Golf Biomechanics - Muscle Activation in the Swing

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Published: February 16, 2014

Today we're going to leave the golf clubs in the bag. Instead of swing drills, we're going to discuss a question that comes up a lot in our online and in-person lessons, as well as on the web forums - how to engage the golf muscles used in the golf swing.

Many golfers are unsure what we mean when we ask them to engage or activate certain muscles in the golf swing. We're going to clear that up by giving you some exercises that will help you learn where these muscle groups are and what it feels like to use them.

You'll gain some muscular awareness of areas that are vital to the Rotary Swing Tour model, and also learn the difference between engaging a muscle, and tensing or locking it up.

Lat musclesThe lat muscles are in the middle of your back, on each side

Learn to Identify Your Lats (Major Golf Muscles)

The first group of golf muscles we're going to talk about today are the Latissimus dorsi, or lat muscles. The lat muscles cover the largest surface area in the back. They are located right in the middle of your back, on each side.

We talk a lot about engaging the lat muscles in "The Takeaway Made Simple" and the lessons on posture.

This muscle group is critical in getting your right shoulder blade to glide properly behind you, and in keeping your shoulders down. When improper elevation occurs and you shrug your shoulders, you're allowing the lat muscles to disengage, so learning how to engage the lats and keep them engaged throughout the golf swing is very important.

Engaging Muscles vs. Locking Them Up

We're going to use two sets of weights to help you learn to identify the feeling of engaging a muscle group, versus tensing it up. First we'll work with a five-pound pair of dumbbells. These are great because it's not a whole lot of weight, so using them will activate the golf muscles, rather than tensing them up.

Heavier weights cause tensionHeavier weights force you to tense up when lifting

Holding a five-pound weight in each hand, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. You will feel the trap (trapezius) muscles engage in your neck, shoulders, and upper back. Since the weights are fairly light, you will be activating the golf muscles, but not straining them or working them too hard.

Now for contrast, pick up a 20-pound weight in each hand and perform the same motion of raising your shoulders into a shrug. This will be a very different feeling. Lifting your shoulders against 20 pounds of resistance takes a lot of muscular work, and you will feel your trap muscles working hard and becoming very tense and tight.

You use the same set of muscles to lift each set of weights, but with the heavier load you will feel the muscles tense up; your traps will get very tight and rigid. This is the feeling you want to avoid in the golf swing. This is creating tension in the muscles.

The feeling you get when you shrug holding the heavier weights is exactly the opposite of what you want in the golf swing. You want the feeling you had with the five-pound weights, of using the muscles, but not straining them.

Back to the Lats

Shrug and depress to engage the latsShrug and depress your shoulders to engage the lats

We've told you the lats are the muscles that take up a large expanse of your back on both sides. Now let's find out what they feel like.

Pick up the five-pound weights again, set your feet about waist width apart, and shrug your shoulders like you did before. Feel all those muscles in your neck and back engage, and then depress your shoulders. You will feel the lat muscles engage as you feel your shoulders depress.

This feeling of having your lat muscles engaged is what you want to hold onto throughout the entire golf swing. That's what keeps the shoulders down and keeps you "in the box." It keeps you connected to your core muscles and all the muscles in the torso, allowing you to use your big muscles in the golf swing.

Tension is the Enemy!

By contrast, if you shrug and then depress your shoulders while holding the 20-pound weights, you will feel tension building up in your lats. This is what you want to avoid in the golf swing.

Some golfers try so hard to stay "in the box" that they overdo the feeling of engaging the lats, and end up tensing them. If you allow all that tension to build up, you may feel a pulling or wrenching sensation in your lats when you try to perform the shoulder blade glide. If you feel that kind of discomfort, it means you're creating tension instead of simply engaging the muscles.

Tension is the enemy of the golf swing. It ruins your rhythm, it ruins your flow, it ruins the timing and tempo, and it robs you of your speed. Tense muscles are never fast muscles. That's why you want to engage your muscles, but never allow tension to form or build up over the course of the swing.

Shoulder Blade Glide Drill

Now that you've learned where the lat muscles are and how to engage them, try this simple drill to practice the shoulder blade glide:

Shoulder blade glide drillShoulder blade glide drill

Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, about waist width apart. Cross your arms and place your hands on your chest. Shrug and depress your shoulders to engage your lat muscles. Now simply allow your right shoulder blade to work in toward your spine. Allow it to turn, making sure to keep the lat muscle engaged.

This is a great drill because not only are you practicing good posture, nice and erect, and engaging the lat muscles, but it will also help those of you who have written in to us saying, "Every time I perform the right shoulder blade glide, my hip turns with my torso."

This is a great way to learn how to separate your upper body from your lower body. Simply shrug, depress, and allow that right shoulder blade to glide behind you. Keep the lat engaged, not all tense and wound up.

The Glutes Add Stability

Let's move on to the next muscle group. We're going to talk about the gluteal or "glute" muscles. These are very powerful golf muscles in the body, as you know.

You should feel these muscles engage on both the backswing and the downswing. If you don't, you're probably not transferring your weight correctly. When used correctly the glute muscles, especially the left glute, act as stabilizers on the downswing.

As you will recall, after the backswing your first move on the way back down is to transfer your weight into your left heel. If you do this correctly, you'll feel your left glute engage and stabilize.

We won't go into all the specifics of the weight transfer here. If you'd like a more thorough review, this is a great time to go back to the Weight Transfer lessons. Once you review that material and try the drill below, you may have an "aha" moment as you understand what we're really asking you to do.

A lot of people attempt the weight transfer, but say they can't feel the glute engage. Generally what's going on there is that they shift their weight, but actually engage the quad instead of the glute because they're transferring the weight onto the ball of the left foot, instead of the heel. As a result, they never really experience what it's like to engage the glute.

You Know Where the Glute Is - Now Feel it Engage

This drill will allow you to feel your glute muscles and what it means to engage them.

Feeling the glute engageFeeling the glute engage

Place your right hand on a chair back for support and take the posture you would use at setup. Make sure your weight is centered over your ankle joints, then lift your right foot off the ground and push your weight down onto your left heel. Bend the knee of your weight-bearing leg and allow your hips to drop behind your a little bit. Pushing all your weight down into your left heel, hold that position for a count of three; you should really feel your left glute working hard.

After the three-second count, push back up slowly through that left heel. If you're doing it correctly, you should be feeling it in your glute. If you're not, it will be your quad that is burning. If you feel it in your quad, that means you've got your weight out on the ball of your left foot, instead of the heel.

Try it again: Take the posture you would have at setup, lift one foot off the ground and push down through the other heel. Let your hips drop back and your weight-bearing knee to bend a little, and continue to push your weight into the heel. Hold that position for a count of three, then push back up through the heel. That's what it should feel like to engage that glute muscle.

Again, this is a great time to go back and review the lesson on weight transfer. We talk about making your first downward move, transferring back into your left side and feeling that glute muscle engage to provide stability. The sensation you get from this drill is exactly what we're talking about. Now that you know the feeling, you know which muscles to engage as you start the downswing.

The Obliques Provide Rotation

This final drill will show you how to engage your oblique muscles. These are the large muscles that run from below your pectoral region to the top of your hip bone. The obliques are what allow you to rotate your hips.

Obviously, this is a very important part of the downswing, and something we talked about - again - in the weight transfer lesson. After you take your backswing, you transfer your weight into your left heel. You will be pulling with your left oblique to get your hips rotating, so if you don't know how to engage that muscle, you're kind of at a loss.

A Crunch With a Twist

The following drill is a great way to learn how to identify and engage the left oblique. You can do this either lying on the floor or on an exercise ball.

Lie down, either flat on the floor or on an exercise ball, and put your hands behind your head. Keeping your hips and my lower body very still, bring your shoulder blades about halfway up, into a crunch. You'll feel your abdominal muscles engage.

Now you're going to add a twist, to get the obliques involved. Twist your upper body to one side and hold it for a count of two. At this point, you should really be feeling the muscles on both sides of your torso engage.

Oblique crunchOblique crunch

Try it again: Come up into a crunch, twist, hold for a count of two, and go back down. You should feel both obliques working as you perform that twisting motion. Now you have golf muscular awareness of exactly where those muscles are.

Once you have that awareness, you can stand up and activate the obliques simply by tensing up your midsection and really concentrating on activating the oblique, specifically. Once the oblique is activated, you can practice pulling with the obliques to rotate your hips. You should be able to keep your torso very still, while rotating your hips with the obliques.

These simple exercises should help if you've been having issues understanding how to engage certain muscle groups that we've discussed in the Rotary Swing model.

Checkpoints for Practice

  • The lats are in the middle of your back on each side - engage them by shrugging then depressing your shoulders
  • Keep the lats engaged throughout the shoulder blade glide
  • The glutes provide stability on the downswing - if you're not feeling them engage, check that your weight isn't too far forward
  • The obliques provide rotation - a crunch with a twist will help you identify these muscles
  • Tension is the enemy of speed - engage your muscles, but don't tense up

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