There’s an old coaching adage that you never want to give your opponent any “bulletin board material”—that is, don’t say anything before a big matchup that your adversary can pin to his locker room bulletin board and use as motivation.
Golf commentator Brandel Chamblee learned that the hard way this week, when he warned Rory McIlroy—currently the third-ranked golfer in the world—about hitting the gym a little too often. Yes, you read that correctly.
“I say it with a lot of trepidation, because it’s a different era for sure and I don’t know the full extent of what he’s doing, but when I see the things he’s doing in the gym, I think of what happened to Tiger Woods,” Chamblee said in a Tuesday conference call previewing the next leg of the PGA Tour. “And I think more than anything of what Tiger Woods did early in his career with his game was just an example of how good a human being can be, what he did towards the middle and end of his career is an example to be wary of. That’s just my opinion. And it does give me a little concern when I see the extensive weightlifting that Rory is doing in the gym.”
McIlroy, ever the competitor, responded as any athlete should when someone throws down the gauntlet: a Twitter video of himself doing 265-pound back squats.
— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) February 16, 2016
Re the squats it was the last set of 3x3 at 120kg(265lbs). Did 3x10 at 100kg(225lbs) before that. I'm 165lbs. I'm a golfer not body builder
— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) February 17, 2016
(Plus: McIlroy, to his credit, doesn’t need any extra bulletin board material. He’s got his past physique for that.)
Just about to hit the gym, sometimes we need a reminder why we go in there and push ourselves... Here's mine... pic.twitter.com/AuC3zf0Gut
— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) February 4, 2014
“I'm trying to make my back as strong as I possibly can so that when I come out here and swing a golf club at 120 mph, I'm robust enough to take that 200 times a day when I hit shots and when I practice and when I play golf,” McIlroy said at his press day before the Northern Trust Open, where he’ll be making his 2016 debut on the PGA Tour.
Makes sense, right? But Chamblee’s comment did expose (if only subtly) a golf stigma around spending too much time in the weight room. In 2015, former Woods coach Butch Harmon warned that McIlroy could “almost hurt yourself in the gym if you get too bulky.” Hank Haney, a former coach of Woods, actually critiqued Woods in 2014 for gaining muscle mass in his upper body. “He does a lot of the gym stuff,” Haney said on his radio show in 2014. “You need to be in shape, you need to avoid injury, but my opinion is he really overdoes that.”
— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) November 19, 2014
Golfers aren't totally anti-weightlifting, obviously. Here’s a pro-weightlifting editorial from the Golf Channel published Wednesday, albeit a defensive one, pointing out how pro golf trainers like Sean Cochran (Phil Mickelson’s trainer) and Randy Myers emphasize how strength training can help a golfer not only play better but also withstand the physical grind of nonstop training.
Neither McIlroy nor the other trainers are suggesting that golfers should only weight train at the expense of technique training. "The key is balance," says Eric Dannenberg, C.S.C.S., an athletic performance specialist and manager at EXOS training center in Phoenix. "If all you do is lift heavy weights and don’t have a balance, then yes, your golf game will suffer. But just because Rory is doing big lifts doesn’t mean he’s not also doing stretching or doing yoga or mobility work, in addition to his regular technical golf practice. It’s got to be a balanced approach."
What's more, McIlroy likely didn't walk into the gym one day and start churning out 225-pound back squats. Like any athlete, "Rory had to start with lunges and bodyweight squats and build on up," Dannenberg says. "Fitness is a long-term component. And now he can step into the gym and bang out 3-5 sets of deadlifts and squats. These big, complex lifts are efficient, and help to build a lot of strength."
To settle this debate for good, we asked Dannenberg to offer five advantages that a golfer can gain by lifting some heavy iron—along with a five-iron.
Reason #1: Fitness Makes Everything Easier
Golf has a reputation as the game for guys who are, ahem, not quite at the peak of their physical perfection. (Driving carts between holes isn't helping your case, guys.) But here's the simple reality: Because of modern, sedentary lifestyles, most guys simply lack the basic strength and movement ability to perform at their best—and lifting weights can help overcome that.
"Walking the course and sitting at your desk is not going to be enough," Dannenberg says. "Our current society is not set up for as much movement as we should be getting. Everyone should be increasing their movement capacity and strength, because we’re not plowing fields or hunting animals."
Reason #2: "Strength Supports Speed"
Yes, golf is a technique-specific sport. Every golfer knows just how much practice it takes to master all the minutae of a putt or drive. But swinging a club still involves applying force to an external object, and exerting force requires strength—especially over 18 holes.
“You need a certain amount of strength to increase the speed in your swing,” Dannenberg says. “If you’re 60 years old, and you don’t have any strength, and then you gain a little strength, then that will improve your ability to smoothly and fluidly swing a club. Strength supports speed.”
Reason #3: Weakness Can Ruin a Swing
It's tempting to blame an improper swing on lack of technique or the wrong set of clubs. But as Dannenberg points out, swing faults are more often a symptom that you physically can't execute complicated motions involved with swinging a golf club.
"Swing faults are mostly movement faults," Dannenberg says. “If you can’t squat or do a lateral lunge, then you probably can’t load weight onto your hips, nor do you have enough trunk stability to do a complicated golf swing. You need to have perfect form on basic motions like a squat and a lunge and a pushup before you can execute a hugely complicated motion like a golf swing. If you can’t get your driver head at a particular level, then it’s probably a function of your inability to move well, not a problem with your technique."
Reason #4: Strength Fights Fatigue
Swinging a golf club may not seem like a particularly grueling endeavor (that's what CrossFit is for), but hauling a bag of clubs and hitting that white ball over 18 holes can start to wear you down over time. (Your golf buddy might not admit it, but the frustration on his face really starts to show after he shanks his fifth drive into the nearby alligator pond.)
Strength training, especially within a consistent workout regimen that combines compound strength exercises with metabolic conditioning like HIIT, will train your body to resist that fatigue, so your eighteenth drive feels as fluid and natural as your first.
“A guy like Rory is traveling and competing week in and week out. If he’s stronger, it’ll mean he has less physical—and therefore mental—fatigue during competition,” Dannenberg says. “He needs to be able to compete at a consistently high level, on a number of courses, and in multiple stressful scenarios. Why shouldn’t he strength train to prevent physical and mental fatigue from affecting his game?”
Reason #5: Strength Builds Consistency
Few things are more frustrating in golf than crushing drives at the start of a round, only to regress to ugly shots by the end. The flip side of fighting fatigue is delivering consistently high quality reps. The stronger you are, the more frequently your muscles can deliver on the technique that your brain is asking them to deliver.
"In golf, the biggest factor for success is consistency,” Dannenberg says. “By being stronger, you can now repeat those patterns more often. You need to be able to do the same thing you always do, except under more fatigue and more stress."