Many athletes have the following problem - they seek to improve their sport performance while doing an overly large amount of the their training in the weight room.
Tennis players, on the other hand, have the reverse problem. They spend way too much time on-court and their off-court training closely resembles (or mimics) what they’re already doing on the court.
Then there are coaches and players (even parents) that often seek ‘tennis-specific’ training. Depending on how you define it, ‘tennis-specific’ can mean a lot of different things. What I’m sure of, however, is that there’s nothing more physically specific to tennis than simply playing the sport of tennis. And further to that, playing tournament tennis. Yes you read those last 2 sentences correctly.
I’ve said this before - and I’m sure I’ll say it again - tennis players lack ‘proper’ physical preparation. And a progression that makes sense, both practically, and scientifically.
When it comes to physical preparation, you must realize there’s a training continuum that exists. This post will take a stab at explaining this general to tennis-specific training continuum - and at the same time, attempt to link it to tennis preparation.
Before we get into the details, at the most basic level, here’s a look at the 3 training types:
General physical training
Specific (or specialized) physical training
Each of these training types has a place in the tennis player’s yearly plan. How much time a player spends in each training type is highly individual and depends on factors like training age (& maturation), tournament schedule, injury history, tennis skill and so on. We’ll explore some of these topics below.
When it comes to training, we would normally start with a general physical preparation program. But to better understand the similarities and differences between the 3 training types that we’ll discuss here, I think it’s best to start with tennis-specific training, and then work from there.
Tennis-specific adaptations explained
Here’s what you need to understand first. Our bodies will physically adapt - in a very specific way - to playing tennis. That’s why you’ll see one-handers, for example, with much larger forearm musculatures on their dominant side compared to their non-dominant side (all tennis players have this adaptation actually, but in one-handers, it’s more pronounced). Or why baseliners have greater aerobic capacities, compared to power/first strike players.
The above examples can be defined as positive adaptations to tennis-specific play - in other words, we want a baseline player to have superior aerobic capacities because they need to endure long points and ultimately, long matches.
But there also exist negative adaptations. For example, too much tennis can decrease the range-of-motion (ROM) in the internal rotators of the dominant shoulder. Some decrease might be ok, but large decreases are detrimental. It leads to an overall decrease in total ROM of the shoulder - which the literature has confirmed can be a leading contributor to various shoulder-related injuries in tennis players.
We can minimize this loss both before and during the tennis season by performing very specific flexibility and strengthening exercises of the glenohumeral joint (the shoulder joint which goes through internal and external rotation during tennis serving).
Tennis-specific training items
If you understood the above explanation, tennis-specific training will now be a lot more clear. Essentially, any type of training that provides tennis-specific adaptations is considered tennis-specific training. This isn’t just playing tennis or doing highly specific flexibility/mobility drills that can enhance certain tennis skill/movements (like serving) but can also include specific tennis drills.
For example, if I want to develop a more powerful forehand on the run, I could isolate this movement by hand-feeding one challenging wide ball at a time - which would challenge the player to move explosively towards it and attempt to hit it with substantial power. In this example, I wouldn’t care so much about the accuracy initially, as the primary aim is to develop power and explosiveness. Once the player adapts and consolidates this quality to a higher degree, then I can add accuracy (or some other feature I’d like to target).
There are times, however, that a player’s lack of first step abilities are limiting the proper execution of the above drill - then what do we do?
This is where specialized training comes into play. It acts to connect the physical qualities with the tennis-specific training items, can help attenuate certain tennis-specific adaptations (so they don’t get out of hand and lead to injury) and can help accelerate the entire training process.
Specialized Training for Tennis
With specialized training, we’re now getting into more off-court work - the training items are more specific in terms of exercise selection, ROM considerations, torque moments at various joints, muscle firing patterns, among others.
So here, we must carefully consider what a tennis player needs, and implement training items that will enhance those qualities. Here are just a few examples:
1 - Improving lower-body rate of force development (or explosive strength):
If a player wants to improve that first step in our wide ball example, their ability to generate high forces in the fastest possible times, will better enable them to do so. One of the best ways to develop this quality is through light-loaded Olympic lifts or ballistic weight training exercises (videos below). A key consideration, however, is to use loads that will allow for the greatest expression of power and to instruct the player to move through ranges of motion that are more specific to that first-step (the load will dictate this).
2 - Improve upper-body velocity-specific strength:
If a player wants to increase serve speed, training must be designed in such a way to target that ability (simply performing regular serve drills won’t cut it - you’ll be limited by both your training and maybe your genetics). Performing specialized med ball throws have shown to increase serve speed - both in the literature and in our training programs. The 1-Arm MB on MB Throw can target velocity specific adaptations both at the arm but also the lat, the scapular complex and through rapid thoracic extension to flexion. A good progression - while less specific - is to start with a 2-arm variation as more load can be used and more power produced (at similar velocities).
3 - Split-step and first step abilities
As we saw in last week’s post, timing, technique and physical abilities are all important when performing the split-step action. With specialized training, we’re mostly concerned with the physical side of the equation. The problem, however, is that most players don’t have the stiffness/reactiveness quality that’s required for an effective split-step, to begin with. Training this ability can be done in 2 ways - by performing reactive plyometrics (in the form of hurdles or depth jumps) and by doing special starting speed drills to accentuate the split + first step in real-time.
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General Training for Tennis
It’s obvious that performing the above training types (specialized and tennis-specific) will surely improve anyone’s physical tennis performance. But that doesn’t mean that we should forego general training items. Most of the time the other 2 training types are easy to sell - to players, to parents and to tennis coaches. I mean, a lot of those items look and feel a lot like tennis-play. It’s the general training that isn’t so easy to convince the tennis world to perform - even though it may be one of the most important areas.
General training includes strength training, global mobility, speed & acceleration development and so on. It’s the type of training that all sports will benefit from at various times of the year. Is a deep squat specific or specialized - when it comes to tennis-play? Not really. We’ll nearly never (if ever) get into this deep position on the court. What about acceleration drills that go beyond 15m? The court dimensions don’t go beyond that so why would a tennis player perform that type of training?
Both of these examples highlight a very important reality - these general training items will not only improve general fitness abilities, they’ll potentiate (help augment) the more specialized and specific training items AND can help restore general movement qualities that are usually lost during a repetitive tennis block or season.
Elite players and the Continuum
Often times, my programs include a mix of all 3 training types, but one of the 3 will be predominant. For instance, I still use the traditional phases to outline my players plans - which include general physical preparation cycles, specific physical preparation cycles, pre-competitive preparation cycles and competitive preparation cycles.
I won’t get into the intricate details here but know this - during the specific prep phase, for instance, the majority of training will include ‘specialized’ items. But there will still be certain types of training items that are ‘general’ - various weight room variations AND other items that are ‘tennis-specific’ - like actual tennis-play and other drills that are more agility focused, for example.
Not only that, within each training type, there are lesser and greater degrees of specificity. In the early part of a specific prep phase, I might do med ball side throws in a neutral stance. After a few weeks, once I’ve developed good mechanics and enhanced power qualities, I might add variety by introducing movement and by modifying the throwing stance. Thus, adding specificity.
Lastly, as we progress through the specific preparation phase, the proportion of time spent in each training type also shifts. More time on-court going through tennis-specific training items. Less time off-court with specialized training items.
This is why planning is still really important. I know it’s not the aim of this post to get into this topic, but consider the following for a second - if you’re not exactly sure when the next competition is, how can you determine whether you should work on this quality, or that one?
I’m a big believer in periodization that fosters flexibility, adaptability and constant minor tweaks to training. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a structure to start with. It allows us to differentiate the 3 training types we discussed in this post, in a more systematic manner. This enables each training quality to have enough exposures - promoting more effective long-term adaptations.
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