The primary goals of conditioning for the sport of tennis are to address lower body muscular strength and endurance, upper body strength and endurance (especially the dominant side), core strength, midsection control, flexibility, cardio-respiratory fitness and of course, injury prevention.
Upper body strength & endurance, flexibility as well as injury prevention are of key importance considering the possibility of playing multiple matches during multiple days of competition. It is also an indicator of your longevity in the game. Being that tennis is an asymmetric sport, training should follow its sports specific patterns as to produce a degree of continuous explosiveness. Once these skills are in place, the midsection and core are crucial to bridge the upper and lower body muscles as to produce the greatest amount of power possible. At this point, one can truly potentiate true tennis skills as demonstrated by a monstrous serve.
On court conditioning drills are vital. A tennis court happens to be marked-off beautifully as to organize specific agility drills. These drills consist of lateral (side to side), linear (front to back), and zigzag (diagonal) patterns. Simply use your creativity and master body control at lesser speeds before attempting to go all out. These on-court agility sessions must be done before weight training or on another day all together. The duration should be in the 15-25 minute range only. Quality over quantity rules here! Think dynamic precision. There are also many track and field techniques that are great to perform as a warm-up on the court. These exercises are known as high knees, high hips, side stepping, bounding and many other strength and conditioning exercises that are beyond the scope of this article. Cross training always enhances eye/hand and eye/foot coordination while providing a rest from the muscles used during your sport. If your playing too much tennis you will burn out an not experience to benefits of balancing your workouts. This is a common situation often seen in junior tennis players.
Again, always do these conditioning workouts and extensive practice sessions prior to any weight training. Performing these types of dynamic exercises after a weight training work out can increase ones risk of injury. At this point in training, your muscles will be very fatigued. Do not invite injury.
In this article I want to start by addressing the shoulder itself and the muscles that stabilize both major shoulder joints. The first main joint is actually the shoulder joint proper, called the gleno-humeral joint. This is what one considers to be your true shoulder. The other main joint is called the scapulo-thoracic joint. This joint is responsible for the connection between your shoulder and arm to the rest of your body. When you talk about tennis injuries, the shoulder is the first part of the body that will likely come to mind, especially the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is important in tennis, but often time’s strength imbalances exist within the rotator cuff and stabilizing muscle of the shoulder and can potentially lead to dysfunction. This is most notably observed in that tennis players tend to be weak in the muscles that externally rotate the shoulder. External rotation is an outward twisting action that is the opposite of the shoulder motion athletes make when they hit a forehand or a follow through during a serve. To improve strength of the external rotators you can perform the exercises described at the end of this article. So many more exist and I hope this triggers your interest in seeking out others. This exercise should be performed with the dominant arm, but should really be performed with both arms if time permits.
Not many people think of the upper back when considering how to strengthen and protect the shoulder. But try this simple experiment. Place your hand on the shoulder blades of a player and them to raise their arms. Can you feel the shoulder blades move? Shoulder movement is very complex and involves movement of the shoulder blade as well as the actual shoulder joint itself. Weakness in the upper back muscles (serratus anterior and the lower trapezius) that stabilize the shoulder blades can cause the shoulder to function improperly and may actually contribute to improper technique and shoulder pain. Exercises that train the stabilizers (especially serratus anterior and lower trapezius) of the shoulder blade can help tennis players optimize performance and avoid shoulder injury. See the exercise at the end of this article which will allow you to augment the musculature of the scapulo-thoracic joint.
CORE STRENGTH The following are some tennis-specific core strengthening exercises that can be performed daily if you are not too sore from the previous work-out. Remember to exhale upon exertion and stay relaxed throughout the neck and shoulders during the exercise. (Always resort to the five pillars of Bodhiforce training) Core exercises should start with the hard to find transverse abdominus and internal obliques muscles. As these two muscles connect they attach to a muscle in the lower back and therefore become integral to support and integrity of the lumbar spine. To contract transverse abdominis you must suck in your stomach as to tighten your abs but this should be done with your muscles not your breath. If your chest is rising and you are holding your breath, you are performing it incorrectly. That tightness (called an isometric contraction) needs to be held continuously while performing sporting activities and heavy lifts.
On the floor, on your back: 1 Leg Lowers: Arms overhead, both legs up straight as in the “L” position, exhale and draw the navel in as you lower one leg to the floor. Do not let the lower back rise from the floor. Keep that low back pinned to the floor. 8x each leg. Then switch legs.
For core rotation: Straight leg side-to-side aka. 1?2 Pendulums: Arms out to the sides with palms face down, one leg up, other leg straight down on floor. Slowly lower leg to floor across the body, then bring it back as fast as possible to center. Repeat 10x each side. If you think your tough, try lowering both legs to one side, but don’t let them touch the floor. Seated Medicine Ball or Dumbbell Twist: Sit with a medicine ball or dumbbell directly behind you. Reach around with both hands and grab the ball or weight, then twist all the way around and put it back behind you on the other side. Remember to breathe and try to keep the shoulders relaxed and be conscious of good spinal alignment. It is ok to change the angle of your back to further engage different muscle fibers but don’t sacrifice technique.
For core flexion and rotation: Single Leg Exchanges: Elbow to opposite knee as in the leg bicycle exercise. Shoulder should blades should remain off the floor at all times. Exhale as you draw navel in. 1 X 100. Think of running or constantly using the upper and lower extremities in a pumping action in order to develop potential core energy and heat.
For low back strength and support from the superficial low back muscles, Superman’s are optimal: lying on your stomach, raise your head (keeping your chin tucked) and try to raise one opposite arm and leg as you exhale and draw the navel in. Total body tightness is internalized (try this on a physioball also). Return to the relaxed position with forehead down between each rep. 12-20X. For more advance training, lift both arms, chest, and both legs off the floor and try to hold that position for 10 seconds. Not easy, and play with hand positioning for a challenge.
LOWER BODY FUNCTIONAL STRENGTH TRAINING Bench steps are excellent for functional strength development. Find a sturdy bench or a step from 12 to 18 inches high. Step up with the right foot, then the left foot, then put the right foot down and leave the left foot on so that you can step up starting on the left. These are Alternating Bench Steps. Once you get the rhythm, you want to perform them as fast as you can. Just try to perform this exercise fast and try to work up to 30 second speed bouts. Simply ensuring confident speed and eye foot coordination training. Single Leg taps, where you simply repeat this exercise with more like a half step. You touch the step with one foot (just your toes) and quickly replace the other foot to the same spot. This helps develop lightning like reflexes and great eye/foot coordination. Even another exercise is a Super Slow Step-Up. This is my personal favorite and took me many attempts to master. Take a bench in the gym, the adjustable one and lock it in place so it is flat. Walk up real close and put one foot flat on top, keep your hands at your side. Slowly, with control stand up on the leg on the bench WITHOUT pushing off the lower leg! Step Up Jumps are just another exercise to strengthen the lower body dynamically and functionally. As you step on to the bench with one foot use those same leg muscles to perform a unilateral jump, straight up and land on the bench or even hop over the bench. Start using your body weight, then add dumbbells or medicine balls and/or extend the arms up or out as you prefer. As you progress, you can also try alternating legs and trying Side Step Ups or Side Jump Ups. Perform same skills as mentioned above but with the bench on your side.
Multi-directional Lunges are a fundamental movement in tennis. Players lunge in every direction, at every speed, and every joint angle of the lower body is challenged. The upper body is forced to follow the lower body and the spine must produce various degrees of forward flexion during the game of tennis. This is imperative in being an aggressive, confident tennis player and to be able to produce greater forward motion. There should always be a slight forward lean to enhance ones forward momentum and to increase the power in each stroke. This also aids in the dominance of your field of play. Therefore, traditional fitness lunges which are limited and usually call for an upright upper posture are not always enough. Try your lunges this way: If you are standing in the center of a large clock face, start by lunging forward with the right leg to 12 o’clock, then back to the center. Then repeat at 1 o’clock, then 2 o’clock, backwards with a turn to 5 o’clock, and then across the body with the right leg to 10 o’clock. Start out with no weight, and then add dumbbells or medicine balls if necessary. As you progress, pick up a weight or medicine ball at each lunge, and then put it back down. Finally, use your racquet and incorporate sports specific drills with your coach or trainer.
Calf raises are excellent for developing power for jumping and to push off before a sprint. In order to be explosive, you must perform calf raises explosively where you try to elevate up on the toes as fast as possible each time. Start standing on two feet and balance as you rise up on your toes, then lower back either to the ground or if using a step, lower the foot below the step. This exercise should be done as fast as possible and the burn should ensue in both calves. Try performing the vertical jump without bending the knees too much. This will force your calves to work harder.
As you progress, add weight but continue to try to balance on your own. To increase the complexity of the exercise, do the calf raises on one foot, then try to do them with your eyes closed, this will develop strength and balance concomitantly. Jump on one foot also, make it an exercise. Reach those over head smashes, right? Eventually, practice holding your racquet and sprint to all corners of the tennis court, hitting high and low balls. Finally, try an explosive plyometric movement called the vertical jump- squat thrust- push up. This is jumping straight up in the air, reaching with both arms for height. As your feet land, perform a squat thrust, while in the push up position, perform one, and then jump back into standing position. This lets you get ready for the next vertical jump. Attempt to perform a few sets of ten, these are extremely exhausting, but build your anaerobic power extensively.
Exercise 1 External Rotation Start by lying on your stomach on a table or a bed. Put your left arm out at shoulder level with your elbow bent to 90° and your hand down. Keep your elbow bent, and slowly raise your left hand. Stop when your hand is level with your shoulder. Lower the hand slowly. Repeat the exercise until your arm is tired. Then do the exercise with your right arm. This should be progressed to standing pulling a theraband in the same plane.
Exercise 2 Push-Up Plus This exercise is like performing the regular push-up, but when at the top of the motion, you add and extra reach or even further pushing your chest way from your arms. (Demonstration coming soon).