Golf Swing Drill 304. Backswing: Arm Position at the Top of the Golf Swing


Most amateur golfers completely misunderstand how to use their arms in the golf swing, especially in the backswing.  As you’ll see in the next few drills, once you learn how to turn, as you’ve been working on in Golf Swing Drill 303 – Backswing: Full Shoulder Turn with Weight Shift, moving your arms correctly to make a perfect backswing is remarkably simple.

This misunderstanding is natural.  When you watch Tour players on TV, you see them making huge shoulder turns and swinging their arms an enormous distance — 180 degrees going back and then 400 degrees or more coming down and through.  When most amateurs try to emulate this, they swing their arms wildly around their body.  This feels powerful, it’s a big swing with lots of effort, but it’s extremely inefficient, and it results in many of the faults, the inconsistency, and the lack of distance, suffered by many amateur golfers.  It also results in back pain and potential injury.

Well, you’re about to see that most great golfers don’t actually swing their arms anything like as much as you might think, relative to their bodies.

Apologies to the lefties out there, but for simplicity these instructions are given for a right-handed golfer.


As we’ve been discussing so far in this section and in the takeaway section, the backswing is all about turning your body.  If you turn your body correctly, making a full turn with plenty of separation, then you can generate a lot more power and consistency in your golf swing.  Golf Swing Drill 303 showed you how easy it is to make a full turn once you know how, and how you can get your body in a great position to simplify the golf swing and generate enormous power.  Unfortunately, even armed with this information, many amateur golfers still don’t turn correctly in the backswing.

If you use your arms incorrectly, as most amateur golfers do, swinging them around your body, cocking your wrists too early, letting your right elbow “fly” behind you, bending your right arm too early and bending it too much, bending your left arm as a result… then horrible things happen.  Your arms become disconnected from your core, complicating the golf swing and losing power and consistency.  The golf club gets to the top of the backswing ahead of your body, leaving you two choices; stop there, and don’t make a full turn, or keep turning and over-swing.  The golf club gets pulled off plane, and your hands have to work hard to get back in front of your body in the downswing, requiring numerous compensations and manipulations to get back to impact with any success.

By moving your arms correctly, you dramatically simplify the golf swing.  You give your body a chance to make a full, powerful turn.  You make it much easier to get your hands back down in front of your body consistently through impact.  You set your arms and the golf club in the perfect position, every time, to make a great downswing — efficient, consistent, powerful, accurate, and kind to your body.

Most golf instruction on the backswing talks about how to move the golf club, how to keep it on plane and set it in “the slot” at the top.  The plane of the golf club is clearly important if you’re going to make an effective golf swing, striking the golf ball cleanly, with accuracy and consistency.  But, as you’ll discover in this section, if you move your body and arms correctly, then the golf club will almost take care of itself — you’ll set it on the perfect plane every time, without really thinking about it.

What’s more, because it’s simple, it’s easy to learn.  You could make a good golf swing by swinging your arms more around your body, some Tour professionals do (and many instructors teach this), but it’s unnecessary, you wouldn’t gain anything, and it would require you to master a complex series of compensations and manipulations, taking years of dedicated practice, and even then you’d need fantastic timing and coordination to play golf at a consistently high level.


The Drill

This is the first of a series of drills that will enable you to quickly learn how to move your arms correctly in the backswing.

This first drill is very simple.

We start by isolating your arms, teaching you what the perfect top of the backswing arm position is, and what it feels like.

Figure 1 - Right arm position at the top of the backswing

Figure 1.  Right arm position at the top of the backswing.

Figure 2 - Right arm position at the top of the backswing – down the line view

Figure 2.  Right arm position at the top of the backswing – down the line view.

  • Stand up straight, in perfect posture, with your feet parallel and the perfect stance width apart, your knees soft, not locked.
  • Lift your right arm up in front of your body, bent at the elbow to about 100 degrees — see Figures 1 and 2.
  • Your right elbow should be directly in front of your right shoulder, the bottom of your elbow at the same height as the bottom of your sternum — about 2” (5cm) beneath the bottom of your pectorals — see Figure 3.


Figure 3 - The human sternum

Figure 3.  The human sternum.

  • With your hand flat, your thumb pointing directly behind you, externally rotate your right upper arm (humerus) by about 15 to 20 degrees — see Figure 1.  If you struggle with this, see Limited Shoulder Mobility below.
  • Without turning your chest, pull your right shoulder blade back and down gently, it should feel firmly “connected” to your core.


Figure 4 - Perfect arm position at the top of the backswing

Figure 4.  Perfect arm position at the top of the backswing.

Figure 5 - Perfect arm position at the top of the backswing – down the line view

Figure 5.  Perfect arm position at the top of the backswing – down the line view.


  • Keeping your left shoulder down, and your right arm still, reach across with your left arm and take your left thumb in your right fist.  Allow your left shoulder to protract slightly, feeling it reach out and across, but keep it firmly depressed — see Figure 4.
  • Allow your left arm to internally rotate as it moves up and across, so that, at the top, the inside of your left elbow points at your right shoulder — see Figures 4 and 5.
  • Your left wrist should be flat (the neutral or mid-position), your left palm facing the ground to your right, and your left arm should be straight.
  • Make sure that your right elbow is still bent to about 100 degrees (never less than 90 degrees), that your right arm remains externally rotated, and that your right elbow is still level with the bottom of your sternum.
  • Reach out away from you with your left arm (keeping your shoulder down), and gently pull on your left thumb as you increase the external rotation stretch in your right arm.  Keeping your left wrist flat, cock (abduct) your wrists to point your thumbs more behind you — see Figure 5.
  • Looking in a mirror in front of you, your left elbow should be in front of your neck, and you should be able to see the rounded contour of your right shoulder in between your arms — see Figure 4.

That’s it, the perfect top of the golf swing arm position.


The exact angles in this position will vary slightly from golfer to golfer, depending on the proportions of your body, and on the amount of right arm external rotation you can achieve.  The angle of your left arm will also vary slightly in the actual golf swing depending on your spine angle and the length of the golf club — longer clubs will result in a slightly shallower (flatter) left arm at the top, and a slightly lower right elbow relative to the sternum, because the spine angle at address will be slightly more upright and the club lie angle will be shallower — see Figure 7.

The key to perfect position is the position of your right elbow — in front of your shoulder and approximately level with the bottom of your sternum — while keeping your shoulders down.

If your shoulders are in the correct position, both depressed, the left shoulder protracted (reaching out), the right shoulder blade pulled back and down, then you shouldn’t be able to bend your right elbow past 90 degrees.

Note that, in Figures 2 and 5, the right elbow appears to be bent to about 90 degrees but it’s actually closer to 100 – the fact that the arm is externally rotated (the forearm is tilted towards the camera) makes the angle look more acute.


This position enables you to transfer energy efficiently from your core through to the golf club in the downswing, without having to manipulate your arms to work them back in front of your body — an unnecessary movement which requires perfect timing and leads to inconsistency.

It’s worth noting that, in Figure 6, despite what might appear to be a “short” backswing with his arms compared to most amateur golfers (the golf club is well short of parallel at the top), Tiger is about to hit a shot with his 4-iron that will carry 220 yards (200m).  He achieves this by making a full turn and through good downswing mechanics, not through brute strength, and obviously not by swinging his arms as far as most amateurs do.  By working through the drills in the Swing Like a Champion System, you’ll soon be doing something similar.


Figure 6 - Tiger Woods arm position at the top of the backswing – 4 Iron

Figure 6.  Tiger Woods arm position at the top of the backswing – 4 Iron.

Figure 7 - Tiger Woods arm position at the top of the backswing – Driver

Figure 7.  Tiger Woods arm position at the top of the backswing – Driver.


In Figures 6 and 7, you can see Tiger’s position with a 4-iron and a driver, respectively.  Note that in Figure 7, with the driver, it appears that his elbow has moved more to his right.  This is not the case.  With the driver, Tiger has turned his shoulders well beyond 90 degrees, more like 110, which from this camera angle makes it look like his elbow has moved to the right.  His elbow is in the same position, relative to his chest, with both clubs, it has just been rotated more behind him with the driver due to more torso rotation.  This additional shoulder turn is also the reason why the driver reaches “parallel” at the top, whereas the 4-iron never gets that far back — note that his 4-iron is not “laid off” as we’ve heard some commentators say, it’s perfectly on plane, he just hasn’t turned as far.

It also appears, when you watch great golfers like Tiger Woods from the standard down the line or face on views shown on TV, as if their right arm bends much more than it actually does — see Figures 6 and 7.  The elbow angle is distorted by the camera angle as the upper arm is turned by the rotation of the chest (around a tilted axis), and due to the angle of the arm relative to the camera plane.  Your right elbow should never fold beyond 90 degrees.  In fact, if your shoulders are in good posture, your left arm straight and protracted, and your right arm is externally rotated, then you can’t bend your right elbow beyond 90 degrees.


As you’ll see in the next drills, all you have to do is to move your arms correctly into this position as you make a full turn, and you’ll be in the perfect top of the golf swing position.

How you move your arms into this position is the subject of the next drill, and it’s one of the most important movements in the golf swing.


Limited Shoulder Mobility

If you struggle to externally rotate your right arm as much as we recommend, then you should work on your shoulder mobility as described in Internal and External Rotation of the Arms in the Golf Swing.

If you have restricted mobility, perhaps because of an injury, then you will need to make a small adjustment in the backswing to get the golf club on plane, more of this later, but the correct position is still broadly the same, with your right elbow in front of your shoulder and at the same height as the bottom of your sternum.

Less external rotation of your right arm will raise your hands slightly, and you’ll see a little less of the outside of your right shoulder through the gap between your arms.


How to Practise

Really focus on the feeling of your right arm and shoulder.  As you will see next, it is your right arm that will guide your arm position in the backswing, the left arm will be pulled into position fairly passively as it reaches out away from you.

At first, if the concept of externally rotating your right arm is fairly new to you, then this position may feel very tense.  We don’t want any undue tension in the golf swing, so keep practising, and keep working on your range of motion, until you feel comfortable — you’ll still feel a little stretch, but not overly tense.

Practise this position regularly, repeating it many times, until you can adopt it automatically, without thinking, your elbow in the correct position every time.

Practise it with your right arm only, sometimes, check the position carefully in the mirror from down the line and face on, then move your left arm into position and check again.

Try it with your eyes closed, feel the position of your arms, does it feel right?  Now check your position in the mirror, is it correct?  If not, then correct the position, how does this feel different?

Check your position with a camera, too.  Note that the position of the camera will determine the precise angles that you see — for example, if the camera is at hip height, then your hands will look higher (and your arms at little steeper) in the camera than they do in the mirror, because the camera is looking more from below.  The pictures above were taken from about chest height, so as to show you what the position should look like in the mirror.


If you have any questions or comments about this or other articles on Golf Loopy, please send us an email.


Next, we’ll transform your golf swing forever, changing the way that you think about your arms in the backswing, giving you more power and consistency, with a drill that will teach you one of the key movements in the golf swing, in Golf Swing 305 – Backswing: How to Move the Arms in the Golf Backswing.


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