Push vs. Pull in the Golf Swing: A Critical Concept

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Published: February 16, 2014

The concept of “Push vs. Pull” is central to the Rotary Swing Tour. Sir Isaac Newton determined that all movement is either a push or a pull. You can envision this very simply by thinking back to the days where golfers actually walked the course with the assistance of pull carts. If you ever used one of these, you noticed right away that it was much easier to keep the pull cart moving in a straight line when you let it trail behind you and you pulled it. When you tried to push it from behind, you would invariably develop a little “zig-zag” path as the movement seemed less stable. But why?

When we look at the definition of a pulling motion in its simplest form, it is the act of moving something towards you; or towards center. A push is the exact opposite. If you are trying to push a box across the floor of your living room, are you effectively moving it away from you or toward you? The reason that the pull cart travels in a much straighter line when pulled is that the force acting upon it is always moving it toward a centralized point – YOU! When you stand behind it and push it, it could move in any number of directions, a full 360 degrees away from center. When we apply these concepts to the golf swing, some very interesting things begin to appear that make a lot of the old instruction adages like “get your left shoulder under your chin” obsolete. We would, in fact, tell the student to pull his right shoulder behind his head.

First off, let’s define one of our goals in the golf swing that is a fundamental of the RST. That is the goal to create centered rotation around the spine. The spine serves as a perfect axis around which to rotate in the golf swing if you want to stay centered and not shift laterally off the ball. If that is our goal, then the next logical step is to look at the motion that would allow us to accomplish creating centered rotation.

In our pull cart example, we were only talking about pushing and pulling as it pertains to linear motion; ie.  You walking down the fairway toward your next shot pulling the pull cart behind you. But the golf swing by nature is rotational, so we need to introduce two more concepts from Mr. Newton – centripetal and centrifugal force. By definition, centripetal force is: the force that is necessary to keep an object moving in a curved path and that is directed inward toward the center of rotation (Webster’s Dictionary).  The definition for centrifugal force is: the apparent force that is felt by an object moving in a curved path that acts outwardly away from the center of rotation (Webster’s Dictionary).   Technically speaking, centrifugal force is a “false force” that is simply a result of centripetal force. The reality is centrifugal force doesn’t exist at all, and no object would continue rotating around a centralized point without the aid of centripetal force or gravitational pull. Rather, it would continue on in a straight line. However, centripetal force is very real, very powerful and amazingly efficient.

To fully understand centripetal force, imagine a ball on the end of a string attached to a stick. By moving the stick in a very small circular motion, the ball on the end of the string can be accelerated to terrific speeds with minimal effort by you. Your tiny hand movements are creating centripetal force and are always pulling in the opposite direction of the ball to keep it moving at the highest velocities. The bigger you make your hand movements, the slower the ball begins to move and the more effort you have to put into moving the stick to continue accelerating the ball. As part of these bigger movements, it also begins to become much more difficult to keep the ball orbiting on a constant plane. Upon reaching maximum speed, the string will naturally extend to 90 degrees in relation to the stick and the ball will travel on a single plane around the stick as long as the stick remains centered and moving with the same simple, tight little movements. The looser the movements, the more difficult it becomes to keep the ball “on plane.”

It’s not hard to see how this analogy directly relates to the golf swing as the concepts of plane and rotation are thrown about all the time in the instruction world. The key in the Rotary Swing Tour is that the plane is very easy to control when we understand how to create centered rotation when using the concepts of push/pull and centripetal and centrifugal force.

Let’s first take pushing and pulling into a real world example as it applies to the golf swing. To do this, you’ll need a partner. Stand upright and hold a club horizontally tight across your chest. From behind, have someone move you by pushing you from both sides of the club. You will notice if you look in a mirror, that your head will move about in both directions and you will likely not make a 90 degree turn. Now, have your partner pull the end of the club back behind you. You will be amazed at how easily you can make a full shoulder turn and how much “tighter” and smaller the movements feel when compared to pushing.  

In the first image, when pushed from either side the head moves away from center, as does the rest of the body. For most golfers, this is exactly how they try and take the club back during the backswing. They simply push the left arm across the body by pushing from the left side and then wonder why they can’t make a full shoulder turn. If you want to turn your back to the target, then, quite simply, turn your back. Let’s look at what it looks when you are pulled from behind instead.

When being pulled, your head stays centered and the body can easily make a full shoulder turn without moving off the ball. You’ll notice in the pull images that the head remains very centered. More importantly, you can feel this when your partner pulls you. This is the key to golfers of all flexibilities making a full shoulder turn and is the key to creating centered rotation around the spine. To date, I’ve yet to have a single golfer I’ve ever taught not be able to make a full 90 degree turn, no matter their age, fitness level or flexibility so the next time your student tells you he’s not flexible enough to make a full shoulder turn, pull out this simple drill and watch his eyes light up.

Once we’ve figured out why we want to pull and the benefits of doing so, the final goal is to look at exactly HOW we create this rotation. This is where a basic understanding of anatomy comes in handy for the instructor. Obviously, when doing the push/pull exercise earlier, you had someone creating the force for you by pulling or pushing on the golf shaft. Now, your muscles need to create that same force, but which ones? Fortunately, for creating rotation of the torso, there are relatively few muscles that you or your students need to be aware of. The first set of muscles that facilitate rotating the torso are the obliques. If you have your student sit at the edge of a chair and begin turning his torso from side to side with some speed, he will quickly become aware of his obliques.  We’ll talk more in detail about these muscles later. The second set of muscles the golfer will become aware of are a group of muscles in the back. Specifically, we refer to the lower trapezius and latissimus muscles. The lower trapezius muscle and rhomboid work to pull the scapula toward the spine (center) during the backswing and when done correctly, the golfer will feel the latissimus muscle activate. We generally don’t refer to the rhomboid because most golfers haven’t a clue what it is, nor can they feel it. Which is the exact reason we refer to the lat quite frequently. While it is the lower trapezius, not the latissimus, that is moving the scapula, most golfers can’t feel it, but they can feel the lat. We’ll discuss this more in depth later as well.

Using the scapular motion of gliding it across the ribcage in toward center helps create centered rotation exactly like what we are looking for and gets the golfer connected to the big muscles of his core. It’s a win-win for the backswing. This movement is a key component for the golfer learning to create a “pulling” motion, which, as we have learned, is necessary for creating an efficient, centered rotation and will be a key to helping all your students create a 90 degree or greater shoulder turn in the backswing. While we have gone to great lengths in this chapter to emphasize the pulling motion desired to create centered rotation, it should be noted that this is not the only force that is going on. In fact, technically speaking, it is a "push-pull" throughout the golf swing. As an example, we emphasize pulling with the left oblique on the downswing because this is what helps clear the hips back out of the way, providing room for the arms on the downswing.  Most golfers push from the right side during the downswing and end up coming out of their spine angle. This is more instinctual for most but creates a number of common swing faults. When the golfer begins to focus his efforts on pulling, it is often a new feeling for him, so that's all he "feels." However, while he may feel the left oblique firing, the right oblique is also helping as they work in pairs in rotating the torso. It is important for the student to feel pulling over anything else in most cases, but as an expert golf instructor, you need to understand that both sides are working.

  • Do you have a hard time getting a full shoulder turn in the backswing?
  • Do you tend to sway to the right on your backswing and then to the left in the downswing?

If you answered yes to either of these, we're going to help you out by teaching you the importance of "pulling in the golf swing".

Almost everyone - 99.9 percent of people - can get at least a 90 degree shoulder turn during the backswing in golf. It's all about using the correct golf muscles and moving your body in the correct ways. It's very easy, and we're going to give you step-by-step instructions.

"...I was pushing and not pulling. Now that I am pulling I am able to twist round 90°. Great stuff."
-SUKHWINDER B. | Mar 25, 2013
Pushing causes swayPushing in the golf swing causes sway

The first thing we're going to look at is push versus pull in golf.

You can see the effects we're talking about if you work with a friend. Have someone else hold a club firmly across their chest, and you'll be able to see the difference between pushing and pulling.

Pushing Causes Sway

Traditional golf instruction would have you try to push your left shoulder underneath your chin on the backswing. You'll notice, though, if we draw a line down the center of the body, what happens when you push on the club to move that left shoulder; the body starts to sway to the right.

The same thing happens on the downswing. If you push on the right side, the body is going to sway back to the left. Pushing moves the body around a lot and causes that sway.

Pulling Works Toward Center

Pulling keeps you centeredPulling in the golf swing keeps you centered

Instead, we're going to have you activate the muscles that pull in the golf swing. These muscles are going to pull you toward center, allowing you to make a nice centered rotation.

You're also going to get a good, full shoulder turn when you do this. This corresponds with Newton's laws of motion.

As you pull the right side back, now you're activating the right side with your right shoulder. You'll feel like you're turning that right shoulder back as the point of activation.

When you do it with a friend, notice how the body stays nice and centered. The same is true on the downswing. As you pull with the left, the body stays nice and centered there also.

As long as you're pulling in the golf swing, you'll be working toward center. It's when you start to push that you're going to work away from center. Getting a good, full shoulder turn can be as simple as using the correct muscles.

Try It Out

Go ahead and take a normal swing using your left shoulder. Push it under your chin, and notice how it makes you feel as though you're going to slide to the right a little bit. The same thing happens on the downswing. As you're coming down, you're going to push from the other side.

Good shoulder turnPulling helps you get good shoulder turn, even before the top of the swing

If you're flipping or if you're getting a lot of axis tilt at impact, a lot of this can be from pushing from the right side.

Now Do it Right

Have your friend with the club concentrate on pulling their right shoulder back behind their body. They should get a good full shoulder turn even before the club has moved very far. You should see at least a 90 degree shoulder turn, if not more by the top of the swing.

Activating the correct golf muscles can help you to stay very centered, get a great full shoulder turn, and really increase your golf swing power and consistency.

Checkpoints for Practice

  • Pushing motions move the body around a lot, causing sway
  • Pulling motions work toward the center, keeping you in proper position
  • Pulling the right shoulder into the backswing - instead of pushing the left shoulder under your chin - helps you get good shoulder turn at the top of the swing

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