Tennis Conditioning Program to Increase Strength, Speed and Agility
The physiological and conditioning requirements of tennis
Article at a glance:
The physiological demands of tennis make a comprehensive strength and conditioning programme essential for players who want to reach the top. New PP contributor Sean Fyfe discusses these demands and presents a case study of a highly ranked world junior from Australia to illustrate the key principles of targeted tennis strength and conditioning.
Let’s start by stating some fundamentals about the physical demands of tennis. The energy demands for tennis are 80% derived from the ATP-PC energy system, 15% from the lactate pathway and the remaining 5% from aerobic metabolism.
Information regarding the relative contributions of energy systems required to compete in a particular sport is essential to physically prepare an athlete. Average and maximum work durations and work/rest intervals also need to be understood so that competition physical demands can be replicated.
In tennis, this varies for two reasons:
- Surface type – clay courts such as the French Open, which are the slowest, will promote longer baseline rallies than grass courts or fast hard courts such as Wimbledon and the US Open respectively, which make for shorter points;
- The type of player – servers and volleyers and aggressive baseliners who like to go to the net will generally play shorter points, whereas baseliners who are more defensive will play longer tennis points.
For the purpose of this article, we will call our left-handed, 6 foot 4 inches tall and 93kg player Matthew. Through communication with his coach and my own observations, I knew Matthew had a very powerful and effective serve, which he often uses to serve and volley behind but not all the time.From the baseline, the aim for him is to play aggressively and push forward and finish points at the net. Average point duration for Matthew therefore will generally be less then the statistics mentioned above. His coach notes that his movement is not currently good enough to allow him to maintain his court position and play the intended aggressive baseline gamestyle, which requires a player to be able to stand close to the baseline (closer to the net), rather then a couple of metres behind the baseline. This in turn means he needs to be able to react and move very quickly as there is less distance between him and the opposition.
After watching Matthew play and through fitness testing and subsequent comparisons with other players, I noted that he was slow with his first few steps when initiating movement – not explosive through his legs – and he was slow to change direction, particularly after having moved to the right, which is his backhand side.
A musculoskeletal screening on Matthew provided one very valuable piece of information; 18 months ago Matthew was suffering from right-sided ankle pain that went undiagnosed for a period of months. It was later revealed through further investigations he had a stress reaction (boney inflammation) in the medial tibial plateau (upper bone of the ankle joint on the inside). He had continued to try and play his tournament schedule but he stepped in a hole while running and the medial tibial plateau fractured.
Since the rehabilitation process, Matthew has lost significant dorsiflexion at the ankle (the flexing of the ankle you get when you do an Achilles stretch) and he was incredibly unstable performing any single-leg activities such as single-leg squat jumps or bounding through mini-hurdles.
His lateral hip stabilisers were also very weak, which meant his pelvis and back were not being stabilised and his proprioception was poor. His ground contact time when doing any single-leg jumping work was much higher than on the left, which had to be affecting his on-court movement. It showed itself by his slow recovery from the backhand corner when trying to push quickly off his right leg. We also discovered that Matthew’s right hip was extremely tight, producing a loss of internal rotation.
With his coach, I was able to identify the following specific aims of a conditioning programme:
- Improve right single-leg stability;
- Improve right single-leg plyometric/dynamic ability;
- Ongoing maintenance for right ankle dorsiflexion and right hip internal rotation range of movement;
- Improve reaction speed;
- Improve ability to change direction;
- Increase speed in and out of backhand corner of the court;
- Lower centre of gravity when at the net.
Aside from our specific aims, we also had to pay attention to the other physical components essential to compete at the highest level on tour – upper limb power, lower limb power, general lumbo-pelvic stability, upper limb stability, flexibility, speed endurance and aerobic endurance.
Trying to train all the components of a complete tennis conditioning programme is hard, especially for someone in Matthew’s position as a player competing on the entry level ATP Tour events; he has a very heavy all year round competition schedule most often with long distances to travel and limited facilities available at destinations.
Out with the old – in with the new
The new programme we put together was very different from Matthew’s previous conditioning programme, which did not really meet his individual needs as an athlete, nor reflect the specificity of the sport.
|Previous conditioning programme|
|Aerobic||Strength/Power||Speed and Agility||Stability/Rehab||Flexibility|
|3xweek Running HR 180-190 (20-30min) 2xweek Riding – Intervals (work and rest intervals of 1-4 min aiming for HR at 185)||2xweek Upper limb and lower limb power-based exercises||2xweek Court sprints – touching designated points on court||2xweek Exercises strengthening into trunk flexion, trunk rotation and lower abdominals||General stretching|
Matthew’s previous programme consisted of five specific aerobic sessions a week, but his aerobic capacity was not a performance limiting quality on court. In addition, the interval training on the bike did not reflect in any way the work/rest intervals in tennis. There was some general court sprinting, but no specific attention in terms of Matthew’s movement deficiencies. Finally, there was nothing in his programme that addressed his loss of function on his right leg. The new programme was as shown below.
|Matthew’s new weekly training programme (when Matthew is not competing in tournaments)|
|Agility and movement drills(30min)||Agility and movement drills(30min)||Agility and movement drills(30min)||Gym (1hr)||Agility and movement drills(30min)||Gym (1hr)|
|Tennis (2hrs)||Tennis (2hrs)||Tennis (2hrs)||Tennis (2hrs)||Tennis (2hrs)||Speed Endurance (40mins)|
|Tennis (2hrs)||Speed and Agility (1hr)||Tennis (2hrs)||Speed and Agility (1hr)||Tennis (2hrs)||General Flexibility|
|Dev strength (1hr)||Gym (1hr)||Endurance (40min run)||Body mgmt exercises (45min)||Tennis (2hrs)|
|Body mgmt exercises (45min)||Body mgmt exercises (45min)||Dev strength (1hr)||General flexibility (45min)||Body mgmt exercises (45min)|
Sessions are done in this order for the day with appropriate rest periods and Sunday is a full rest day. Matthew aimed to do some recovery work each day in the form of ice baths, massage etc. As you can see, a significant part of Matthew’s training week is dedicated to ensuring his body is functioning optimally and staying injury free.
The agility and movement drills (table 1), were aimed at improving Matthew’s dynamic single-leg function, explosiveness of the legs, change of direction ability, movement to the backhand, ability to maintain court position and ability to stay low at the net. These drills are done as a warm-up four mornings a week. The goal was not to fatigue him (hence the lower number of sets), but rather to provide daily reinforcement of the specific areas that needed to be addressed.
|Table 1: Agility and movement drills|
|Plyometrics (approximately 75% max effort and to be done on grass to decrease impact to ankle)|
|DL squat jumps||1x8 left and right|
|SL squat jumps||1x8 left and right|
|SL lateral squat jumps to right||1x8|
|SL lateral squat jumps to left||1x8|
|DL lateral bounding to right||1x6|
|DL lateral bounding to left||1x6|
|DL side to side bounding over hurdle||1x8|
|Side-to-side direction changes||5x20secs|
|Shadowing forwards split first volley||3x4reps|
|Shadowing deep backhand short forehand diagonals||3x3reps|
|Shadowing forehand short backhand diagonals||3x3reps|
|Wide backhand repetitions (holding baseline)||3x5reps|
|DL – Double-leg, SL – Single-leg|
The specific body management exercises (table 2) were to be done at least four times a week.
|Table 2: Specific body management exercises|
|Body management exercises||Sets/Reps|
|Self-trigger points to posterior hip rotators with trigger point ball||
|Hip internal rotation stretches||5x30s|
|Hip flexion and adduction stretches||3x30s|
|Hip flexor stretches||3x30s|
|Glute med stretches||3x30s|
|Thoracic extension over foam roller||5min|
|Foam roller massage to calf and soleus||10min|
|Calf stretches on 30 degree block||3x30s|
|Soleus stretches on 30 degree block||3x30s|
|Knee to wall (dorsiflexion) movements||3x10s|
|Posterior rotator cuff trigger points on trigger point ball||5min|
|Shoulder internal rotation stretches||3x30s|
|Posterior capsule wall stretch||3x30s|
- To maintain his ankle joint dorsiflexion and calf and right hip range of movement;
- To improve thoracic spine extension and hamstring flexibility, both of which can place undue stress on the lumbar spine;
- To strengthen rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder (Matthew has had some previous left shoulder tendonitis, and common to most tennis players he demonstrates tightness of the posterior capsule or connective tissue that helps hold the back of the shoulder together and posterior rotator cuff, together with a subsequent loss of shoulder joint internal rotation or turn in which is a common cause of shoulder problems in overhead athletes).
The key point here is that good communication between the sports physiotherapist and the strength and conditioning coach is essential in order to produce an overall physical programme that is clear and practical for the athlete.
As you can see from his weekly training timetable, Matthew also had two designated speed and agility sessions (aside from his agility and movement drills), which are described in table 3. Although these exercises are designed to be specific to the goals outlined earlier, they also include more general speed and agility drills such as court sprints, general plyometric work and movement technique in the form of shadowing (shadowing is where a player moves around the court, still playing a shot but without the ball, with the concentration being on the pattern and speed of footwork).
|Table 3: Speed and agility session|
|Forwards pogo jumps||45||2x8|
|Lateral pogo jumps||45||2x8LR|
|Single-leg standing board jumps||45||3x4LR|
|Drop ball sprints with partner||45||5x4|
|5m lateral dash||30||5|
|Side-to-side line hops||20||2LR|
|Over and back hops||20||2LR|
|5m shuffle and sprint||20||2LR|
|Deep backhand short forehand diagonals||30||3x4 reps|
|Wide backhand wide forehand (holding baseline)||30||3x4 reps|
|Serve and react, return and react||30||5 each|
|Tennis specific speed and agility|
|Cones split first volley||45||4x4|
|Doubles line dropshot sprint||45||3LR|
|10sec centre singles line touches||45||5|
Matthew had two gym programmes depending on his tournament schedule. When dealing with tennis players, I only use two phases of training – general and specific. The reason for this is completely practical; unlike most sports such as football, tennis players don’t have a long off season and often have quite a variable schedule.
A player like Matthew who is still very much developing should aim to have at least three six-week designated training blocks throughout the year. It is common for players to have just a two- or three-week block between tournaments. Both of his gym programmes were whole-body workouts, one aiming at improving his strength base and the second at developing power and explosiveness. These can be seen in tables 4 and 5.
|Table 4: General phase|
|Exercise||Rest (s)||Tempo||Week 1|
|Lat pull down||60s||201||3x8|
|Single-arm bench row||60s||201||3x8|
|SL calf raise||201||3x8|
|SL squat with lateral|
|Core circuit (x2)|
|Side plank left||20s||Static||50s|
|Side plank right||20s||Static||50s|
|Single-leg bridge left||20s||Static||35s|
|Single-leg bridge right||20s||Static||35s|
The aims of a gym programme for tennis players should be to:
- Improve lower limb to upper limb coordination in explosive movements to make the transfer of ground reaction forces through the body and to the racquet more effective;
- Improve rotational trunk power for groundstrokes and serving;
- Improve power in pectoralis major (chest) and latissimus dorsi (back) muscles important for the serve;
- Improve muscular balance and stability; around the shoulder girdles to prevent injury;
- Improve leg power for faster court movement;
- Improve core stability.
|Table 5: Specific phase|
|Dumbbell bench on swiss|
|Pull over on swiss ball||90s||10*||4x6|
|Single-arm bench row||90s||10*||4x6|
|SL calf raise||10*||4x6|
|SL squat with lateral raise||90s||10*||4x6|
|Core circuit (x2)|
|Sit-ups over swiss ball||20s||10*||10|
The final part of Matthew’s physical programme was his two endurance sessions. The first of these was a 40-minute run and the other was a session of repeated court sprints aimed at improving speed endurance. These included a series of acceleration and decelerations and change of directions as this is exactly what an athlete has to do when playing tennis without deterioration in performance.
The difference between these sessions and the speed and agility sessions is the amount of recovery; speed and agility sessions need long recoveries so Matthew is not in a fatigued state when performing the exercises, allowing him to achieve maximum neural activation, muscle contraction power and coordination.
In an ideal world, tennis players would be given constant one-on-one attention to enable continual modification and manipulation of every session, depending on the physical and mental state of the athlete and exact amount of time between matches and tournaments. However, the reality is that I was only able to work with Matthew when he was at home for a couple of sessions a week and Matthew had to do the rest of his physical training independently or with other players. When he was away travelling, he had to be responsible for himself. For this reason, tennis can be a very tough sport and to succeed therefore takes a lot of self-discipline.
Matthew had guidelines on what sessions to do depending on the amount of time he had between matches. Table 6 is an example of what physical preparation Matthew should do if he has three days off between one tournament and his first match of the next:
|Table 6: Physical preparation between matches|
|Day||Physical training for the day|
|Day 1||Agility and movement drills, body management exercises, core strength and injury prevention programme, speed endurance|
|Day 2||Speed and agility, gym – specific phase, body management exercises|
|Day 3||Agility and movement drills, body management exercises|
As well as providing an insight into the life of a tennis professional this article has highlighted four critical principles. The first is that the marriage of information from professionals to provide an athlete with an overall physical plan and subsequent programme is vital. Secondly, for a physical programme to be successful, it has to be actually done! This means any programme structure must be tailored to the sport and take into consideration travel demands, yearly competition schedule, the time an athlete can realistically dedicate to their physical programme and unfortunately the financial restriction to the programme. I know this sounds very simple, but it is amazing how often this is not achieved. The last two principles are specificity and individualisation. Matthew’s new programme was specific to the physiological demands of the sport and was individualised in terms of Matthew’s own physical limitations and game style.
Sean Fyfe is the strength and conditioning coach and assistant tennis coach for the Tennis Australia National High Performance Academy based in Brisbane
- 1. Br J of Sports Med; 26:5:10-13
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