Those that watched the 2017 PGA Championship this weekend will have been sure to notice one thing; the winner Justin Thomas bombs it! Compared to some of the other big hitters on the PGA Tour like Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, Thomas looks somewhat of an anomaly. According to his bio, he is 5ft 10” and weights just 145 lbs (66 Kg), yet is currently ranked 7th in driving distance on the PGA Tour averaging over 310 yards! This makes Thomas golfs longest hitter pound for pound! So just how does he hit the ball so far?
Putting fitness to the side a minute, Thomas does a few things in his golf swing that certainly enable him to hit it far. First off, he hits the middle of the club face giving him a very high smash factor. No matter how much speed you create, to maximise distance this is essential. That’s why a good golf coach is invaluable! You can be the best athlete going but if you can’t swing it consistently and hit the centre of the club it isn’t going to work. Thomas also gets his hands very high in the backswing which TPI have found to be one of the big keys amongst long hitters (just look at the high hands of the long drive champions!). Finally, he also utilises ground reaction forces incredibly well during his swing. Thomas pushes down into the ground and uses that energy to drive up and create speed. You might not have the natural golfing talent of Justin Thomas but the good news is that there are things you can do in the gym to help you improve some of the above and help you start hitting the ball further!
“I didn’t think it (working out) would make such a big difference, but my club head speed has gone up 6-10mph in a year and a half” Justin Thomas, 2017 PGA Championship Winner
To swing the club like Thomas you need to be very mobile. Getting the hands high in the backswing requires good shoulder flexion and mobility of the lat muscles. To turn through the ball with such speed (Thomas rotates his body 25% faster than the average on the PGA Tour), you need to first have excellent hip, shoulder and thoracic spine mobility. If you can improve your mobility in these areas, you might not start hitting it 310 yards but you can certainly add some distance. I like to use the analogy of a car to help explain how better mobility improves distance. Whilst strength and power might be the engine of the car, poor mobility is like driving with the hand brake on. When you free up your hips, shoulders and t-spine you effectively “release the handbrake” and are then able to use a lot more of the strength and power you already have. Every golfer I train goes through an initial assessment that includes hip, mobility and t-spine mobility tests and freeing people up in these areas has led to increases in club head speed before we have even got to the strength and power work! It’s important to note that stability work also needs to be incorporated as having mobile shoulders, hips etc that lack stability can be dangerous and so a mixture of the two is needed.
“When I started doing exercises to improve my hip mobility, I noticed that not only has it helped with the pain (back), but gotten me more flexible and hitting it further” Justin Thomas, 4-time PGA Tour winner this season
As mentioned earlier, Thomas uses the ground amazingly well during his swing and this is a big contributor to him generating his high swing speed. To do this requires leg strength and in particular, single-leg strength. Research has shown strong correlations between leg strength and club head speed and every golfer I train goes through a 90-90 split squat test to assess their lower body strength in each leg. Training the legs and specifically doing single leg work in multiple planes of direction can have a big carry over into your swing and help you use the ground more effectively to increase club head speed.
Whilst getting strong is great for golfers, you still need to be able to generate power from that strength in a very short period of time. When Thomas uses his leg strength to push down into the ground he utilises something called the stretch shortening cycle (SSC). The best way to think about this is as a spring (see below). The more you push the spring down, the more energy is transferred up and the higher the spring flies. That is why lower body strength is important to generate force down but obviously in the golf swing there is also a time element as well. This all needs to happen in a fraction of a second and that’s why strength training alone is not enough. Ballistic and plyometric exercises need to be carefully and progressively introduced that enable you to utilise the stretch shortening cycle and improve your ability to generate force quickly (RFD-rate of force development). You might not start using the ground like Justin Thomas in your golf swing, but solid strength work and then some power exercises incorporating the SSC and high levels of RFD, will definitely help you get the ball out there further!
As the picture of the spring indicates, the more energy down the more upwards counter force is produced. Using the SCC in your golf swing like Justin Thomas will dramatically increase speeds.
To sum up, there are various factors that enable Thomas to hit the ball as long as he can from such a seemingly small and slender frame. Of course, he has natural golfing talent and a high percentage of fast twitch fibres that give him an advantage over many of us but there is no reason you can’t get some of these benefits yourself from a proper golf fitness programme. For more information on how fitness can help your golf game and get you hitting it past your buddies please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Thanks for reading.