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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Arm-Powered Swings

Part of the Route 67 series

Finally! We get to discuss power sources in the golf swing. Let me start by reminding you of a foundational truth of the golf swing: Although you're going to get power from both your legs and your arms, you tend to feel that one of the two is the dominant power source. If you don't know which one "feels" right, then you'll have trouble repeating your swing AND you'll find yourself confused by teachings that change your swing feel when you use them.

An arm-powered swing is the "traditional" way of playing the game. It probably developed because hickory shafts are so flexible; most people have weaker upper bodies, so an arm swing put the least stress on the shaft. Plus, in an era where most people were laborers, I suspect people were more used to arm-based tasks -- like swinging an axe -- than more athletic, leg-oriented actions. Teachers like Jim Flick and Manuel de la Torre are good examples of arm-power teachers.

Arm-powered swings focus on the actions of the arms and hands during the swing. (Duh!) The hips and legs are treated as a platform for the movement of the upper body; the legs and hips move and they put power into the swing, but you don't drive them in an effort to move the club faster. Because of this, the legs and hips move laterally much less than in a leg-powered swing; it's much more of a rotary swing.

A popular teaching for this kind of swing is the "bump and turn." In this method of starting the downswing, you first push your hips toward the target, then turn them out of the way to strike the ball. If you see this in a teaching method, it's probably arm-powered. One notable exception is the Hogan swing, which utilized this method with leg-drive to create a "hook-proof" swing. If the swing isn't done properly, the hips get too far ahead and the player leans backward -- the notorious "getting stuck" problem Tiger fights so much. In an arm-powered swing, this generally isn't a problem because the hips and legs don't move that much anyway.

There are a couple of drills that are commonly-used when teaching an arm-powered swing. One involves swinging a weight on the end of a string (I borrowed this to teach distance control in my putting book), and the other is often called "swinging in a barrel." You can see why these became popular -- the string drill from swinging hickory shafts, the barrel drill from the limited lower body movement.

The traditional swing was a backhand (or pulling) swing -- a right-hander controlling the swing with his left hand, or a left-hander controlling the swing with his right hand. Forehand swings have become more popular these days, which changes the teaching methods somewhat. Forehand golf swings resemble forearm tennis strokes in a lot of ways, so tennis players can be really attracted to this way of swinging. I would put Fred Couples in this category of arm-powered swings, since he doesn't drive hard with his legs. Fred demonstrates that this is still a very potent way to play the game!

Who should consider an arm-powered swing? People with strong upper bodies, especially if their lower bodies are less mobile. The idea is to make use of your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, and having a powerful upper body is a good reason to consider an arm-powered swing.


  1. I understand the good of doing arm-only drills, especially for the short game, but the idea that the hickory shaft players didn't use their lower body can't be correct.

    Stewart Maiden (Bobby Jones' teacher) was from the Carnoustie school of golf thought and was definitely in the hickory shaft era. (as was Jones for his playing days - no matter what the Jim Caviezel movie shows) Jones' swing definitely uses the lower body.

    People were swinging sticks to hit objects long before golf came into the world. Chopping wood is basically the same motion as a golf swing, just on a different plane, and the lower body is necessary to generate as much power as possible.

    I know you see the same thing I see on the range - most of the people who don't understand the lower body in a swinging motion are of the female gender persuasion - and you see the lack of distance and launch angle.

    Guys like Camillo Villegas appear to have an upper body swing, and we can toss Tiger Woods in that group since he got in with Haney - but a simple slow motion look shows a lot of lower body work.

    The lower body is still the engine as well as the foundation, even in a swing that looks to be mostly arms.

  2. Don't misunderstand me, Court -- I'm not saying "arm swingers" don't use their legs. Re-read that first paragraph again. Arm swingers get their primary power from their arms, and their legs add to it.

    Jones did get his power primarily from his legs, which was unusual for the time. The prototype for the time was Harry Vardon, who primarily used his upper body.

    You'd be surprised at how many men focus on their upper body. They're not automatically short knockers -- it depends on whether they've learned the proper technique and timing. (As I said, the lower body still provides power; it's just not the primary power source.) The teachers who teach the arm swing don't get as much attention though, so very few people understand how it works. That's why you see all the struggles on the range and the course.

    It's complicated by the increased use of what I called a forehand swing. It's harder to tell which a player is using just by watching them swing now.

    The Hogan swing actually is a leg-powered swing. The problem is that, if you drive your legs hard and get out of position, you're left using only your arms; that was part of Hogan's design, to help minimize the hooking problem he had. If Tiger had used Hogan's weak grip, he probably would have been a great driver with the swing -- the two-way miss would have vanished -- but I don't think he would have liked what it did to the rest of his game. The Hogan swing is too extreme for most people.

    I agree that the legs are the foundation of all swings, but they aren't always the engine. It's a fine line, I suppose, but just because the legs have to start the downswing doesn't mean they have to be the primary power source. If you want a good thorough explanation of how an arm-powered swing works, take a look at Manuel de la Torre's Understanding the Golf Swing. (He teaches Sherri Steinhauer on the LPGA.) His teaching is based on Ernest Jones's swing method (who Bobby Jones considered a good teacher). Manuel de la Torre says, "The body moves a great deal in a golf swing, but it must be in direct response to the movement of the club. The body (shoulders, hips, knees, feet, etc.) should not be 'used' to produce the swing but must move along with it." (p57) He also says the arms are the power source: "If you are trying to drive a post into the ground, you apply power with your arms... Let us not change the normal because we are using a golf club." (p54)

    Leg power is the prominent teaching nowadays, but that doesn't mean it's the only right way to swing. I suspect there's a lot more good players using arm power than you realize. I'm pretty sure Tom Watson is in that group, and that's why he's lasted so long.

  3. I agree. In fact in an arm powered swing the one piece takeaway doesn't apply. The arm powered swing is based in the release. Basically palmer flex the lead wrist and radial deviate to produce left Palm supination. This keeps the club face square throughout the backswing and downswing. It also signals the shoulders to turn. Left elbow bending is preferred to accommodate the trail elbow. Basically you stack your arm joint levers which produces the coil of the arms around the body. As the downswing will extend the arms through impact releasing unbelievable club head speed. I have no problem producing 125+ mph club head speed with arm dominate backswing. Remember for every action there is the equal opposite action. The hips go first in downswing as a reflex action created by a small muscular stretch. It shouldn't be a conscience action. But be deliberate in completing the backswing as it is not intended to be aggressive it is simply to setup your swing plane and reflex action.