Jan 29, 2015Power Shot
Tennis athletes often play year-round, which leaves little time for developing power in the weightroom. A set of simple exercises that can be completed almost anywhere is this strength coach’s answer.
By Satoshi Ochi
Satoshi Ochi, MA, CSCS, RSCC, NSCA-CPT, CTPS, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the United States Tennis Association Player Development program. He is also on the Advisory Board of the International Tennis Performance Association. He can be reached at: [email protected].
When it comes to designing a strength and conditioning program for tennis athletes, coaches are faced with several challenges. First, the tennis off-season is often very short or nonexistent since most players compete year-round in tournaments, making it difficult to implement a traditional block periodized program.
In addition, tennis practice facilities usually don’t have weightrooms. Courts are often far away from the rest of the athletic facilities on campus, including the strength training areas. And when the athletes travel to tournaments, there may be no workout space available at all.
Yet tennis players do need strength training work, most importantly to correct muscular imbalances. Because they perform the same types of movements–forehand, backhand, and overhead–over and over again, the repetition often creates muscular imbalances and deficiencies.
To address these obstacles and promote top performance, the program I developed for tennis players is fairly simple and can be completed without a weightroom, even when a team is on the road. The program is also designed to help players avoid fatigue, allowing them to be at their best for any upcoming matches. Yet it does improve their strength and helps ward off muscular imbalances, which makes them less prone to injury and more powerful on the court.
Like athletes in almost every sport, tennis players need explosive power. With the finesse game giving way to the power game, players can benefit greatly from high velocity/power exercises such as the Olympic lifts. While bumper plates and platforms used for Olympic lifting are often not readily available for tennis players, dumbbells can be found at many tournament sites and hotel gyms. Athletes can also carry a dumbbell with them to the court for pre- and post-practice workouts.
I suggest using the dumbbell single-arm snatch and the dumbbell diagonal pull. Both exercises require glute muscle activation, which is one of the key elements for power production and tennis performance. These exercises also force athletes to work their scapular muscles on the posterior side of the body, a place where tennis players often have weakness.
An athlete who has shoulder issues or is not able to develop good shoulder stabilization should not perform the dumbbell single-arm snatch. They should instead focus on the dumbbell diagonal pull since it is a rotational movement performed in multiple planes.
Dumbbell single-arm snatch: Starting from the “hang” position, hold a dumbbell in one hand between the legs, then use triple extension (the ankles, knees, and hips) to pull the dumbbell and catch it above the head.
Dumbbell diagonal pull: This exercise is similar to the dumbbell single-arm snatch, but take the dumbbell across the body instead of straight up. The foot, knee, and hip on the same side of the dumbbell should be slightly internally rotated. Explosively pull the dumbbell to the shoulder with triple extension to the upright position.
These two exercises are great modified Olympic lifts for tennis players. However, they require a great deal of technique. If an athlete has not mastered Olympic lifting techniques or is not able to receive proper instructions from a certified professional, the low to high pull is a simpler option to develop specific power.
Low to high pull: Secure a piece of band/tubing to the bottom of a pole (net posts or fences are always available on tennis courts). Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and hold the band/tubing with both hands. Start with a forehand or backhand loading position, pull the band/tubing explosively across the body to the forehand or backhand finish position. Athletes can also use a cable machine with adjustable arms instead of a band/tubing when it is available.
In addition to strength imbalances, tennis players often develop range of motion imbalances–typically in the shoulder. For example, a decrease in shoulder internal rotation range of motion and weak rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers are common. To help remedy this, I have athletes use the shoulder external rotation with retraction exercise, which works to strengthen the infraspinatus, teres minor (external rotators) rhomboids, and midtrapezius (scapular retractors). Only a band/tubing is needed.
Shoulder external rotation with scapular retraction: Hold a band/tubing in front of the body with both forearms in a supinated position and elbows at 90 degrees on the side of the body. Externally rotate the shoulder and expand the band/tubing as far as possible, then use scapular retraction to pull the band/tubing to the lower chest.
Because the rotator cuff is so important for athletes who perform repeated overhead movements, including serving the ball in tennis, rotator cuff exercises should be performed regularly by tennis players. A great one is the shoulder 90-90 plyo, which adds eccentric and concentric loading in a velocity-controlled environment. Since this exercise stimulates small muscles, it is important to control the movement and keep it low intensity. A one-pound (or less) medicine ball is usually plenty.
Shoulder 90-90 plyo: In this exercise, the athlete sets up in a staggered kneeling position, with the shoulder abducted to 90 degrees in the frontal plane while the elbow is flexed at 90 degrees. A coach or partner stands behind the athlete and throws a small medicine ball to them. The athlete catches the ball as their shoulder moves into internal rotation. As soon as the athlete has caught the ball and stopped their arm motion, they should reverse the movement and throw the ball behind them in order to concentrically activate the external rotator.
Due to constant use of their upper bodies to serve and hit the ball, tennis players often develop muscular imbalances on the front and back sides of their upper bodies. Suspension scapular pulls and rows are a great way to work on scapular stabilization. The straps needed for these exercises are easily portable and body weight can be used for resistance.
Suspension scapular pulls and rows: Set up a suspension device in a secure place, hold the handles, and lean back to the position where both arms are fully extended in a supine position. First, pull the body forward with scapular retraction (scapular pull), then flex the elbows and pull the body forward so the chest is at the same level as the handles.
In addition to working on scapular strength, it is important to improve range of motion of the scapula and upper back. The wall angel exercise is a great way to accomplish both goals at the same time and does not require any equipment. Often, tennis athletes do not have the strength and flexibility to retract their scapulars while rotating and elevating them. The wall angel exercise aims to fix that deficiency.
Wall angel: Position the entire back and buttocks against a wall. Start with arms in a referee’s “touchdown” signal pose, but with elbows bent at 90 degrees. The shoulders, elbows, and backs of hands should be against the wall while retracting the scapulars. Slowly move arms upward to a fully extended position, then back to the starting position by using scapular retraction and depression. It is important that shoulders, elbows, and hands remain in contact with the wall throughout the motion.
The lower back is another common area of deficiency in tennis players. It is important to strengthen the lower back muscles and balance them with other muscle groups to prevent injury and improve performance. The bird dog exercise is a good way to strengthen the lower back while working on core stability and activating the glutes and upper back/scapular muscles. The exercise does not require any equipment or a large amount of space.
Bird dog: Start with hands and knees on the ground, maintaining a neutral lordotic curve. Extend one leg fully so the entire leg is parallel to the floor. At the same time, flex and extend the opposite side arm so that it is also parallel to the floor. Then go back to the starting position and perform the same movement on the other side.
Tennis athletes easily see the need to work on their shoulder and back strength. But they sometimes need to be convinced of the importance of developing lower body strength and quickness. They need strong leg muscles to support their upper body movements and extremely quick feet to move to the ball.
Lunges are a basic multi-joint lower body exercise and are great for strengthening the core at the same time. Walking lunges with a twist incorporate dynamic movement that mimics what occurs on the court. However, as with any dynamic exercise, an athlete must learn good stationary lunge (also known as a split squat) technique before progressing to walking lunges with a twisting motion. Lunges can be done without any equipment or athletes can add a dumbbell or medicine ball for more resistance.
The walking lunge and twist is also a good way to identify a muscular weakness or problems with balance, especially when resistance is added. The exercise challenges ankle, knee, and core stability and promotes activation of the glutes, which many tennis players favor on one side. The rotational movement can expose range of motion and balance bilaterally.
Walking lunge with twist: Stand up straight, with both arms parallel to the floor and extended (if an athlete is using a dumbbell or medicine ball, have them hold it in front of their body with arms extended). Step forward and go down to the proper lunge position while rotating the upper body to the side of the front leg. Move the trailing leg forward and put the legs together to return the upper body to the beginning position. Repeat the same movement for the other leg, switching the direction of rotation. For advanced athletes, this exercise can be done moving backward as well.
The hip region is another common area of injury for tennis players due to the high impact loading and multi-directional movement demands of the sport. The monster walk exercise trains the hip and pelvic region muscles very effectively, yet it is easy to perform without a major piece of equipment. The exercise does not require significant hip range of motion, but the movement is big enough to effectively activate the gluteus medius and minimus, which are major stabilizers for the hip region.
Monster walk: Place elastic tubing around both ankles and stand in a quarter squat position, which isometrically activates the muscles in the gluteal region. While maintaining the width of the stance, walk forward a certain distance or number of steps and then walk backward to the starting position.
The single-leg hip abduction exercise is another that helps strengthen the hip and pelvic region, along with improving muscular endurance. It is a closed kinetic chain exercise that focuses on co-contraction of the muscles. Since it is a single-leg exercise, it requires balance and core stabilization especially when performed on a balance/proprioception platform.
Single-leg hip abduction: Place elastic tubing around the ankles and stand on one leg. Abduct the hip with leg extended as far as possible and then release back to the starting position with control. Standing on a balance/proprioception platform will challenge an athlete’s stability and balance. The importance of agility and quickness on the tennis court cannot be understated. One of the best and easiest exercises to perform is jumping rope. Though a lot of people think of it more for conditioning than strengthening, jumping rope is a basic plyometric drill that is very effective in improving strength and stability around the ankle joints. The low intensity impact helps with joint stability in the lower body and it also works as an injury prevention exercise for ankles, knees, and hips.
Jumping rope: Perform different jump rope patterns, such as single leg, alternate leg, lateral hopping (speed skating), and forward and backward hops. These drills are also effective for improving coordination.
The name of the game for tennis players is maintenance during a usually very busy year and these exercises work well. It doesn’t take a lot of equipment or space to perform any of them and they are also simple enough for players to perform on their own without a coach after they’ve mastered their technique. And once their performance improves after implementing a program like this one, it will speak for itself.
Sidebar: SAMPLE WORKOUT
Here is an example of a workout designed for a high performance junior tennis player who has been training for about three years. This is a typical workout I would prescribe a player for maintenance during the season and would be performed between tournaments.
Before practice: Dynamic warmup Low to high pull… 2 x 8 Shoulder 90-90 plyo… 2 x 10 Jump rope (various patterns)… Total of 500 foot contacts
After practice: General warmup before lifting session Dumbbell single-arm snatch or dumbbell diagonal pull… 3 x 6 Walking lunge with twist… 3 x 10 Suspension scapular pull and row… 2 x 10 Monster walk or single-leg hip abduction… 2 x 10 Wall angel or shoulder external rotation with scapular retraction… 2 x 12 Bird dog… 2 x 12 Core and rotator cuff shoulder prehab work Cool down and stretch