September 2015 Issue

Focus on Fitness: Off-Course Exercises
to Improve Your Golf Game

By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 17 No. 9 P. 68

Golf has long been viewed as a recreational activity, but younger, very fit professional golfers like Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie are changing the perception of golf. They've also driven the evolution of training for golf beyond just 18 holes and practicing one's swing. Specialized golf conditioning is now available at many gyms and resorts and incorporated into high school and college golfing practices. As professional golfers have become fitter and more competitive, the value of strength and endurance on the golf course has been realized. Both McIlroy and Wie tout the benefits of rigorous weightlifting to increase golf swing power, but is such strength training necessary for the average client hoping to improve his or her golf game?

For clients playing golf recreationally, off-course conditioning is better spent on improving core strength, overall flexibility, and joint range of motion than on pumping iron. For clients golfing competitively, strength training should be a component of off-course conditioning but not with the goal of "bulking up." Several media sources have noted concerns from golf coaches regarding intense weightlifting by pros like Tiger Woods and McIlroy; these coaches believe the short-term benefits associated with increased power don't outweigh the higher risk of injury. Throughout his career, for example, Woods has been plagued with injuries some have attributed to his weightlifting regimen and participation in programs mimicking Navy SEAL training.

Weighty Benefits
According to two golf conditioning and performance specialists who authored the book Golf Anatomy, lifting weights using traditional machines or free weights with a bench limits functional strength for golfers because movement occurs only in one plane. For an effective golf swing, golfers need strength through the swing's entire range of motion. Therefore, golfers should train through multiple planes of movement and emphasize functional strength, rather than brute strength gained through standard weight lifting exercises.1 A 2011 systematic review of published studies on muscle strength and golf performance noted that training leg and hip muscles, core power, and grip strength can improve golf performance.2

Functional training, employed to improve performance in many sports, involves exercises that mimic key movements in the sport. Functional training that uses weights or other resistance increases strength; movements without weight improve flexibility and range of motion. Functional training for golf, then, focuses on core strength, spinal/core rotation, and hip/leg flexibility to increase swing range of motion while maintaining alignment and form. For clients interested in improving their golf game, the following exercises can easily be done at home with minimal equipment:

• Lunges: Step forward with the knee in line with the ankle at 90 degrees, slowly lowering hips straight down.

• Lateral lunges: Step wide out to the side and shift weight onto the lunging leg until the other leg is extended. Step back in and lunge to the other side. A step platform (used for step aerobics) can be used to increase effort.

• Standing "wood chop": Standing with feet together and knees slightly bent, link the hands together, raise them over the right shoulder, and then "chop" down past the left hip. To increase effort, hold a weight or medicine ball. A resistance band also can be used (place one end under the feet). At a gym, this exercise can be performed with a cable weight machine.

• Seated spinal twists: Sit on floor with knees bent and heels down on floor. Link hands together and twist side to side, focusing on full range of motion without rocking the hips. A medicine ball or weight can be added for resistance.

• Supine spinal twists: Lie on back on floor with feet on floor and knees bent, or legs elevated with knees bent at right angle and calves parallel to floor. Slowly twist knees from one side to the other. Arms are extended at shoulder level, palms down on floor. Shoulders shouldn't lift off the floor when twisting.

• Planks with a twist: Start in a push-up position, on toes or on knees if more support is needed for the back. Lift one arm up and out to the side then up toward the ceiling. If wrists are uncomfortable, the planks can be done on the forearms rather than the hands.

For all of the above exercises, start with 10 or 15 repetitions per side, and increase to 25 or 30 repetitions per side as fitness increases.

Improving Flexibility
Flexibility should also be incorporated into any off-course conditioning program for golfers. Stretching to improve flexibility through the shoulders, spine, and hips will benefit golfers. Yoga and Pilates (either mat- or equipment-based) classes or DVDs performed at a minimum of twice weekly will not only improve flexibility but also provide core and some upper body strengthening. DVDs on yoga specifically for golf are available at DVDs and equipment for Pilates for golfers are available at and (use "golf" for the keyword search).

Static stretching performed off the golf course will help both flexibility and golf swing performance;3 however, golfers should avoid static stretches before playing, and instead do dynamic, or active, stretching. Small studies have demonstrated the benefits of dynamic stretching as a warm-up before golfing.4,5 Many recreational golfers spend minimal or no time warming up before playing, often considering the walk to the first hole a warm-up. However, to prevent injury, warming up before playing is essential. Some basic dynamic stretches that can be done at the golf course using clubs as assistive props include the following:

• Pendulum torso twists: Stand with feet hip distance and arms hanging loosely at sides. Twist the torso side to side, letting the arms swing and wrap around the body at the waist.

• Arm circles and swings: Circle the arms backward and forward from the shoulders; arm movements resemble swimming. Swing the arms side to side in front of the body.

• Leg swings: Stand on one leg and swing the other leg front and back from the hip. Use a chair or wall for support if needed. Repeat on the other side.

• Squats with overhead reach: Hold a golf club with hands shoulder-width apart. Start with arms and club at the hips, then squat, sitting weight back onto the heels. Lift the club overhead at the same time.

• Side bends: Hold a golf club behind the head or at the chest with arms crossed in front. Bend side to side, aiming the elbows toward the hips.

• Twists with a club: Hold a golf club at the chest with arms crossed in front. Keep the torso still and twist only the hips. Visualize the area where a belt buckle or a button on pants would be twisting right and left. Then, keep the hips stationary, knees slightly bent, and twist the torso side to side, aiming the center of the chest right and left.

Each dynamic stretch should be performed for at least 30 seconds.

These dynamic stretches also can be performed as a warm-up for static stretches for flexibility. Illustrations of some off-course mostly static stretches can be found at

In their enthusiasm to improve their golf game, clients may overdo it on the golf course. Playing 18 holes multiple times weekly will likely result in better technique and scores. But the repetitive motion of the golf swing may set up avid golfers for injury, especially on their dominant side. Approximately 18% to 54% of all golf-related pain or injuries involve low-back pain. A 2014 review found that the high prevalence of low-back pain in golfers is related to the asymmetry and force of the golf swing, excessive play and practice, flaws in golf swing form, and carrying heavy golf club bags. The researchers suggest that improving core and hip flexibility and increasing the endurance and strength of torso musculature can help alleviate excessive stress on the low back during golfing.6 Replacing some golf course time with off-course strengthening and stretching will help clients with golf game performance and injury prevention.

For clients with the time and finances, specialized golf conditioning programs are available at many fitness facilities and golf resorts. Before participating in one of these, clients should be sure that the instructors are properly trained and certified. Golf conditioning and performance specialist certifications are available from fitness training organizations and professional golf associations.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care researcher in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.

1. Davies C, DiSaia V. Golf Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2010.

2. Torres-Ronda L, Sánchez-Medina L, González-Badillo JJ. Muscle strength and golf performance: a critical review. J Sports Sci Med. 2011;10(1):9-18.

3. Lee JC, Lee SW, Yeo YG, Park GD. Effects of special composite stretching on the swing of amateur golf players. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(4):1049-1051.

4. Tilley NR, Macfarlane A. Effects of different warm-up programs on golf performance in elite male golfers. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012;7(4):388-395.

5. Moran KA, McGrath T, Marshall BM, Wallace ES. Dynamic stretching and golf swing performance. Int J Sports Med. 2009;30(2):113-118.

6. Lindsay DM, Vandervoort AA. Golf-related low-back pain: a review of causative factors and prevention strategies. Asian J Sports Med. 2014;5(4):e24289.