Aug 17, 2016
Serving Up Variety
Emilian Iankov

No two in-season workouts are the same for the Vanderbilt University women’s tennis team, which keeps players on their toes and enhances their neuromuscular strength.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.

“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”

Two years ago, I hung these words on a sign outside my office door when I arrived to be a strength coach at Vanderbilt University. Despite a varied 30-year career as an athlete and coach that included winning three national champion titles as an Olympic weightlifter in my native Bulgaria, as well as stops with the Bulgarian Junior National Olympic Weightlifting Team, community colleges, private high schools, and a tennis academy, it was my first position as a full-time college strength coach. I knew I would need to improvise, adapt, and overcome to be successful.

As I began working with Vanderbilt women’s tennis prior to the 2014-15 season, I knew the expectation on the team was winning a national championship-obviously, no easy task. I knew the players would have to work hard in my strength and conditioning regimen to get there, which would mean improvising, adapting, and overcoming right along with me.

With the team’s goal in mind, I got to work carefully planning the in-season training program. I wanted it to include both physical (lifting, running, jumping) and verbal (teaching and providing feedback) elements to achieve maximum results, and I needed to get athletes on board with my approach. Considering the necessary energy production demands of tennis, it was also tailored to develop players’ aerobic capacities and increase their ability to produce movements in three planes.

Eventually, I landed on a relatively simple program. There were no secret recipes, new exercises, or magic drills that made it different from our competitors’. Rather, how and why we did things made it stand out-namely, our attention to detail in movements and habit of changing workouts every day to stimulate athletes’ central nervous systems (CNS). Combined with the knowledge of our coaches and talent of our players, everything came together, and the team won the 2015 NCAA Division I championship.


Back when I trained the Junior National Olympic Weightlifting Team in Bulgaria, I came up with three components that summarized my coaching philosophy: 1) drive for improvement; 2) competitiveness and measurable results; and 3) effectiveness and efficiency. I still apply these three pillars at Vanderbilt, and I strive to ensure the women’s tennis players embrace them, too.

Over my years of coaching, I’ve learned that it’s not the strongest, smartest, or most committed player who wins. Instead, it’s usually the individual who finds ways to improve in all areas of preparation. Therefore, I constantly have athletes compare their progress to where they were a month, a week, or a day ago to see how far they’ve come.

We do this in two ways. The first is technical. I always explain the importance of using proper technique when lifting. In addition to jeopardizing safety, poor form can limit performance. On the other hand, even a small improvement in form can make a huge difference. For example, a simple adjustment like elevating the head during a back squat helps keep the back straight, prevents forward lean, and increases the depth of the squat. As a result of this minor technical improvement, the athlete will be able to squat deeper and develop greater leg strength.

Behavioral improvement is another target. We don’t want players to come into the weightroom, turn the music on, and spend a few moments dancing and pumping themselves up before they are ready to lift. For one thing, loud music inhibits their ability to concentrate and focus. It can also lead to safety issues in the weightroom-I can’t respond to someone who needs my assistance if I can’t hear them-and hinders my communication with athletes.

Instead, we want athletes who do not need external motivation to train. Our players know there is a purpose for spending time and effort in the weightroom, so they must be focused right from the start.

The second component to my coaching philosophy is competitiveness during training and having measurable results. We happily take advantage of players’ natural drive to win, and we always want them thinking: “My second set is going to be better than my first set, and my third set is going to be better than my second.” But we do not inspire competitiveness by comparing athletes to their teammates. Today’s players feel humiliated by this tactic.

There are two parts to having measurable results. The first is quantity: completing an extra repetition or set, reducing rest periods, or adding a few more exercises. Assigning numbers and values to different aspects of our in-season training program allows me to hold players accountable for growth and improvement. All of their small gains should add up to big positive changes in their strength and conditioning levels.

The second element of measurable results is boosting the quality of lifts. Players are responsible for adding quality to each lift’s dynamic and kinematic characteristics. I then assess their efforts with positive feedback. For example, if a player executes the bench press correctly, I’ll say: “That was a great effort! The bar touched your sternum, you pushed up quickly, and you finished the attempt with the bar above your face and your elbows locked.” By explaining what the athlete did correctly, I set the standard for what a quality lift should be. Then, I expect all future attempts to measure up to that standard.

My third component of coaching derives from the first two-being effective and efficient. Hundreds of exercises and drills could apply to in-season tennis training, but it would be a waste of time and effort to include them all. After years of observing tennis players in the weightroom and on the court, I’ve realized that certain exercises have a stronger correlation to tennis performance than others. These are the ones that have ended up in my program.


My first experience creating a strength training program for tennis came when I worked with Krassimir Lazarov, a former Bulgarian national champion, from 1986 to 1990. Back then, we were pioneers because no other tennis players were lifting. I’ve carried many of the same strength training principles that I used with Krassimir over to my work with Vanderbilt women’s tennis.

The need for strength training in tennis is great for a number of reasons. First of all, the sport requires athletes to engage in a number of whole-body movements, and strength training helps build them. Throughout matches, tennis players must also start and stop frequently, quickly accelerate and decelerate, and move their center of total body mass in a vertical direction. All of these are expensive energy processes that require strength to complete.

“Movement production development” is the umbrella term I use to describe our in-season strength training objectives. We focus on: developing the ability to change direction with no loss of speed or body control; movement power; first step and rotational power; quickness; and leg, arm, core, and whole-body strength.

Because the challenges players face in matches are unpredictable, no two in-season training days are the same. I base our workouts off a two-week plan that factors in the difficulty of the matches we will play and the health of each player. But then I vary the number of exercises, order of exercises, volume, load, rest periods, and total time training each day. Athletes must constantly improvise and adapt to keep up.

By switching things up in the weightroom, we are also able to stimulate athletes’ CNS and enhance their neuromuscular strength. Other strength programs repeat the same weightlifting regimens for weeks at a time to bring muscular adaptation. After a while, the programs become routine and don’t challenge the brain, so there is not much stimulus to the CNS. Although this type of program can be good for weightlifters and sports that rely on gross muscular strength, tennis players do not need to work on muscular hypertrophy during the season.

Instead, we aim for neuromuscular adaptive changes. Using new or different workouts every day helps develop better neural patterns in the brain. This leads to proper recruitment of muscle fibers and their synchronization to contract, which allows for structural changes on the cellular level.

To stimulate the CNS without developing muscle hypertrophy, I use a classic Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting model that some call the “weave method” or “pyramid method.” Athletes start with very low weight and a large number of repetitions and progressively increase the weight and reduce the repetitions. So if Player A has a one-rep maximum back squat of 200 pounds, a sample progression would look like this: 1×10 at 85 pounds, 1×10 at 120, 1×6 at 140, 1×3 at 160, 1×2 at 180, 2×5 at 160, and 2×8 at 140. Advanced weightlifters may do two or three weaves in a single exercise.

Another reason we mix things up in the weightroom is to prevent overuse injuries. In high-level tennis, the number one reason for injuries is diagonally disproportional size and strength growth on one side of players’ bodies-for right-handed athletes, it affects their right forearms, left quadriceps, and right calves.

Lifting can reduce this imbalance, but repetitive weightroom programs only exacerbate it and make the strong side even stronger. By taking a different approach and constantly introducing new stimuli, we can improve synchronization between antagonists in small muscular groups, which makes athletes’ movements more fluid and allows them to apply greater force with their swings. This approach also ensures large muscle groups don’t become overworked by repeatedly lifting the same weight.

As for the specifics of our in-season strength and conditioning program, we train the athletes one to three times per week. Weights are determined for each player, and more advanced lifters complete a few more exercises than their less experienced counterparts.

The key to effectively executing our varied in-season program is providing as much individual attention as possible. In addition to team sessions, small groups of up to three players come to the weightroom between classes and before and after practice to make sure we are on the same page with programming. We also make the most of everyone’s limited time by improvising and adapting to the sport, academic calendar, and individual needs.

To meet our goals for developing upper-body strength, athletes complete shoulder circuits, dumbbell bench presses, pullovers, triceps presses, dumbbell side rows, seated rows, and pull-downs. Not all tennis strength coaches like to bench press, but it’s an important part of our regimen. We typically use lower weights because they are easier to press at greater speeds. Lifting max weight is not a goal for our players during the season, but developing quickness and speed is. In addition, the athletes prefer to lift light so they don’t get too bulky. I am okay with them using less weight, as long as they perform the motion correctly.

Our lower-body goals during the season are to develop the strength needed to jump serve effectively and move quickly on the court. To achieve them, we utilize back squats, single-leg squats with weights, step-ups to boxes of varying heights, step-up jumps, walking and stationary lunges, and forward and side jumps.

Lastly, we focus on core strength. Our exercises include sit-up variations, back extensions, and oblique sit-ups.

Although we address upper-body, lower-body, and core strength individually, medicine ball throws allow us to bring all three together with a whole-body workout. This activity includes all phases of a tennis stroke: preparation, action, and follow through. Throwing the ball builds strength and speed and synchronizes the whole-body effort from the shoulders to the calves. Catching it develops a balance between an athlete’s hitting and supportive muscles and builds control and strength of the supportive muscles. Med ball throws also develop leg movements, power, and the ability to come to a stop while maintaining balance, all of which are beneficial for tennis. We add variety to this exercise by performing it as a stationary activity, after one or two steps, and while on the run. Other whole-body exercises include dumbbell power cleans and one-arm snatches.

Some may feel that constantly changing a strength program is confusing to players and a waste of time. But this hasn’t been the case at Vanderbilt. Based on my results at previous stops, Head Women’s Tennis Coach Geoff Macdonald believed in my methods from the beginning. Plus, the athletes were quick to buy in. Since each workout is different, it offers them new challenges every day. They come excited for training instead of being in autopilot mode, and they feel it better prepares them for the rigors of the court.


At the 2015 NCAA tournament, our squad’s final four matches ranged from three hours and 55 minutes to four hours and 50 minutes. How were the athletes able to sustain a high level of play for such a long period of time? Because of our in-season aerobic program. It changes periodically but always involves training in three heart rate zones on treadmills, stationary bikes, or runs (which we call TBR training).

Research shows that TBR training improves respiratory and cardiovascular system function for aerobic energy production and lactic acid toleration in tennis players. Due to these findings, we know we can alter the resistance, speed, or duration of TBR training to challenge our athletes and get the adaptive changes we are looking for.

We do TBR work two to three times a week and always hit each of the three heart rate zones. Depending on our training goal, we will focus on one zone more than others. The first zone includes heart rates between 125 and 145 beats per minute (bpm), which can be maintained by using a steady speed while running or pedaling. At this heart rate, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems work comfortably to satisfy the oxygen and energy demands of the working muscles.

The bulk of our aerobic training is completed in the second zone, which includes heart rates between 145 and 175 bpm. Training at this level helps sustain high-intensity work at a faster heart rate and increases aerobic capacity and energy production. In addition, since matches are played mostly in this zone, it helps our athletes adapt for the physical demands they will see on the court.

Players reach the necessary level of exertion required in zone two by completing intervals with higher revolutions per minute (RPM) on the bike or faster running speeds. At the beginning of the season, the total time in this zone is 12 to 15 minutes per session, and we gradually increase it to 50 to 60 minutes as we approach the postseason.

To fully prepare athletes for all of the challenges they face on the tennis court, they also needed to train in a third, higher zone from 175 to 190 bpm or more. At this rate, the heart pumps the maximum volume of blood, and the left ventricle pumps with maximum force, making the heart muscles stronger. This increases athletes’ anaerobic capacity and energy production.

One of our goals during the season is extending the time athletes can remain in zone three. On the court, this helps them adapt to longer points, shots that require long sprints, and other critical moments during a match.

Athletes must exert maximum effort to hit 175 to 190 bpm, so we have them perform intervals. They run at the greatest incline and speed on the treadmill and use the greatest resistance and RPM on the bike.

Although we expect maximum effort from athletes in zone three, we are very careful not to overdo it. We closely control the duration, speed, resistance, and distance of their workouts, and we monitor all visible signs of distress, such as face color, sweating, ability to control speech, and emotional response. Water, electrolyte drinks, ice, and towels are always available, and we never leave a player alone when they are training in this zone.

The structure of the TBR workouts is all about improvising and adapting to time restrictions, which include NCAA rules, academic obligations, match schedules, individual health, and recovery time. That being said, we generally do TBR one to three times a week for 20 to 60 minutes. Some workouts contain all three zones, while others just focus on the first two. In addition, TBR work is our only training some days, but we might pair it with lifting or agility drills during breaks in the match schedule.

By training in three heart rate zones over the course of the season, we see gradual progress. The players don’t hesitate to play longer points, their breathing is always under control, they have energy for a longer period of time, and they move and hit with the same power and enthusiasm throughout matches.

There are psychological benefits to TBR training, as well. From my experiences with competitive weightlifters, I know they are most confident when they feel strong and have training results to back them up. Similarly, as the tennis team experiences all the physiological improvements of heart rate training, it reinforces their competitive mindset and belief that they can overcome any challenging situation on the court. This is the best side effect of being in excellent physical shape.

Over the course of the season, all the improvements we see in the weightroom and in aerobic training contribute to the main activity for a tennis player-performing on the court. I give all the credit to the athletes. All 10 players on the roster completed the training and created great results day after day, although only six played every match from January to May. Because they were willing to improvise, adapt, and overcome with me and the rest of the coaching staff, we were able to reach our dream of winning a national team title.


When I became the strength coach for Vanderbilt University women’s tennis prior to the 2014-15 season, I knew the players, coaching staff, athletic training staff, administration, and I would all need to coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate to reach the program’s goal of a national team championship. Here’s how we achieved each of the 3 C’s:

Coordinate: We arranged strength and conditioning workouts according to tennis practices, match schedule, academic obligations, and individual needs.

Cooperate: The tennis coaching staff and I discussed the priorities of the strength and conditioning program. This included what type of lifting to do and when, how many times a week we should train, whether we should hold individual or team training sessions, and how long each workout should be. I also worked side by side with the players to push them to constantly improve.

Collaborate: Although I had the final say in the weightroom, the tennis coaching staff, athletic trainer, and I collaborated on how hard to push players during training sessions, what to modify in case of injury, and how much rest individual athletes needed before a match.


A big part of my philosophy in the weightroom is to avoid negative or critical comments. When a Vanderbilt University women’s tennis player does something well, I immediately compliment her. If she makes a mistake, I correct her using positive language, such as: “You did well, but there is a more effective way to do this movement. Let me show you or explain it.” The point is to focus on exactly what is done well or what needs to get better, but the message is always positive. Although it’s not typical “tough coach language,” it gets results and shows the athletes respect.

Todd Maddox, PhD, Chair and Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas, has shown the benefits of providing this immediate positive feedback. Over time, these messages allow athletes’ neurotransmitters to stay highly concentrated in the synapses between neurons. This creates and reinforces pathways in their brains.

According to Dr. Maddox’s research, the key is that the positive message must be short and specific. It must also come from an expert two to 10 seconds after the activity. Not only does my positive approach keep the weightroom upbeat, but it also helps improve athletes’ performance-whether they realize it or not.

Emilian Iankov, CSCS, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Vanderbilt University, where he works with men's and women's tennis, cross country, track and field, and women's golf. Previously, he served as a Strength Coach at the Austin (Texas) Tennis Academy and coached the Bulgarian Junior National Olympic Weightlifting Team. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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