Golfer Rory McIlroy burst onto the global competitive golf scene back in 2007, racking up victories and big dollars at an age when most young men are doing anything but. And he did it despite having a body composition that was, shall we say, nonathletic, and a number of other big physical warning signs.
“I wasn’t really big into the gym,” McIlroy recalled in a Nike commercial in 2014. “I couldn’t stand on one leg for more then 10 seconds. I couldn’t hold a plank for more than 30 seconds.” Combine that with his admittedly “terrible” posture, and any trainer worth his or her clipboard would probably see an injury waiting to happen—particularly in combination with McIlroy’s violent golf swing.
Rory McIlroy and Nike Training Present:
Watch the video – 2:09
So what did the young Irishman do? He got into the gym and transformed himself. His results would seem to speak for themselves—19 professional wins, $150 million in winnings, all by the tender age of 26—but he’s had to deal with a steady stream of criticism ever since he turned the corner and got fit.
Here’s the latest shot tossed at McIlroy from behind the mic, courtesy of Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee:
“When I see the things he’s doing in the gym, I think of what happened to Tiger Woods … and it does give me a little concern when I see the extensive weightlifting that Rory is doing in the gym.”
It’s easy to just roll your eyes at a statement like this and say, “Strong is always better, duh,” but let’s give Mr. Chamblee the benefit of the doubt and unpack it a bit.
What happened to Tiger Woods
For years, Tiger Woods was slight of build, while definitely athletic, and he had great success on the golf course. Like, the greatest anyone has ever had.
Then, he started getting hurt all the time. He also started showing up to tournaments looking more like a free safety than your standard golfer. Were the two related? Plenty of people were eager to say they were, stating that Woods was restricted, bulky, and too strong for his own good.
So let’s imagine the torque Tiger’s dynamic swing put on his body. If you’ve ever seen him swing—and you have, because we all have—then you know it’s a lot. Now take into account that he performed this move almost exclusively in one direction, starting in infancy. Don’t forget, he was featured on the Mike Douglas show at age 3, and could shoot a respectable 48 at nine holes at that age. He’s 40 now, and has been a professional golfer since his teenage years. Even by conservative calculations, he has probably swung the golf club several million times in his life.
Honestly, it’s amazing his eyes and his toes still point in the same direction. Criticizing him for having back pain is like blaming a gladiator’s training for the fact that he got stabbed in the back in the arena. Tiger’s weight-training regimen was designed to balance his body and save it from a lifetime of damage from the golf swing, not to blindly add stress or build muscle mass for its own sake.
That he ultimately lost the battle—and is reportedly in near-constant pain as he enters his fifth decade of life—isn’t an indictment of strength training. It’s an indictment of single-minded devotion to individual sports, and a call for more well-rounded athleticism.
Smart trainers—not just talking-head commentators—know this. Virtually every sport causes some form of extreme repetition of movement, often with considerable force. Athletes and their trainers have come to understand this, and they’ve instituted weight-training protocols to correct these imbalances and provide sport-specific advantages.
So what was Rory doing, anyway?
To hear his critics describe it, you’d think McIlroy had entered the CrossFit Games. But the truth? He was “caught” performing squats. Here’s his selfie-described workout:
- Squat: 3 sets of 10 reps, 225 pounds
- Squat: 3 sets of 3 reps, 265 pounds
He’s also been pictured deadlifting a similar amount, and doing easy sets with 225 using the trap bar. In the Nike video, you can also see him doing push-ups, renegade rows, and some rotational medicine-ball work.
None of this is indicative of someone trying to break into powerlifting. It’s not bodybuilding, either—and McIlroy has been quick to note that he still weighs just 165 pounds. It’s really indicative of someone who has simply done the work to develop a healthy body composition and build strong legs, hips, and core. All of those muscles are integral to the golf swing—and to being a healthy, functional athlete and human being.
Honestly, this training protocol and the one captured in the video are more likely to help extend McIlroy’s career than they are to shorten it. Having a solid base of muscle mass and stronger spinal stabilizers—an advantage that squats and deadlift variations definitely provide—helps prevent accumulating injury from performing the same explosive twisting move, say, a couple of million times.
The Bottom Line
Of course, we can all point to someone who does it wrong—someone who gets big and simultaneously begins spiraling down an endless series of injuries, big and small. Are the two related? Sometimes. And sometimes, that person was going to get injured one way or another.
Each of us can also probably point to someone who got fit and strong and watched their back pain disappear, saw their quality of life skyrocket, and felt and performed better than they ever dreamed possible. McIlroy has a long road ahead of him, but the success he’s achieved in his early years says more than Chamblee ever could.
“It’s a necessity. It’s what I need to do,” McIlroy says in the Nike video. “And I feel like getting in here gives me the best possible chance to go out on the golf course and perform to the best of my ability.”
He’s earned the benefit of the doubt. It’s the repetition, unbalanced, that causes damage. That, and opening your mouth when you have nothing informed to say.