting heavy weights, and someone will be like: ‘Watch your back that doesn’t look healthy.’ Or the European Tour posted Rory McIlroy doing contrast training in the gym, and people were saying: ‘That doesn’t make you good at golf.’ But strength training is a good thing, for many reasons,” says Gould.
It's like sitting in a 1.1-litre car and putting your foot down – we have to build a bigger engine if we want to increase the capacity
The first of these, for a golfer, is that you cannot improve the raw power available to your golf swing, without doing some work away from the golf course. “It's like sitting in a 1.1-litre car and putting your foot down. There's only so much speed, so we have to build a bigger engine if we want to increase the capacity. The only way to do that is some sort of training in the gym, which could be for power, strength or hypertrophy (muscle building).”
This strength training will make your body adapt, get stronger and build your capacity. “So long as you have good technique and posture when you do these exercises, then they can be done safely.”
In fact, says Gould, if you are avoiding doing resistance exercises in the gym then you’re increasing your injury risk, not reducing it. This is because these moves help to strengthen and stabilize your joints, and increase your bone density. The golf swing is a powerful move that involves rotation, and results in a lot of injuries, most of them caused by overuse.
“Ultimately, a golf swing is a high risk move – we expose ourselves to risk of injury when playing the game. That means we all need to do some good quality work in the gym, otherwise, our risk of injury goes up.”
MYTH 2: ‘Mobility Is The King Of Golf Fitness’ A lot of golfers will blame their lack of club head speed, underpowered drives or missed shots on a lack of mobility, particularly around the hips and spine. This has led to flexibility for golf drills proliferating online.
For Gould, training mobility is indeed a good thing: “We definitely encourage it in what we do, because if people haven't got the mobility, then they're going to compensate with incorrect movements in their golf swing, which are going to decrease performance and potentially increase the risk of injury.” The difference between worthwhile flexibility drills and ‘junk training’ is that they need to be targeted to your individual compensations or limitations: “We can give good mobility exercises, but you need to be strong in those positions too.”
For general mobility, strength training itself can improve it. This is because you will be training movements under load, which makes your joints more stable and increases your ability to adopt good posture, with a stronger core: “If we can improve someone's ability to produce force, we also improve their ability to absorb force,” says Gould.
MYTH 3: ‘Speedsticks Are Essential’ One modern golf fitness trend that seems to be here to stay is the use of speedsticks to train faster club head speeds. This trend is also visible in golf-specific gym workouts that seek to mimic, and then load, the specific, rotational ‘golf swing’ movement. Despite his background as a pro player, and strength and conditioning coach specializing in golf, Dr Gould has grave doubts around this approach.
“I don’t program any of that stuff for my golfers,” he says. “In the short term you will see increases in swing speed. But I always ask the question: ‘at what cost’?” Gould has had golfers come to him saying that they have been using speedsticks but they have felt that they have lost their swing as a result:
“If the club gets stuck behind you (of the facing match in the body) then no matter how good you are, you’re going to decelerate to try and get the club back in front. You can have all of the physical capability in the world, but if you’re technically inefficient, then you're going to lose speed anyway.”
Club head speed needs even more credit than it currently gets and I think people need to be striving for a little bit more
The other issue with speedsticks, for Gould, is the injury risk that comes with any explosive, rotational movement, especially when it's loaded. Weight lifters are always instructed to do any lift with strict technique. “But I’ve heard some golf coaches [working with speedsticks] say things like: ‘Don’t worry about the technique, just go after it. Intensity, intensity!’ If I said that in the gym, then people would go berserk!”
Ultimately, the decision on whether to use speedsticks is a personal one, but Gould recommends taking the long view, and seeing your golf training as a lifestyle that you should be able to sustain for the next decade, at least:
“Golfers are not undercooked on exposing themselves to rotational forces, just by playing. These are going to push stress through the body, and it’s going to have to adapt to that. So if we start to overload that process in training and practice too, then this increases the exposure, and over time that can increase the risk of injury.”
MYTH 4: ‘You Have To Become A Bodybuilder’ A common misconception about getting stronger is that you also need to bulk up. But before you join ‘International Chest Day Mondays’ in your local gym, know that isolating muscle groups isn’t going to necessarily improve your golf swing.
Instead, Gould programs full-body workouts that aim to train movements through the knee, hips, torso, shoulders, elbows and wrists, rather than exhaust individual muscles. “Quality training includes things like Olympic lifting, vertical jumps and box jumps where you're having to produce force quickly through that sequence.”
On the face of it, these movements don’t really look like a golf swing. “Yeah, it looks like a box jump, but if you actually watch the sequence, and you look at how Rory McIlroy produces force from the floor, then it’s very similar in quality,” says Gould.
MYTH 5: ‘Club Head Speed Doesn’t Matter That Much’ OK, so maybe this one isn’t much of a myth, but for any holdouts who are resisting the modern push for more speed, then Gould has a simple message: “I actually think that it needs even more credit than it currently gets… I think it's still probably undervalued, and I think people need to be striving for a little bit more, especially performance golfers.”
Gould has worked with quite a few European Tour pros and they all say the same thing: “‘I wish we had done more as amateurs, because when you turn pro you no longer have the time to train like an amateur.’ We’re saying to the younger golfers, that now is your window of opportunity. All the data says that the golfers who are successful are the ones who can hit it a long way!”
WHAT NEXT? Want more on golf fitness? Read how the strength and conditioning coach for The European Tour approaches getting stronger for golf.
Dr Zachariah Gould sets bespoke golf fitness training plans whatever your level – visit his website for more.
Photo by Logan Weaver, Tom Moser, Courtney Cook, Samantha Gades, Larry Clayton on Unsplash