I’m lucky to have a small but dedicated following on social media, email, this site, etc (thank you!) and this affords me the ability to get out there, so to speak, and talk to golfers about their workouts and how they can make them more effective quite a bit.
As a result of this, admittedly unscientific research, I believe there is often times a fundamental miss understanding of the physical qualities needed to play golf.
Self directed programs typically result in the athlete doing the things in the gym they like and/ or are good at rather than what a proper needs analysis of the sport in question would reveal they need to work on.
Sub-optimal progress, little carryover to the golf course and frustration.
What these golfers are often missing is a sound understanding of the physiological demands of the game, as well as a thorough needs analysis that allows them to take an honest look at what they need to perform their best.
With that in mind, this article will present my current thoughts on the needs of the sport of golf. It will also set the stage for two further articles, to be released shortly, that will examine how to assess your individual needs and how to improve those physical qualities.
It should also be noted in the grand tradition of standing on the shoulders of giants, most of these ideas weren’t mine initially - I have built upon great work others before me, people including Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey, Bill Hartman, TPI and the guys at Mike Boyle strength and conditioning.
What physical qualities are important for golf?
To paraphrase Dr Tudor Bompa, strength, speed, endurance, co-ordination and mobility are the biomotor abilities for successful athletic performance. The dominant ability is the one from which the sport requires a higher contribution; for instance, endurance is the dominant ability in marathon running.
"sports-specific program development should always be focused on training the dominant energy system for the chosen sport
A quick primer on energy systems
The body produces the energy required for neural (strength, power, speed) and metabolic (endurance) training by breaking down food and converting it into a usable form of fuel known as ATP. Because ATP has to be constantly replenished and re-used, the body uses three main systems of energy replenishment to facilitate ongoing training: the anaerobic alactic (ATP-PC) system, the anaerobic lactic system, and the aerobic system.
What actually happens in a round of golf?
Depending on your ability you might make 35-50 full swings spread out across 4 hours and you have to walk/ stand in between those swings.
Walking is a low rate of energy production, long duration activity (bottom right of the graph below) whilst swinging the club is a near maximal muscle contraction event over a very short period of time (top left of graph)
As a round of golf lasts a long time, and as the majority of that time is spent walking rather than swinging, it is often tempting to classify golf as an endurance sport and espouse the need for cardiovascular or aerobic endurance training.
However, most studies show golf requires a very average level of aerobic capacity and participants don't achieve an aerobic training effect, even if they have an underlying cardiac condition.
In other words, the cardiovascular fitness requirements are so low that most will already possess an adequate level, particularly if they are already regularly playing and walking the course (and if it isn’t, the best way to develop it is probably to spend more time walking the course!).
"In my opinion many people are choosing useful exercises, but emphasising the wrong energy systems
With this in mind it becomes clear that the traditional ‘cardio’ or light weight, high rep muscular endurance workout, at the low rate of energy production and high duration end of the continuum, is not what we need to be working on. Instead, we need to focus on the high rate of energy production and short duration end of the continuum.
Indeed, there is some great info, to show the energy system usage for golf is comparative to that of weightlifting, volleyball, and short-term track and field events.
Put simply, golf is a power sport.
But I still feel tired after a round?
Swinging a golf club produces about 90% of peak muscle activity for each full swing. Depending on how well you play you may make as many as 40-50 full swings and 100 total swings in a round. That accumulates fatigue.
Golf also requires pretty steady concentration for 4 hours or more, there is considerable mental fatigue associated with that.
Finally, walking or standing for a long duration does accumulate fatigue, although this is not due to a lack of cardiovascular or muscular endurance, rather due to loading of inert (non-contractile) tissues while maintaining an upright posture.
I believe it is more beneficial, then, to redefine endurance/ conditioning for golf as the ability to make repeated efforts - a.k.a the ability to make the repeated swings you need to to play a round or to complete a practice session.
As a result I don't typically recommend aerobic energy systems or cardiac output training to my golfers.
There are two exceptions to this:
1. If a client who is so sedentary in his or her lifestyle that they cannot walk 4 miles at a 1-mph pace. That's how taxing golf is to your aerobic capacities. Very few clients that I have encountered in my career are that sedentary.
2. If a client has a resting HR above 60 beats per minute first thing in the morning we may do some cardiac output training early in the off-season. The reason for this is that improving cardiac output and bringing heart rate down will reduce stress, combating the effects of mental fatigue and creating a more significant window of adaptation both in the gym and on the range. As well as allowing the golfer to recover faster from competition, practice and training, thereby allowing them to do more of those things.
For everyone else strength and power training is probably all they need.
"Maximal strength is the glass, everything else is liquid in the glass
Increasing maximum strength, especially in postures and movement patterns required in the golf swing, will automatically increase your endurance on the course.
The reason for this is three fold:
Firstly, all the tissues, not just muscles accommodate to the increased stress applied by load (remember back to the point about fatigue due to loading non-contractile tissues).
Secondly, training is subject to the law of specificity - we adapt to the imposed demands. If we want to develop the ability to utilise our ATP-PC system and produce a high amount of force quickly, we had better impose demands that require that.
Hopefully this illustrates why I have my golfers lifting heavy (of course heavy is relative and we never sacrifice technical proficiency), jumping and throwing stuff. Set duration is kept relatively short and full recovery between sets is typically employed also.
Thirdly, as I once saw Mike Robertson put it (although I'm not sure who said it originally), "maximal strength is the glass, and everything else is liquid in the glass" - i.e. the more strength you have the more muscle endurance, power endurance, etc, you are able to have.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that if you want/ need to develop golf specific endurance there are probably few better places to start than playing golf - each round you play contributes to your golf-specific endurance. Further, by keeping track of and gradually increasing effort and number of swings in practice sessions, you can develop some very specific golf endurance.
Hopefully I have demonstrated where/ how I think most golfers miss the mark in their training and the rationale behind this belief. Maybe I've even convinced some of you to eschew the treadmill in favour of more time spent developing strength!
P.S. I really believe this information - and that in the other two articles to come - is an important piece of the puzzle a lot of amateur golfers are missing so if you enjoyed it or found the information useful please share it with anyone else you think might benefit.
Bompa T, Buzzichelli C (2015) Periodization training for sports, Human kinetics
Dobrosielski, Devon A. MS; Brubaker, Peter H. PhD; Berry, Michael J. PhD; Ayabe, Makoto MS; Miller, Henry S. MD (2002) The Metabolic Demand of Golf in Patients With Heart Disease and in Healthy Adults, Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention: 22 (2) - p 96-104.
Ryan GA (1988) The prevalence of musculo-skeletal symptoms in supermarket workers. Journal of ergonomics, 32 (4): https://doi.org/10.1080/00140138908966103
Smith, M.F. (2010) Sports Med 40: 635. https://doi.org/10.2165/11532920-000000000-00000
Wells, Greg D; Elmi, Maryam; Thomas, Scott (2009) Physiological Correlates of Golf Performance, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: 23 (3), p 741-750, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a07970
Zunzer SC , von Duvillard SP , Tschakert G , Mangus B , Hofmann P (2013) Energy expenditure and sex differences of golf playing. Journal of Sports Sciences, 31(10):1045-1053.
*'Physical attributes required for various sports' diagram adapted from Bompa book referenced above.