What Is A Chicken Wing Golf Swing (Causes And How To Fix It)

Written by Michael VanDerLaan 

The chicken wing golf swing … it’s almost difficult to say the phrase without hearing the echoes of the phrase “the dreaded chicken wing” around it, as it is so commonly referenced. The chicken wing is a common cause of topping the ball, hitting a slice, and many other misses.

Why is this so common, why is it so hard for amateurs to avoid, what are the root causes of a chicken wing and how can we fix it? We’ll take a look at all this, and more, in our ultimate guide to the chicken wing and how to stop doing it.

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What Is A Chicken Wing Golf Swing?

Golfer with The Chicken Wing Golf Swing

Anatomically speaking, a chicken wing is when the lead elbow joint begins to flex through impact. This is almost always accompanied in amateurs by the lead wrist going into extension.

Before these technical terms became widespread in golf instruction, it was a lot easier to identify on video as the lead arm forming a triangular “chicken wing” shape from the face-on view of a golf swing. This can also be seen easily from down-the-line as the bent elbow will be the first thing to appear on the lead side of the body, very early after impact as the arms pull across the body.

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Causes Of A Chicken Wing Golf Swing

This is what a chicken wing golf swing will look like from a down the line camera view

There are endless videos and articles often trying to highlight the cause of a chicken wing in golf and pinpointing a singular issue such as setup, release, sequencing, etc. and assign a “fix” that may only work for a very narrow segment of golfers.

The fact is there could be many potential causes of a chicken wing golf swing. Believe it or not, virtually every golfer, when they stand over a golf ball, is going to do whatever they can to make contact with the ball in a way to hit the ball hard and straight. Regardless of how unlikely their concept is to actually accomplish these things, ultimately what happens through the ball and in the follow through can often be diagnosed as a reaction to trying to accomplish this goal.

If we look at it like this, we can really get a solid understanding of what the actual root causes of a chicken wing are. There are a couple of things we want to look at in particular: face angle and shaft angle in the downswing. To a certain extent they can work together, but we will look at fixes and drills to accomplish that in the next sections.

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Open Club Face

Cupping the lead wrist at the top creates an over the top scooping swing that usually includes a chicken wing

The first factor in why people chicken wing is because they have an open club face. For most modern instructors a square club face has been defined as having the blade parallel to the spine when the club is parallel to the ground (either on the way back or on the way down), or also by having it parallel to the forearm at the very top of the swing.

Having the “toe up” at both club parallels or having the toe straight down at the top of the swing (see the picture above), while being a common reference point for many years in golf instruction, can actually lead to chicken winging if the player doesn’t understand how to square that club face up properly at the bottom of the swing.

An open club face causes a chicken wing because most players, instead of properly rolling the forearms (in unison with their body rotation) to slam that face shut through impact, will begin to “throw” the club head on the way down by slowing the body down and letting the club head outrace the hands and adding loft through impact, which also closes an open face.

This throwing of the club head lengthens the swing radius and when we begin to sense that we are going to “run out of room” before hitting the ground … in order to make contact we pull our hands closer to our body in kind of a “jammed up” feeling that anatomically forces the lead elbow to break down, in order to not hit the ball fat (or shanked, or sliced, but often we get a carousel or combination of these outcomes, with our straightest strikes being high and short).

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Steep Shaft

Steep club shaft makes the chicken wing golf swing more likely

The second aspect to check on with a chicken wing is if the shaft is getting steep in transition. Lots of things can cause this, but from this position the reaction of the player is often to stop rotating their body so that they can redirect the club to come from the inside through impact, as they can sense that they are either going to miss the ball or swipe directly across it if the club keeps tracking the way it is.

The consequence of this slowing the body down and redirecting of the hands is that the hands and club will start passing the body through the bottom of the swing as the body is slowing down and the hands are speeding up. This anatomically makes a chicken wing mandatory as the chest “stalls out” facing the ball and the momentum of the hands, arms, and club race past, causing the lead elbow to break down.

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How To Fix Chicken Wing Golf Swing

At P9 in the golf swing, the left arm should still be straight and the chest should face the target

In this section, I am going to explain how to fix your chicken wing, complete with drills, so that you can get better at golf without lessons.

Not that golf lessons aren't worth it, but some players do better by trying to figure things out on their own.

By far the biggest cure-all for a chicken wing in the golf swing is to develop an approach that allows you to keep your chest moving in sync with your hands and arms through the golf swing. The caveats to this are that you will never accomplish this unless you have the proper setup, backswing, and face control.

You will never chicken wing if you “keep the club in front of you” by rotating the torso and minimizing the hand travel through the swing. The hands only need to move a few inches to either side of your midline throughout the entire swing, believe it or not.

In order to accomplish this, first make sure you are in a balanced setup position with the weight on the balls of your feet, not the heels or the toes. From there, you will never commit to rotating through the shot if your face is open, as this would cause a guaranteed slice. So through some combination of grip strength and/or keeping the lead wrist flat or even flexed, find the move (everyone’s is different) that allows you to have the club face match your spine angle when in a balanced setup position when the club is parallel to the ground. Some very good players square this face up later than others, our advice is the more you are struggling, the earlier you should set it and forget it, and work from there.

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These parameters will most easily allow you to commit to keeping your arms in front of you and syncing up the arms and body as you continue to rotate without stalling through impact. Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this is through some very tried-and-true drills that completely leave all the technical thoughts aside and allow you to almost automatically feel the proper motion.

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Drills To Stop Chicken Wing In The Golf Swing

Since chicken winging is almost always a reaction a player has in trying to manipulate their swing into a functional impact position, it takes a holistic approach to stop doing it, because usually it’s a necessary move to recover from a bad position and make contact with the ball at all or square the face.

Using training aids or swing drills are by far the best way to integrate several moving parts at once and shore up the entire motion of your swing. Otherwise, simply keeping everything the same and trying to force yourself to “stop chicken winging” will just lead to other problems such as slices, hooks, shanks, and chunks.

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Tour Striker or Football Drill

The chicken wing golf swing cannot happen when using a tour striker or other similar training aid between your forearms

This drill is made famous by the “Tour Striker” training aid which is basically a ball that you hold between your elbows that is attached to a lanyard. The George Gankas Shallower training aid accomplishes this same thing.

Spending the money on a training aid is not essential to stopping a chicken wing. A “budget” version of these drills are to take a football (Nerf works great) and hold it between the elbows or forearms or even a water balloon (filled with air, of course) inflated to the right size to hold between your elbows while swinging. The only disadvantage of these “cheaper” versions is you might have to get a little creative setting the items in place, and you might have to chase the object while it bounces around the driving range while you learn the drill.

This drill does amazing things for teaching rotation, syncing the hands and arms, and keeping the arms in front of you during the swing. This is best done from shoulder-to-shoulder or from P3 to P9. You can absolutely do it with longer swings than that, but in theory or ideally you would drop the object after P9 as most begin to fold the arms there, and many get more speed separating the elbows at the very top of the back swing and quickly reconnecting them in transition. That said, these training aids help groove the pattern from shoulder-to-shoulder and needless to say, if you learn to swing without dropping that ball, there will be ZERO chicken wing in your swing!

Towel Drill

The towel drill is a great way to work on your rotation and body connection

This drill is one of the oldest in the book, along with its almost unlimited variations. It involves putting a standard golf towel across the chest and holding it under both armpits, in its most basic version. Other options include using a head cover, golf glove, or just bunching up a piece of your shirt sleeve to hold in-place during the swing, and can be done for one arm at a time instead of both. For the chicken wing we obviously want to focus on either using something under both arms or the lead arm.

This drill accomplishes something very similar to the above drill, synchronizing the body and arms swing and any independent or extra movement of the arms - either on the way back or on the way through - would cause the towel, glove, or head cover to fall out. This gives the feel of what players call staying “connected” through the swing and there are many videos of professionals, including Tiger Woods, using this in practice or pre-round warmups.

Again this drill is best done with shoulder-to-shoulder half swings to ingrain the feel through impact and follow-through but in theory it is okay to EVENTUALLY drop the towel as the arms fold LONG after the ball is gone but if you are coming from a chicken wing it might be best to develop the feel of never dropping it at first.

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“P9 Hogan” or “waterski” drill

If you are completely out of props or want to develop this feel without a swing aid, the best thing to do is a P9 or Hogan drill which accomplishes the same thing as above. If Ben Hogan isn’t your favorite player, you can think of this as the “waterski” drill.

What we are focusing on here is again making shoulder-to-shoulder swings with the emphasis on the hands and arms never (or barely) passing the sternum and the elbows not splitting apart. You will feel like you are slinging the arms and club with the body as one entire unit, and not reaching back or pulling past your body with the arms. When we get to P9 or arms parallel to the chest in the follow through, we should be in a position where the hips, chest, and club are all pointing directly down the target line, as if we were being towed on waterskis and the club shaft were the tow line.

You should get your face square early and focus on just rotating into this position where everything is facing the target simultaneously and learn to swing wide and catch the ball with the face or punch the ball on your way by, fully extending the arms in front of you by the time your chest faces the target. If done properly, you will never ever end up in a chicken wing again. AFTER you hit this position it’s okay to let the lead arm break down and fold up into a natural follow-through position and hold your pose.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you play golf with the chicken wing?

There are many millions of golfers worldwide who can and do play golf every single day with a chicken wing, and go on like this for years. The only things that are mandatory to play good golf are low point control, face control, and curvature control. Ideally we’d also like to have speed, but it is actually not mandatory especially at the recreational level. Having a chicken wing in theory does not necessarily prevent somebody from developing a repeatable swing, but it is definitely not preferable, and with very rare exceptions (covered below) is the result of other issues that, when combined, give the golfer almost no chance of achieving their potential with any regularity.

Does Jordan Spieth have a chicken wing?

Jordan Spieth is one “exception that proves the rule” who has played dominant professional golf with a chicken wing. Lee Westwood is another. Why does Jordan Spieth’s chicken wing work and yours doesn’t?Jordan Spieth has none of the other elements that we talked about that usually cause chicken wings. His face is square, he rotates well through the bottom of the swing without stalling, he shallows the club out and he stays in the shot and has great low-point control and a very stable release. He uses this bent-lead-arm maneuver to hold off his club face and keep it square for longer through the swing, so his lead arm is bent through the bottom of the swing but it is not accompanied by the body rotation stalling out. You will still see his chest facing the target fully at the same time his hands get there. It is an unorthodox move through impact for somebody who has all those other parameters in tact and, while 99.9% of golfers would love to hit it as far and as straight as Jordan Spieth, it does limit the amount of speed he is able to create which is one of the reasons why you see him generally not hitting it quite as far as some of the other elite competitors in the game today.

The moral of the story here is that most elite professional golfers do not have perfect swings, but are amazing in spite of idiosyncrasies in their swings, and they all have tendencies that they’ve learned to overcome and get the most out of while not changing the feels that give them the most confidence and comfort under pressure.

How do you keep your left arm straight when hitting a golf ball?

The best way to keep the left arm straight when hitting a golf ball is to use half-swing drills and swing aids. This allows you to feel less rigid and focus on an athletic movement rather than trying to force a body part into a certain position. Some of the best swing aids or drills for this are to use a towel or football drill. You can also purchase a training aid such as the Tour Striker or George Gankas Shallower.

The consequence of this, and technically the best way to keep your left arm straight, is to have a good body turn back and through the ball. The arms moving farther than the body on the way back OR the way through are what cause the lead arm to break down. Having a balanced setup and getting the face square early will help a golfer commit to this feeling and not have the urge to manipulate anything.

Which arm controls the backswing?

It is completely subjective in golf which arm controls the backswing. Some players feel like they are keeping the lead arm straight to control radius width and using the trail arm to draw the club back and fold into position and the body naturally follows. Other players feel like they are pushing back with the lead arm and shoulder socket as they turn the body back and the trail arm is just along for the ride, folding as a natural reaction to the other parts. In reality both hands and arms and the body must work together, but it is simpler or preferential for a player to just focus on one body part to complete the action, especially when training their swing or under pressure in competition.

Final Thoughts

The chicken wing is dreaded for a reason. Despite examples like Jordan Spieth and Lee Westwood, 99% of the time it comes along with moves that are going to make success random or non-existant, and rob you of power in the process. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just “stopping chicken winging” because golfers do this as a reaction to where their club, body, and clubface are in other parts of the swing, in order to square the face or make contact with the ball at all. In order to properly fix a chicken wing we have to address the root cause.

If you make swings where your arms do not outrace your body (on the way back OR on the way through) you will automatically stop chicken winging. In order to do this we need to set up balanced and be able to square our face either through grip, wrist angles, forearm-roll release, or some combination of the above. This will allow us to keep rotating through the shot and not stall out and have the arms pass the body. Done properly this will revolutionize your start lines, trajectories, curvature control, low point control, as well as add power to your golf swing. This is not an exaggeration it literally will help develop everything that matters!

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We can see that chicken winging is almost always way more than an aesthetic, and there’s a reason why it’s brought up in so many articles, videos, and swing tips. It’s the result of some very common swing faults that need to be addressed from the ground-up in order to give yourself a chance of coordinating the body and arms in the swing. Now that you know how, it’s just a matter of working through some growing pains while you change the habit, but with these particular changes, the payoffs can be massive, so it’s definitely worth it!

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Michael VanDerLaan

Michael is an Associate Editor here at Golf Gear Advisor. He is a playing professional with a passion for finding the best equipment through product testing and evaluation. He has an intimate knowledge of the golf swing and a very effective way of communicating his knowledge to those that are interested in learning more. As an Associate Editor at Golf Gear Advisor, Michael shares his knowledge about the golf swing, fitness and finding the right equipment for your game.

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