UPDATE: This one got picked up! Super stoked that The Champ Lair featured Victory High Performance in their latest blog. You can see the full article here.
My name is Matt Guffey and I am a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). I work with all kinds of athletes and would LOVE to contribute to your resource on tennis related exercises and workouts. My website is www.victoryhighperformance.com. My instagram is @victoryhighperformance.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll list one thing from each category. But know that I’ve got more where this came from and if you want me to elaborate I could write a book on this stuff.
From the top!
Building Power, Speed, and Quickness:
The three best types of movement you can do to train these qualities (to be completed at the beginning of the workout after a proper warm up) are:
Medicine ball throws/slams/tosses/etc.
Plyometrics a.k.a jump training
Sprints (10-30 yards)
Medicine ball throws/slams/tosses/etc.
Exercise: Standing Rotational Toss w/Step
Benefits: Tennis is a rotational sport so training the body to create power through rotation is key. This movement teaches the athlete to transfer energy from their lower body, through the core, into the upper body, and out the arms. Benefits for a tennis player would be more efficient and powerful racquet speed.
How to: Stand with the wall to your right/left. Medicine ball in your hands on the outside hip. Feet wider than shoulder width apart. Raise your inside foot and step toward the wall. Rotate your hips violently and allow your upper body and arms to follow, guiding the ball into the wall as hard as you can.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 3-5ea side.
Exercise: Alternating Lateral Hurdle Hop (Continuous)
Benefits: Given that tennis players have to move laterally quite a bit, training their bodies to be explosive in both directions and on one leg is IMPERATIVE. Benefits would be quicker lateral cuts and energy transfer side to side as well as injury prevention (if the progression is followed correctly, this type of training is great for the knee and hip stability).
How to: Stand with the hurdle to your right/left. Place your weight on one foot. Quickly snap down and then hop over the hurdle and without hesitating redirect your mass back over the hurdle in the opposite direction. Repeat for the desired number of reps and then switch feet. The goal is to be as quick and explosive as you can!
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-6ea leg
Exercise: 10 yard sprints
Benefits: Tennis requires explosive speed and razor sharp quickness. No other movement you can do in the gym or even on the tennis court is as fast or requires more neuromuscular coordination than sprints. None. Every tennis player should sprint. If they do, they will become more explosive and cover more court quicker.
How to: Measure 10 yards. Start in a low athletic stance, feet staggered. Whenever ready, sprint as fast as possible the prescribed distance. Allow your momentum to carry you forward until you’ve slowed to a walk. Rest.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 1 “rep” @ 10 yards w/45-60s rest in between. After about 3-4 weeks @ 10 yards, bump up to 15, then 20, and so on up to 30 yards but no more than that.
When it comes to building strength in tennis players a couple things need to be taken into account:
1) They are “overhead” athletes which means they’re more likely to develop pain or overuse injuries in the shoulders due to repetitive movements overhead.
2) All strength training sessions should include the following types of exercises:
Knee dominant lower body
Hip dominant lower body
“Anti” core (I’ll explain further below)
Regarding the former (1), special care should be taken when programming upper body work and I would STRONGLY recommend 2:1 if not 3:1 pull:push ratios in order to preserve the shoulder joint. I would also recommend a 2:1 horizontal pull:vertical pull ratio as tennis players already spend a lot of time in the overhead position.
Regarding “push” exercises, I recommend a 1:1 “scap free” : “scap fixed” ratio in order to train the shoulder blade to move properly during pushing movements. Too often people get stuck bench pressing (scap fixed) and then their shoulder blades and associated muscles get weak, and shoulder injuries flare up.
Regarding the lower body exercises, unilateral or single leg training is KING when training tennis players for a few reasons.
1) Safety. Barbell back squats are out as they place unnecessary pressure on the spine. You can build crazy strong legs in safer ways.
2) Sports are played on one leg at a time. Think every time you shift your weight from one foot to the other while sprinting or shuffling, doesn’t matter. Sports, tennis especially, rarely if ever mimic the movement pattern of the typical bilateral or two leg exercises you see in commercial gyms (back squat, deadlift, etc.) I’m not saying don’t do bilateral exercises, I’m just saying you should 100% be including unilateral exercises if you want the most bang for your buck.
3) Unilateral exercises force your body to stabilize in multiple planes of motion which more closely resembles sport.
Scap Free Push
Exercise: Weighted Pushups
Benefits: Scap free means the shoulder blade and rotator cuff are free to function as intended, which is super important for tennis players. Pushups also require more from the core, glutes, and quads and therefore check many boxes that the typical bench press doesn’t.
How to: Place a weight plate on your back or wear a weighted vest. Set up in pushup position (feet together, upper arms at a 45 degree angle, forearms perpendicular to the ground). Squeeze your quads, glutes, and core. Press the ground away such that your head, chest, hips, and knees all rise at the same time.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 6-10 reps
Scap Fixed Push
Exercise: Top Down Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
Benefits: This again checks boxes a standard bench press cannot. First, this is a unilateral exercise which automatically requires more core stability as the weight distribution and joint angles change on one side but not the other. Second, your shoulder is forced to stabilize the dumbbell that is not moving while you lower and lift the opposite bell.
How to: Lay on the bench. Bring your shoulder blades together to create a sort of “plate” on your upper back in order to stabilize your upper body. Squeeze your glutes and abs. Raise both dumbbells to the top position. Leave one there, lower and lift one dumbbell. Repeat on the opposite side. Be sure to keep your upper arm at about a 45 degree angle off your ribs in order to keep the tension on the chest and not the shoulder.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-8ea arm
Benefits: I program chinups for overhead athletes like tennis players because they already spend a LOT of time in what’s called “external rotation” in the shoulder. Conventional pullups place the shoulder in that funky, external rotation pattern even more and so to avoid overuse injuries, chinups do the trick as they train the lats, rotator cuff, shoulders, and biceps all at the same time. Primary benefits would be injury prevention and a stronger backhand.
How to: Grab the bar with your palms facing you. Begin from a dead hang (arms completely extended) with your feet off the ground. Pull your head up over the bar. Lower yourself slowly.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, up to 10 reps ea set, but most will need to start closer to 2-4 reps
Exercise: Feet-Elevated Weighted Inverted TRX Row
Benefits: Horizontal pull movements are critical for keeping tennis players shoulders healthy. This trains the lats, posterior portion of the shoulder, rotator cuff, and biceps as well as the core and glutes as you maintain your plank-like position.
How to: Place a ring or TRX system around a pullup bar. Place a box or elevated surface 4-5 feet in front of you. Lay flat and place the weight on your stomach, or put on a weighted vest. Grab the handles with your palms facing out. Squeeze your quads, glutes, and core. Pull your head back to make a straight line from your head to your heels. Pull yourself toward the bar allowing your hands to freely rotate.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-10 reps
Knee Dominant Lower Body
Exercise: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Benefits: Safer than back squats. Knee dominant. Requires ankle, knee, and hip stability which helps tennis players move more efficiently and avoid injury on the court. You can get CRAZY strong doing these. Our gold standard is bodyweight in external load (ex. I’m 180 lbs. so 180 lbs. in dumbbells, vests, chains, whatever) for 10 reps on each leg.
How to: Stand in front of a bench, split squat stand, box, any elevated surface at about 1 ft. high. Grab both dumbbells. Place one foot on the surface. Bend your knee and hip, lowering your back knee to the pad. Make sure your torso and front side shin angles match (slight forward lean). Drive up to the top position.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-10 reps ea leg
Hip Dominant Lower Body
Exercise: Single Leg Deadlift
Benefits: Safer than deadlifts. Hip dominant. Requires ankle, knee, and hip stability which helps tennis players move more efficiently and avoid injury on the court. This is like the mac daddy of all unilateral lower body lifts. Our goal is to move half our body weight in external load (ex. I’m 180 lbs. so 90 lbs. in dumbbells, vests, chains, etc.) for 4+ reps on each leg. Do this and you have achieved next level lower body strength.
How to: Stand in front of a pad or pads depending on your height/range of motion. Place the weight in the goblet position or hold in both arms tight to your chest. Bend your knee and hip, lowering your back knee to the pad. Make sure your torso and front side shin angles match (slight forward lean). Drive up to the top position.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-10 reps ea leg
“Anti” core work refers to anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation. Think planks (anti-extension), side planks and loaded carries (anti-lateral flexion), and anti-rotation press/hold or bear crawl three point holds (anti-rotation). This is the ONLY core work I would recommend. We NEVER do crunches or russian twists as they are absolutely horrible for your lumbar spine. Anti core training teaches our core to stabilize the trunk which is important during collisions or, more apt for tennis players, when generating power from the ground up during each shot. Without this capability, energy is inevitably lost along the way and the velocity of the racquet and thus the ball suffers.
Exercise: Standing Anti-Rotation Hold
Benefits: Teaches the core to brace effectively while experiencing rotary forces often associated with any of the various shots in tennis. Without this, energy is lost and power decreases. Train your core to brace effectively and watch your shot speed go up!
How to: Stand with the anchor point to your right/left. Adjust distance according to fitness level. Grab the band or cable handle and pull to your chest. Set your feet about shoulder width apart. Squeeze the glutes and core. Press your hands away from your chest and fully extend your arms. Resist the pull toward the anchor.
Recommended volume: 3 sets, 15-30s ea side
Building Endurance (Energy Systems Training/Conditioning)
Two things are important to keep in mind here:
1) Energy systems training must match the demands of the sport. Rallies in tennis are typically very short, repeated short bursts of explosive speed. It is for this reason that we NEVER condition with long distance runs or rides on the bike. So, 5-10 or more rarely 15 seconds of intense bouts of movement followed by 20 seconds or so of rest.
Benefit: you train the heart and lungs to operate as they would in a match.
2) What we do for conditioning depends on the season (in season or off season). In season, tennis players move laterally quite a bit, so we might use the AirDyne bike or run shuttles for energy systems training. Off season, they probably aren’t getting as much time on the court and so we would use a slideboard to get them moving side to side.
Benefit: you avoid overuse injuries, especially in season.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you 1,000x over for spending the time to read, watch, and take in what I’ve written. Hopefully this helps your piece! I would love to chat further if you have any questions. Thanks again!