Speed Drop

Golf And Age:

The vast majority of golfers experience a significant loss in club head speed and distance as they age. It’s a complaint I have heard from pretty much every golfer I have trained who is into their 50’s, and certainly 60’s. Golf score, and either directly or indirectly, level of enjoyment from the game starts to decline as this speed reduction occurs. Let’s make one point very clear. It’s not your chronological age that is primarily responsible for the decline in distance, it is your drop in strength and speed/power. There is a huge difference, because chronological age cannot be changed, but strength, power and speed levels most certainly can….at any age.

Why Does Speed Drop Off With Age?

By understanding the mechanisms that underlie this drop off in power it becomes much easier to try and apply appropriate training interventions.

1 Decrease In Muscle Activity / Neural Drive:

To carry out a movement, our Central Nervous System (CNS) must activate motor units (MU’s). Motor units are comprised of a motor neuron (nerve), and the muscle fibers that it innervates. In an effort to avoid complexity, the more MU’s that are recruited, and the faster that these signals to recruit MU’s are sent from the CNS, the stronger and faster our movements can be. This is of course extremely important for generating high club head speed. It has been well established that as one ages there is a loss in working MU’s which means generating high levels of force and speed becomes more difficult.

2 Muscle Fiber Type:

Going quickly back to MU’s, it should be noted that all muscle fibers in an MU are the same type. You have probably heard of “fast twitch” and “slow twitch” muscle fibers, and these differences in muscle fiber type are very real and very important. Fast twitch muscle fibers are capable of much faster, and stronger contractions, and are therefore vital for explosive movements like the golf swing. It is well established that as one ages, there is a decrease in the size and amount of these fast twitch muscle fibers. There is also some debate that fast twitch fibers start to “convert” to slow twitch fibers, and become innervated by a slow twitch neuron. Interestingly, slow twitch fibers don’t degrade anywhere near as much with age, compared to the fast twitch counterparts.

3 Sarcopenia:

This is the term given to the loss of muscle size and strength due to aging. Muscle power, which is a combination of force and velocity does not receive the same attention but it certainly warrants it. Due to the selective atrophy and loss of fast twitch fibers, and other more complex nervous system factors, muscle power is lost at approximately twice the rate of muscle strength (Skelton et al 1994). This is a very important point to note if maintaining high club head speed is a goal. With similar levels of muscle mass, and maximum strength, elderly populations tend to have much lower power levels.

What Can Be Done About It – Training

While the information above may make it seem all hope is lost, the great thing about muscle, and the CNS is that they’re very responsive to training, even in “old” people. The key word here is “training”. Recreational activity, or general exercise is not the same thing, and the training must meet some specific criteria for maximum benefit to be attained.

In particular, there are two types of training that have massive benefit for reversing/delaying the loss of muscle power in aging populations. The first is strength training, which concentrates on developing the maximum force one can exert in a particular movement or exercise. With strength training, our primary goal is force production. This is best accomplished with a “”heavy” load, relative to the person’s strength level. For the sake of this discussion let’s classify heavy as the most load someone can use in a particular exercise and complete 3-6 perfect reps, but no more.

The second type is usually labelled under speed & power training. Another term for this is Rate of Force Development (RFD). RFD is usually classified as the amount of force generated in the first 200ms of muscular contraction. This is the vital difference between strength and RFD. Strength measures do not take the time to produce maximum force into consideration, while RFD is concerned with the maximum amount of force that can be produced very quickly (usually classified as the first 200ms of contraction).

This point is important to understand and take note of because there is a difference in how quickly older populations decline in strength, compared to RFD. As alluded to earlier RFD declines much more rapidly. Due to very short, explosive nature of the golf swing, RFD is a critical component of high club head speed so increasing or maintaining it for as long as possible is an important training consideration.

In the next section of the article I am going to provide some key takeaways from the research I have studied in this area, and give some examples of how I try to implement these concepts in the programs I provide for clients both in person, and as part of my online training services.

Practical Application:

Research results like those provided above and real world observations make the benefits of these training modalities impossible to ignore, and I always try to include them as an element of my clients training programs both in person and online. With this being said, some sense must be applied when deciding on how to train high force (strength), and high velocity (RFD) movements in older populations.

This is where having the experience of scaling, regressing & progressing different exercises and modes becomes invaluable. An accurate assessment of the clients readiness will dictate the training starting point, and the time and resources they are willing to commit will give an indication of where you can expect to help them progress to.

Maximum strength training, by nature is best accomplished with exercises where the client is in an environment where high forces can be produced, and likelihood of injury or mishap is low. Basic compound movements like variations of hip hinges/deadlifts, squats, and upper body pushes and pulls tend to do work quite well in my experience. Once the athlete is competent in the mechanics of the exercise, a simple Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is an excellent way to choose the weight to use for the exercise. Lets use the hip hinge / deadlift as an example, and you have programmed for the set to consist of 6 reps. Start with a conservative load and once the set is finished, ask the client/yourself to give the set a difficulty rating out of 10. I tell clients that 1 is nothing, and 10 is complete maximum effort, extremely hard, and no way another rep would have been possible. The sweet spot is somewhere between 7-9, so adjust accordingly until you have a load that can lifted in perfect form with an RPE of 7-9/10. If technique starts to drift as the load increases, lower it to the heaviest load that can be done with perfect form. Load should never change technique.