The issue of weight-training came up again on Monday when Rory McIlroy announced that he has a stress fracture in one of his ribs and won’t be able to play golf for several weeks.
The injury was attributed to perhaps over-working on the range during his off-season while testing new clubs, or to his strenuous weight-training regimen. Or, perhaps, some of both.
McIlroy is a gym-rat. Going to the gym is part of his morning ritual almost every day and he has put on a lot of muscle since he first showed up on the world’s golf stage as a skinny 19-year-old whose hair didn’t really fit under his cap. Now, he’s 27, his hair is a lot shorter and he’s cut. He also hits the ball as far as anyone—including bombers like Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. Johnson is 6-4 and Watson is 6-3. McIlroy is generously listed as 5-9, yet he can hit it out there with anyone. So can Jason Day, who is 6-feet-even and has built himself up in the weight room the last several years.
The question then is this: is it worth it? Weight-training has become an obsession with athletes in the last 30 years or so. Strength coaches are an important part of teams—especially in football but also in other sports—and players often attribute new-found success to a training regimen brought to the team by a new strength coach.
It can also cut both ways, as it did this week, when three Oregon players landed in the hospital and new strength coach Irele Oderinde was suspended because doctors believed he had pushed the players too far, leading to their hospitalization. Oderinde came to Oregon from South Florida with new coach Willie Taggert—who obviously believed that Oderinde played a role in the success he had that led to getting the Oregon job.
It is my personal opinion that strength-training is overrated and dangerous. It can also be addictive. There isn’t any doubt that Tiger Woods over-did it in the weight room and that played a role in the myriad of injuries that have helped derail his career in recent years. McIlroy needs to be careful too.
He is both bemused and amused when he hears analysts like Johnny Miller and Brandel Chamblee—arguably the two best golf analysts on TV these days—say they worry he might be over-doing it with the weights. Chances are that Miller and Chamblee never went anywhere near a weight machine during their playing days. Chamblee was a solid tour player, who won once in his career. Miller was a superstar, a Hall of Famer, who won two majors and 25 times in all.
McIlroy gets frustrated because he thinks that Miller and Chamblee and others simply don’t understand how working out helps him be the player he is—a superstar who has already won four majors at the age of 27.
“I know there are athletes who have overdone it,” he said to me last summer when we were talking for the book I’m working on about last year’s Ryder Cup. “But I also know that I’m careful and the people I work with are careful. If I didn’t go to the gym the way I do, I don’t think I could have become the player I’ve become.”
McIlroy also has a sense of humor about it. On the morning that he won The Tour Championship in September, I sent him an early-morning text wishing him luck and asking him if he’d prefer to win the $10 million bonus for winning The FedEx Cup later that day or The Ryder Cup the following week.
Much to my surprise, his answer came back right away. “Both,” he said, including a smiley face emoji. (Is that what they’re called?).
I was surprised he was up that early—it was shortly after 7 a.m. in Atlanta and his tee time was still about seven hours away.
“Been up,” he answered, when I asked about it. “Already been to the gym…Don’t tell Johnny and Brandel.” That was followed by another smiley face.
Much as I respect and like McIlroy and know how smart he is, I do wonder if he’s right about being the player he is because—at least in part—of weights. Woods played the best golf of his life before he became obsessed with weights. When he won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, he was a wiry 21-year-old who might have weighed 170 pounds. He has admitted to weighing as much as 215 after he got involved with weights.
Size and sheer strength don’t necessarily lead to hitting the ball a long way. Justin Thomas, who is just now emerging as a star on tour, weighs 145 pounds. He can hit it just about as far as anybody. What’s more, if sheer length was the ultimate measuring stick for success in golf, Jordan Spieth wouldn’t be a superstar. Putting, ultimately, makes or breaks players.
McIlroy again: “If I had putted decently at Baltusrol, (the PGA Championship last summer) hitting the ball where I hit it on fairways and greens, I’d have won. Instead, I missed the cut because my putting was so bad.”
Drive for show, putt for dough. And lift at your own risk.
Strength coaches are now an important part of golfers ‘teams,’—as they like to call them—and play a major role in team sports. Most teams at the pro and college level, especially in football, have more than one strength coach.
Often, the coach the players know best is the strength coach because they work with him almost all-year round. Frequently, when a coaching staff is fired, the one survivor is the strength coach.
When I was doing my Army-Navy book, Navy had fired George Chaump at the end of the 1994 season. The only coach around while Navy searched for a new coach was Phil Emery, the strength coach. The players call him, ‘Satan,’ a term of endearment. Emery wasn’t your typical strength coach in that he really knew football, so much so that he eventually became an NFL scout and was general manager of the Chicago Bears. Not a lot of strength coaches follow that career path. But he believed passionately that stronger football players were better football players—although he understood the line between hard work and working too hard. I never knew of a Navy player who was injured in the weight room or because of the weight room while Emery was there.
Since 1995, the season I spent working on that book, Army has had SEVEN head football coaches. The only constant has been Scott Swanson—the strength coach. As with Emery, the Army players curse him and love him.
There is no doubt that guys like Emery and Swanson—and others—help make football players stronger and better. There is also no doubt that weight training can be helpful to athletes at all levels.
But, as with anything, there need to be limits: limits on time spent in the weight room; on how much weight one attempts to lift. A lot of media guides now list a player’s maximum lift as if that is an important part of who they are. To me, that’s macho you-know-what.
The emphasis on strength training; on ‘getting big,’; on showing everyone how much you can lift—how much MORE you can lift—has gotten out of control. It is especially scary on the high school level where wanting to ‘get big,’ has led to a good deal of steroid use among football players according to a number of studies.
I don’t think Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron ever lifted a weight. Neither did Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson. Years ago, Ivan Lendl told the media early one year that he was a different man because he’d gone on the Haas diet. Later that day, John McEnroe was asked if he’d ever considered a special diet to help his training. “I’m already on one,” McEnroe said. “The Haagen dazs diet.”
The only weight McEnroe ever lifted was a spoon with a lot of ice cream on it.
This is not a black and white issue. Weight training is neither as bad as some think it is; nor as great as other insist it is. It can be helpful—in moderation. Like most things, moderation is the key. But clearly it needs to be monitored carefully (see Woods and Oregon as two examples) by someone who is not obsessed with screaming in an athlete’s face: “feel the pain, be a man, you can do this!”
Sometimes, not only can you not do this, you shouldn’t even be attempting it.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, ‘The Legends Club,—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an epic college basketball rivalry.’ It spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list and will be out in paperback in March. His latest young adult mystery is, “The DH,”—the third in the Triple Threat series. His Ryder Cup book will be published in October.