Tennis Strength and Conditioning
Tennis Performance is the Goal
It might seem obvious, but sometimes this is forgotten by coaches who relentlessly pursue weightlifting stats (one repetition maximums) regardless of who they are training. Tennis is a highly technical game. The player with the highest skill will more often than not win.
However, physical qualities such as strength and power can accentuate technical qualities — stronger and more powerful muscles lead to harder tennis shots. It’s important to focus your strength and conditioning time on the physical qualities that impact tennis performance. The focus of your tennis strength and conditioning program should be:
Hip and Shoulder Health
The hips and shoulders are the two primary engines required for tennis performance. They both take a hammering with the amount of force production and rotation involved in serves and tennis shots. Proper functioning (mobility, stability and strength) in these joints is therefore a crucial aspect of a strength and conditioning for tennis program.
Acceleration and Deceleration
Making it to drop shots and racing across the court can be the difference between 0-40 and advantage you. You’ve got to make it to the ball to be able to play the shot. Acceleration and deceleration is a crucial quality for tennis players and can be worked on in the gym as well as on the court.
Lower Body Strength
Force production starts from the ground. Strong legs are required to generate force for shots and to cover the court quickly to make it to the ball.
A tennis player needs a strong core so they can transmit force from the ground to their upper extremities. A weak (or poorly functioning) core is a kink in the power production chain, which can lead to lost power output. Core strength is a necessity for tennis players if we want every shot to have as much power as possible.
Upper Body Strength
Although tennis strokes are highly technical, players still need upper body strength to maximise the power that can be generated. Add upper body strength to perfect technique and nobody is returning your serve.
Smooth and powerful rotation is required for the majority of tennis shots.
Aerobic and Anaerobic Endurance
Playing 3+ sets of a competitive tennis match is no joke! Tennis involves lots of short bursts of high intensity, and matches can last for hours. Tennis players, therefore, need high levels of both anaerobic and aerobic conditioning.
Train Multiple Qualities All Year
Tennis players often make the mistake of dividing their strength training into ‘phases’ with each phase focussing exclusively on one physical quality for 4+ weeks at a time. This approach has its place but is sub-optimal for sports like tennis where players aren’t trying to peak for one day or competition.
Tennis players need high levels of multiple physical qualities all year. Including a combination of strength, speed, power and endurance in your weekly training ensures you maintain (and improve) all the physical qualities required for tennis, without overtaxing your system.
Focus on Movement Patterns, Not Individual Muscles
Use your gym time to become stronger and more powerful in the key movement patterns for athletic performance. These movements should form the bulk of your training and will cover the majority of your strength and conditioning requirements:
Strength: squat, hinge, lunge, push and pull.
Power: triple extension, rotational
These movement patterns train the body to function as a coordinated unit — which is required for athletic movement. Isolating an individual muscle trains that particular muscle to function in isolation. This is fine if there is a specific reason to do this, but, for tennis players, we want the muscles and joints of the upper and lower body working together as much as possible, just like they do in the sport of tennis.
Aim For 1-2 Strength Training Sessions Per Week
Tennis is tough on the joints and is almost a year round sport — for some sports, strength and conditioning is as much about staying healthy as it is making large physical improvements. Some professionals are playing, training and travelling 11 months out of the year — that’s a gruelling schedule.
Filling the Cup
Think of the body’s capacity to handle this schedule like a cup being filled up. Each stressor (training session, match, flight etc.) is filling up the cup, and recovery methods like sleep and massage help reduce the contents of the cup. Your cup can only be filled to the top before it starts spilling over. This spilling over represents a reduction in performance, or, worse, an injury, as your body becomes incapable of recovering and adapting positively from the stress it’s placed under. Essentially, the body has a finite amount of capacity for stressors and can only handle so much before performance will start to suffer (the cup overflows).
Matches, technical training and travelling are all stressors to the body… and so is strength training. Tennis players don’t need to be adding 6 hard strength training sessions a week to their cup. 1-2 strength training sessions are adequate. During periods of less travel and competition this number can be increased, but, as mentioned previously, always think quality over quantity and prioritise what you need to work on.
Take Care of Your Shoulders and Hips (Did I Mention that Already!?)
Every strength training session — and every tennis session — should begin with hip and shoulder mobility. Daily hip and shoulder mobility routines are a career lengthener — you’ll be able to play for longer and will miss less matches.
Shoulders: Mobilise, Stabilise, Strengthen
Tennis players require full range of motion and free movement in the overhead position, so mobilising the shoulders is crucial. Broomstick pass throughs and banded distractions are a good place to start. Stabilise the shoulders with exercises such as waiter walks and 1 arm overhead presses with a neutral grip — these exercises will help to keep your shoulders strong and healthy. Foam rolling the thoracic spine also helps with shoulder health.
Strengthen the upper back muscles and posterior deltoids. These muscles are important for shoulder health. Use high repetitions of mini band pull aparts, dumbbell flyes and horizontal rows (2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions). Mini bands are a particularly useful tool as they can be used on court and when travelling, and are useful for strength and mobility exercises.
Hips: Mobilise, Stabilise, Strengthen
Keep the hips mobile by incorporating deep squats, lunges, spider and pigeon shapes into your training. Be sure to work on both internal and external rotation of the hips. Basic strength training exercises such as squats, deadlifts and lunges will help keep the hips stable and strong.
Ease Up on Horizontal Pushing
Tennis strength and conditioning programs should feature a higher volume of horizontal pulling than pushing, so program lots of horizontal pulling exercises such as dumbbell rows, 1 arm rows and face pulls.
Excessive amounts of horizontal pushing (bench presses are often a culprit) cause shoulder issues in many people. Tennis takes its toll on the shoulders so we don’t want to include any exercises that may cause harm. Use push ups (weighted and/or plyo push ups) for 4-8 repetitions for your horizontal pushing exercises — these exercises tend to be more forgiving on the shoulder joint and lead to less shoulder complaints than bench presses.
Using single leg and single arm exercises (unilateral training) is beneficial for tennis players for two reasons:
Offset Left-Right Imbalances
One giant bicep (Rafael Nadal!) isn’t the worst thing in the world and no one is ever going to be perfectly symmetrical, but tennis players can be particularly prone to imbalances due to the differences in volume and movement patterns of the backhand and forehands. Plus, tennis players tend to serve with the same arm each time! Training unilaterally helps to reveal and correct any significant strength or movement imbalances, which can help avoid and reduce injuries caused by asymmetries.
Produce Force with One Leg
Tennis requires a lot of acceleration and movement that is initiated from one leg. Using single leg exercises like lunges, split squats and lateral bounds trains the body’s ability produce a lot of force in a short period of time with one leg.
Keep it Short, Varied and Challenging
Strength training sessions for tennis players shouldn’t be much longer than 45-60 mins and should be stimulating for the athlete both physically and mentally. If an athlete has been doing the same thing for month after month they’ll become bored and won’t get as much out of their training.
Program variety into your exercise selections, sets and reps, and ensure that there is always a challenge of some description. You don’t need a completely new program to accomplish this — variety can be achieved by altering some of the assistance exercises every two weeks or so, or by having a movement menu with options for each pattern. How much variety is necessary will depend on the individual.
Take Your Recovery Seriously
Tennis is tough on the body; 3-5 sets of running, cutting and lunging on a hard court, not to mention the repetitive forces involved in the swing, and all the travelling, can wear the muscles and joints out. Tennis players should take an active and serious approach to how they recover from training and matches.
Sleeping 8-9 hours per day, hydration and high quality nutrition are non-negotiable if you want to improve your tennis performance. Other recovery methods should be considered but will be at the mercy of time and availability. I’d recommend cold immersion (plunge pool) and saunas a couple of times a week if possible as well as a weekly massage. Yoga, deep breathing or some form of relaxation practice can also be a useful performance enhancer when practiced consistently.
Your tennis strength and conditioning program should leave you better able to perform on the court, not beat your body up. Bear this in mind when considering exercises and the volume of sessions — think quality over quantity, less can be more. Train hard and consistently, recover well and enjoy the benefits that strength and conditioning brings to you game.