Most golfers attempt to be far too specific in their strength training and far too general in their energy systems training.
This is probably the biggest mistake I see.
I’m a big believer that strength is the most general physical quality, getting strong in general movement patterns will carryover to all other movements. A rule of thumb developed by Mike Boyle that I like is that 80% of your strength training will be the same regardless of sport. I’ve covered the why and how of this in many social posts and articles so I won’t go into it here. What I have never really touched on, though, is the other side of the strength and conditioning coin - the conditioning or energy systems training.
Whilst strength training should be general in nature for the most part conditioning should be specific to the needs of the sport.
You don't have to be an aerobic rock star - you just have to be good enough
Athletes absolutely should have a well-developed aerobic system in order to recover both acutely (during the training session or competition/games) and chronically (between training sessions and competitions/games). But we have to be careful about taking it too far - does time spent on a treadmill really represent the best use of our training time with golfers whom have other important qualities they need to train, such as strength, power and mobility. This particularly pertinent when we consider golf is a highly technical sport, much practice time is needed to improve skills, and as such our time in the gym is usually pretty limited.
The cardiovascular demands of golf, relatively speaking, just aren’t that great – walking for 4 or 5 hours across varied terrain may be great exercise but it is hardly a 2000m row or 10,000m run.
Building a base
I’ve always used a resting heart rate below 60 (a number I borrowed from people such as Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson who have been talking about this stuff much longer than I) as our standard for a "sufficient" aerobic base for golfers, once you have that in all honesty there is not much point spending much time at all pounding away with 'cardio' training.
When a client or athlete has a high resting heart rate, however, we can assume that they are sympathetic dominant (constantly fight or flight). This will not only impact their recovery between exercises and sets, but also between workouts, practice sessions and tournaments. Furthermore, I know they probably don’t sleep well, either, which further compromises recovery.
So, when this athlete walks in I know some form of cardiac output training is something they will be doing.
Traditional cardiac output training involves working between 60-70% of maximum heart rate, working for anywhere from 30-90 minutes. The exact modality (running, rowing, cycling, airdyne, elliptical machine, etc) doesn’t really matter. It’s simple and it’s effective.
By keeping the intensity low during aerobic training, it won’t compromise strength and power development. This is why I’m not a huge fan of HIIT protocols for improving cardiac output with golfers as those protocols utilize much higher intensities and therefore energy systems that 1) are not particularly specific to golf and 2) do interfere with strength and power development.
This approach, however, does have one notable drawback:
whilst golf is a large amplitude movement (great ranges-of-motion achieved), it is a closed circuit/ low movement variability sport – there is no ball or opponent heading towards you that you must react too. The biggest black mark on typical cardiac output training to my mind, is that it doesn’t offer significant enough movement variability to a golfer. This is compounded by the fact the best time to develop the aerobic system is typically early in the off-season – just the time when we a looking to result movements and ranges of motion that may have been lost as a result of the repetitive and asymmetrical nature of the golf swing.
A better way?
I have begun to use movement circuits as a tool in my arsenal to improve cardiac output with my athletes. Movement circuits involve stringing together numerous mobility, corrective and bodyweight movements together in an almost circuit style.
If we keep the set/ rep ranges and rest periods appropriate we can keep the heart rate in that magical 60-70% percentage range and improve cardiac output whilst simultaneously getting clients out of the sagittal plane, improving mobility, movement quality, etc. And we can even individualise the circuit from client to optimise these effects. An example can be seen below:
In short, movement circuits offer much greater bang for your buck and therefore much more efficient use of your limited gym time!
30-90 minutes to an hour on a treadmill or bike working at a moderate, or even a high intensity, may improve cardiac output but it does not do much to prepare for a long, low intensity cardiovascular activity interspersed with a highly complex, powerful, split second movement, and the concentration/ mental demands that brings.
Once a cardiac output base has been built (if it even needs to be built in the first place) and our resting heart rate is where we need it to be we can start to look at some sport specific power endurance style workouts.
As Mike Robertson put it, "a smart program will build an aerobic foundation, and then interweave high-intensity and low-intensity methods over time to build a more resilient and better conditioned athlete”
For golf this most simply translates to CO training early in off-season and power endurance late off-season/ pre-season – we typically don’t do any ‘cardio’ in-season as simply playing the sport will give all the conditioning needed.
One of my favourite methods of developing power endurance is High Intensity Continuous Training, or HICT. HICT is essentially a slow aerobic session, so your heart rate will never go above 150 beats per minute. You’ll do one explosive rep of an exercise — step-ups, med-ball throws and sled pushes are my favourites — every few seconds. Continue to do that over and over again for 5 to 7 minutes.
HICT not only improves your aerobic conditioning, but also the stamina of your fast-twitch fibres - you know the ones you need to swing a golf club fast! By targeting these fibres with a single powerful repetition each time, you’re working them without ever exhausting the - this boosts the fibre’s endurance so that they don’t gas out leaving your swing slow and tired looking over a long round.
To perform a HICT session pick an exercise that is both a complex movement pattern and can be performed light and fast (the same physical qualities as the golf swing) and perform one rep as fast and powerfully as you can every 3 to 5 seconds for up to 7 minutes straight. That’s one round. Do at total of 2 to 5 rounds, resting 5 minutes between each round.
Monitor your heart rate to make sure it stays between 140 and 150 beats per minute the entire time. If it drops below, increase the resistance or load. If it goes above, decrease it. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor then you can gauge the correct rest periods by breathing exclusively through your nose during the workout - if you can’t maintain this breathing pattern, then you’re going too hard and you need to lower the resistance.
Is conditioning appropriate at all?
HICT training and even cardiac output is not something I use with everybody (even if their heart rate is higher than we would ideally like) as our gym time is typically limited and it simply won’t have the pay off say getting strong will do.
Additionally, if you are playing/ practicing a lot year round you simply may not need it as walking the course and range sessions represents all the conditioning you need – energy systems work should after all be sports specific and what could be more specific than playing golf! Further many should consider weather time spent on conditioning in the gym would be better spent on the golf course getting conditioning but also vital time practicing skills.
That said, if you are seeing a trend of performance worsening towards the end of rounds, you feel tiredness/ fatigue is generally affecting performance and limiting practice time, or if you heading into an off-season where you aren’t playing (either simply due to weather constraints or a long season taking it's toll and your long term athletic development requiring you take some time off the course) then gym based energy systems training may be a good option.
Energy systems development and conditioning should be sports specific. As such, playing the sport may be the best form of conditioning for golfers. Start by ascertaining your resting heart rate, build your base if necessary (heart rate above 60 beats per minute), and then try some HICT workouts for sports-specific conditioning if you have/ need to take time away from the course in the off-season.