For most amateur golfers, the upper body and the movement it makes receives the greatest amount of attention, which is unsurprising given it’s the arms that swing the club.
The forearms, elbows, wrists and hands all working together in harmony will have a massive effect on whether the shaft returns the club on plane and with a face that is somewhat square at impact.
Now while this may be true, if your practice and thinking revolves purely around the upper body, you are undoubtedly missing out on the huge benefits your golf swing will reap from correct activation of the legs and lower body.
Without capturing the perfect rotation and drive through your legs, and the strong muscles within them, you’re going to lose massive amounts of power, as well as risk swaying and making movements that will render your swing less consistent.
Since I’ve focused more on how my legs move during each shot, I’ve been able to improve both my accuracy and distance off the tee, and have dropped my handicap significantly.
So, how do you use your legs in the golf swing?
In the golf swing, you should focus on three main things with your legs: hip rotation, weight shift and knee flex. When turning in the swing, the right hip should move away from the ball, the left knee should flex and your weight should move onto the back foot. During your downswing and follow through, the left hip should clear away from the ball while the right knee flexes and weight shifts to the front foot. If all three things fire correctly, it will lead to a pure strike with greater power and distance.
Despite the benefits of correct leg work in golf, many people still rely far too much on the upper body to make the perfect golf swing.
Players who get too ‘armsy’ may find a tendency to drag the ball out to the left or even roll the ball over with a draw.
Making the correct hip turn will help marry everything up and send the ball out on a straighter trajectory.
For others, the fear of overusing their legs comes as a result of years of swaying, something they have tried to solve by quietening the bottom half and keeping everything still.
Unfortunately, turning the legs off won’t fix inconsistent strikes (in the form of fats and thins); rather, the legs need to become more active, but active in the right way, not in a swaying fashion.
If you want to know more about preventing sway in the golf swing, I’d recommend you read another detailed, instructional article we’ve written on exactly that topic.
To properly harness the power and consistency of the legs and lower body in the golf swing, there are three main factors that you need to get right:
- Turning the hips
- Knee flex
- Weight shift
Let’s explain each of them in more detail.
Table of contents
Turning the hips correctly in the golf swing
One of the most common mistakes amateur or mid handicap golfers make is sliding, rather than turning.
The slide can come about because of many reasons including a lack of flexibility or misconceptions about how you hit down on the golf ball with irons.
For a lot of golfers, turning their body is hard due to tightness and stiff muscles, so when the club moves higher and higher off the ground during the backswing, the only way to get it to the desired height is to sway off the ball and lift the arms up in the air.
If you find rotation of the core and lower body exceptionally challenging, it may be worth investing some time and effort into stretching and exercises that increase your range of movement.
The second reason people sway rather than turn is due to a belief that this lateral movement will help strike down on the ball and make that compressing contact we all desperately desire.
I, for one, used to be strongly in this camp, and substituting the slide for a hip turn is one of the key reasons I moved from an 18 handicap down to an 11.
Now, sometimes you might pull the sway off and slide forward at the perfect time, shallowing the swing out inches after the ball.
However, what this often does is just add movement that is hard to control, inconsistent and likely to deliver undesirable results.
In the golf swing, the hips should rotate away from the ball in the backswing and back through the ball on the downswing. During the takeaway, the right butt cheek should turn away from the ball in a clockwise fashion, before transitioning back towards square in the downswing. During strike and follow through, the left butt cheek should rotate back and away from the ball, while the right hip bone turns through the ball so the pelvis faces the target in the follow through.
Without making this turn, you’ll be attempting to generate all of the power from your arms, rather than gaining assistance from your legs.
It only takes one look at the size of your arms compared to your legs to guess which has more potential to offer power.
In an instructional video from a few years back, Australian golf legend Greg Norman, aka the Great White Shark, spruiks the ‘RPB’ or ‘Right Pocket Back’ move when after that tad more distance.
If it’s good enough for a man who won two Open Championships, it’s probably good enough for you too.
You can check out the video below:
Knee Flex: How much is enough?
Much like rotation of the hips, a lack of knee flex can be a symptom of poor flexibility, pain or general tightness in the hips and joints.
We know that the club and body need to move off the ball in the backswing and through the ball in the downswing, so swaying away and back through makes logical sense.
However, as mentioned earlier, this is merely a recipe for inconsistency.
In the golf swing, the left knee should flex and point towards the ball during the backswing, before beginning to straighten again at the commencement of the downswing. As you rotate and drive through the ball, the trail knee should now start to flex and drive towards the ball. As you complete your strike and move into the follow through, both knees will straighten and point towards your target.
It is crucial to note, however, that when one knee is flexed, this doesn’t mean that the other should be locked straight.
This can have dire consequences in the backswing especially, as a flexed left knee and straight right knee can lead to an unhelpful forward dipping motion.
When I say the left knee flexes in the backswing, I mean that it flexes farther than at address, as it must already have flex when you’re set up so you can reach the ball.
As the left knee flexes, the right knee straightens, but not completely.
The right knee should still maintain some level of flex to allow hip rotation, as seen in the video below:
Something to be really mindful of here is where the weight is in your feet when this flexing and straightening (or flex reduction) is occurring.
Even though the left knee bends, there should be a movement of weight onto the back foot as your upper body transitions away from the ball.
If you bend the left knee and feel weight rush into the left foot, you may be developing a tendency to dip, rather than turn.
Another benefit to monitoring knee flex is the power it can have in signalling when to begin the downswing.
If you find yourself thinking about the arms to gauge when to move from backswing to downswing, you’re likely guessing where you think the ‘top’ is, and this could change with things like tightness, confidence, heck, even the weather.
This is why many people talk about the need to use the legs, not the arms, to trigger the downswing.
Two things that might work for you are:
- Focusing on left knee flex
- Focusing on right leg ‘loading’ or straightening
As previously discussed, during the backswing we flex the left knee towards the ball.
When you reach a point where the left knee is bent the optimum amount, it is time to start the reverse action and begin the downswing.
Alternatively, think about the straightening of the right knee in the backswing (again, not locking the knee and maintaining some flex).
When you remove the necessary amount of flex from the right knee, it’s also a sign that the downswing should commence.
Weight shift: Making the right move
When making a swing in golf, weight should shift into the back foot and right side of the body during the back swing. In order to avoid swaying, the weight should be focused more towards the inside of the right foot. During the downswing and follow through, weight should move out of the right foot as you turn, shifting into the outside of the left foot. If you have done this correctly, your right toe should be the only part of the back foot making contact with the ground at the completion of your swing.
A lack of weight shift often comes about through fears of swaying.
Kudos to anyone who recognises that a sway can be damaging for your golf swing, but if the remedy is to keep the weight 50-50 through the whole motion, it’s likely hurting your contact and distance.
A good transition of weight accompanied with a turn – not a sway – will generate power as kinetic energy is transferred.
You only have to look at the movements made by long drive competitors, such as in the video below, to see why weight shift is crucial for power and distance:
One of the biggest challenges in golf, however, is distinguishing between the ‘feel’ and the ‘real’, and knowing that I am shifting weight but not swaying is something I still struggle with in my own swing.
As much as you may like to go things solo, getting a lesson or two with a good teaching pro who has access to FlightScope or Trackman launch monitors will give you data that is impossible to argue with.
They will be able to provide you with numbers recorded for lateral shift: if you have high lateral shift, it means you’re swaying and need to hone your technique.
Another useful tool to train with is a weight shift board, kind of like the one seen in the video below:
A crude, homemade board that rocks will really help you get that sensation of a back-and-forth transition of weight when making a swing.
Further to this, if you really want clear, undeniable feedback about your weight swift, you may need to engage your local pro once more (that is, unless you want to fork out a lot of money for expensive gear).
A body track mat that records the pressure through each foot while completing a golf swing will display patterns of movement in crystal clear fashion and you’ll know instantly whether your weight is in the right places for irons, driver and everything in between.
How do pros use their legs in the golf swing?
While all of the information above is important for a good all-round golf swing for anyone at any level, the pros often add more explosive elements to their shots through increased leg action.
I’ve tacked this on separately, though, as for most golfers, trying to add this movement could just add too many working parts.
If you’re employing the following action, not only are you making movements along the horizontal axis, but the vertical axis too.
To generate that 300-yard plus driving power, pro golfers will push into the ground, almost squatting, before firing up and away from the earth through contact.
Coach to the pros Dan Whittaker explains this in the video below:
The result is a golf swing where the feet are nearly off the ground when contact is made, with all the force transitioning into the ball to see huge speeds off the face of the club.
If you want to try this, then power to you!
But for the average Joe like me, this is probably a seventh swing thought I can do without.
The legs are pivotal to the golf swing, with three key elements necessary to strike it with the power an accuracy of a single-figure handicapper. They are:
- Hip turn
- Knee flex
- Weight shift
While squatting and launching off the turf like the pros may be appealing, you can still achieve great power and accuracy through the three aforementioned actions, without clouding your mind with movements almost exclusive to the PGA tour.
Follow these simple tips and hopefully you’ll find an extra 10 yards off the tee in no time, leaving your playing partners wondering if you’ve been hitting the gym while they’ve been hitting the range.
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