Justin Thomas is definitely the hottest player in golf right now, he's also around the top 20 in driving distance, averaging 308 yards off the tee...not too shabby for a 5'10", 145lbs guy!
Among the taller, more powerful frames of Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson, etc, how is this little guy able to mix it on the tour's driving distance stats?
Dr Rob Neal of Golf biodynamics hooked Justin up to some fancy science stuff and ran the biomechanics of his swing a few years ago, according to Neal the distance is due to the ridiculously solid contact and the amazingly high body rotation speeds he is able to create, 25% higher than the tour average to be exact.
As he doesn't have the long levers of his taller counterparts Justin needs to rotate, and fast, to create power. Sure Justin probably posses more golfing talent than you, is blessed with a lot of fast twitch fibres and natural athleticism to burn which helps him do this, but can that rotational speed be developed in the gym?....Heck yeah!
Just ask Justin himself:
So this begs the question, how can you go about developing rotational speed in the gym?
Utilise ground reaction force
Justin pushes up off the ground during his downswing thereby increasing ground reaction force. Indeed when Dr Neal measured it he found his pelvis had shifted and lifted up to 3 inches at impact.
This requires leg strength but more than that it requires single-leg strength, more specifically still, eccentric strength in the lead leg to get out of the loaded trail hip and into the posted lead hip.
As such we should first seek to develop single-leg strength with a relatively static and 'loadable' exercise, then once suitable single leg strength has been built look to develop eccentric strength in a manner more specific to the golf swing. Any split-squat variation covers the first part nicely, whilst a lateral lunge with band overload is my favourite way to cover the second.
In the human body the less a joint can move the lower its force or power output can be. One of the reasons Justin is able to generate such high rotational speeds with body segments is the range of motion he is able to put them through. The hips, t-spine and shoulder typically need addressing to optimise swing speed.
However, joints like the shoulder or hip are caught in the middle of a tradeoff between being highly mobile and powerful while being inherently unstable, which means in order to produce power there has to be some degree of control over that mobility, which bring us to the next requirement....
Did you know the golf swing requires stability throughout the entire body? When you watch Justin swing through impact in the GIF above, force is generated from the ground up. Energy is transmitted from the legs, through the pelvis, to the scapula, the shoulder, the elbow, the wrists and lastly the club.
It is therefore essential to train proximal stability. Without this, you're exposing your shoulder and elbow to some serious forces as a compensation to produce power (I believe this is where a lot of injuries to golfers stem from incidentally). The ability to generate and transfer force from the lower to the upper extremity in single leg support is fundamental for all sport.
EMG analysis has found single-leg RDL exercises exhibited moderate to strong activation of the biceps femoris of the hamstrings and the gluteus medius for lumbopelvic-stability. We also know Y-raise and wall slide exercises exhibit strong scapular stabilization.
Putting this all together allows you to utilise the stretch shortening cycle most effectively
Athletes have been shown to jump 2-4cm higher during the countermovement jump than they can during a static squat jump. This is simply because the countermovement jump incorporates a pre-stretch dropping action when compared to a squat jump – which initiates the movement from a static position without the use of a pre-stretch. This pre-stretch, or ‘countermovement’ action is known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) and is comprised of three phases (eccentric, amortization or transition, and concentric). The action of the SSC is perhaps best described as a spring-like mechanism, whereby compressing the coil causes it to rebound and therefore jump off a surface or in a different direction.
The SSC does not only occur during single-bout jumping or rebounding movements, but also during any form of human movement when a limb changes direction. As the golf swing is basically the sequential changing of direction of multiple body segments there are multiple stretch shortening cycles involved.
To return to our spring analogy, increasing the speed at which the coil is compressed and how hard it is pressed down (amount of force applied) will result in the spring jumping higher or farther. Therefore, the greater the eccentric strength you posses the more force you can apply and the faster you can apply it. Compressing the spring a greater amount will also result in the spring travelling further, this is akin to mobility, the more range of motion you have at a joint the more you can compress the spring.
Whilst mobility, stability and strength training should be carried out concurrently we can also use plyometric and ballistic drills to train the SSC.
Proper progression is important with plyometric drills, ensuring proper landing or throwing mechanics with box jumps and tall/ half kneeling throws before moving onto continuous jumps, change of direction and single-leg jumps and standing throws with eccentric preloading. The choice of drill should be based on strength capacities and sport-specific variables i.e. we'd like a rotary component as we are training for a rotary sport. One of my favourite drills for more advanced golfers is the hot feet scoop toss shown here.
Still think that all this is icing and Justin is just talented so hits a mile? Well the man himself credits increased physical fitness for adding 6-10mph to his clubhead speed and 5-12mph to his ball speed! And believe me when I say improving your mobility, increasing your strength and training the stretch shortening cycle will probably work for you too.