Jan 29, 2015
Net Gains

Using a team concept, setting yearly goals, and teaching mental toughness are the basis for UCLA’s strength and conditioning program for tennis.

By John Farr

John Farr, MS, MA, CSCS, USAW, is the Speed-Strength & Conditioning Coach for UCLA men’s and women’s tennis and softball, and also works with the school’s football team. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Many people see tennis as purely an individual sport. In fact, that’s part of the allure for most players–in the heat of a match, there’s no sharing credit or blame. You’re responsible for every decision on your side of the net.

But at the collegiate level, the team concept supercedes the individual. The team that scores four points first wins, so players have to pull together and be more concerned with team success than individual achievement. At UCLA, we extend the team concept beyond match scoring and apply it to strength and conditioning. Our tennis players train as a team, regardless of what they were used to before joining our program.

Every season, I meet with our tennis coaches to evaluate our training regimen and decide how to make adjustments based on the teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Then, we set a theme for the upcoming year–it might be improving team strength, power, agility, or endurance. This will be the primary objective of our training program, and everything we do will be geared toward achieving it. As a result, players experience athletic improvement while also enjoying a sense of cohesion and common purpose that is sometimes missing from “individual” sports.


At first glance, tennis is a very one-side dominant sport. You only get one racquet, and with the exception of a two-handed backhand, you use only one arm to swing it. But the whole body plays the game, and athletes have to train accordingly. Players who focus all their training efforts on the dominant side sacrifice power, mobility, coordination, and balance. Therefore, we train our tennis players for full-body strength.

I follow a set of strength-training principles that have served me very well over the years. They come from Mike Burgener, a coach for Team USA Weightlifting and one of the best strength and conditioning coaches I know. He calls them “Yes to the Fourth,” because if you can say “yes” to each of the principles, your training will simulate the demands of virtually any sport. The four principles are:

• Use multi-joint movements • Train on your feet • Use Olympic-style lifts • Use free weights

Of course, these principles can be modified to suit tennis. For instance, in our program, traditional barbell free weights are often replaced by medicine balls, dumbbells, and body weight. This allows us to concentrate more closely on power development that is more appropriate for tennis players. (For a specific example of how we do this, see “At Their Service”.)

For strength work, we focus on the major multi-joint lifts such as back squats, deadlifts, dumbbell bench presses, and bent rows. We also use simple bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and chin-ups. The way we implement these exercises varies from year to year based on our program’s theme and competitive schedule.

For example, if we feel that overall team power needs to improve, we’ll focus on increasing our strength levels first through multi-joint lifts, and then emphasize speed of movement in each. We’ll aim to have athletes perform each lift as fast as safely possible, especially the concentric part of the lift. Then we’ll work to apply those power gains to on-court movements through plyometric drills and agility work.

I plan my program for an entire year at a time, mapping out a framework for weight training, core work, quickness and agility training, plyometrics, and conditioning. This allows me to make sure no one aspect of training hinders another. For example, during a period in which athletes are performing heavier lifts, it would be foolish for me to run our players into the ground. I always make adjustments during the year, but I find that having a yearly plan is extremely helpful. This way, I never lose sight of the big picture and our broader team training goals.


Our agility program has many facets, both standard and tennis-specific. We have some basic ladder drills, cone drills, and foot speed drills that we perform in the doubles alleys on the court. Examples include the pro shuttle drill, three-cone drill, and T-drill. We emphasize this type of work at the beginning of the off-season because it’s a great way to reinforce basic movement skills and balance.

During this phase we identify and correct any deficiencies in a player’s movement patterns. For example, if we notice that an athlete has trouble with backpedaling, we customize his or her drills to emphasize that type of movement. Once they’ve mastered the drills, they usually have no trouble transferring their improved skills to competition.

Many athletes find agility drills boring and repetitive, so we always look for ways to spice things up and pose extra challenges. Adding an extra element is important because athletes must be fully engaged in a drill to experience maximum benefit–we don’t want anyone going on “auto pilot.” Sometimes we’ll run the drill in reverse order, mix up the orientation of the cones, or add a separate task such as retrieving and throwing a ball in the middle of a pro shuttle drill. Besides adding variety, this makes the drills more game-like. The less predictable a drill is from one training session to the next, the more it forces the athletes to adapt their movement patterns, which is exactly what they must do during a match.

Our plyometrics program is geared toward both horizontal and vertical movement skills because tennis requires outstanding lateral movement. There are many books and DVDs available on plyometrics for tennis, and I’ve found that the best ones focus on single-leg action. A player’s ability to move directionally in any plane during play is dictated by how quickly he or she can stabilize the body and then generate force from one leg to move in the desired direction. For this reason, constantly jumping from the standard “power” or “ready” position–a staple of many basic plyometric workouts–is mostly unnecessary. We prefer to use exercises such as single-leg lateral bounds, which develop exactly the type of movement skills a tennis player needs to cover the court effectively. STAYING HEALTHY

Injury prevention is one of the biggest concerns of any conditioning program. In tennis, where many acute and chronic injuries are caused by mechanical flaws, proper technique plays a huge part in injury prevention. It must be a priority in lifting, agility work, plyometrics, and running.

Technique is learned in the off-season and maintained through the competitive season. When good technique is mastered, athletes have a much easier time maintaining strength, power, agility, quickness, and flexibility all year long. It also increases the likelihood they’ll be on the court, not in the stands nursing a pulled muscle, torn ligament, or any other injury suffered during training.

Overuse injuries are always a concern in tennis. This is especially true at the college level, given the high number of matches and practices. But luckily, our squad is small enough that we can customize training workouts for each player instead of relying on a cookie-cutter approach for the group. For example, if a player is prone to shoulder tendonitis or bursitis and a workout calls for dumbbell bench presses, I can substitute an exercise that confers similar benefits without aggravating the shoulder complex–instead of the bench press, I might have the player perform wall push-ups.

The key to making this whole process work is ensuring each player is comfortable communicating about how he or she feels, so workouts can be adjusted as needed. And of course, communication between the strength and conditioning coach and the athletic training staff is also essential. If these two departments are constantly sharing information and ideas, athletes will stay healthier and their strength regimen will yield better results.

Outside resources can be invaluable as well. At UCLA, I’ve learned a great deal from consulting with Jim Bush, our legendary former Head Track and Field Coach. For instance, he has taught me how body control is the key to efficient running and increased work capacity, and I’ve applied those lessons when I teach running technique to our tennis players. Too many athletes “muscle” their runs instead of letting the whole body work in concert. Any good track coach can tell you that you can’t be fast if you’re tight, so we tell our players to keep their bodies as relaxed as possible when they run and let graceful, controlled movement–not forced muscle effort–propel them.


The benefits of strength training, conditioning, agility work, and technique improvement are self-evident, but I believe they go well beyond physical gains. Our strength and conditioning program is designed to give players a mental edge–that extra boost of confidence that can make the difference during a key break point or a long third set in the California heat. Mental toughness doesn’t come automatically. It’s an advantage enjoyed by athletes who know they’ve developed the tools to win, no matter who their opponent is.

Tennis strength and conditioning coaches have a unique challenge in trying to instill that mental edge in athletes. We’re taking a group of people who are accustomed to training and competing individually and having them work together as a team. But I believe the results have proven that our approach works. By implementing a program focused on maximizing athleticism, strength, and power, we know all our tennis players will reach their full potential, both physically and mentally.

Sidebar: At Their Service

Serving power is a top priority in both men’s and women’s tennis. At UCLA, we use medicine balls extensively to improve this facet of each athlete’s game. Because we’re training for power, not brute strength, the ball doesn’t need to be heavy–a lighter ball allows the player to explode into the throw without compromising their serving position or shoulder stability.

We use overhead and side throws to improve our athletes’ ability to quickly generate force during a serve. Why side throws? A tennis serve involves twisting the body to get the ball across the court diagonally, even if it’s a flat serve down the T. We’ve found that side throws help tremendously with force production in this twisting motion and also help with stability and recovery after the serve.

Breaking down film can help you see exactly where a player’s serve needs to improve. For example, let’s say a player is losing a high percentage of points on his or her second serve. By looking at match film, you and the coach may notice that the player is not generating enough “kick” on the second serve, thus making it easy for the opponent to return the ball with authority. Emphasizing medicine ball side throws that closely follow the player’s service motion can strengthen the muscles used during the twisting motion, and thereby help increase second-serve success.

FEEDBACK: I found application to other sports I train individuals in as well. Thanks for a well-written, positive article. I felt I would like this coach in person, too, because of his attitude toward his team.

– Rosemarie Ferrara www.alamoshape.com

“It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” —George Eliot

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