This is the first in the PIIMP Your Game: The 5 Pillars of Better Golf series, in which we focus on the Physical aspects of improving your golf game.
When Tiger Woods came on to the PGA Tour in the mid-1990s, it was already known that he had a major weapon in his arsenal: distance. With a threepeat of US Amateur titles already under his belt, he was known to the golf world as a threat off the tee, and he was hitting two clubs less into the green compared to his new PGA Tour peers.
At the time, lifting weights in golf was near-taboo, with detractors saying that while Tiger could get away with it while he was young, over time he would tighten up and the additional strength training would lead to injury and could even destroy his promising career prematurely – even after he crushed the field for his first major victory at the 1997 Masters.
While Tiger did battle injuries, it’s fairly clear today that they weren’t caused by his weight training – in contrast, it’s more likely that his running habit was detrimental, possibly causing the stress fractures he famously endured leading up to the 2008 US Open victory at Torrey Pines. Today, it’s quite obvious that the most talented and hard-working golfer of his generation also unlocked a new tool for an entire generation, and created an entire category of exercise physiology study: golf fitness.
Today, it’s hard to find a professional golfer who doesn’t spend as much time in the gym as they do on the golf course, building on the foundation that Tiger and his team set. After all, if you’re trying to improve your swing, your body has to be able to execute the adjustments, right? And for us amateur golfers who want not only to improve, but also to ensure we can play deep into retirement, the long-term benefits of exercise are even more important.
In this article, we’ll cover why golf fitness is important, how to think about exercising with golf performance in mind, and what tools to use to get started.
Before we get too far into this, let’s recap…
What is PIIMP? The 5 Pillars of Better Golf
Physical – A long-overlooked aspect of the game, physical fitness is now becoming commonplace for many golfers. We’ll teach you where to start, or how you can make your workouts more golf-specific.
Implemental – This is just a fancy word for the philosophy of equipment, or implements, that you will use to actually play the game. Everything from your shoes to your ball can affect your game, and we aim to cut through the noise of the marketing-heavy language to tell you what you actually need to know.
Intellectual – Golf course management has long been talked about, but the recent acceptance of Strokes Gained analysis and usage of satellite imagery have created an entirely new era of golf course strategy.
Mental – I probably don’t need to tell you how losing your cool can negatively affect your scores, but I will – I’ll also tell you how to increase your ability to stay focused and prime your mind for performance.
Practical – ok, you will have to practice some, and lessons do help. But what should you practice, and how much? How do you know your instructor is helping, and how do you direct them to get you what you actually need? We’ll review this.
Why Golf Fitness is Important
When I started taking golf seriously enough to get my own clubs instead of hitting my grandfather’s cut-down old set, I was in my pre-teen years. As a fairly athletic youngster, I was off and running after a few clinic-style lessons. As I got older and my swing improved enough to play on the high school team, I knew that I needed to hit the ball as far as my lean teen frame would allow for, which led me to get really in tune with maximizing torque and rotational strength in my swing.
Now, after hardly picking my clubs up through my 20s, with more desk-chair hours behind me than I care to admit, I find myself struggling to get my body into those positions to effectively strike the ball. After getting back into the game and reacquainting myself with my swing, it became clear that the heavy-lifting regimen I had been recently enjoying had many benefits, but also some great costs to my golf game. This led me to explore what a golf-specific workout might look like.
What I found was pleasantly surprising, a burgeoning but nascent field of study with some real leaders who opened my eyes to more benefits than I thought of.
The benefits of improving your fitness specifically with golf in mind include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Increased mobility and strength in motion, which can benefit many non-golf/around-the-house movements
- Reduced likelihood of injury, leading to a longer golfing life
- Increased distance – the most-marketed feature of any golf equipment you’ve ever bought
- Greater stability through impact, leading to more consistent misses on the course
- Improved mental health that comes with regular exercise, which can also help your ability to think clearly on the golf course
Keep in Mind…
As your body changes, your swing will change. This might affect two other parts of the PIIMP system: most obviously, your swing (Practical), and how your equipment works for you (Implemental). If you’re taking your fitness seriously and apply a little discipline to your form, it should generally make your swing easier – this could make some of your equipment less of a good fit over time, but with scores going lower and drives going farther, this is a good problem to have.
How to Get Started with Golf Fitness
Here are a few ways to get started improving your fitness with the intention of lowering your golf scores…
Walk the damn golf course
Is golf good exercise? Yes, especially if you’re walking.
Walking the golf course is a low-level endurance cardiovascular and respiratory workout that is so easily overlooked in the wheels-first culture of Americans.
If you regularly play but are always in a cart, you’ll be surprised how much more tired you’ll be the first time you walk the course – it’s a zig-zagging walk through less-stable terrain with shoes meant to hold you in place, after all. But your body will quickly adapt, and by the third or fourth round, you’ll wonder why you ever rode in a cart.
The benefits go beyond the exercise, too – you’ll likely play faster, as you don’t need to wait for your cart partner to hit their shot before heading to yours if you split the fairway – and the mental clarity you’ll experience, thinking through your next shot or chatting with your playing partners on the way to the ball, will become more central to your experience on the course.
Most amateur golfers are simply out of shape, so as an Urban Golf Performance instructor once told me, “do anything” and it will likely improve your ability to hit a golf ball well.
Hate the gym but like hiking? Do that.
Is running not your thing but you like a casual tennis outing? Go for it.
Look, we’re not all going to compete for the Masters, or even our club championship. If you simply want to keep your breath walking up the hill to the next tee, just stay active. But for those who are serious about their improvement…
Types of Golf Exercise
There are three main categories of a golf-oriented exercise routine: mobility, strength, and stretching.
Mobility is as it sounds – it’s a focus on flexibility, and it’s almost never a static stretch. Often, the joints that need to be loosened are those around the joints that move least (or at least less than they should in our sedentary world), so slow and focused repetitive motions around body parts like the thoracic spine, hips, and ankles. Example exercises are ankle rotations, spinal flexion and extension (also known as “cat-cow” in yoga parlance), and pelvic tilts.
Strength training can be explosive movements or large muscle workouts. Explosive movements are those that train your fast-twitch muscles to react quickly – highly important in generating power, and for making those unconscious adjustments we all make in our downswing. Medicine ball slams and throws are great examples of explosive movement training.
Large muscle workouts are exactly as they sound, and they are built for distance. The bigger your pectorals, triceps, hamstrings, and obliques are, the more strong and more stable you’ll be through impact. Just remember that with this group of exercises, you must pair it with the other two. Building only strength makes a person tight, and while you may get a few extra yards, it’s going to be tough to keep contact as clean and ball-flight as straight. This is your traditional weight-lifting – squats, deadlifts, and bench press, etc.
Last, and perhaps most obviously, is stretching. You’ve probably already experienced the difficulty of getting your shoulder or hips to move in a specific way, or struggled with balance during a lesson trying to hit a position in your swing. Stretching the right muscles in the right way around those joints can unlock much better physical performance. This can be anything from hanging from a pull-up bar to pigeon stretches.
Work out regimen
Golf-specific training didn’t really exist 20 years ago outside of Tiger Woods, but as general health and sports science exploded in popularity, the golfers who grew up watching Tiger overpower his rivals took notice. Today, there are even PhDs biomechanists who focus solely on golf – Dr. Sasho Mackenzie and Dr. Young-Hoo Qwon come to mind.
But you don’t need a biomechanist (or at least I hope you don’t) – you need a workout routine that will transfer this knowledge into the function of your body while you’re swinging a golf club.
Speed training is becoming a bigger part of off-course golf training and practice thanks to the ever-present desire for more distance. But this isn’t just for vanity’s sake – if you know anything about strokes gained, you know it can be an advantage in lowering your scores.
The big reason for speed training isn’t entirely physical, it’s neurological. Essentially, your body can be trained to be faster or stronger, but your brain may not allow it because it’s unsure it’s safe. Speed training workouts are designed to unlock this potential power in a systematized way.
There are two common systems that have rightfully gained the attention of golf fitness fanatics – SuperSpeed Sticks and The Stack System (created by renowned golf biomechanist Sasho Mackenzie and PGA pro Marty Jertsen). Each have their own benefits and philosophies, so it’s worth reviewing what is best for you.
Regardless of which you choose, if you begin speed training make sure it’s added to a more comprehensive golf fitness routine. Too much speed training without corresponding strength and flexibility training can create nagging or even severe injuries due to overuse if not done correctly.
What You Need to Get Started with Golf Fitness
There are two categories of items you’ll need to get started with improving your fitness game:
- Information on golf-oriented fitness
- Equipment to enhance your workouts
There are surprisingly few resources available online to help enhance your fitness for golf performance. If you’re lucky enough to live in a location where the golf industry is strong, you’ll likely have personal trainers around who specialize in this type of performance – perhaps even those who work with touring professionals. However, this can be costly, and there are a few hidden gems online.
First is Mike Carroll’s Fit for Golf app, which I personally have been using for over a year. The app continuously improves over time, and has great stock exercises for getting your body in prime golf condition. More than that, I have often referred to it as anti-aging exercise, as the movements of yesteryear magically appear, and stability through impact positions is not sacrificed – it’s improved greatly. Whether you’re like me and are trying to regain flexibility that existed when you learned how to play golf decades ago, or are a recent retiree just picking up the game, this is my go-to recommendation.
What’s nice about Fit for Golf is that there are a variety of exercises, including those you can do in a home and hotel, as well as separate routines for in-season, off-season, pre-round warm-up, or general mobility sessions. Whatever your needs, preferences, or access to equipment, you can get more out of your game quickly with these workouts.
Another good resource, though admittedly more low-tech, is the recent book Hang the Banner by Joey Diovisalvi and Kolby Tullier, a biomechanist and trainer combo who teaches the world’s best in the golf hotspot of Jupiter, Florida. With clients like Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Jessica Korda, this pair has created the closest thing there is to a golf fitness manual. After an intro on how they got to where they are today, they dive deep into various body parts, how those joints are important to the golf swing, and discuss techniques on how to get that body part in optimal golf shape. At the end, there is a multi-week program that is designed to help you start or improve your personal golf fitness routine. They also have an online training program called Hit It Great.
One of the great things about conditioning your body for a golf swing is that equipment is somewhat optional depending on your goals. Many bodyweight or dynamic stretching maneuvers can help you accomplish your goals without a gym membership or while you’re at your in-laws.
As you can see, there are many ways to get in better golf shape. With such a wide variety of options, you can find something that fits your budget, whether it’s paying a personal trainer or buying a single book. The equipment-optional nature of golf fitness makes it a great routine to take on the road as well, meaning there’s no excuse for physical limitations to become show-stoppers on your way to achieving your golf dreams.