Training for tennis domination

[Updated: September 2018]

For the first time in years, I am pumped about a performance goal. So pumped that I just contemplated having a hard boiled egg as a snack. I didn’t. But I thought about it. And I did read through some research journals to help me create a new tennis conditioning workout to add to my tennis preparation plan. I know that ultimately the quality of my game is going to be the biggest determinant of how well I perform on the court, but I also know that I can significantly up my game by being strong and fast enough to get to more shots, and by being fit enough to do so throughout the match. This is the stuff that training provides. Training also has a side-benefit of reducing the risk of injury.

I am working on improving my tennis ability with a great coach and depending when you talk to me, I’m either excited or frustrated by my progress. I do seem to be getting better, although much more slowly than I’d like. Apparently I’m a big optimist, as I get to the tennis court every day thinking “today is the day that it’s all going to come together.” So far I’ve been wrong about that 100% of the time, but tomorrow! Because I’m *this* close to playing tennis at the level I want, I have been training to have my body ready for high performance – just in case.

What does that entail? What can one do to train for tennis domination? How does one train to be able to return those shots that seem unreturnable? What does a training plan include that allows one to be as fast and reactive in the last point as in the first?

Strength, power, and movement

I don’t know if I could (or would want to) prioritize between these three, so I create tennis performance training programs that address all of them. The warm-up is a great opportunity to address movement limitations as well as to get the body ready for the job ahead. For most tennis players, this will involve a combination of stretching, muscle activation, and dynamic movements involving the shoulders, upper back, hips, and legs. After the warm-up, it’s time for a combination of power and agility. There are a lot of exercises that make sense for tennis players, from single leg lateral hops, medicine ball slams, kettlebell swings, power cleans, jumps, and ladder drills.

After that, it’s time for the strength section where we work on the foundation of strength that will support the body on the court. Tennis is truly a full body sport, so we work the full body. An example of what we might work on would be rear foot elevated split squats, one arm kettlebell rows, Pallof presses, deadlifts, cable presses, and single-leg lowering. After that, we either finish with a few stretches, do some tennis-specific intervals for conditioning, or both.

If you’re mid-season, twice per week workouts is ideal, or once per week if your life and tennis take up too much time. Once the summer windes down, fall and winter are a great time to focus more on getting the body ready for next year, which means upping the frequency to two to four workouts per week. This tends to workout time-wise since most people play less often indoors than they do out.

Tennis specific intervals for conditioning

Conditioning is about improving your ability to play point after point after point for however long it takes, withoug loss of performance. Many people call it (or used to call it) cardio, but that’s an imprecise term, as I think it implies a more aerobic approach. Tennis has an aerobic component in that it last a long time, but most points require short but intense bursts, which is referred to as anaerobic. As it turns out, there are geeks in university settings who think it’s interesting to go through game statistics to learn how long typical points are and how far a player typically moves during a point. Since I’m also a geek, I read this paper in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. Here are the key points:

  • Points are typically 4 to 10 seconds long with 10 to 20 seconds of recovery, with longer recovery bouts in the 60 to 90 seconds range
  • The work to rest ratio is between 1.7 and 3.4, which I interpret to mean 1:2 is a good approximation. Note: this is where many people err in building their conditioning programs. They don’t provide adequate rest. That seems like a good idea to some as it seems like you work harder. But do you? Or do you just work slower? More is not always better, but better always is.
  • 80% of strokes are within 2.5m of ready position, and there are 4 direction changes in the average point.

From that study, I created conditioning workouts that I use for myself and for tennis player clients. One is brief and can be done at the end of a gym workout; the other is a bit longer so can be done as a separate workout on the court after doing a tennis-specific dynamic-warmup (below this paragraph) and a few serves. Having two different conditioning workouts makes sense, with one focusing on the short points, and the other focusing on longer points. Although relative to the intervals I program for other sports, neither is long.

Here are the two conditioning workouts:

Day 1: Post-gym workout
6 bouts of 5 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest
60 seconds rest
repeat

At Custom Strength, we do this on the slideboard and focus on trying to get as many strides in as possible. It’s easy to look at this and think 5 seconds of work is nothing. But look at it another way: how important is it to explode with those first two steps? Short bursts where you push yourself to be as fast as possible (which means you need rest) are huge helpers with that.

Over time, we increase the 6 bouts to 8 then 10, then 12.

Day 2: On-Court Conditioning
8 bouts of 10 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest
90 seconds rest
repeat two more times (3 rounds)

For this, set up one cone at the middle of the baseline, another 3 meters toward the sideline, and another on the sideline (singles). Of the 8 bouts, do 3 moving to the forehand and shuffling back, 3 moving to the backhand and shuffling back, and 2 moving in for a short ball then back-pedalling. Finish each bout by going the full distance from the ready position to the sideline instead of just the 3m. After a few weeks, we increase from 3 to 4 to 5 rounds.

Skill training and practice
Unlike working out, I think most players do pretty well in terms of their skill training. Most of us get lots of games in each week, and many also take lessons. Although I’ll throw this question out: do you practice? And by practice, I don’t mean games or rallying. I mean practice, where you go out to the court with a ball machine or a basket of balls and a friend and work on something. There’s nothing like hitting 50 forehands in a row to help either sort something out or break through a plateau.

Rest and recovery
(Virtual) Show of hands here: How many days per week do you play tennis in-season? Is it 7? If it is, and especially if you’re over 40, it’s probably time to consider that that is not wise. The body needs a chance to recover. The day of rest doesn’t have to be completely without activity, but it should be with low intensity and different activity. A bike ride or a nature walk is a great recovery day option.

Nutrition
You had to know this was coming, right? Here’s the simple truth: Nutrition matters. A lot. If you want to perform well, you have to fuel your body well. I’m not a nutritionist, so I’m not going to delve too deeply here, and instead make a simple point. If you find you don’t move as quickly on the court as you’d like, or that you start strong but slow down over the course of an hour or two on court, or that you feel gassed for hours after you play, then you would be wise to assess your nutritional habits. Hiring a nutritionist is a great investment in both your tennis performance and your health. If that’s not in the cards, but you do think you could use a little help there, my Get Lean Challenge may be of interest. It’s an online program where you will change one habit every week for 8 weeks. It’s not rocket science by any stretch (I used to be an electronic warfare engineer, so I feel qualified to say that); instead it’s just basic principles like eat more vegetables, and eat less junk food (note I didn’t say eat no junk food).

If you’re a tennis player in the Ottawa area and have been contemplating adding in-gym training to your week, fill in the contact form below and let’s discuss. We have openings for semi-private training where you’ll get programming and coaching that are specifically developed for your body, your sport, and your ability.

Want to dominate on the tennis court? Either with in-person training in Ottawa on online group training anywhere? Send me an e-mail with questions or to sign up.

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Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer specializing in sports performance and training around injuries.

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