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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

The Importance of Underlying Grip Strength for Holding the Golf Club

Most golfers know Sam Snead's classic tip to grip the club like you have a "bird in your hand".  Snead’s ceiling kicking exploits into his advanced age are just one example of his extraordinary athleticism.  Let’s not forget that Sam Snead was a naturally gifted athlete who toughened his body through years of manual labor.  Although Snead could grip the club firmly without much subjective effort, an amateur player who spends much of the day at a keyboard or holding a cell-phone likely won't have the strength in reserve to grip the club gently.  Many amateur players put the club in a proverbial vise grip and build excess tension, hence the plethora of instruction advice reminding players to lighten their grip pressure.  Unfortunately, some players, because of underlying physical weaknesses, have little choice in the matter if they want to keep two hands on the club.

Dr. Greg Rose proposed an interesting theory at the Titleist Performance Institute Level 2 Fitness seminar.  Amateur players generally have less grip strength than Tour players.  Note, by grip strength in this context, we aren't referring to the position of the hands on the club where we think of more knuckles on the left hand being strong for a right handed player; instead we're talking about how hard can you squeeze an object.  Most amateurs put a death grip on the club because they simply don't have the hand, wrist, and forearm strength to hold the club in a relaxed fashion.  They are practically hanging onto the club out of desperation.

Here's a basic analogy: Let's say you can bench press 500 pounds in a maximum effort.  If you can bench that much, benching 150 pounds would be pretty easy.  If you can only bench 175, benching 150 requires a significant effort.  Who do you expect to be more relaxed with 150 pounds on the bar: the person with the 500 pound max or the one with the 175 pound max?  Likewise, gripping the club requires a minimum degree of grip pressure to support the club in motion and during impact.  If your grip is taxed just to hold the club at address, it will be hard to keep the hands, wrists, and forearms relaxed with the club in motion and when it collides with the golf ball and the earth.

Grip pressure is intimately related to mobility patterns elsewhere in the body.  Another reason why amateurs might default to an excessively tense grip pressure is to protect the body from underlying stability deficits.  Firm grip pressure when lifting objects is a good thing.  When we use a firm grip on a heavy object, our body's core structures brace to stabilize.  If you pick up a heavy dumbell in the weight room, you'll notice that it subconsciously requires a firm grip.  This firm grip transfers into unconscious stabilization of the shoulder girdle and muscles of the core.  Bracing has a reciprocal effect too, in that well-timed stability in the body's core structures allows the hands to expend no more pressure than is necessary to support the club.

A common suggestion to build grip strength is to do hand, wrist, and forearm exercises.  However, players might worry about losing touch around the greens as they change the feel of their grip.  Nevertheless, if you talk to the best instructors, players with insufficient grip strength are probably losing more shots from not being able to control the clubhead in the rough than they would potentially lose by developing a more powerful grip and possibly changing their feel.  If done properly, grip strength training should not result in any loss in feel (so long as you don't sacrifice too much short game practice time!) 

The best approach is to incorporate grip strength into your full body workouts.  Some players might have satisfactory grip strength in an isolated setting but still grip the club with excess tension as part of a habituated survival pattern to prevent the club from flying away when the body's stability patterns break down.  Even if you can't get to the gym for formal workouts, very basic carrying exercises such as the waiter's walk or the suitcase carry challenge the grip without conscious thought.  If you don't want to drop the weight on your head, your body finds a way to maintain a firm grip while the body is in motion.  Likewise, bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and Tom House's integrated shoulder flexibility routine also coordinate grip strength development with over movement development.  If you have the access and expertise, there is probably no better training for grip strength than rock climbing. 

Bottom line: In trying to become better players, we must start by asking "what can the body do"?  If the body lacks the ability to do something as elementary as hold onto the club with a relaxed grip pressure, our chances of success certainly don't improve when we put the body in motion.  If we insist upon a subjectively light grip pressure when the body has subconsciously defaulted to an excessively tense grip pressure as a compensatory neurological response to an underlying stability deficiency, we must find a way to otherwise provide the missing stability.  Frequently, the player won't find missing stability on the practice tee or on the golf course.  Instead we must address the movement fundamentals in the gym or at home (or through a regime of hard manual labor like the great players followed “back in the day”).  A tension-free grip is important, but is hard to achieve in the absence of underlying grip strength. 

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