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Published: February 17, 2014
Today we're going to look at how much shoulder elevation or, technically, arm elevation you want in the golf swing.
We've defined elevation before - it's simply how much vertical movement your arms make in front of your body in the golf swing. Your hands start roughly at belt height, and by the top of the swing they've risen to chest or shoulder height, depending on your style and preference.
Shoulder elevation is a variable in the Rotary Swing Tour - or in any golf swing, for that matter.
As far as we're concerned, the movement of your arms is not a fundamental of the golf swing because it's dependent on what your body does. By definition, a fundamental is the primary concern. Since arm movement is dependent on other things in your swing, it's not a fundamental.
We do have guidelines for how high we prefer to see you raise your arms, but it's still a variable and will depend on other things in your golf swing, such as how you feel and what you're trying to achieve. We'll discuss the possible range of elevation and why you might chose one end of the range over the other.
Obviously the two extremes are to get a lot of elevation or very little, and then there's everything in between. We'll explain the effect of choosing each extreme, and what we teach our students as the ideal amount of shoulder elevation.
What We Teach
We find that a moderate amount of shoulder elevation provides the best of both worlds, and that's what we teach in our clinics.
We start out by discussing how much the elbow moves. It's an easy reference point. From address to the top of your swing, we teach that the elbow moves up to approximately the base of your chest muscle, the pectoralis major.
When you stand straight up and flex your right arm, you can imagine resting your arm on a bench. The base of your pec is just under your arm, and your elbow will be roughly at that level.
This amount of elevation will allow you to use your arms, your body, and everything to the greatest advantage for power in the golf swing.
That middle range of elevation is the ideal we teach in our clinics, but it's not the only way to swing by any means. Just look at a golfer like Davis Love, who has very high hands, versus a player like Tiger, who has much shallower hands, and of course everything in between. RST allows for all of that.
How Do I Choose?
The RST fundamentals apply to any golf swing. They're based on the facts of biomechanical body movement and the physics of the golf club, and they're immutable. How much you move your arms up and down, meanwhile, is just a variable. Let's look at the effect that variable has on your swing.
Put in broad terms, if you want to use your body aggressively in the golf swing - if you want to use your core, shoulders, hips, arms and everything you've got to hit the ball as aggressively as you can - then the less elevation you have the better.
The reason is simple; if your arms are in a very high position where your elbow is up at the level of your shoulder instead of the base of your pec, then when you start to fire everything very aggressively coming down your arms are going to tend to come in late.
You're going to end up looking like the lower photo in the image at left, with your arms buried back behind your body, causing you to block it and hit block slices - what we call "blices." They're terrible shots. You definitely don't want to hit them.
The club will always want to come in late if you're driving hard with your arms up high.
You may start to figure out how to time a flip to save the shot, but the reality is if your hands are way up in the air and your body's working really aggressively, the physics just don't match up.
Your shoulders only have to move about 6-8 inches to get from the top into impact position. Your hands have to move six feet, and the club has to move even farther than that. It's very hard to synchronize everything when you're making an aggressive body movement while the club is trying to move all the way back down into impact.
On the flip side, if you have your arms very low and don't use your body very aggressively, you won't have much leverage in your swing, so you won't have a lot of power. This is the give-and-take, and why you need to find the elevation that's right for you.
We believe that a moderate amount of elevation offers the best of both worlds for most golfers.
We teach our students to go to the top of the swing with enough elevation to put the elbow at the base of the pec.
This allows you to use your body and arms, and still get everything squared up and back into impact. You can be aggressive with your torso and arms, and everything else will still match up.
Now let's say you want to be extremely aggressive with your body. We'll talk about the pros and cons of that in a moment, but some players just want to hit the ball really, really hard with the body. Maybe they like that feeling, maybe they've been taught that way.
If you're going to drive your swing as hard as possible you need to keep your arms shallower at the top and bend over a little bit more to help steepen the shaft. If your arms are shallow - with an elevation below the pec - that will allow them to get back in front of the body in time because they simply don't have as far to travel.
Your body will be moving very fast so your arms can't travel very far and still get all the way back down in front of your body and into proper impact position. Shallow arms are a perfectly acceptable solution to this problem.
The negative side of that is that the more aggressively you use your body, the more stress and strain you're putting on it and the more likely you are to be injured. You have to be very flexible, with a lot of strength in your core, hips, and back in order to swing this way.
That's not necessarily our preference at RST, but if that's what you want, knock yourself out. We prefer to teach a happy medium between the two extremes.
A shallow arm position permits an extremely aggressive swing, but it doesn't provide much leverage.
The higher you raise your arms in the swing, the more leverage you get and the more potential energy you create. If your arms and club are high, you'll get a big assist from gravity and plenty of time for it to help accelerate your arms and hands on the way down into impact.
From the lower position, that simply doesn't happen. With the hands low you have to use your body very aggressively to get any speed or power in the swing. Again, if that's your preference it's a valid one, but we don't find it ideal for most players.
Drawing Power From All Available Sources
RST teaches an optimal blend of the two extremes. We get power for the swing from all available sources - leverage and gravity, as well as body rotation and core strength - without relying exclusively on one or the other.
As always, the Rotary Swing Tour emphasizes moving and swinging in ways that are safe for your body and protect it from stress and injury.
We reduce stress on the hips and spine tremendously by getting a little more elevation for added leverage and potential energy, and slowing the body down somewhat while speeding up the arms. This maximizes the advantages of each position.
Now let's look at the other extreme. Let's say you don't want to use your body at all because you've got a bad back, or you're not very flexible and you can't get into these really steep, side-bend, aggressive positions you see from Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson.
You want to take as much stress out of the golf swing as possible. You want your back and hip to be as protected as possible, so you don't want to spin your body really fast. What do you need? The obvious answer is you need more leverage.
As we've discussed, more elevation provides more leverage. It's OK to be more upright in your swing for this. Think of Davis Love, for example.
With good elevation, you've created potential energy. Even if you just stand there and use gravity to bring the club down, you'll be moving incredibly fast by the time you get down to impact. It doesn't take any physical effort on your part; gravity does all the work.
All you have to do is keep your hands soft and let the club downcock as it comes down for some added leverage, and you'll have plenty of power and speed at the bottom.
With higher arms it's more about speed than power, although technically they're basically the same thing as far as the golf ball is concerned.
Ultimately, we're just trying to get the club moving fast. You can either move your body fast to move the club fast, or you can move your arms and hands and fast. It accomplishes all the same things.
It's Your Choice
Think about what you want to feel in your own golf swing.
- If you want to be able to use your body without putting a lot of stress and strain on your spine go for the ideal - two or three inches of elevation. Just bring your elbow up to the base of your pec and you're done.
- If you want to use your body really aggressively, putting everything into the downswing, keep your arms a little more shallow so they don't get stuck behind you.
- If you want to take all the stress off your body then get a good amount of shoulder elevation and slow your body down and mellow out, because if you use your body aggressively from a high hands position you'll get stuck and everything will come in late.
RST teaches the middle of the line in terms of ideal biomechanical movements, but you can go anywhere in between, depending on your needs and your style.
High Hands - Picture a Hammer
We're going to give you a simple drill to show you what it should feel like to swing from the different elevations.
Whether you've chosen to swing with a lot of shoulder elevation or very little, get out your impact bag and make some practice shots.
If you've chosen a high hands position for lots of leverage and vertical energy potential, the feeling you should have on the downswing is one of slinging the club into impact.
Think of the club like a hammer. You wouldn't use your body to swing a hammer. You would use your wrists. You're going to keep your wrists soft and supple through the downswing, then snap the club to get a lot of speed at impact.
Imagine the club as a very long hammer, and you're making it even longer by getting a lot of leverage and width.
You won't be coming into impact with the body turning aggressively, pushing against the shaft with your torso like you would in a body-dominated swing. With the high hands position, your torso will actually be slamming on the brakes at the bottom so you can sling the club into impact.
You get lots of leverage, lots of elevation going back and then your body slams on the brakes to pass that momentum to the arms and club.
You really don't do anything in this swing. There should be zero stress on your body, but you're still able to launch that impact bag without any problem. You just get plenty of lag coming down, then sling the club head into the bag.
That's one extreme. There's no stress on the body, lots of leverage from the wrists and lots of potential energy from the vertical movement of the arms. It's a great way to swing the golf club and very gentle on the body.
Aggressive Swing - More Like a Sledgehammer
If the high hands swing feels like swinging a regular hammer, relying on gravity and a snap of the wrist, the shallow, aggressive swing will feel more like swinging a sledgehammer, where you put your body behind it.
Don't elevate your arms very much for this swing. You're not relying on gravity here; your arms won't be traveling that far, so they won't accelerate that much on their own. You'll be making up for it with body movement.
Get a shallow elevation then use your shoulders, hips, core and everything you've got to bring the club back through the downswing.
As you can see, this creates a very different impact position.
The club keeps traveling because your body is moving so aggressively at impact. You're using a lot of torso and shoulder rotation to launch that impact bag.
Theoretically, you could possibly get even more club head speed by being a little more aggressive with the body on the top end. It's probably not much different with the irons, but if you're going for maximum distance off the driver you want to leverage every single part of the golf swing as best you can.
That will obviously take a lot of athleticism, strength, flexibility and fitness, but you can certainly do it.
Blend the Two For Speed & Safety
Again, the RST strives for an ideal blend that provides the advantages of both extremes.
A moderate amount of elevation will give you plenty of Tour caliber club head speed - as much as most golfers will ever need. It's only if you're really trying to push your limits and get as much as humanly possible that you'll need to use your body very aggressively.
High Arms + Aggressive Swing = Buried Club
Low Arms + Passive Swing = Weak Shot
Think of the long-drive pros. They use every ounce of muscle they can muster to try and move the club as fast as humanly possible. They get a lot of lag, a lot of leverage, and they use a lot of body.
They need a stronger grip, typically, so they don't have to rely on squaring the club face because they tend to get their body out in front a little bit.
There's a lot to time there, but that would be theoretically the most potential club head speed that you could possibly generate.
Of course, swinging with every possible ounce of power and body is also going to put you at the greatest risk for injury, by far.
RST teaches an ideal blend of all of these things, but you can choose to favor one side or the other in your own swing. You just need to understand the pros and cons, what each approach is for, and how it feels when you do it right.
With the shallower arms you'll feel more body rotation, with high hands you'll feel like you're slinging the club into impact. Hopefully this helps you understand and decide how much elevation you need for your particular type of golf swing.
Checkpoints for Practice
- Shoulder elevation (arm height) is a variable, not a fundamental in the golf swing
- Raising the arms so the elbow is at the base of the pectoral muscle is ideal for most golfers
- Golfers using the body very aggressively should keep the arms lower to keep them from getting stuck
- In an aggressive swing, imagine swinging the club with the weight of the body, like a sledgehammer
- Golfers protecting the body from stress by using it more passively should get higher arms for leverage & potential energy, harnessing gravity in the downswing
- In a passive swing, imagine swinging the club like a hammer, with wrist snap for speed through impact
- Drill with an impact bag to see the difference & choose the right elevation for your swing