The Two-Factor Model: The Stronger Golfer Hits the Ball Farther

by Mark Rippetoe | March 24, 2021

end of a golf swing

Golf is played all over the world at the amateur and professional levels, by men, women, and kids, and is widely regarded as a game that can be played for a lifetime. People who are serious about performance on the golf course should approach it as a sport, not a game. We have developed a very useful way to think about this distinction, and it can help you order your preparation.

There are two separate components to sports performance preparation. Given that a performance takes place at a specific time and that it can be planned for, it is necessary to identify the skills necessary for the performance, as well as the physical adaptations that make the skills more executable. Both of these parameters contribute to outstanding performance in a sport, and golf is no exception.

Skill is the ability to execute the movement patterns of a sport with a high degree of accuracy and precision. Skill is developed through practice, the repeated execution of the movement patterns under the conditions of competition with the closest congruence possible to the ideal expression of the movement.

Without pretending this is a complete list, practice for baseball includes throwing, catching, and batting, sprinting the base patterns, and analyzing the field situation for the correct responses during play. Tennis practice is racquet work on the backboard and across the net, and assessment of the court situation. Football practice is ball handling, blocking, tackling, field assessment, and pattern running. All sports skills are developed during both dedicated practice and performance (this last part is often forgotten).

The critical feature of practice is that repetition embeds a movement pattern. Expertise in a skill requires many thousands of correctly-performed repetitions, in order to make their execution as “reflexive” as possible during the pressure of a performance. Practice is dependent on time, attention to detail, quality coaching, and the focused execution of each repetition. It is a “honing” process, not a ticket-punching process. Golf is certainly practice-dependent.

Physical preparation – the process of accumulating a physiological adaptation which makes the performance more efficient – is the other side of sports preparation. The process of programming and executing physical activity that changes the body in a way that benefits the performance over time is referred to as training. It depends on the accurate assessment of the athlete's current condition, the accurate assessment of the physiological adaptations that improve the performance, and the design of an exercise program that provides the stresses that cause that adaptation.

There are two basic types of physiological adaptation that benefit sports performance: endurance and strength. Both are dependent on the production of force – the basic job of the muscles that move the levers of your skeletal system. Force is produced by contracting muscles moving the bones around the joints. Strength is the ability to produce high levels of force (like you see at the clubhead on the tee), and endurance is the ability to produce low amounts of force many times consecutively (like walking the course). Endurance training, i.e. running, has no application to golf.

A game is a competitive activity where the participants merely practice. Billiards, cards, darts, chess, and backgammon are games. Sports are competitive activities that benefit from both practice and training – its participants are athletes. Most people approach golf as a game. And that's perfectly fine, unless you are serious about golf. Most people rely on golf itself to improve their game, and to the extent that practice alone can do this, that may be the best approach to recreational golf. If you golf for fun, and that's all, just enjoy your time on the course.

But at some level of play, training for strength can take the player to a lower handicap by taking strokes off of each hole. Bryson DeChambeau is the most recent example of strength applied to golf – the stronger version of the man hits the ball farther. In a perfect illustration of the two-factor model of sports performance, strength developed through training (even inefficient training) was applied to golf through practice on the course. Strength benefits golf by adding speed to your clubhead and yards to your drive off the tee, and by making all the strokes more sub-maximal, in effect improving your endurance on the course. And since we lose strength as we age, strength training compensates for being 50 instead of 25.

You already know how to practice golf – hit a lot of balls. Strength training is best accomplished by progressively increasing the weights you handle on basic barbell exercises like the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press. These exercises are simply normal human movement patterns – squatting down, pushing things over your head, picking things up off of the floor, pushing things away from you – that are progressively advanced in small incremental increases, with attention paid to absolutely correct technique as the weights go up. In essence, you force the body to get stronger by asking it to generate a little more force on the same basic movements every time you work out, usually 3 days a week. Note that there is no focus on the muscle groups, but rather the movement patterns the muscles produce.

Also note that the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press don't look like golf. We don't want them to look like golf – if they did, they would interfere with golf practice, which must be specific to the movements executed in the performance of golf. We use these 4 basic full-range-of-motion barbell exercises because they have proven themselves to be the best tools for improving general human strength over decades of use by athletes in all sports, not because they look like the sport. You're already practicing golf, and squats and deadlifts make the whole body stronger far more effectively than resisted-rotation thingies and heavy clubs.

Think about it this way: weighted clubs are an excellent way to practice swinging slower. Squats, presses, deadlifts, and bench presses are an excellent way to get stronger without interfering with golf mechanics, and since you're going to practice golf while you get stronger, your strength increase is incorporated into your golf mechanics as it develops.

And strength develops quickly. A man who starts training with a 135-pound deadlift will have a 315-pound deadlift in about 4 months, with the other lifts progressing proportionately. Nothing else affects strength as quickly as a correctly applied barbell strength program – not even steroids. And the benefits are apparent immediately, with ball speeds improving maybe 5% off the tee in 10 weeks. With every 1 mph increase in ball speed comes an increase in 2 yards off the tee, so improvements like this are quite significant immediately. If you're not already very strong, time under the bar is more beneficial than more time on the course.

Here's the basic question: Does a stronger man hit the ball farther than a weaker man? The upshot is your approach to golf. If you just play for fun, you're playing the game of golf. If you want more out of your game, you have to take an athlete's approach – you have to both practice and train. You play the sport of golf, like an athlete. It takes more time, but you soon discover that you have more control over your progress on the course than you thought possible, especially if you're a “maxxed-out” 50-year-old guy who previously thought he was as good as he was going to ever be. 

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