Squash, Badminton, and Tennis players: Improve your power!

Big hitting for racquet sports players – prepare yourself!

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 programmes
A team of American researchers looked at the effects of a specifically periodised weight training exercise programme 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.
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 programme occurred even though the exercises used in the programme (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.

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.

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 programme 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.

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 programme, 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:
l 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 programme 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?

Overhead rotator cuff strengthener
The internal rotation cable exercise 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.

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