Last week I presented in front of the BTV (Bavarian Tennis Verband) - it’s one of the biggest associations in Germany and many of the top junior tennis coaches were in attendance. The topic - how we can use off-court training strategies to accelerate on-court development. I had 3 young junior players helping me during the practical component - going through a series of jumps, bounds, throws, bodyweight exercises and so on. They were 12-13 years old and apparently, some of the best young talents in the country (I never met them previously and had never seen them play or train).
In any case, the reason I bring this up is because I was quite surprised at the lack of general abilities these youngsters possessed. Each had their strengths and weaknesses, but all had issues with bodyweight exercises - basic squat and lunge patterns, trunk exercises, jumping and landing mechanics and so on. I’m not trying to bash these players, I simply want to highlight that, for their long-term development (and health), adding more general movements to their training regimes, would be highly beneficial. In this post, I will attempt to outline why general movements (or movement diversity, as some coaches like to call it), can be so valuable to a tennis player’s program - and not just for juniors, but for any player at any age. Video examples are also presented (in no particular order or relevance).
DEVELOP BASIC STRENGTH
As the name implies, general strength movements develop general (or basic) strength. This is especially true for younger athletes, those who are less experienced, or those beginning their off-season training. Regardless of the scenario, these exercises are foundational - they involve basic movement patterns of squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling and rotating. Furthermore, these movements can be done in a variety of positions (standing, lying, sitting, kneeling), in a variety of directions (horizontal, vertical, lateral, diagonal) and in all planes of motion (transverse, sagittal, frontal). “Having efficient body mechanics is a function of balance and poise” (Pfaff) - through these different mediums, general exercises establish these foundational movement patterns.
In tennis circles, players are often performing ‘simulated’ tennis tasks off the court. The fact that simulation DOES NOT equal specificity, is another topic on it’s own. What’s important to highlight here is that we as coaches often forget that playing sport (tennis in this case), develops many of the necessary qualities a player must possess. We do off-court work in a more general sense for 2 main reasons. First, to help better express on-court movements. For instance, if a player cannot hold a side plank with good tension, they may have difficulty maintaining proper postures and upper body integrity during the planting (or set-up) phases of a groundstroke. Secondly, general movements under lower load conditions prepare athletes for heavier and more intense training down the road. If players cannot perform bodyweight exercises, adding load doesn’t make logical sense.
DEVELOP GENERAL FITNESS
These movements can also be used in circuit style formats to improve a variety of energy system pathways. Tennis is a sport that requires tremendous work capacity - i.e. the ability to perform task related work. These capacities are best built over time through movements that are more reflective of the demands of the modern game - and by that I mean containing specificity of joint angles, contraction velocities, angular velocities, biochemistry and so on. Traditional conditioning means (long distance runs, bike rides etc.) have very little in common, in terms of specificity, with what an elite tennis player requires. Performing general movements under time and space constraints is actually more task relevant and will likely have a greater transfer to on-court endurance. Again, tennis itself does a pretty good job at developing tennis-specific conditioning. If a player is already playing 15 hours a week, performing a variety of drills with varying intensities and work to rest ratios, why tax them even more off the court? In fact, doing so may alter biochemistry negatively, leading to poorer performance and wellness.
IMPROVE COORDINATION AND MOVEMENT FORM
Like a mentor of mine always said “there’s no use doing sloppy work”. Again, if athletes have a lot of difficulty with general exercises (especially when it comes to handling their own body weight), they’ll surely have issues lifting heavier loads. Establishing efficient movement mechanics will improve overall motor control that can further enhance not only weight training means, but also tennis related coordinative patterns. Research over the past several decades has pointed to increases in motor control when performing athletic training. From experience, I have seen many players over the years with faulty tennis mechanics and the same issues are present off the court. Recall that rotational movement (like a groundstroke) begins proximally and finishes distally. Our trunk and pelvis actually initiate the rotational turn during tennis strokes - but what if a player can’t physically perform this because of either mobility restrictions, strength deficits or coordination limitations? Coaches cueing them to “turn your hips” or “more rotation”, won’t help matters.
Further to the discussion of technique and mechanics, these exercises can act as movement screens. This is especially true because of the diverse nature of these exercises and that they require the use of multiple joints under varying velocity and force requirements. For example, a simple single-leg squat can say a lot about an athlete’s ankle and hip mobility. At the same time, this movement can act as a unilateral strength test (i.e. does the athlete have the strength to squat on 1-leg), a trunk integrity test (can they maintain their posture and transmit force in a uniform fashion) and an injury predictor (do they have some sort of movement aberration that could be cause for concern - like dynamic valgus/varus at the knee?).
Performing a battery of exercises in real-time is likely more indicative of movement flaws (and strengths - can’t disregard those either), joint health and even current fatigue levels. It’s thus important to carefully watch athletes as they perform these movements.
ENHANCE MOBILITY AND FLEXIBILITY
Certain exercises can be implemented specifically to improve mobility - which is defined as the interplay between strength and flexibility. Simply holding a static stretch doesn’t ensure that an athlete is able to use this range of motion (ROM) in an active form. Movements can place large demands on the ROM of various joints, connective tissues and muscles. These types of movements place different stresses on muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (these receptors detect changes in muscle length and position) when compared to static stretching. If athletes cannot reach ROMs under varying movement schemes, can we expect them to do so on the tennis court? Can they get into deep side lunge positions without fearing injury? Likely not.
RECOVERY AND RESTORATION
General movements have been shown to accelerate recovery after more intense training/competitions to greater levels than rest alone. A mentor of mine once said “we work in order to produce the effects of rest”. Establishing these movements and circuits early on in training is beneficial to the training process because of this reason. These movements can then be implemented at various times during the season to help facilitate recovery - in fact, studies have shown that a ‘recovery session’ can enhance the subsequent performance of a strength and power session. This theory may also apply to tennis playing conditions. Think about it. Many coaches plan on-court tennis sessions that are light in nature. Perhaps 60-70% intensity of hits and movements. Intuitively, they know that these sessions have numerous benefits including recovery, improvements in timing & feel, boosts in confidence and even psychological factors (doing another training day instead of sitting on the couch or in bed). The same can apply to general movement circuits off the court. While I am not an expert in the exact mechanisms that are at play here, hormonal factors seem to be at the forefront.
Lastly, because of the diverse nature of these movements, many experienced coaches have seen reductions in injuries as a result of this type of training. Building a foundation of movements under a variety of conditions prepares the body to handle more intense and specific training means down the road. Furthermore, adaptations from these movements extend beyond the muscles and target all connective tissues including bone, tendon, ligament, fascia, joint capsule and so on.
If anything else, begin implementing general movements with tennis players because of this alone. You’ve heard it millions of times - tennis is a repetitive sport. The majority of injuries are due to repetitive tasks. To develop elite players, we cannot stop performing repetitive on-court drills - these are absolutely necessary. What we can do is supplement our on-court training with more general off-court means. A colleague of mine once said that these types of movements can act as ‘armour’. I thought that was very telling - let’s protect our players with the right armour and keep them on the courts instead of on the sidelines.
While these exercises and movement schemes might be general, they are by no means easy. When done with proper intent and focus, they will demand a lot from a player. Keep in mind, when performing these types of movements, the guidelines are simple. The overall intensities are lower (usually bodyweight or light resistances - like med balls), the rep counts are higher, the set counts are lower, proper form is a high priority and diversity is key (sit, stand, rotate, jump, kneel, crawl etc.).