Increase your Dynamic Hitting Power with Periodized Resistance Training and Shoulder Exercises

Resistance Training Programs: Big hitting for racquet sports

Article at a glance:

  • The types of resistance training most suitable for racquet players are outlined;
  • The importance of core and achilles strength in injury prevention is discussed;
  • Specific shoulder-stabilising exercises are given to help enable big hitters to remain injury-free.

Racquet sports players with a ‘big hit’ have a distinct and often decisive advantage over their lesser powered opponents; ask anyone who’s tried to return a 130mph tennis serve or 200mph badminton smash! And as John Shepherd explains, although powerful and accurate hitting requires considerable skill, the right conditioning is also crucial for develop dynamic hitting ability and keeping injury at bay  In terms of conditioning to produce maximum hitting power and speed, resistance training is absolutely essential and is indeed used by the majority of racquet sports players. But is there any particular training protocol or item of equipment that is more likely to enhance hitting power than another?

Periodised resistance training programs

A team of American researchers looked at the effects of a specifically periodised weight training exercise program on the performance of collegiate women tennis players (1). Twenty-four players were matched for ability and were randomly placed into one of three groups and monitored over nine months:

  • A no-resistance exercise control group;
  • A periodised multiple-set resistance training group;
  • A single-set circuit resistance training group.

The team discovered significant increases in fat-free mass and decreases in percent body fat in the periodised training group after four, six, and nine months of training. This meant that they had ‘put on muscle’. A significant increase in power output was observed after nine months of training in the periodised training group only. Specifically one-repetition maximum (1RM – maximum weight that can be lifted for one rep) strength for the bench press, shoulder press, and leg press increased significantly after four, six, and nine months.

Big hitting fact and figures

  • Andy Roddick, the former world number one, hit the world’s fastest tennis serve recorded at 153mph during the 2004 Stella Artois grass court championship;
  • Despite the initial speed of a tennis serve, by the time the ball bounces on the other side of the net, its speed will have declined to the mid-80s and will have dropped to the mid-60s after the bounce, even for the biggest hitters;
  • It is possible for the service return to (initially) travel faster than the speed of the serve at the point of return, although these can slow to as little as 20mph by the time the server shapes up to hit their first ground stroke/volley;
  • Badminton smashes can reach momentary speeds of 200mph – although of course the shuttle decelerates much more quickly than a tennis ball;
  • Professional squash players can achieve speeds of 160mph plus with squash balls;
  • Table tennis ball speeds are much slower, with the fastest smashes travelling at 60mph plus. However, even if the ball travelled at 25mph it would take just a quarter of second to reach the other side of the table!

However, the single-set circuit group increased their 1RMs only after four months of training. Crucially, in the light of the main subject matter of this article, the serving power of the periodised training group was significantly improved at four and nine months.

Interestingly, the enhanced power output of the collegiate tennis players in response to the periodised weight training program occurred even though the exercises used in the program (eg the shoulder press) were not tennis-specific – ie they did not recruit muscles in ways or at speeds that mimicked match play.

The reason why service power may have been boosted despite the lack of specificity of movements is that the resultant increased muscle mass may have enabled them to hit harder (everything else being equal a larger muscle will be able to exert more power). This latter point is particularly interesting in the world of sports-specific conditioning. Numerous top coaches, such as sprint expert Charlie Francis, believe that building increased muscle size (within reason) is the way to go for improved speed and power generation regardless of sport. This would comprise of heavy load weight training (in excess of 85% of 1RM, performed over 2-6 sets of 2-4 reps with complete recoveries).

This school of thought often negates the need for ‘channelling’-type weights exercises, which ‘bring’ the increased power potential brought about by the heavy load weight trained muscles into specific sports practice. Instead, getting increased power into performance is achieved by actual sports practice and agility and plyometric drills, which are performed in the same training periods as the heavy load weight training.

Jargonbuster

Periodised training
A training program that takes the key ingredients involved in establishing optimum sporting condition and systematically blends these together progressively to produce peak performance
Plyometric drills
Hops and drop jumps are typical lower body examples; they involve a dynamic pre-stretching eccentric contraction in the leg muscles, which immediately fires an enhanced (i.e. more powerful) concentric contraction in the same muscles

Resistance exercises with elastic chords

However, there are those (and research) who advocate that specific lighter weight, more sport speed-specific exercises can be more effective. In regard to the subject matter of this article, simulated racquet sport strokes using dumbbells, ‘power bats’ or ‘therabands/dynabands’ are racquet sport specific exercise examples. The power bat is an example of specialist equipment that allows the racquet sport player to simulate various strokes against resistance. The aim is to strengthen and pre-condition the hitting muscles (see figure 1).

Power bat conditioning device

A team of US researchers from Augusta considered whether these types of exercises could improve concentric shoulder strength and serving power in elite-level varsity tennis players(2). Twenty-two male and female players were randomly assigned to a control or an experimental training group, which used lightweight dumbbells and theraband elastic tubes.

To evaluate the success of the four-week training intervention, all subjects were tested before and after the program in concentric internal and external rotation torque using an isokinetic dynamometer. Sport-specific function was assessed by recording the peak and average velocities of eight maximal serves.

The researchers discovered that the experimental group displayed significant gains in internal rotation torque at both slow (120deg/sec) and fast speeds (300deg/sec) for total work, in ‘peak torque to body weight ratio’ and ‘torque acceleration energy’ at the fast speed (internal rotation reflects the prime movement direction of the tennis hit).

Crucially for would-be Roddick beaters, the experimental group exhibited significantly greater increases in peak serving speed (+6.0%) and average speed (+7.9%) compared with the control group. Interestingly, men exhibited a greater imbalance in external to internal rotation torque ratios, which could have important consequences for injury avoidance – of which more later.

Jargonbuster

Concentric muscular action
A concentric muscular action occurs when a muscle shortens as it contracts, as is the case during the lifting phase of a biceps curl
Isokinetic
In this context, a machine that is able to record muscle power at a set speed, range of movement and angle of rotation
Pre-conditioning
A training program designed to allow the athlete to train intensely with minimum risk. It runs in the background to the more direct performance enhancing conditioning routine throughout the training period
Eccentric muscular movements
When a muscle generates force while lengthening – eg during the lowering phase of a biceps curl
Rotator cuff
A group of four muscles that surround the shoulder joint and function to help keep the ball in the socket of the glenohumeral joint during movement

Avoiding hitting injuries

Pre-conditioning the muscles of the shoulder, trunk and achilles tendons is not only vital for the optimisation of racquet sport hitting power and other match-play requirements, it’s also a must for avoiding injury. Compared to shoulder and back injuries, it’s perhaps much less appreciated that achilles tendon problems are a major concern for racquet sport players. Yet an injured achilles will have a dramatic effect on serving performance, for example for a tennis player on the landing from the leap into the serve and the follow through.

A team of researchers considered the incidence of achilles injury among badminton players (3). It was discovered, for example that of the survey’s 72 elite players, 26 had experienced achilles problems in 34 injuries (18 on the dominant side and 16 on the non-dominant side), and as a consequence had played in pain.

The risk of injury to the achilles in badminton and other racquet sports can to a large part be attributed to the continuous twisting and eccentric muscular movements that these tendons and the lower legs generally are subjected to. However, research from numerous sources indicates that a specific lower leg and achilles tendon strengthening program, using heavy weight eccentric (lowering) calf raises can do much to reduce strain in this area (4).  Training the core

Core (abdominal and back) strength is crucial for the racquet sports player looking to increase serve power and avoid injury. A team of researchers from Arizona looked at the rotation and strength requirements of the trunk in elite tennis players (5). It’s perhaps surprising, but if you look at arm and shoulder musculature in profession racquet sports players, there isn’t actually a muscle imbalance and bias toward increased muscle power and size on the ‘hitting’ side of the body – imbalances that are normally associated with injury and joint strain.

The researchers set about discovering whether the same applied to the trunk and tested 109 elite male and female tennis players using a Cybex isokinetic torso rotation unit at 60 and 120 degrees. This measured left and right rotation while the tennis player was stabilised in a seated position.

The team discovered that there were no significant differences between left and right side trunk rotation strength in the elite male players. However, slightly greater backhand rotation strength was measured in the females. This information may be important for tennis conditioners as for the following reasons:

  • Normal match play and training requirements seem to create relative trunk symmetry in elite males, which probably negates the need for a one-side emphasis conditioning process;
  • Elite female tennis players may, however, benefit from a core exercise program designed to balance left and right trunk rotation. For example, this would mean emphasising right to left and back core exercises for a right-handed player. Suitable exercises would include high and low wood chop exercises holding a dumbbell, x-bag or cable pulley machine performed to the right side of the body.

Training the shoulders

Racquet sports players often suffer from rotator cuff shoulder injuries due to the specific emphasis placed on the hitting muscles of the dominant arm. A US team tested 24 college tennis players for bilateral shoulder internal/external rotation strength (6). A Cybex isokinetic dynamometer was used and the players were positioned supine (on their backs) with the glenohumeral (ball and socket shoulder) joint abducted (taken away from the body) to 90 degrees.

The team discovered that the tennis players produced significantly more torque in internal rotation at 60 and 300deg/sec in the dominant arm compared to the non-dominant arm. This substantiates the common wisdom that tennis and racquet sport players’ shoulders are overdeveloped through the forward (internal rotation) movement of hitting on the hitting side.

No significant differences were identified between both arms in regard to external rotation (taking the arm away from the body) ie the muscles of the non-racquet arm were as strong as those of the dominant arm which had been involved in tens of thousands of strokes. This led the researchers to conclude, ‘By significantly increasing the strength of the dominant shoulder in internal rotation without subsequent strengthening of the external rotators, muscle imbalances may be created in the dominant arm that could possibly affect the tennis player’s predisposition to injuries caused by overloading of the shoulder joint.’ So what pre-conditioning exercises can be used to strengthen the shoulder joint and balance internal and external rotation strength?

Figure 2: Cable/resistance exercise to balance internal/external rotation strength.

Cable Resistance

You’ll need a training partner or coach to assist you and a short medium strength dynaband or similar rubber band type of exercise tube.

  1. Stand in a ‘ready’ position with feet shoulder-width apart and left hand on hip;
  2. Place a towel between the upper arm and side to act as a pivot and ensure the elbow is positioned directly below the shoulder;
  3. Grasp the handle of the dynaband and flex the elbow to a 90degree angle, holding the grip just in front and to the left of the navel;
  4. The training partner should be positioned to the left, just behind the performer with a firm grip on the other end of the dynaband (there must be tension in the band, so that when the shoulder is externally rotated, the athlete pulls against a resistance);
  5. The performer rotates their shoulder externally (i.e. takes their hand away from their navel and out to the side) to stretch the dynaband. The lower

The types of resistance training most suitable for racquet players are outlined; The importance of core and achilles strength in injury prevention is discussed; Specific shoulder-stabilising exercises are given to help enable big hitters to remain injury-free.

Overhead rotator cuff strengthener

The internal rotation cable exercise described (in figure 2) is aimed more at strengthening the rotator cuff for shots such as the tennis forehand, where the racquet normally strikes the ball at or around waist height. However, a very similar exercise can be performed to improve rotator cuff muscle stability for overhead hitting. This exercise is particularly suited to badminton players. Your coach or partner should stand in front of you holding the dynaband. You should hold the dynaband with your upper arm parallel to the floor and their forearm also parallel to the floor. To perform the exercise, you should raise your forearm from the ‘parallel to the floor’ to a vertical position. By doing this, you’re working your shoulder musculature in a reverse movement to the normal forward sport smash movement. This will help to develop rotator cuff-stabilising strength.

John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper

References

  1. Am J Sports Med 2000; Sep-Oct;28(5):626-33
  2. Am J Sports Med 1998; Jul-Aug;26(4):510-5
  3. Am J Sports Med 2006; 34(12):2013-21. Epub 2006 Jul 26
  4. Med Sci Sports Exerc; 13(5):325-8, 1981
  5. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2004; 36(11):1959-6
  6. Am J Sports Med 1992; 20(4):455-8

 

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