This episode features an interview with Mark Tolle, president of Golf Fitness Chicago who has over eighteen years of experience in athletic training and is also a Titleist Performance Institute Certified Instructor. Mark talks about simple things you can do to improve the strength and flexibility in your golf swing. He also gives some surprising advice on what most junior golfers lack in their training.
Golf Fitness Chicago
WL: Our guest this episode is golf fitness expert Mark Tolle, who is the President of Golf Fitness Chicago and has over eighteen years of experience in athletic training and strength and conditioning. In addition to golfers, Mark works with athletes at all levels in a variety of sports. Mark is a licensed Athletic Trainer. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and is also a Certified Personal Trainer and a Titleist Performance Institute Certified Instructor. To learn more about Mark, you can visit chicagogolftrainer.com.
Thanks for joining us, Mark. Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you’ve gotten to this point in your career?
MT: I have certainly played golf for probably over 40 years or so, starting when I was young and am pretty passionate about it. I played a couple years of high school golf. I was always interested in fitness and health and wellness and things like that and I actually got involved in athletic training, so my professional background is specifically sports medicine, rehab, athletic training.
I have a Master’s degree in Exercise Science and I’m also a Certified Athletic Trainer nationally and in the State of Illinois. I came to Chicago from downstate in 1990 and started working with a large healthcare company in the area of outpatient physical therapy and sports medicine. I did a lot of things from an athletic training standpoint, but the most recent company that I worked with, the same kind of deal where they ran outpatient physical therapy clinics, was HealthSouth Physical Therapy. They had a large company involved in a lot of sports medicine and sports activities and they became the sponsor on the PGA tour.
So, they sponsored the Fitness Fan on the men’s tour, the women’s tour, and the senior tour. I got involved with that. There’s another gentleman in the Chicagoland area that is a physical therapist and he’s actually still involved on the tour vans, but we kind of led the efforts here in Chicago developing and working with the HealthSouth golf program. I actually worked on the LPGA Fitness Fan for one event several years ago, but I thought it was just a great fit with my passion of golf and fitness and helping rehab athletes and things like that.
So, what I did was actually broke away and stopped working with HealthSouth and started my own business called Golf Fitness Chicago. I did live in the city but I’m now out here in Northbrook where I focus just right with golf. Ninety percent of my clients are golfers. I implement all of the things I learned with the HealthSouth program as well as through the Titleist Performance Institute so I use their model as well.
I just take one golfer at a time, one client at a time, and I just love seeing improvements in people’s games and of course I’ve applied it to my own game as well. That’s how I’ve gotten here and it’s such a big part of my life. I just love working with golfers.
WL: So, what kind of level of golfer do you work with at Golf Fitness Chicago in terms of handicaps? Do you work with more advanced type of people or all levels? What kind of audience do you have?
MT: All levels. I have worked with local club pros. I’ve scratched golfers, competitive amateur golfers. I’ve worked with higher handicap in the 20, 25, beginners, whether you’re man, woman, or even a child. I have worked with some junior golfers. I’m actually doing some junior golf work here in Northbrook.
It’s the whole gamut. I do tend to see some people that have been injured and have chronic problems are that are recent problems and have gone through rehab or had surgery. I’ve worked in that realm and it’s just a great fit because then they can work with somebody who knows what a spinal fusion is or knows what a total hip replacement is and the contraindications and knows the golf swing and the things to do.
So, it’s a wide variety of clients. You don’t have to be a high level competitor. You can be a beginner, you can be seniors. I do work with older golfers as well. It’s a wide variety.
WL: So, based on your experience then, can you give us some ideas as far as maybe some initial steps for people who don’t implement a fitness program with them playing golf? They just go out to the course and they play. There’s nothing in between. Can you give us some ideas on what to begin with, what you can start to implement right away to help with your flexibility and your overall golf game?
MT: Sure. I look at it like it’s a 4 or 5 step process. First you need to define your goals. You need to figure out what you really want out of your golf game. If you’re just a beginner and you just want to be able to walk 18 holes or 9 holes or if you’re competitive and you really want to improve your distance, lower your handicap, if you want to correct swing faults, that’s kind of a first step. You need to figure out what are those things that you really need to improve, you really want to, you’re motivated to accomplish, whether it be a goal, winning a tournament or making a high school team.
That kind of defines your starting point. It kind of gets you going on the right path. It’s almost like if you’re taking a road trip, you jump in a car with your wife and kids or your buddies or whatever and you’re going somewhere. You have a destination, you’ve got to have a road map. That’s part of any process. You need to start with that road map. It doesn’t matter if you just want to be able to get in better shape as well. Knowing that is very, very helpful. That’s a good starting point.
Next, you kind of have to know your body. You have to know whether you are flexible, whether you need to be stronger. That’s part of knowing your goal. I’ve always been tight, I need to get more flexible. I want more distance. I want to get stronger. I want more power. My posture is really poor. You can do this through a self assessment. Knowing your body is very helpful but working with a golf fitness professional is very helpful as well because that’s a second set of eyes that are looking at you and can do an assessment. I’ll talk about that in a second.
You need to have a good sense of where you’re at physically as well as your golf swing. What are those swing falls? We all have them. What are those restrictions in your swing? What’s your teaching professional trying to get you to do in your swing? Even if you have a teaching professional, it’s still just about knowing your body and the things that you want to be able to accomplish.
I do a lot working with the teaching professionals. I will personally go to a golf lesson with one of my clients and talk to them about the mechanics of the swing and where they’re breaking down or losing power. Then I can relate that to a physical restriction. If you have an injury, it’s really important that you work with that physical therapist or that doctor. Do you have that permission to just start swinging? Is your body ready to do that? You need to condition your body to the point where you can play, things like that.
So, you really need to kind of do a mental assessment of where you’re at physically or with a fitness professional that can actually do an assessment. I can talk about the assessment a bit, things people can look for.
WL: Sure, I think that would be very helpful.
MT: Posture is a big thing. Have somebody else look at your posture. You’ve got to have that good posture in that set up position. In my assessments I go through a pretty detailed look at the body, looking at your posture, looking at flexibility, looking at your core strength. I like to describe it as more stability looking at what kind of condition you’re in. Do you need to lose weight? Things like that.
I do a pretty good look what your mobility is in your hip joint for example or in your shoulder joint. Are you able to turn on that right hip? Are you able to disassociate between your shoulder turn and your pelvic turn? There’s a lot of things. What are your functional movements looking like such as a deep squat? Can you do a lunge?
How’s your nervous system working? Are you coordinated and have balance? Things like that. It’s a pretty good assessment tool and I always put the results with that with the information I’m getting from the golfer as well as from the golfer’s teaching professional, and that’s how you design programs, based on that assessment.
Designing a program is pretty much the next step. Like I just mentioned, it’s based on where you are physically, what kind of swing faults you have, what kind of things you want to specifically improve, how much time you have. I kind of look at it like a performance pyramid. If you can visualize a pyramid with three levels. The bottom level is the fundamentals or functional movement patterns.
There’s a lot of research that tells us if you lose a fundamental movement such as squat, a functional movement pattern such as even rolling or crawling, that your coordinated efforts in a more complicated skill such as golf isn’t going to be as good as if you’ve got those fundamental patterns developed. I build this pyramid so to speak so through the assessment and through developing the program, you want to make sure that those fundamentals and those functional movement patterns are pretty sound.
It’s like a teaching professional that’s teaching the golf swing. You need to start with the fundamentals as well. The next level that performance pyramid if you will is the golf fitness and conditioning. This is where you really work on the mobility and the stability and the strength and the posture and things like that. You don’t want to do that first.
That’s a problem I see a lot of people doing, is they just jump right in, they do a golf fitness exercise that they saw in a magazine, and they could be doing what we call layering fitness on top of dysfunction. You want to make sure you have good function underneath before you start layering and putting conditioning and fitness on top of that.
The top of the pyramid is the real specific golf skill and instruction that people should have all the way through in working with a fitness professional. Position the swing, those little nuances that a golf professional in their swing or corrections in their swing fault that they’re trying to get you in. Once you have the good fundamentals and you’ve got that conditioning built in on top of that, those skills will be a lot easier to build in the golf swing.
I was talking about functional or fundamental. I just want to mention that developmental patterns, I’m really interested in this because we have found or we see that… I have two young girls. They’re 4 and 3 and I can’t wait until they get old enough where we can go out and play. You watch kids develop and develop their head control and their rolling and their sitting and their crawling and squatting, and you need to make sure that those are developed even at an adult level to build that functional and that fundamental positioning that you put fitness on top of. It’s any skill whether you’re playing tennis or golf. It’s very important stuff.
WL: Can you explain that a little bit more?
MT: Yes. A lot of fitness professionals talk about core strength. I look at it as stability. A lot of people use the example that you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe because the canoe isn’t stable. Anything you do with your extremities, your arms and legs from a functional movement standpoint, you need neurological control of the trunk.
That is developed in infancy. It’s developed with the way that the infant rolls over. Have they developed a stability in their trunk to move their head and then move their arms and then to roll? A rolling pattern is a stability pattern. The crawling pattern is a stability pattern where you’re on hands and knees.
Those patterns oftentimes either are delayed in infancy, never were developed or even skipped. Sometimes kids will go right from crawling for a very short period of time and then go straight to walking. They’re missing some of those stability patterns. In your more refined sports skills, you almost have to go back and call upon those neurological stability patterns in order to develop a sport skill.
In the golf swing what happens, certainly I’m not a golf professional, but the TPI has done a lot of, that’s the Titleist Performance Institute, has done a lot of work in the sequence of the golf swing. They call it the Kinematic Sequence. That is the process or change from loading the system in your back swing and then unloading it in your downswing and follow through. Body segments move at different points in the golf swing.
As you load, the top of your back swing, your legs and feet are you going to move first and then your pelvis is going to follow but when your pelvis starts to move, your legs slow down. It’s almost like an control and then as your pelvis speeds up, and moves or transfers that energy up through your core, your stability patterns have to control that energy.
So, if you didn’t have the control and stability, that energy that started in the backswing and that [core lean 0:16:46.6] in the back swing, that energy isn’t going to be controlled through a systematic relief, so, your shoulder turns faster than your pelvic turns. Your arms are faster than your shoulders. Your club if faster than your arm, so that’s how you get that power right at the impact.
So, you have to have that stability pattern in your system for golf and any other activity. It’s really kind of interesting stuff as you go back it goes functional, fundamental, patterns that we did develop or maybe delayed or didn’t develop when we were infants.
WL: Mark, you talked early at the beginning about defining your goals and then part of that I think would be the expectations and I think one of the problems most golfers have is their expectations sometimes get out of whack. You have a good round and then all of a sudden, that’s your expectation, that you should be attaining each time out.
Now, I’m assuming it’s the same thing with the fitness levels. How do you work with people to define what their expectations should be about their body? When they first come to you, what their expectations realistically are and then how do you work with them to set up goals so that they can achieve those goals but they’re still realistic enough to achieve?
MT: That comes back to the assessment. The assessment is quite revealing when you ask somebody to do a fundamental movement such as the squat pattern. We know that TPI has done a lot of work and if you’re not able to do a deep squat, you tend to come up out of your posture. I explain this as I’m working with people as we go through the assessment that they need to be able to do a much better squat.
“This is what your squat looks like. This is where I think we can get you to” for mobility for example. We know the hips, internal/external rotation. We need, I think it’s close to 35 or 40 degrees of internal rotation in the hips, is what’s seen on the tour. I’ll measure somebody and it will be 10 degrees. It’s very revealing from a physical standpoint. “You’re tight here. I think based on what I see, your age, problems.” Any kinds of history of injuries and things like that…
You pretty much can get a good idea of, “Okay, I really think we can get you to 35 degrees in this hip. You don’t have any injuries, you’re pretty young.” We build upon that assessment. That kind of helps guide them from a realistic standpoint. “Yes, I think we can improve this physically.”
How does that carry over into your golf game and your golf swing? I do relate how important it is for hip rotation when you’re going into your back swing. I talk a lot about disassociation between the shoulder turn and the pelvic turn and if people don’t have that control, that could lead to things like [over the top 0:20:11.8] so it’s really identifying the physical limitation, showing them how it relates to the golf swing, and then realistically saying to a 70 year old gentleman, “I’m not going to make you look like you’re 25, but I can probably increase you by 5 or 10 degrees.” Things like that.
So, I’m measuring them objectively and of course giving them my years of experience and information as to what is expected and reachable. That’s where I come up with the program. As long as you do it as I ask, those results will come.
We do a lot of reassessing as well. If you have problems and it’s not working, I always go to different tools in my toolbox so to speak because you can stretch a hamstring as long as you want and sometimes it just doesn’t get more flexible. There’s a lot of other ways to get there, so, it’s kind of putting the whole puzzle together to laying out the plan and this is what I really think we can get you, increase your hip mobility, that’s going to help you in your back swing.
If you’re working with a golf professional, it’s even a lot more revealing because then you have got the communication and they can say, “Oh yes, now I can get you into this better position and we can get you over to a better swing and expect to improve your scores.”
WL: I guess that leads to, I have one final follow up question for you. We’re talking about kind of taking an existing golfer and what we can do to help mold them back, maybe even take them to another level that they’ve never been to. Now you’ve mentioned about your daughters. What would you suggest for young people just starting out in terms of when your daughters get old enough to play, what would you suggest to them to start off with and continue the rest of their lives with in terms of a golf fitness program?
MT: My belief and philosophy regarding children is to make sure to be involved in a lot of different activities. Be a kid, have fun, don’t just play golf for example. Don’t just focus right in on the golf. It’s okay to be serious about that, but be involved in other sports. I’m working with a junior travel team and one kid was telling me he plays ping pong. I said, “That’s awesome,” because of the eye-hand coordination that you get from ping pong.
I know a lot of golf professionals and even the TPI have this philosophy that they would much rather have a really good, fast, powerful swing in a kid with no control versus somebody that has a lot of control and can hit it down the middle but doesn’t hit it very far. In other words, as you grow up, you want to make sure that you can develop power and speed.
So, my 4 year old was swinging and she had kind of a heavy club, I’ve got to get a hold of my lighter clubs and I was telling her to swing fast. People may disagree with this but you have windows of opportunity as a junior to really develop a lot of speed and power. Power is speed associated with strength. The strength will be built with participating in a lot of different sports and he coordination as well.
You really need as a young junior golfer, you want to… I’m not trying to tell people to go out and swing as hard as you can. If you’re under the guidance of a golf professional, you certainly need the instruction, but from a fitness standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with swinging fast when you’re a little kid because you’ll get that under control as you get older.
So, participating in a lot of sports is important, developing good habits of exercise. That’s very important, whether it be eating correctly to exercising on a daily basis but I am just a huge believer in getting a good well-rounded physical education. I had actually done a few of the functional movement pattern assessments on the junior players, just trying to kind of screen them to make sure that some of those developmental patterns are there and they’re missing it.
If they’re not missing then that’s when they should work with somebody individually to re-establish that stability pattern that they might be missing, but from a general standpoint, just playing a lot of different sports. Kids are involved in a lot of things. There is a limit to that. Just don’t play the one sport such as golf. When you get older, you can do that. When you’re 16, 17, or 18, you can focus more on that, but when you’re younger, try to do as much – soccer, tennis, all that, it’s great.
WL: It’s interesting, you mentioned about the swing speed because that’s actually mentioned by the Big Four golf teachers in the latest edition of Golf Digest. Ian Poulter is on the cover and they have a round table with Ledbetter and Butch Harmon and a couple other guys, and that was one of the things that Hank Haney brought up was the fact that people don’t swing hard enough. They define why. It’s not really a case of you need to swing harder, it’s to generate the club head speed and it was really interesting. It’s interesting that you talk about that as well, to establish a specialty at an early age.
MT: I think they just get used to the speed. They start out being slow and watching their form and swinging real nice and easy and smooth, but the body never gets programmed. Their body doesn’t recognize what speed is in movement patterns. I think the opposite – let your body recognize what that fast speed and quick swing feels like. Your body feels like that, the nervous system kind of recognizes it. Then your strength will develop with general conditioning and exercise and the golf pro is going to own that fast swing and he’s going to get you hitting it straight. You could be a fast swinger hitting it all over the place but I think the golf profession would rather have that than a nice, easy, smooth swing that doesn’t go anywhere.