PHYSICAL PREPARATION FOR GOLF
– Written by Daniel Coughlan, Nigel Tilley, UK, Luke Mackey, Australia, Fiona Scott, Simon Brearley, and Chris Bishop, UK
Historically, in both the recreational and professional game, golf is not a sport that has a strong tradition of physical preparation. At the recreational level, less than 30% of golfers do any structured warm up and most golf facilities do not have a gym. However, a greater understanding of the health- and performance-related benefits of fitness training is changing this, with elite and professional players now viewing physical preparation as being as important as golf practice. Specifically, it is now common to see athletic warm-ups and physical training regimes focusing on dedicated speed training on the range, improving strength, power, and range of motion in the gym, and drawing on the planning expertise of strength and conditioning coaches to ensure this training is optimised through effective modulation of stress, adaptation, and recovery. As a result, professional players are exhibiting faster clubhead speeds than ever before, which naturally translates to hitting the ball a greater distance.
This “new” focus on physical preparation has been heavily fuelled by the success of Tiger Woods and others, in addition to increased data use. For example, the creation of Strokes Gained by Broadie uses an algorithm from years of data on the PGA Tour to highlight that players who drive the ball further can gain strokes on other players, through an increased likelihood to hole out in fewer shots1. This has resulted in players paying more attention to metrics such as clubhead speed, ball speed and carry distance2, which are heavily influenced by physical preparation work in the gym. Figure 1 highlights the core components of physical preparation, but excludes other important factors like nutrition, hydration and sleep.
In addition to direct improvements in performance, physical preparation is likely to have a number of health-related benefits for recreational and elite golfers. Previous literature outlines the importance of physical training for golfers on physical health3,4, positive impact on mental health4, and the enhanced ability to withstand fatigue and recover between sessions5. However, competing at the highest level in this sport provides some challenges such as travel fatigue and jet-lag, the persistent living in hotels, the impact this has on over-arching sleep quality and quantity, and repetitive stress placed on specific parts of the body from the sport itself, to name a few.
SPECIFIC CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE ELITE AND PROFESSIONAL GOLFER
While physical preparation can help a golfer tolerate the lifestyle demands of their job, coaches require an understanding of common barriers and constraints associated with a player’s lifestyle and optimal ways of working around them, in order for the effects to be maximised.
The average professional will compete between 18 to 30 weeks per year. The major professional golf tours run year-round, with players travelling around the globe. While there are gaps from competition through the year, there is no traditional ‘off-season’ (a key consideration when organising training and recovery across the year). Depending on the player’s category within a tour, they may have varying degrees of choice over which events they play, with higher ranked players having increased opportunity to design their season structure. Once at an event, the weeks are long and taxing. Players commonly compete Thursday to Sunday (although approximately half are ‘cut’ and do not play the weekend), Pro-Am events are scheduled on Wednesdays, with Tuesdays set aside for practice and Mondays typically for travel.
Personal schedules and commitments
Players are looking to make continued physical and technical improvements across the whole year, so practice, training and competition frequently merge, while they actively pursue longer term progress. Players may also have various required media and wider commitments. Days during competitive play are long, with rounds often taking 4-5.5 hours, warm-ups often taking 60-90 minutes before the round, and further practice after the round also often completed (especially if they have played poorly). Players must also be adaptable, often having less than 24 hours’ notice of competition start times (which can vary from 7am to 3pm), working around rain delays, being on event reserve lists, etc. In addition, being away from home so often, players may also take their families to events, which can be helpful for their wellbeing, but further increases pressure on their time and their sleep hygiene.
Travel, recovery and rest
Professional golfers travel significant distances most weeks and frequently need to manage travel-fatigue and jet-lag symptoms. The quality of training and recovery facilities at events and tournament hotels will also vary substantially and players will need to be able to adapt to this on a weekly basis, highlighting the importance for players to have a strong understanding of a wide variety of approaches that can be utilised for the purpose of warm-up, recovery and maximising physical condition. Figure 2 highlights some of what goes unseen from the casual observer and Table 1 offers some example solutions to the common challenges golfers may be faced with.
PHYSICAL PREPARATION PLANNING
Warm-up and priming
Warm-up is a neglected area for the recreational golfer. The literature generally agrees that less than 30% of golfers do any physical warm-up7, while slightly more than this practice golf shots prior to the first tee. Evidence generally points towards golfers who warm-up performing better, and having a decreased risk of injury8. At the professional level, most players now have a physical warm-up that includes an aerobic component (e.g., on a stationary bike), some flexibility and/or strength work, and then work on the putting green and driving range. Some will do further priming work in the gym, but it is important to acknowledge that the evidence suggests that the most effective warm-ups will either be dynamic in nature or include some form of resistance training. In contrast, purely static stretching is noticeably inferior than other methods and, sometimes, even detrimental to golf performance7.
PHYSICAL TRAINING AND SPEED TRAINING: AN OUTCOME-FOCUSED APPROACH
When planning physical preparation, we advise an outcome-focused approach over a methods-focused one. Broadly speaking, we can break the outcome-focused approach into three key sub-categories: 1) an adaptation-led approach to strength and conditioning, 2) a learning-based approach to speed training, and 3) a perceived wellbeing and readiness approach to recovery and stress/load management. Of note, warm-up and priming strategies often work across these three domains, sometimes acting as a strength and conditioning stimulus (category 1), at other times trying to hone a ‘feel’ ready for learning (category 2), or to impact perceived wellbeing and readiness to perform (category 3).
An adaptation-led approach to strength and conditioning
When planning strength training, an adaptation-led approach takes a performance problem (e.g., poor drive distance relative to the field), an appropriate performance outcome required to indicate a meaningful change has occurred (e.g., improved countermovement jump [CMJ] score by the amount required to noticeably impact the players performance). Then we work back to understand the desired adaptations and physiological mechanisms which would underpin a change to the target outcome (e.g., increase neural drive and motor unit recruitment). From this point, a menu of appropriate interventions would be available, from which the coach and athlete would select, considering both constraints and preferences. This process is outlined in Figure 3 with a focus on exercise selection, but the same process should also be applied to other training variables (e.g., volume and intensity of training, repetition/set balance, rest periods etc.).
Building on the example in Figure 3, a full training programme is shown in Table 2. This programme addresses the same performance problem, but expands the agreed outcomes to be more representative of the results of a full consultation with this example player. This is a fictitious worked example of an outcome-focused, adaptation-led programme, which considers real-world touring professional constraints. In this case, the player is in a busy competitive block (June-July), will be competing most weeks during this period, and are primarily a DP World Tour golfer, so there will be minimal travel outside of Europe (i.e., jet-lag and long haul travel disruption will not be a primary concern). The key outcomes for this player are listed below:
a) Increase maximal concentric leg extensor force.
b) Increase eccentric rotation rate of force development.
c) Increase upper limb force @ 100 m/s.
d) Increase lean body mass.
The programme has been written so that the player prioritises the exercises in order (e.g., if they were short on time, they might cut out the last exercise on that day rather than do less sets of every other exercise). As the programme develops through the week, the volume reduces, while exercise intensity remains unaffected. This allows the player to still achieve the same outcomes from their training, without accumulating as much fatigue. Volume is manipulated in a few ways in our example. As the week goes on, the number of exercises in the sessions reduce and total repetitions in the sessions reduce as well (118 in session 1, 61 in session 2, and 46 in session 3). Also, to minimise delayed onset muscle soreness and fatigue, exercises become more concentric-dominant as the week progresses. Session 3 is also appropriate to be used as a priming session 2-3 hours before a tee time for the accustomed golfer, making it easier for them to train before or after a tee time, depending on their schedule. These are some approaches we can use to mitigate risk of negative outcomes from training on performance during the tournament.
A learning-based approach to speed training
For a player to increase their distance in tournament play, they need to be exposed to opportunities for learning, so that they can utilise their newfound physical capacities effectively. This learning process should be underpinned by a clear understanding of the outcome from any particular session over time (e.g., clubhead speed, ball speed, ball speed with tight dispersions, etc.). In addition, these outcomes are likely to have a concurrent focus, with initial learning taking place in a more sterile (movement-focused) environment, allowing a player to explore the development of speed. This should subsequently build to a more tournament appropriate application of speed (which is more representative of the game of golf), ready for use in competition. Table 3 shows example sessions along this continuum. However, the player, golf coach and physical preparation coach should design their own sessions, appropriate to the learning needs of the player.
Perceived wellbeing and readiness approach to recovery and stress/load management
Recovery modalities and appropriate stress/load management strategies should primarily be approached from the perspective of enhancing perceived wellbeing and readiness. Golf is highly ‘feel based’ and different players will have preferred physical and mental states to optimise their readiness and sense of wellbeing. It is therefore important for the team to work alongside the player to explore appropriate approaches to managing their day-to-day stresses. This may take the form of tailoring physical training or practice schedules to suit the player, optimising travel and volume of tournament play, working alongside sports psychologists to explore relevant psychological strategies, encouraging appropriate delegation of tasks, and ensuring adequate sleep opportunities. While some modalities may have a higher degree of physiological rationale, the primary outcome should still focus on perceptions of wellbeing and readiness. One player may feel as though cold-water immersion post round is helpful, whereas others may prefer massage, stretching, light exercise, pool work or just resting in the hotel. Finding what works for an individual player and recognising time constraints is critical, rather than focusing on a single preferred approach that coaches may have seen work in other players.
The athlete can benefit from education and support in this regard, recognising the importance of other aspects of recovery such as nutrition, hydration, sleep, social interaction, reading, peaceful time, etc. Moreover, they should ensure the player is adaptable to their recovery approach and has information they can access to guide them. Figure 4 below is an example of information shared at a 2023 team event.
In conclusion, physical preparation is an increasingly important part of an elite and professional golfer’s routine, which likely supports injury risk reduction, improved performance, enhanced longevity and health. Despite the numerous lifestyle constraints of a touring professional golfer, it is entirely possible for them to make continued progress in their physical condition throughout the year, using some simple strategies and with support from a coach. In addition, these same benefits could potentially be seen by the 66 million recreational golfers globally if they could incorporate appropriate physical preparation strategies into their routines.
Daniel Coughlan P.T., Ph.D. 1,2,3,4,6
Nigel Tilley P.T. 1
Luke Mackey 5
Fiona Scott 2,4
Simon Brearley 1,2
Chris Bishop Ph.D. 1,3,4,6
1. European Tour Health and Performance Institute, European Tour Group, Virginia Water, UK.
2. England Golf, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, UK.
3. Medical and Scientific Department, The R&A, St Andrews, UK
4. Health and Performance Institute, Ladies European Tour, Denham, UK
5. Performance Department, Golf Australia, Melbourne, Australia
6. London Sport Institute, Middlesex University, London, UK
Contact: c. email@example.com
1. Broadie, M. (2014). Every shot counts: using the revolutionary strokes gained approach to improve your golf performance and strategy. New York Gotham Books.
2. Ehlert, A. (2020). The effects of strength and conditioning interventions on golf performance: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38, 2720–2731.
3. Brearley, S, Coughlan, D, and Wells, J. (2019). Strength and conditioning in golf: Probability of performance impact. Sport Performance and Scientific Reports, 1, 1–3.
4. Murray AD, Daines L, Archibald D, Hawkes RA, Schiphorst C, Kelly P, Grant L and Mutrie N. (2017). The relationships between golf and health: A scoping review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51(1), 12–19.
5. Bishop C, Ehlert A, Wells J, Brearley S, Brennan A, and Coughlan D. Strength and conditioning for golf athletes: Biomechanics, common injuries and physical requirements. Professional Strength and Conditioning Journal, 63, 7–18.
6. West, S, Fern, J, Canter, L, Murray, A. Beyond physical load in golf – the tip of the load iceberg. Available from: https://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2020/09/25/beyond-physical-load-in-golf-the-tip-of-the-load-iceberg/ [Accessed 17 April 2023].
7. Ehlert A and Wilson P. (2019). A Systematic Review of Golf Warm-ups: Behaviors, Injury, and Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33, 3444–3462.
8. Fradkin AJ, Sherman CA and Finch CF. (2004). Improving golf performance with a warm up conditioning programme. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 38, 762–765.
Header image by mackjackmcconaughey(Cropped)