Specificity is one of the most important principles of strength training. It states that training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect that positively impacts upon performance.
As such, in a desire to train sport-specific, golfers have often taken the route of taking a cable/ band or hopping on a stability ball and mimicking the golf swing.
However, these strategies leave too many other factors neglected - for example the benefits of general strength training on injury prevention and force development, the importance of training efficiency in a highly skill dominant sport such as golf, and the importance of being athlete specific before sport specific - as well as actually contravening some of the major tenets of the principle of specificity.
The injury prevention problem
Golf is an inherently asymmetrical pattern and by training in a highly specific manner you end up neglecting antagonist/ stabiliser muscles and reinforcing those asymmetries. This is particularly pertinent when you consider overuse is the most common mechanism of injury for golfers, professional and amateur.
As such, we do not want to spend a huge amount of gym time stressing the joints in the same specific way we do on the course already. Eric Cressey probably said it best when he said, “specificity works great until you're so specific that you wind up injured and have forgotten how to do everything else.”
Further, specific modalities are not appropriate when proper anatomical adaptation and strength has not been established. This is particularly true in a sport like golf where participants still do not typically have a lot of exposure to physical training or athletic development.
Balanced strength development through general movement pattern training and compensation strength exercises should therefore always be incorporated in training, especially early in the training career and off-season phases of the annual plan.
In other words, specificity should be applied only to advanced athletes during the competitive phase.
The competing motor demands problem
The principle of specificity states that we should try to mimic the dynamic structure of a skill as well as the spatial orientation or body position in relation to the environment. Particular emphasis should be placed on prime movers without disturbing the motor patterns required for the sports technique.
The key failing of many golf specific training modalities as I see it is the last part of that statement - without disturbing the motor patterns required for the sports technique.
The golf swing requires almost every muscle in your body to be utilised in specific sequence, in specific ranges of motion and in correct tension relationships to all other muscles. Adding weight to the movement via a band or cable, alters the direction of force, causing your body to change the entire sequence and balance of the movement in order to achieve a similar outward appearance. This results in that very thing we want to avoid – a competing or disturbed motor pattern. This makes your golf swing much harder to execute without thought, and in a sport as highly technical and skill based as golf, this is wholly unacceptable.
The more of these drills we add, the quicker neuro-muscular firing is compromised, faulty motor patterns arise and skill based mechanics go downhill.
A better way
The goal of physical preparation for golf should be to progress from general training towards lateral and rotational patterns, or combinations thereof (multi-planar motions), that are both direction of force and velocity specific to the golf swing. However depending on the athletes training experience, age, etc, they may not be ready for this - nor may they ever be. We must, therefore, have a systematic plan, based on the individual. One that takes the athlete through safe and effective training progressions, ensuring long term athletic development and injury prevention, before diving into such exercises.
In short, athletes should earn the right to move to specific training by developing general physical qualities. As alluded to earlier, this is especially important when we consider the majority of golfers still unfortunately lack training experience.
The best way to enhance the performance for most golfers then, is to develop sufficient stability, mobility and strength in an athlete specific manner - focusing on improving the individual’s weaknesses regards movement and force production qualities in general patterns such as squatting, lunging, hip hinging, pulling and pushing. Even once the right to enter a more specific training phase is earned the specific needs of the sport are not addressed through all phase of the annual plan.
Further, when beginning to think about specific training we must also pay heed to the overuse and injury prevention issues discussed earlier. For golf, then, it is better to train qualities that translate to the golf swing rather than seeking to mimic the golf swing itself.
The golf swing is largely dependent on rotational and lateral movement to develop power, although there are also elements of vertical and horizontal power to varying degrees – there is a hip extension moment as we approach the ball in the downswing, this means for most the pelvis will be closer to the ball on impact than at posture. From this we can assume a horizontal displacement of force has occurred.
Whilst it is important our training get us out of the sagittal plane at some point we must also remember that the sagittal plane still represents an effective way to train these vertical and hip extension moments. Indeed, research has demonstrated a relationship between vertical jump and clubhead speed. Other research has also pointed towards the importance of posterior chain strength and power output in lateral movements. Indeed, as the father of periodised sports training in the western world, Tudor Bompa, stated, “normally gains in power transfer to skill improvement.”
Further, the golf swing uses a kinetic chain movement pattern to transfer force from the ground, through the larger proximal muscle groups out to the arms and ultimately the most distal point, the club – all this occurs at very high velocity. Olympic lift variations, med-ball throws, sled pushes, etc, accomplish this in a way attaching bands to golf clubs simply does not. These exercises also do not run the risk of disturbing the motor pattern required for the sport.
The image below shows the movement patterns and planes required in the golf swing and the exercises that can therefore be used to develop these patterns - as we can see this takes us full circle back to our foundational movement patterns:
Lastly, we must also consider training efficiency. Whilst periodising or managing the volume of golf swings we take maybe pertinent for some to prevent injury (read more on this here) golf is a high skill sport where performance is largely dependent on the replication of a fine motor pattern. Whilst training has many benefits to golfers performance and overall health, it should not come at the expense of practice time, for this reason.
As such the exercises listed above represent pretty solid exercise chooses regardless of where the athlete is at in the competitive cycle or the athletes experience. These foundational movement patterns accomplish all the things we need to do in the gym – namely improve physical qualities required for the sport, provide movement context on which to establish technical proficiency and prevent injury – in a time efficient manner. To quote the legendary strength coach Dan John, “It is much better to use a few movements that cover a lot of needs, rather than dozens of isolated bits.”
This approach means we get in and out of the gym, having achieved what we need to achieve, and can get back out onto the golf course or practice tee and improve our skills.
Highly specific training can be detrimental to movement quality, force output and injury prevention.
Training specificity should be applied only to advanced athletes during the competitive phase. It is also not appropriate to the average golfer who lacks the necessary training experience, anatomical adaptation and strength levels.
For the vast majority of golfers it will prove more effective and time efficient to train physical qualities that translate to the golf swing, rather than seeking to mimic golf swing itself.