Most of us in tennis won’t argue that today’s game requires high levels of explosive strength - or as it’s often called - power. But many disregard some of the most influential exercises that contribute to this quality: olympic weightlifting movements.
In case you’re not familiar with olympic weightlifting movements, they consist of the clean, snatch, jerk and any variations or derivatives of these 3 lifts (videos examples are found throughout this post).
During the specific prep phase, as we’ve mentioned in previous sections, there is a greater emphasis on tennis play/practice - especially when compared with the general prep phase. Because of this, in my opinion, the need for conditioning work (in the traditional sense) is not as important - players, in effect, are getting a lot of their conditioning through tennis. Studies (Fernandez-Fernandez et al 2016, Kilit and Arslan 2018) are reaffirming this trend. See the ‘Learn More’ section for links to both studies.
I’ve previously written about the split step and it’s importance to successful movement - and ultimately, shot execution - in tennis. But do we truly understand what factors contribute to an effective split step? Why we should devote serious attention to it? Or even more, how to best train it?
Before we get into the details, you should know that there are 3 primary components that make up the split step:
Based on some of my previous posts, many believe I’m not a fan of running. That, however, is not true at all! I’m a huge believer in running activities - but not the ones that have traditionally been prescribed in tennis books and in many tennis related research papers. A typical ‘old school’ prescription is to get players running long slow distances (LSD) in the off-season or during preparatory periods. The rationale is - ‘let’s build an aerobic base’. Hmm. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll do it again - energy system development is not that simple. You can NEVER truly isolate one energy system and completely disregard the others. You can bias one over the other, but there’s an interplay between the 3 (anaerobic, anaerobic-Lactic, aerobic).
In last week’s post, we introduced the main physical training components that tennis players likely should focus on during the off-season. To get the best out of this week’s article, I suggest reviewing part 1 of this series first.
In this post, I’d like to tackle a couple key points. First, I’ll outline what a typical training week in the off-season might look like and how the overall cycle takes shape. Next, I’ll take a stab at commenting on the interplay and subsequent management of on-court and off-court training loads. Lastly, I will then offer some feedback - in other words, why it's my belief that training the various qualities outlined in last week’s article shouldn’t stop once the off-season cycle ends.
This is a 2-part post. In today's article, we’ll take a brief look at the most important physical qualities a player should focus on during the off-season and how to best train them. Part 2 will then focus on the application - how a microcycle might be organized, how it fits into the overall training cycle and the interplay between on and off court training.
Medicine ball training is a widely popular training modality amongst tennis players at all ages and levels. More specifically, med ball (MB) training is primarily used to augment rotational power. For a review of the underpinning science and theory on this topic, please take a look at a previous post on this topic. Why augment rotational power though? Today's game is classified as power based - players are hitting the felt off the ball. The rationale from a training perspective is as follows: increase rotational power and you'll increase hitting speeds - whether that's groundstroke or serve speeds.
In the last couple of posts, we explored two key sport science training principles, progressive loading and variation. These training principles were linked to both off-court as well as on-court training for the elite/developing tennis player - in hopes that they could provide the astute coach or player with more insight into the organization of practices and long-term training schemes. But the principles don’t stop there. There are other of equal - or perhaps even greater - importance, especially when it comes to tennis training.
Specificity is this week’s topic of interest. It’s a term that’s been somewhat of a buzzword for the better part of a decade (or longer). Often times, tennis coaches, players and parents are brought to believe that to be a successful tennis player, one must be subscribed to a physical development program that is ‘tennis specific’. When these same tennis folks see programs that include a variety of plyometric work and ballistic lifting in the weight room instead of rotational band work, quick footwork drills, and other movements that ‘mimic’ tennis play, they think to themselves - “this isn’t tennis-specific”. I’ve got news for you though, there’s only one training component that is truly specific to tennis play and that’s...wait for it….TENNIS!
In last week’s post, we took a closer look at the force-velocity relationship and it’s underlying science. Recall that when force requirements are high, velocity outputs will be low - and vice versa. This has important implications because of the different movement requirements on a tennis court along with the methods used to improve relevant athletic qualities. Look at the figure below - it’s a theoretical look at where certain movements and strokes etc. lie on the force-velocity curve (this is an adapted representation based on science and my anecdotal experience). Even some of these movements will have different force-velocity requirements at the muscular level - when decelerating for a wide ball for instance, the initial deceleration step will have higher forces acting on the lower-body then the last step just before planting (because we’re trying to stop from a relatively fast movement speed).
In previous posts on COD, we spoke about the importance of reactive strength. In particular, we emphasized the role leg and ankle stiffness plays in the production of reactiveness. Ultimately, high levels of reactiveness are predicated by very fast eccentric-concentric muscle actions. These actions impact a variety of movements in tennis, including any type of first-step reaction that involves very little changes in knee, hip and ankle amplitudes. `
But what about movements that have longer ground contact times? For instance, a player is forced into a deep lunge position - perhaps because of a fast low ball or because they’re retrieving a low volley at net. To recover from these types of scenarios requires qualities that extend beyond reactiveness. This is where strength and power qualities come into play. While reactiveness is great when joint angles are small, inertia is low and ground contacts are short, when these parameters are reversed, fast stretch shortening cycle (SSC) abilities won’t cut it.
Last week we introduced reactive strength and its underpinning qualities. If you haven’t read that post, I strongly encourage you to do so, as it’ll provide a scientific rationale for what’s to come in this article.
Recall that reactive strength is effectively the fast component of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) - SSC activity being a rapid change from an eccentric to a concentric contraction that produces more power than would be possible with a concentric only contraction. We also determined that reactive strength is quite important as it relates to change of direction (COD) in tennis. There are 2 reasons for this. First, it’ll improve a player’s split-step ability - effectively allowing for a faster first step initiation - AND it can help with movements - along with recoveries - that are short but require high levels of explosiveness (think of shots that are near you but are coming at you with speed).
The ability to respond quickly and efficiently to an oncoming shot, is perhaps one of the most important qualities a tennis player must possess. This ability is predicated on a number of factors including anticipatory skills, perception skills - picking up cues from the other side of the net, judging the ball appropriately etc. - along with physical qualities, one of them being reactiveness. Further to that, it helps when a player has tremendous change of direction (COD) abilities. Why? Because the player that can recover more efficiently after their previous shot, has a better chance to not only better 'see' the next shot, but also has the ability to respond to that shot with less ‘emergency’ - a term many coaches use.
If you’re anything like me, you may often marvel at the game’s best players. As an observer, I often ask myself, "how do they make it look so easy?" Many of us probably wonder if it's possible for anyone to play at that level. Or if you’re a coach, you wonder if you can ever get an athlete to that level. Just for the record, I don’t believe in talent. Even considering the dominance (and brilliance) of players like Federer, Nadal and the Williams sisters. They all practiced (and practiced and practiced). This isn’t just opinion based, rather, it’s derived from a new-ish branch of motor learning called 'the science of expertise'.
Many coaches and players often speak of the importance of power in tennis. From movement characteristics to its development during the execution of groundstrokes, serves and so forth. But power in and of itself simply means the rate at which work is performed. When you’re running at a steady sub-max pace, you’re still producing power - but I don’t think that’s the power a tennis player is after, do you? What we’re more concerned with is MAXIMUM POWER - this is the quality that helps when exploding into a big forehand or going for an all out first serve. In this post, we'll briefly outline max power and it's relationship to force output and velocity. We'll also provide video examples of a number of general & specific exercises for the development of max power in tennis and to conclude, a general framework will be outlined so that coaches and players can program/implement med ball exercises into their training regimes.
Most tennis players spend hours on the practice courts. And for good reason - tennis is darn tough. The question is, are these hours on court productive hours or redundant? How can we know? To assess whether our training is effective (and that it'll transfer to matchplay) we must first understand the demands of elite tennis.
In this post, we’ll review a study by Pereira et al (2016) that dives into the movement details of professional tennis. Other studies have previously analyzed movement characteristics; but, those studies replaced tournament matches with simulated matchplay. The present study observed movement characteristics via official ITF sanctioned matches.
Many of you have probably heard of the acronym SAQ before. If not, it’s referred to as speed, agility & quickness. Coaches & trainers from a variety of sports use these terms liberally and interchangeably. This is a problem. In the tennis world, many believe that these 3 qualities are supremely important for the movement success of an elite player. Another problem. When referring to speed, are we referring to maximum speed? Or something else? In tennis, as we’ll see later in this post, a player almost NEVER reaches top running speeds. Is it relevant then? Quickness, on the other hand, has multiple issues. First, what does it even mean? Does it mean being explosive? Does it deal with having fast feet (which is a misleading term in itself). Prominent researchers disregard quickness as a sport science term anyway - their reasoning...it’s too vague.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen countless videos on social media of athletes lifting big weights. And it’s not just athletes from sports like american football, baseball or hockey. Many athletes across various sports - like long distance running, swimming, volleyball - are lifting weights. We're not referring to light dumbbells but rather heavy loads and big lifts. The question is, why? What’s the rationale behind this type of training? Should tennis players learn from these sports?
I’ve briefly spoken about the importance of strength training for tennis. Some factors include the prevention of injury and increases in serve speed. In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the details of maximum strength training and it's relevance to the elite tennis player. Specifically, we’ll outline how max strength development can impact movement characteristics - including explosiveness, first step ability and acceleration.
How do different athletic qualities fit into the program of a tennis player? This is a complex question but one that deserves an answer. With information being so readily accessible these days, there are countless videos of players doing all kinds of things off the tennis court. But let me ask you this: just because a top 100 or 50 player is doing X or Y, does it mean it’s effective? Is it driven by some underlying scientific basis? Often times, it’s not. It’s a regurgitation of someone else’s training or a drill that was once seen before. If you’re a player, and someone is telling you to do squats on a stability ball…or ladder drills to develop agility and change-of-direction (COD) ability...seek alternatives as these are merely gimmicks that have little transfer to the aforementioned performance qualities.
Not so long ago, a tennis coach I worked alongside asked why I don’t prescribe long runs with our players. You know, to get them into shape. My response at the time was that we need to prioritize their strength, power and explosive abilities. He then asked why I didn’t do long runs with them during pre-season? I didn’t want to get into the details at the time but there were 2 reasons. First, there is no real ‘pre-season’ in tennis, particularly not in junior tennis. And second, long distance running can do more harm to a tennis player than good.
You still see it all the time though. Coaches making their players run. Especially when they want to punish a player for bad behaviour or failing to accomplish a drill. They think, why not kill two birds with one stone? Teach the kid a lesson AND get them in shape. Boy is that not the furthest thing from the truth. Many coaches also still believe that running long distance will build an aerobic base but the type of aerobic qualities that are enhanced during long-distance running, are not the qualities we need for tennis - or any explosive type sport. In this article, we’ll outline the basic physiology of tennis, why you shouldn’t run (there are more reasons then, it’s a waste of time) and what you should do instead.
This post will touch on one of the most important qualities for a tennis player - reactive ability. Being reactive will help any tennis player be set for more shots and run down tougher balls without having to run any faster than they already do. Now before I get into the nitty gritty details I think it’s important to distinguish between reactive ability and reaction time (no they are not the same thing...although also not mutually exclusive).