Understanding Power vs. Max Power
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.
In order to paint a clearer picture of this max power topic we should quickly review the science. Do you recall the force-velocity curve? Check out this post for a comprehensive analysis. Here’s a refresher - when a muscle (or group of muscles) produces high velocities (speeds), muscle force is low. And on the other side of the spectrum, when muscle produces high forces, velocity is low (figure below). The arm action in serving is on the low-force high-velocity end of the spectrum while the first step in tennis is more on the high-force low-velocity end.
When it comes to power, recall that it's a function of both force and velocity:
Power = Force x Velocity
To achieve max power, we must then find the right blend of force and velocity (graph below) - too much of either and we’re not optimizing power. Look at the dotted line - generally, max power is achieved when both force and velocity are moderate. However, research is mixed on this topic. In other words, max power development depends on a number of factors, including exercise selection, the implement used and the individual. Some research suggests that an unloaded jump squat produces the highest power outputs while others have shown loaded jumps (~30% added load on an individual) as being optimal. There are basically 2 ways to determine an athlete's so called 'optimal' max power range. You can either use high-tech devices - like the PUSH Band (an accelerometer based device that can extract power & velocity metrics from a variety of strength/power movements) - OR, a coach’s eye. It’s not easy but experienced coaches can see whether a med ball, for example, is too light or too heavy for an athlete. Later, I’ll provide a video example of an athlete using a med ball that’s just too heavy.
When it comes to training max power for tennis players, we have 2 basic options - general exercises and specific exercises. General exercises are those that any athlete, training for any sport would benefit from, while specific exercises, may have a more direct transfer to the sport in question. Let’s briefly explore both types of movements and provide examples.
Tennis players should include a variety of movements into their programs. This is critical for a number of reasons. First, general med ball exercises are usually multi-joint and therefore have a high coordinative demand. Second, because more musculature is generally involved, these exercises require greater recruitment and activation of type 2 muscle fibers - those that are linked to explosive actions. Lastly, general movements potentiate specific movements - in other words, they augment the power of movements that you’ll encounter during tennis.
Although the mechanisms for this are not fully understood, many elite coaches believe this is due to both neuromuscular and hormonal factors. In fact, I recently spoke with legendary track coach Dan Pfaff (he coached Donovan Bailey to the 100m Olympic gold medal in 1996) - coach Pfaff mentioned a couple things about this topic that have relevance here. 1) He explained that if an athlete has difficulty with general movements, you cannot progress to more specific ones. 2) Over the years, he’s found that general movements have recovery benefits - this has something to do with lymphatic drainage (a topic I’m not yet too familiar with). 3) Movements that recruit type 2 muscles fibers increase testosterone - this hormone is associated with improvement benefits across the board (increased strength, concentration, alertness and so on). Performing power exercises the day before (or even the day of) competition, can have tremendous performance enhancing benefits because of hormonal factors.
3 General Med Ball Exercises for Max Power Development
MB Vertical (Granny) Throw
MB Vertical Push Press Throw
MB 1-Arm Snatch Throw
Specific exercises are often used too early in the programs of junior and elite players. If you can’t throw a med ball powerfully with 2 arms, you can be sure it'll be tough to do it with 1-arm - which is more specific to what you’ll encounter during tennis play. Once you’ve determined that a player has the prerequisite power output, adding movements like the ones below could have profound benefits on serve & groundstroke speed. Research on the topic agrees.
For example, a study by Genevois et al (2014) compared a 1-arm MB forehand throw versus a 2-arm MB forehand throw. The results - 1-arm MB forehand throws were significantly correlated with higher forehand speeds in elite players. Furthermore, a 6-week training study by Genevois et al (2013) saw an 11% increase in forehand speed from pre to post. This isn’t surprising as using 1 arm is more specific to tennis - and science has proven that specificity is important - this is based on the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle.
Likewise, if a player has a 2 handed backhand, then using 2 hands to throw a med ball would be more realistic and would theoretically have a better transfer to performance. While a player with a one-hand backhand would benefit more from a 1-handed throw (think MB 1-arm snatch above but changing the angle of projection).
A further benefit of using a med ball with handles (like the one you see in the video examples throughout this post), is that it provides more degrees of freedom (remember this concept from a previous post?). Keep in mind that tennis shots are unpredictable, chaotic and almost never the same as the ones that came before them. Throwing med balls from a variety of angles and in a variety of directions will help cover more variability with respect to power production. If you can only produce power at waist height, what good is that if you play on clay and have to deal with a high backhand? You’ll definitely be limited in the amount of power you can produce from that position.
3 Specific Med Ball Exercises for Max Power Development
MB 1-Arm Push Throw
Dominant Arm Throw
MB Side Throw (1-Handed)
The Wrong Load - An Example of a MB that's Too Heavy
MB Side Throw (2-Handed)
Here are 2 Futures players that I work with doing a MB Side Throw exercise. Notice that the player on the far right has more difficulties compared to the player on the left. He's unable to coordinate the throw effectively, forcing him to 'muscle' the throw. In this case, the load is probably too heavy for him and should be adjusted. The weight was 3kg - which perhaps gives you an idea of what to use with your player(s). I’ve seen many players (and I’ve been victim to this in the past) using med balls that are just too heavy. We’re not able to use the speed component of the force-velocity curve, which limits power output - the goal of this type of training. The player on the left is more efficient and coordinated with his throw - you can see his lower body loading first and then releasing this energy into the throw. This is ideal.
General Guidelines for MB Power Development in Tennis
Use Appropriate Loads
This is the most important component. With juniors, this may even mean using different types of balls that aren’t necessarily weighted. For example, a soccer ball, volleyball, basketball etc could all be appropriate depending on the age and power/strength level of your athlete(s). Look at form & the resultant velocity of the throw. These cues will provide a good sense of whether the load is appropriate or not.
Perform Few Reps
The aim is to have MAX INTENT on every throw - this will provide better assurance that power is being maximized. If you’re just going through the motions OR performing too many reps OR performing reps very quickly (one after the other) this is not developing max power but rather working on power endurance. This is a worthy goal, but before endurance can be optimized, players should strive to improve the high end of power output and build capacity on top of that. Doing NO MORE than 6 reps per exercise is usually ideal.
Gain Volume Through Added Sets
Need a greater stimulus? Don’t add weight or reps, just perform more sets. I’ve prescribed, on a number of occasions 6-8 sets of a power circuit, keeping the reps to around 4-5.
Don’t Rush, REST
Take a few seconds between reps and take sufficient time between exercises. You don’t have to necessarily rest for 2-3min (you can if that’s what you need) but the feeling should be, "I’m ready to throw the ball through the rough".
Add These Movements to Your Warm-up
For potentiation purposes, these exercises may help improve power during matchplay. Just take caution, don’t perform more than 1-2 sets and make sure the rep ranges aren't fatiguing. The aim is to feel light, fast and explosive. Anything else will be counterproductive and may contribute to fatigue.
Be Cautious with Weighted Throws
Weighted throws have been shown to increase pitching speed in baseball players. Some researchers then, theorize that throws may benefit the serve as well. In fact, a 2015 study (Kara et al) used throws in a med ball circuit routine - these elite players saw significant increases in serve speed after 6 weeks of training. Since many med ball exercises were performed, we cannot attribute the results solely to throwing. For this reason, along with potential injury risk, throws should be monitored and used with caution.
Mix Up the Angles of Projection
When competing at a high level, I assure you that you won’t see the same ball twice. Having power generating capabilities within a large bandwidth of angles and planes will provide better transfer to unpredictable scenarios.
Partner Throws Add Another Dimension
When performing side throws with a partner, there is a greater demand eccentrically (i.e. when catching the ball). This deceleration component requires a high amount of eccentric strength, balance and stability to control a max effort throw. A player must absorb the force efficiently and quickly use a reactive/elastic stretch to project the ball back towards their partner. Overall, this is more demanding than simply throwing against a wall.
The above videos are only a few examples of exercises that can be incorporated. There are countless others that can be used effectively to increase max power output. That said, it's the principles that matter - max intent, appropriate loads, sets, reps and rest. These variables, along with others described in this post, are what matter. They set the stage for optimal power development and (hopefully) improvements in serve, groundstroke and movement outcomes.