For many, this time of year means sledding, santa, ugly sweater parties and most notably, some time off from work. But for pro tennis players, the opposite is true - it’s off-season training time. Some players are gearing up for the year’s first major, the Aus Open, while other less ranked players are prepping for the Future and Challenger circuits - which are also gaining steam come the first week of January.
This means that November and December are busy training months for tennis players. For most, it’s the only true ‘off-season’ a player gets (not including various training blocks throughout the remainder of the year). But what does (and should) an off-season training program for tennis look like? There are many schools of thought on this topic. One commonality, however, that I’ve encountered over the years (and that many pro coaching colleagues of mine agree on) is that this time of year is about getting healthy and fit. In other words, physical training takes priority while tennis practice takes a bit of a back seat.
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.
Off-Season Training Qualities for Tennis
Keep in mind that early on during the off-season training cycle, a greater emphasis should be placed on general training - means that would benefit any field/court sport athlete. That said, there will obviously be a bias towards qualities important for elite tennis play. In other words, we'll still work on developing acceleration, rotational power etc. but in a way that maximizes these qualities (before getting into more specific means). This is especially true if players are deficient in certain areas. Let me provide an example to illustrate this point. If a player’s strength to mass ratio is low (often measured using a squat or deadlift), this will impede both their ability to accelerate AND change direction effectively. There’s no argument that both of these qualities are important for the elite player and BOTH have been highly (and significantly) correlated to strength:mass parameters (Nimphius et al 2015).
Rather than trying to deliberately manipulate the mass portion of the equation at the expense of strength/power (which can be dangerous without the proper guidance from a seasoned nutritionist), the primary aim should be on training. If a player increases their squat strength without a change in mass (common when performing max strength training) they will improve the previously mentioned ratio. Usually, however, strength training also has other positive effects (i.e. increase in lean mass, decrease in fat mass, improved resting metabolic rate etc.) and will likely have a positive influence on body composition, which further benefits the ratio.
While performing heavy strength training doesn’t commonly fall under specific tennis training, it’s still a worthwhile pursuit - when the timing is right (i.e. off-season). That’s just one example. Below are other qualities that are important when training the elite player during the off-season. While I won’t get into the details of why each of these are important (I’ve outlined this numerous times in previous posts), I will offer practical suggestions on what components of these qualities should take precedent during this time of year - when a lengthier block of training is available. Here’s a closer look:
First Step/Acceleration Abilities
The average distance a player moves on a tennis court is about 3m (Kovacs 2009). But averages don’t tell us the whole story. There are times when a player moves less and other times where he/she moves more. The elite performer must have the ability to deal with varying circumstances and demands - running down a drop shot may require a 15m sprint, tracking down a wide ball might demand a player to move as much as 10m, returning a slice serve on the deuce court forces a player to react fast but displace themselves very little etc. So while the average is 3m the range is quite broad.
To develop acceleration abilities, players need to perform acceleration drills and sprints in linear patterns first. This may seem counterintuitive because of the lateral nature of tennis play but consider for a second the movement dynamics when a player has to run from one cross-court corner to the other - they don’t run laterally (in the sense that their hips/feet are facing the net) - the movement is merely INITIATED laterally. After that first step - which allows the player to make an aggressive push with the contralateral leg - the player crosses over and begins running linearly (if they don’t do this, they’ll never make it to the ball).
The beauty with performing accelerations (which shouldn’t be more than 15-20m for tennis folks), is that starting abilities (from static positions) are also trained. As off-season training progresses, starting positions can be varied - facing forward, facing laterally, staggered stance, from a split-step, with a racquet in hand etc. and so too can the directions of movement (linear, backwards, with multiple cross-over steps). Creativity comes in handy here.
There are ways in which med ball and weight room exercises can enhance these qualities, but we won’t get into those details just yet.
Change-of-Direction (COD) Speed
I’ve covered COD speed in great detail over the past year - here, here, here and here. Our main concern with COD is the instantaneous moments where a player decelerates and plants - while at some point executing a shot - and then the transition from the plant to propulsion (or recovery) phase. Like I mentioned in the intro, strength (and power for that matter) to mass ratios are important here. While players can perform specific COD drills, if the underlying physical qualities (at the neural and muscular level) aren’t developed, improvements will be far fetched.
This is where strength and power training come into play. Again, off-season is for general qualities so coaches and players should stop trying to mimic tennis movements and stick to the basics - squats & lunges in the weight room and a variety of jumps in multiple planes & directions on the training field. Then build specific qualities on top.
I won’t get into agility here although I will say this - to some extent it CAN be improved off the tennis court but nothing replicates the speed and the numerous variables an elite player needs to deal with when playing and competing. The cognitive component of agility (perception, anticipation, decision making) will be mostly developed over years of playing at an elite level.
Reactive & Elastic Strength (Power Indices)
Reactive and elastic strength qualities are primarily trained via plyometric activities. Both of these qualities rely on stretch shortening cycle (SSC) activity - one helps to develop power faster (reactive) and the other develops more power but takes longer (elastic). The reactive component, as we’ve seen before, is predicated on active muscle-tendon stiffness and is important during the split-step, when force demands are low and when running speeds are higher (in other words, after the first several steps). To develop this quality, a variety of reactive hops can be used, but perhaps the most effective means are drop and depth jumps (videos below). Note, speed training - longer than 30m sprints - can also develop stiffness. While not necessarily tennis specific (distances are greater than what a player would ever encounter on a court), adding 30-60m sprints may hold value in off-season training - for stiffness/reactive qualities along with positive neuromuscular adaptations.
While we think of plyometrics as mostly jumps, bounds, reactive hops and so on, plyos are also important in upper body movements. Increasing hitting power is key here - in multiple directions and planes including rotational power along with vertical, horizontal power associated with pushing off (the various forces and their resultant vectors depend on the shot tactical situation and the time available to generate power - off-court training must thus prepare a player to generate power in a variety of ways). Recall from last week’s post on med ball training that developing hitting speed can be reactive (not much time available to make the swing) or more power oriented (player has time to use a full body approach to develop more pace).
Strength and Power
We’ve already eluded to strength and it’s role in COD speed, acceleration abilities and so on but there’s more reasons to perform (near max) strength training along with speed-strength (loaded power exercises) than to enhance those particular qualities. It’s not the scope of this post to go into every detail but increasing strength & power elicits other adaptations we should be familiar with. It improves neural drive, motor coordination, tissue health, body composition - potentiates power, may guard against injury, has a positive effect on hormone profiling...the list goes on.
The problem in most tennis settings is this - 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps isn’t strength & power training. In younger populations this may be a good start but I’m talking about elite players/pros. It’s imperative that loads are used that will recruit all available motor units (and primarily those that innervate type 2 fibres). Otherwise, what’s the point? In fact, 3x8 schemes are used in bodybuilding settings to increase muscle mass - something we’re not aiming to do with tennis players. How do weightlifters maintain the same weight class over an entire career while still gaining both strength & power? Their strength training is designed to improve the aforementioned qualities. In off-season settings, this is where elite players can really improve these attributes.
Conditioning - Repeat Sprint Ability
Like most team sports, tennis involves many explosive bursts of effort, followed by (incomplete) recovery. Points are relatively short in duration and even longer ones generally don’t extend beyond 15 seconds - which means that tennis can be categorized as highly anaerobic. Siff (2003) highlights that tennis relies on the ATP-PCr system 70% of the time, the glycolytic system 20% of the time and the aerobic system 10% of the time. Whether this is in fact true or not isn’t relevant. What we need to know is this - improving anaerobic power and capacity will allow players to work at lower relative intensities (i.e. what was 100% effort now feels like 80% effort but at the same absolute intensities and movement outputs).
Working on repeat sprint ability - which can be done more generally with linear sprints, bike workouts or via more specific means like spider drills and on-court drills (Cibulkova below) - is the most applicable way this can be done (according to research on the topic - Turner and Stewart 2013). Essentially you’re performing an all out sprint for time or distance, which is followed by a recovery. This is repeated for a number of bouts.
Slow, long distance aerobic work should be avoided entirely. Players need to be fast and explosive and while the aerobic system is responsible for the recovery phase - it replenishes ATP between bouts of work - it’s working just the same when performing repeat sprint tasks. One last point I'd like to highlight on this topic - the energy systems are ALL working ALL the time. Meaning that no matter the activity, we have various contributions from all of the systems. Even an all out 20 second sprint has a significant aerobic contribution (about 30%) - Bogdanis et al (1998).
In previous posts I mentioned how mobility is the interplay between strength and flexibility. In other words, it’s the active form of flexibility - can you still produce force in a particular range of motion? For instance, we know that isometric strength in the internal rotators of the shoulder is linked to higher velocity serves (Baiget et al 2016) but if we a) can’t attain the necessary range and b) don’t have strength in that range, we won’t be able to use it when serving (and we’ll likely get injured trying).
Below you’ll see a video of a player I coach performing active internal and external mobility work in the hips (stolen from the smart guys at Functional Anatomy Seminars). Hip function is crucial in tennis in order to move efficiently, rotate the torso effectively (i.e. dissociate it from the pelvis/lower body) and to guard against upper-body strains - yes, if your lead hip cannot externally rotate, there are greater stresses on the wrist, elbow and shoulder of the serving arm.
Structural Integrity/Ancillary Strength
This type of training is known for it's adaptations to tendons, ligaments and all the various contractile and non-contractile tissues (even bone!). It can come in a variety of forms but it's relevance in off-season training for tennis is irrefutable. Why? Because of the inherent repetitive nature of our sport...and exercises that fall under this category can be prescribed in such a way to target the various so called 'problem areas' most tennis injuries fall under - shoulder, groin, low back - just to name a few. This form of training is primarily supplementary and should comprise a small portion of the overall program (i.e. too much isolatory work may actually backfire).
These areas can be trained in an isolatory way - like the videos below:
Or may involve multiple joints and structures - video below:
Overall, during off-season training (especially in the early part), more general means that target the underpinning neural, cellular and mechanical properties are emphasized - we're trying to build a larger battery in the off-season...so the system (a player's body) can withstand the various on-court training demands.
Finally, the aim of this introductory post was to highlight the various qualities that are important during an off-season program for tennis and how different training means can influence their development. In next week’s post, we’ll take a closer look at specific examples - this will include a weekly overview and the structure of an entire cycle.
For now, happy holidays to you and yours (and enjoy the egg nog)!