What do you usually do for training in-season?
It’s a question I regularly ask golfers.
The response usually goes something like this - "I lift weights etc in the off-season but I don’t train at all in-season as I don’t want to be sore" or "I back off the lifting, train less often with lighter weights and more reps"
If this sounds anything like the answer you thought of, to the above question, then you misunderstand the physical requirements for golf and how the body reacts to stress applied.
Ultimately, over the course of a long season, this is costing you distance, strokes and maybe even missed rounds.
This article aims to fill you in on what you’re missing and give some easy and practical advice to improve your in-season programs. So, without further ado, let's get to the rules of in-season training.
Maintain physical capabilities
When you workout you are applying stress to your body, the body then adapts to that stress, getting fitter, stronger, etc in order to provide you with the improved physical capabilities you are looking for (for those of you in the know from a physiological perspective this is my horrendously simplified/ butchered explanation of the GAS model of stress adaptation).
What is less well known, and less often talked about, is that the body also adapts to stress not applied.
In other words, the body operates a ‘use it or lose it’ principle.
“The body adapts to stress applied and to stress not applied”
If you’ve spent the off-season developing the physical qualities you need to play better golf, does it make sense to stop doing the things that developed these qualities, right at the time you actually need to use them and suffer the consequences of this ‘use it or lose it’ principle?
To my mind, it just doesn’t!
At very least it represents a waste of that time spent over the off-season to do so, not to mention it will probably hurt your performance too.
Yet this is what many golfers do. Either by stopping training altogether or eliminating certain exercises from their workouts that they deem too intense to do during the season.
This leads us to two conclusions:
1) In-season is NOT the time to stop your golf fitness program.
2) In-season is NOT the time to drop strength training from your golf fitness program.
Manage high intensity and high volume training methods
However, continuing to train in-season also represents something of a balancing act between fitness and fatigue.
Let me explain by oversimplifying/ butchering another model - this time the two factor or fitness-fatigue model:
This model essentially states that fitness will increase as a result of the stress/ stimulus, but so will fatigue, and that increase in fatigue will prevent the increase in fitness being displayed, at least until it has been removed (i.e. you have recovered).
A useful analogy in understanding the competing demands placed on in-season training by this model is to view it as a two-sided coin.
On one side of the coin, we have the tangible, physical capabilities that have been developed and must be maintained over the long-term to ensure performance over the course of the season. On the other side, we have the short-term need to reduce or remove as much fatigue as possible in order to display the physical capabilities required and perform maximally at the upcoming tournament, medal, etc.
In order to better understand how to balance both sides of this coin, it is useful to understand what actually causes fatigue during training, as not all training is equal in terms of the fatigue it produces.
Fatigue, and subsequent recovery, from strength training, is affected by a number of factors. However, as golfers, we aren’t too worried about fatigue to the nervous system or energy systems from training as these transitory and unlikely to affect golf performance anyway due to low competing demands.
Our major concern is the soreness that often comes after strength training (a.k.a DOMS) in this regard then, muscle damage is the key element in how much fatigue is caused by training.
The muscle damage that occurs during a workout is increased by:
- High muscle forces
- Greater fatigue
- Longer time under tension
- Exercise unfamiliarity
For a golfer, high muscle forces are required to produce gains in maximum strength. But as fatigue, time under tension and exercise variation are generally associated with hypertrophy (muscle growth) training, golf athletes can reduce these factors to reduce muscle damage and improve their rate of recovery.
Golfers will still benefit from eccentrics and other high force training techniques in-season, for both injury prevention and performance. However, these can and should be allocated over the training week and away from performance days in order to avoid adverse effects.
For the average weekend warrior, this arrange is very easy to do - front load the week with your heavy work and place light work towards the end of the working week, allowing time and energy available to play your best at the weekend. The image below provides an example template:
If you don’t have a tournament or round on a particular weekend, this can be an opportunity to get another heavy lift in and further accelerate/ ensure the maintenance of your strength gains.
Prepare to perform
Whilst eccentric strength is valuable for the quadriceps/ adductors in changing direction as well as the pecs/ lats for storing energy in the backswing, all movements and muscles used in the golf swing benefit from increasing high-velocity strength and rate of force development.
Importantly, high-velocity strength is best improved using light loads and fast bar speeds. Since this type of training involves low muscle forces, little fatigue, and minimal time under tension, it produces little muscle damage.
Further, this type of training causes certain neurological effects that can be useful for performance.
This effect is known as post-activation potentiation (PAP). To explain PAP let’s do a little gardening...
Imagine you doing some gardening and are moving topsoil from one flower bed to another. You fill the wheelbarrow with the soil and pick it up - it feels heavy and you move fairly slowly with it across the garden to the other bed.
Now imagine you've emptied that wheelbarrow and are taking it back across the garden to re-fill it. The wheelbarrow feels light in comparison now (probably even lighter than when you got it out of the shed, even though it was empty then too) and you move much more quickly back across the garden.
The same thing happens when you lift weights, the additional external load means your nervous system must adapt and produce more force, this adaptation hangs around meaning you produce more force in the next task even though it might not be required for that task.
This effect has been recorded when lifting light weights fast and when max strength training, as long as the volume is kept low enough to avoid muscle damage and fatigue, can be used as a tool to create a PAP effect.
As such we can organise the training week around your competitive schedule in order to best aid short term performance whilst also preserving the physical qualities we need to play our best over the long term (see image above).
Appropriate scheduling of heavy and light/ high-velocity workouts around the competitive schedule is not the only way we can take advantage of the PAP effect, prime the body to produce force quickly and improve mobility/ stability for the upcoming round.
Indeed, even something as simple as a good quality dynamic warm-up can create a PAP effect for you to take onto the course, as well as promoting the mobility-stability relationships required at joints to perform the golf swing.
As Alex Elhert, of @golfphyiologist fame, states:
"A brief warm-up consisting of dynamic or light resistance exercises has been shown to improve swing path, shot accuracy, clubhead and ball velocity, distance, subjective measures of shot quality, and results in impact closer to the centre of the clubface compared to practice golf swings or no warm-up”
Do what you don't do or develop what don’t already have
There is a dichotomy inherent in training, in that, we need our training to be specific to our goal in order to produce the desired adaptations (this is the basis for much of what we have discussed so far in this article). However, we also need to maintain a base level of function and movement variability in order to stay injury free and able to continually train, practice and perform over the long-term.
As Eric Cressey says:
“Specificity works great until you’re so specific you wind up unable to do anything else or injured”
All the eccentric stress of a greater volume of golf swings, as well as the asymmetrical nature of the golf swing, can lead to significant changes in posture and mobility.
The hips, low back and shoulders, in particular, tend to get pretty chewed up over the season, with high volumes of extension/ rotation based motion (retraction at the shoulders) high, eccentric stress and asymmetrical nature of the swing. This is usually compounded by walking the course for 3-5 rounds per week and long-distance travel to tournaments (or long periods of sitting at a desk for the average amateur with a day job).
This often leads to significant changes to posture and mobility (symmetrical hip rotation, t-spine rotation ROM, flexion of the spine, pelvic position and internal hip rotation/ ribcage position as a result, and protraction of the shoulder) and to missing out on basic functional movement patterns like squatting and lunging.
Our exercise selection in-season is going to need to account for this by re-introducing full ROM functional movement patterns (squatting, hinging lunging, etc), reducing the number of rotational movements and eccentric loading or them and by biasing movements such as shoulder protraction and bilateral t-spine and hip rotation.
Additionally, we should endeavour to train different positions and shapes, so as to maintain movement variability, load tissues that aren’t loaded in the sport and prevent injury.
The ideas and recommendations covered above, when put together form the major tenet of how we periodise fitness program for our players in-season. Periodisation is simply the planned variation of the volume and intensity of training to prevent overtraining, allow recovery and promote optimal performance at the desired time (balance the fitness-fatigue model described in rule 1).
There is an old training adage that there is no such thing as over-training, only under-recovery, and whilst this can be misused as an excuse for overzealous training strategies/ sessions, there is some merit to it.
The greater your recovery capacity, the quicker the fatigue line on the fitness-fatigue graph (see rule 1) will recede and therefore the quicker performance is returned to an optimal level. This means a greater volume and frequency of those training methods, that create fatigue, but also maintain and develop long-term physical capabilities can be done in-season. Thus our in-season programs will be more effective towards their aim of preserving/ improving physical capabilities.
I believe recovery to be a pyramid structure of 3 elements:
2) Nutrition and hydration
3) Systemic or localised recovery strategies
Sleep and nutrition/ hydration are both large and complex topics, that are well beyond the scope of the few words I can spare in this article but the basics are fairly commonsensical - I’m willing to bet you know you should be sleeping more, eating more veggies and drinking more water.
Systemic or localised recovery strategies are anything that creates a parasympathetic nervous response (rest and recover, rather than flight or fight) and/ or improves blood flow to the region in question. Breathing drills, full body stretching routines, general foam rolling, cold therapy, ice baths, contrast showers, etc, are all useful techniques to do this in my experience.
In closing then, don’t stop your golf fitness program!
Keep strength training, just reduce the volume and exercise variety and plan the heavy days around your competitive schedule so as to give yourself recovery time.
Be prepared to pull back on rotational movement exercises and instead load other movements not overused or neglected out on the course.
To help prevent injury adopt a balanced approach, training all fundamental movement patterns.
To promote optimal performance on demand don’t overtrain, and put as much emphasis on proper recovery and proper preparation (warm-up!) as you do to your training.
But most fundamentally, don’t give up on the development just because it’s time to play!