Based on the “Tiger effect” on tour, one would assume that lifting is good for golfers. However, just like perfect practice, working out should be done with purpose and efficiency. Ripped biceps and abs are not necessarily going to make you a better golfer. In fact, they could lead to muscle imbalance and poor ball striking.
For golfers, I emphasize a full-body approach in developing strength of both bones and muscles, which many weightlifting programs fail to do. Also, a natural, full-body approach will not lessen your playing endurance on the links, increase injury risk, or produce fatigue—all issues that can arise from weightlifting programs. In other words, if golf is your highest priority, you want to avoid building unnecessary bulk that will only interfere with a smooth, consistent swing.
The bottom line is this: By developing stronger muscles and bones throughout your entire body, you will increase fitness and play better. A simple, safe and short routine will accomplish this task.
Perhaps the most important physical movement necessary for building full-body strength involves properly picking up a heavy weight off the ground, and raising it above your waist, shoulders, or head. This produces muscle contractions throughout the body and provides an important gravitational stimulus for bones.
Lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions increases muscle strength and bone density better than lifting lighter weights with higher repetitions. This full-body approach to strength is the opposite of isolation exercises—those that attempt to produce six-pack abs and bulging biceps. High-rep workouts may bulk you up, but may not be significant enough for bone health or adequate for strength gains. The typical gym workout, including free weights and the various types of high tech machines, is actually artificial because it does not mimic a natural workout.
Each apparatus, for example, trains a particular muscle or muscle group—such as the pecs, quads, hamstrings, or abdominals. In nature, you would not regularly isolate a muscle or muscle group for any length of time. This approach is not recommended for the healthy golfer, unless you have a particular problem, such as the need for rehabilitation where a therapist can help provide a specific workout.
The Case Against Fatigue
Many of the athletes I saw in my clinic regularly lifted weights. They all wanted to improve their fitness and health, but they sought my services due to frequent injuries, ill health and diminishing performance. Despite having larger muscles, many still had muscle imbalances that caused joint, ligament, tendon, and bone problems.
Their weightlifting was almost always done to the point where the muscles fatigued, which directly contributed to many of these problems. Fatigue also increases the need for recovery, which requires time resting that most people are not apt to create. Fatigue also can result in poor posture and gait, which further increases the risk for physical injury. All this, of course, can ruin your game.
Strength is not necessarily associated with muscle size. It is the brain that dictates power. Muscle contraction involves the brain stimulating nerves that communicate with individual muscle fibers to contract. The more fibers that are stimulated, the more strength is created. Just having a large mass of muscle does not assure more fibers will be stimulated to generate power. That is why a lean person who can contract a lot of muscle fibers can be stronger than a big bulky athlete who cannot. You often see this on the driving range or out on the course when a smaller player outdrives larger playing partners.
Fatigue has a negative impact on performance because fewer muscle fibers will contract. It is important to avoid workouts that are performed to more than mild fatigue. Specifically, avoid what is often encouraged in the gym—lifts of 10, 12, 15, or more repetitions that are done to the point of failure, or exhaustion, often followed by insufficient recovery.
Instead, lifting a heavier weight about six times with three minutes or more of rest will give you significant strength gains in both muscle and bone, but safely, without the risk of bulking, fatigue, soreness, or injury.
A key factor that differentiates natural from artificial strength training is fatigue. When performing most weight programs, muscles are isolated and worked to the point of failure, where the muscle can no longer lift the weight. Normal outdoor activities, such as walking a round of golf, do not over-stress the body, so that should not be your goal in the gym.
“Golfers who reach their athletic potential generally play better and enjoy the game for more years.”
Rest Up To Play Strong
While excessive fatigue is often glorified as part of the “no pain, no gain” weightlifting world, it has no correlation with what most golfers should be attempting to accomplish in a strength training program. On the course, performance is improved from stronger muscles and bones along with a better aerobic system that encourages fat-burning as a primary source of energy.
Three other factors associated with fatigue prevention are important to note:
Even after an ideal workout, your body needs to recover so your muscles will build strength. My longtime training equation is an important consideration for everyone: Training = workout + rest.
Aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
If your goal is to build strength in a natural manner, work out at a natural pace. If you are lifting weights at the gym and jumping from one machine to another without sufficient rest, your muscles will get fatigued, which compromises their ability to perform the following set properly. Let your muscles recover to maximize the benefits of the workout while mitigating the risk of injury.
How Much Weight?
As noted above, lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions increases muscle strength and bone density better than lifting lighter weights with higher repetitions. This does not mean more weight is always better.
Here are your guidelines: The weight that might be appropriate is about 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum weight. This is also the weight you can lift about six or seven times before significant fatigue develops.
Your goal should be to keep lifting simple and safe. If you are not familiar with strength training in general then consider working with a trainer to start.
Here is a guideline for a basic workout program:
Reps: 1-6 reps in each set.
Sets: 4 (more if time and energy permit).
Lifting should be done relatively fast, not slow.
Recovery between sets should be 3 minutes (timed), more if desired. All movements should be smooth and natural.
As you get stronger, slowly increase the amount of weight rather than repetitions.
Perform three times per week, and more if time permits.
The Healthy Golfer Strength Routine
Warm-Up Warm-Up Warm-Up
15 minutes (walk, jog or other easy, low heart rate aerobic activity)
Circuit: 2-4 rounds
Deadlift Variation Deadlift Variation Deadlift Variation
5 reps, 3 minutes rest
Squat Variation Squat Variation Squat Variation
5 reps, 3 minutes rest
Cool Down Cool Down Cool Down
10 minutes (walking or low-intensity cycling)
The Healthy Golfer touches on everything from footwear to nutrition, chronic inflammation, and brain function. Why did you choose the lens of golf to explore these issues?
Golfers deserve details about how to get the most out of their bodies for both overall health and to play better. Being too general would reduce my message. There are many topics in the book that only apply to golfers, including practicing while barefoot, the brain’s mental focus, and others. In addition, having worked in the sport for many years, it was clear that a complete book about health and fitness for golfers was not available. For those readers wanting more details, I did write a more general book called The Big Book of Health and Fitness.
You seem to advocate that golfers hold their entire lives to an athletic standard. The stereotypical image of an amateur golfer, however, is not an athletic one. Why should we change the way we do things?
We are all born natural athletes—it’s in our genes. And the game of golf is a sport best performed athletically, if one wants to perform better and play well into old age. While many golfers are not well trained, and some are terribly out of shape, others are athletic. Golfers in the latter group more often reach their athletic potential, generally play better golf, and enjoy the game for more years. So it’s not just golfers who I believe should be athletes, but all humans.
Search for “weightlifting for golf,” and you’ll see things like cable woodchops, pull-ups, medicine ball throws, and plenty of twisting exercises. Your program has two movements: deadlifts and squats. Why just these two?
When it comes to lifting weights, I want golfers to obtain full-body benefits. This means strengthening both bones and muscles. The most natural and effective movement for full body stimulation includes picking a weight up off the ground, lifting it to the waist, shoulders or even above the head, then placing it back down. The medicine ball can be very effective if lifted up to the chest, for example, which most people don’t do.
“Lifting heavier weight with fewer repetitions increases muscle strength and bone density better than lighter weights with higher repetitions.”
Other exercises may be fine to include too, but these two offer great benefits in a shorter workout time. Other more extensive routines may be beneficial, but should be recommended by a professional based on the individual’s particular needs, not because they have become traditional for golfers.
Including only these movements seems to say “Build strength and the rest will follow.” Are sport-mimicking movements (Russian twists, etc.) overrated?
Sport-mimicking movements can be overrated, primarily because they only train part of the body. All golf movements use the full body. Every action, for example, involves not only muscle contraction, but also relaxation of other muscles, and still others that stabilize. The problem of only using part of the body is compounded when one relies on sport-specific exercises in place of the full-body strengthening routines.
By only training a limited number of movements, one can leave too many other body components untrained, including many muscle fibers, and all the neurological connections to those fibers that begin in the brain. Working on a particular movement instead of the whole body also risks interfering with the body’s natural ability to play better golf.
I should emphasize that golf is a natural sport with many innate movements. Building the whole body keeps it more balanced and capable of performing in a natural way.
Many golfers may fear they or their bodies aren’t ready for free weights, let alone deadlifts. What would you advise to them in terms of scaling or progression?
For those not very familiar with strength training, or who don’t regularly perform it, finding a professional to guide them through the proper movements is vital. A good starting point is what is sometimes called a “broomstick” workout, performed without weight. This begins training the nervous system to assure one can move easily in all necessary directions. Only after a few sessions of going through the motions should light weights be added, with gradual increases as muscles become stimulated and one can better perform the movements.
Even more important is ones overall fitness. For people who don’t work out, developing the easy-moving aerobic system is a priority. This can be accomplished with walking, which can also serve as a valuable warm up before strength training, increase fat burning for more energy, and promote weight-loss.
In addition to a daily walk (just 10-15 minutes is a good start), spending more time walking while playing golf can help, and it can improve play.
It could take three months to build a good aerobic system, but all activities for this should be easy, so avoid running, cycling or other exercises that increase the heart rate too much.
There are many varieties of both deadlifts (barbell, kettlebell, single-leg, Romanian) and squats. Are there specific variations that you favor?
I think the most important factor is to pick up a weight, bring it higher up on the body, and place it back down. One can use various types of deadlifts or squats to accomplish this task. Keep it simple. Unless you are training for a weightlifting competition, surprisingly easy and short workouts can results in great strength gains for bones and muscles.
The book discusses many more important details about lifting, with an emphasis on safety. I have seen too many golfers get injured from improper strength training workouts—too much weight, too many reps, too little warm up, and other issues.
As golfers develop their musculature with these sorts of low-rep, high-intensity moves, their bodies and golf swings may begin to feel different. What might they notice, and how should they adapt their mental cueing accordingly?
This is just what happens. They start to feel different because the body is changing. It’s gotten stronger and more efficient. And it’s not just the muscles, but also the whole nervous system that works better, including the brain.
As fitness improves, it’s important for golfers to rely more on the brain to play better, rather than trying to rationalize how to swing different, for example. Since golf is natural, letting the brain guide the newly developed body is the best recommendation.
But changes don’t take place overnight. So you may not notice the improvements in strength, range of motion, energy, and other factors until they become more obvious. Sometimes a playing partner or teaching pro will notice improved swings before the individual does. As aerobic function improves other changes are noticeable: increased fat-burning causes clothes to fit looser, and more energy on the course is evident, especially on the back nine. And, of course, one will experience it with better performance including lower scores.