Tennis is a superb sport. It requires excellent hand-eye coordination, good agility, and keen spatial awareness. In addition to the physical and mental challenge, a good singles match provides both anaerobic and aerobic conditioning. Although skill is essential for top-level tennis, technique development is easier if you are fit—which is also the critical factor for staying power during the second and third sets.
Fitness comes in many forms, and conditioning is specific to the training program. For example, joint flexibility is enhanced through stretching exercises, cardiovascular endurance is improved through aerobic activity, and muscular strength is increased through resistance training. Certainly, all of these fitness components may contribute to better tennis performance. If you were to focus on one area of physical conditioning for tennis, however, it should undoubtedly be strength exercise.
Basic Strength Exercises
Tennis play involves a lot of musculoskeletal activity, including all kinds of movements in the legs, midsection, upper body, and arms. You should therefore train all of the major muscle groups. This ensures overall strength and balanced muscle development to enhance performance power and reduce the risk of injuries. The machine exercises in Table 1 provide a solid base of conditioning from which to progress into more advanced training when you are ready.
Table 1. Recommended basic exercises for conditioning the major muscle groups.
|Machine Exercise||Target Muscles|
Neck Flexors, Neck Extensors
The exercises are presented from the larger muscles of the legs to the smaller muscles of the neck, which is the recommended order of performance. One set of each exercise is sufficient, as long as you train with good form to the point of muscle fatigue. Because intensity is the key to strength development, use enough resistance to fatigue the target muscle groups within about 50-70 seconds. In general, this corresponds to the heaviest weight load that you can lift for eight to 12 controlled repetitions.
Each repetition should be completed in approximately six seconds, with two seconds for the lifting movement and four seconds for the lowering movement. The slower lowering phase emphasizes the stronger negative muscle contraction, and should make each exercise set more productive. It is also important to perform each repetition through a full range of movement. This enhances both joint integrity and flexibility.
As your muscles become stronger, it is essential to progressively increase the work effort. This is best accomplished by gradually increasing the exercise resistance. Once you complete 12 repetitions, the weight load is no longer heavy enough to produce maximum strength benefits. By increasing the resistance about five percent (typically 1 to 5 pounds), you can continue to stimulate strength development.
Depending on your activity schedule, you may train two or three days per week. Research shows that three sessions per week are somewhat more effective than two sessions, but either exercise protocol will produce excellent strength results if you follow the recommended training guidelines. In fact, in our most recent studies, one weekly workout provided almost 70 percent as much strength development as three training days. This should be good news for the active tennis player who is concerned about time constraints and overtraining.
Advanced Strength Exercise
After two months of basic training, you should be ready for some more advanced strength exercises. Some of these will replace the introductory exercises, while others will provide supplementary training relevant to tennis performance.
Let’s begin with the powerful leg muscles that generate the force for your ground strokes, as well as your movements across the court. Instead of training the quadriceps and hamstrings separately, replace the leg extension and leg curl with the leg press that works both of these muscle groups and the gluteals simultaneously. The leg press permits heavier weightloads, and is the best exercise for developing functional leg strength. In addition to the quadriceps and hamstrings, the hip adductors and abductors play a major role in your weight shifts and lateral movements. These opposing muscle groups on the inner and outer thighs are best trained with the hip adductor and hip abductor machines, which should be added to your strength exercise program.
Due to the stop-and-go movements that require almost continuous force production and shock absorption in the lower leg muscles, it is prudent to perform some calf strengthening exercises. The calf machine or standing calf raises are highly effective for targeting the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the lower leg, and serve as an excellent supplement to the upper leg exercises.
The power generated by the large leg muscles is transferred to the upper body through the muscles of the midsection. Swinging movements (ground strokes and serves) involve the internal and external oblique muscles on both sides of the midsection. These important muscles may be effectively strengthened on the dual-action rotary torso machine, which works the right internal and left external obliques on clockwise movements, and the left internal and right exernal obliqueson counter-clockwise movements. Add the rotary torso exercise to the low back and abdominal machines for comprehensive midsection conditioning.
The major upper body muscles involved in swinging a tennis racquet are the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids of the torso, and the biceps and triceps of the arms. While the basic strength training program addresses these muscles individually, it may be advantageous to work some of the groups together. This is best accomplished by doing pushing and pulling exercises such as bench presses, seated rows, overhead presses, and pulldowns.
The bench press is a popular pushing exercise that strengthens the pectoralis major and triceps muscle at the same time. Conversely, the seated row is an effective pulling exercise that works the opposing latissimus dorsi and biceps muscles simultaneously.
One of the best means for training the shoulder and triceps muscles together is the overhead press. The counterpart to this exercise is the pulldown that involves both the latissimus dorsi and biceps muscles.
Replace the chest cross, pullover, lateral raise, biceps curl and triceps extension exercises with the bench press, seated row, overhead press, and pulldown exercises. These provide a more comprehensive upper body workout that may have more practical benefit in terms of power production.
Table 2 presents a more advanced tennis strength training program. These exercises should be performed in the same manner as the basic program exercises, namely, one set of eight to 12 well-controlled repetitions.
Table 2. Recommended advanced exercises for conditioning the major muscle groups.
|Machine Exercise||Target Muscles|
Four Way Neck
Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals
Pectoralis Major, Triceps
Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
External Obliques, Internal Obliques
Neck Flexors, Neck Extensors
Specific Strength Exercises
While both the basic and advanced strength training programs should provide excellent tennis conditioning and reasonable injury protection, you should take one more step to address particularly vulnerable muscle groups that experience significant stress during tennis play.
Shoulder Rotator Muscles
The first of these smaller and frequently injured muscle groups is the rotator cuff complex that surrounds and stabilizes the shoulder joint.
The shoulder rotator muscles lie beneath the large deltoid muscles, and enable us to turn our arm in various positions. Rotating our arm backwards, called external rotation, uses the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles. Rotating our arm forwards, called internal rotation, involves the subscapularis muscles. Keeping our arm within the shoulder joint structure is the primary function of the supraspinatus muscle. Together, these four muscle groups surround the shoulder joint, providing both structural stability and the ability to produce forehand, backhand, and serving movements.
The good news is that these four relatively small muscle groups respond very well to proper strength training. The bad news is that most people do not perform any specific exercises for their rotator cuff. This is unfortunate, because rotator cuff injuries occur frequently in tennis players and typically require a long recovery period.
Although the standard strength exercises offer some conditioning benefit, you should definitely do at least one workout per week for the shoulder rotator muscles.
The best means for specifically training the rotator cuff muscles is the rotary shoulder machine, a dual-action exercise that provides full-range rotational resistance for both the external and internal shoulder rotator muscles.
If this machine is not available, you may also strengthen these important muscles with resistance bands. Simply attach the band to a door at waist level, stand with your left side toward the door, keep your left elbow against your left side, and pull the band across your midsection using your left hand. This works your left internal shoulder rotator muscles. Next, keep your right elbow against your right side and pull the band away from your midsection using your right hand. This works your right external shoulder rotator muscles. Repeat these two exercises standing with your right side toward the door and using the opposite hands.
Due to the extensive wrist action required in tennis play, the forearm muscles can be easily overstressed, leading to injury at the elbow or wrist joints. The forearm machine provides five separate wrist movements to effectively condition all of the forearm muscles. Few exercises are better suited to tennis players, especially for increasing grip strength and reducing injury potential.
If you don’t have access to this training device, an excellent alternative exercise is the wrist roller. Simply attach a five-pound weight plate to a two-foot rope and tie the other end to a round wooden dowel. Holding the dowel in both hands, alternately turn your wrists clockwise to wind the rope around the dowel and lift the weight. This action addresses your forearm flexor muscles. When the weight touches the dowel, alternately turn your wrists counterclockwise to unwind the rope and lower the weight. This action works your forearm extensor muscles.
If you play tennis three or four days per week, then it is probably best to do your strength training on two or three non-tennis days. That permits plenty of recovery time after each activity. If you practice tennis every day, your strength training should probably be performed about four hours after your tennis training for best overall results. For example, if you play tennis every morning from 9 to 11, you may schedule your strength exercise around 3 p.m. Two or three equally spaced strength training days are
recommended for most practical purposes.
Remember that skill training is the most important factor in improving your tennis game. However, physical conditioning can certainly enhance your tennis playing efforts and outcomes. The cornerstone of physical conditioning is muscular strength, and a stronger tennis player should always be a better tennis player.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50.