Editor's Note: Story updated May 20, 2016 — Contrary to popular belief, the arms and elbows, from address to the top of the backswing, travel only a short distance. This is a reality few recreational players grasp. Most choose to believe that the arms and elbows travel a very great distance, and this is what provides power in the golf swing. These golfers are drastically misinformed. Power isn't generated by swinging the arms and elbows out and away from your body. In fact, just the opposite is true. Read on to learn why and how to develop a more compact, more efficient and more productive swing — to make elbow room for more iron play success.
A key concept to understand is that the arms, which are positioned in front of the chest at address, must remain in front of the chest throughout the swing. Keeping your arms and elbows in front of you begins with being able to execute a proper right elbow hinge. Most amateurs are guilty of hinging the elbow backward, an error that moves the right forearm under the swing plane, eventually trapping it behind the right hip on the forwardswing.
The right elbow should hinge up, not back. Maintain your arms' position in front of your chest and also keep your right forearm on the plane of your swing. Your shoulder turn brings the club behind your head, not your arms. It's true with every club but especially with iron play.
You can practice the correct elbow hinge with any club. Following the takeaway, focus on folding the right elbow up, not out behind you. Your swing should feel much more vertical than before. More importantly, it should feel shorter. That's a good thing since, whether you believe it or not, a good backswing is only 18 inches long. From setup to the top, your right elbow should move just about a foot and a half, from the center of your torso to just outside the right hip.
Despite its smaller-than-expected length, a true backswing fuels a simpler swing, is loaded with big-time power and makes it much easier to return to impact without hindrances or compensations.
A proper right elbow hinge is paramount to creating a fundamentally solid backswing. But it's only a small piece to a bigger puzzle. The secret to better golf is to get rightly related at the top—a requirement that involves the establishment of four key angles, all of which are 90 degrees.
The first 90-degree angle is created by the right elbow. As you fold the elbow up (not behind, remember), it should hinge to 90 degrees. This 90-degree fold is measured from the right bicep to the right forearm. The other three 90-degree angles are made between 1) the right tricep and the right side of your torso; 2) your clubshaft and your right forearm; and 3) your shoulder line and the target line. Establishing these four angles adds extension and coil while keeping the backswing relatively short, compact and simple.
Stand up where you are and assume your standard address position. With your left hand resting on your hip, bring your right arm up and fold it 90 degrees right in front of you. That's one 90-degree angle. Now, check that your right tricep makes a right angle with your torso. That's 90-degree angle number two. Next, hinge the right elbow so that if you were holding a golf club in that hand, the shaft would make a right angle to your right forearm. That's angle number three.
The last step in the drill is to simply rotate your shoulders 90 degrees or as much as your flexibility will allow. As you execute this turn, don't allow your folded right elbow to move away from its set position. The right elbow should move only as far as it's moved by your shoulder turn. Note how simple this all feels. This is being rightly related to your turn with your arms and elbows, and something you should strive for if you're serious about improving.
Next, incorporate both arms at the preset position and turn again. Do this in front of a mirror and take a good look at what a full, loaded golf swing truly looks like. Quickly check that your hands lie just above the right shoulder and that your left arm is even with your right shoulder. More important, notice how your arms and elbows are situated only a small distance from where they were at address. Like I said, 18 inches is all it takes. For further proof, watch any professional the next time a tournament airs on TV. The modern greats never take their hands past 11:00, and nearly all of them keep their arms in front of their chest.
Now, try the same drill with a golf club. In practice, your goal is to find the simplest move from setup to the top that relocates your arms and elbows rightly in front of you.
If you can get correctly set at the top, all that's left to do is to return your right elbow and forearm intact to your right leg on the downswing. The key here is to refrain from folding the elbow backward. Return your right elbow and arm to your right leg by maintaining your elbow fold and following the same route they took on the way to the top. As you reach impact, let everything unfold. You should find that, at impact, your hands, arms and elbows are in a much more forward position than where they were at address, which delofts the clubface and produces strong, boring trajectory shots. You should also find that your right elbow isn't nearly as trapped as it may have been before because of the correct forwardswing movements. If so, you've eliminated a major flaw from your swing.
I've always felt that, once understood, the correct hinging and movement of the right elbow will accelerate improvement more than any other facet of the golf swing. Over the next few weeks, perform the 90/90/90/90 exercise and use the new motions on the range. Start small, with half-wedge swings, then progress to full swings, then to your mid- and long-irons. Suddenly, you're only 18 inches from glory.
A correct folding of the right elbow is evidenced by four key right angles: 1) between your right tricep and your torso; 2) between the right tricep and right forearm; 3) between your right arm and the clubshaft; and 4) between your shoulder line and the target line. If you can create these four angles, you'll successfully create a more compact swing and correctly maintain your arms in front of your body throughout.
PGA professional Joe Thiel instructs at the World Wide Golf Schools in Olympia, Wash.
This story was originally published in 2004