Tennis Conditioning Program to Increase Strength, Speed and Agility

The physiological and conditioning requirements of tennis

Article at a glance:

  • The physiological and conditioning requirements of tennis are explained in the context of a real case study (Matthew);
  • The diagnosis of Matthew’s specific needs, based on an individual analysis of his past performance and injury history, is outlined;
  • Conditioning programmes to enhance Matthew’s tennis prowess and to build strength, stability, speed, agility and flexibility are presented together with a rationale for their use.

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.

Jargonbuster

ATP-PC energy system
Phosphocreatine (PC) is a chemical compound found in muscles in limited quantities, and which supplies energy for short bursts of high-intensity exercise (up to 20 seconds)
Lactate pathway
An energy pathway that produces the energy molecule ATP from glycogen without the presence of oxygen, forming fatiguing lactate as a by-product (duration of energy from this pathway is up to approximately 120 seconds
Aerobic metabolism
Energy produced from the synthesis of ATP in the presence of oxygen. So long as sufficient oxygen and muscle fuels are available, this pathway can produce energy indefinitely
Proprioception
The use of nerve receptors in connective tissue and muscles to supply information to the central nervous system about body position and the subsequent impulses supplied to the muscles

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.
Some general statistics are as follows; the average point length is less than 6 seconds and with advancements in the game, the average point duration in professional tennis matches has decreased. For example in 1988, the final of the US open saw an average point duration of 12.2sec compared with 5.99sec in 2003. Ninety-three percent of all tennis points are less than 15sec. The maximum time players are allowed to take between points is 20sec but the average is 15.2sec, and players are allowed to rest for 90sec every 2 games they play. Taking into account average point durations and rest periods, players can therefore expect to rest for 2.3-3.2sec for every second of work performed(1). These statistics should be kept in mind when structuring speed and agility and endurance sessions, but you also need to bear in mind the type of player you are dealing with.

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:

  1. Improve right single-leg stability;
  2. Improve right single-leg plyometric/dynamic ability;
  3. Ongoing maintenance for right ankle dorsiflexion and right hip internal rotation range of movement;
  4. Improve reaction speed;
  5. Improve ability to change direction;
  6. Increase speed in and out of backhand corner of the court;
  7. 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)
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
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)  
  General flexibility        

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
Exercise Time/Reps
Warm-up Skipping 5min
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
Court movement
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
Right hip
Self-trigger points to posterior hip rotators with trigger point ball

10min

Hip internal rotation stretches 5x30s
Piriformis stretches 3x30s
Hip flexion and adduction stretches 3x30s
Hip flexor stretches 3x30s
Glute med stretches 3x30s
Lumbar spine
Hamstring stretches 3x30s
Thoracic extension over foam roller 5min
Right ankle
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
Right shoulder
Posterior rotator cuff trigger points on trigger point ball 5min
Shoulder internal rotation stretches 3x30s
Posterior capsule wall stretch 3x30s
These were aimed at addressing the areas of Matthew’s body that were at risk of injury because of poor flexibility – namely:

  • 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
Exercise Rest (s) Reps
Plyometrics
Forwards pogo jumps 45 2x8
Lateral pogo jumps 45 2x8LR
Single-leg standing board jumps 45 3x4LR
Reaction speed
Drop ball sprints with partner 45 5x4
Acceleration
5m lateral dash 30 5
Frequency
Side-to-side line hops 20 2LR
Over and back hops 20 2LR
5m shuffle and sprint 20 2LR
Movement technique
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

Resistance training

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
Back squat   201 3x8
Superset      
Bench press 60s 201 3x8
 
Dead lift   201 3x8
Superset      
Lat pull down 60s 201 3x8
 
Push press 201 3x8
Superset      
Single-arm bench row 60s 201 3x8
 
SL calf raise  201 3x8
Superset      
SL squat with lateral     
raise 60s 201 3x8
 
Core circuit (x2)    
Plank 20s Static 75s
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:

  1. 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;
  2. Improve rotational trunk power for groundstrokes and serving;
  3. Improve power in pectoralis major (chest) and latissimus dorsi (back) muscles important for the serve;
  4. Improve muscular balance and stability; around the shoulder girdles to prevent injury;
  5. Improve leg power for faster court movement;
  6. Improve core stability.
Table 5: Specific phase
Exercise Rest  Tempo Week 1
Back squat   10* 4x6
Superset      
Dumbbell bench on swiss   
ball 90s 10* 4x6
 
Jerks   10* 4x6
Superset      
Pull over on swiss ball 90s 10* 4x6
 
Dead lift   10* 4x6
Superset      
Single-arm bench row 90s 10* 4x6
 
SL calf raise   10* 4x6
Superset      
SL squat with lateral raise 90s 10* 4x6
 
Core circuit (x2)      
Sit-ups over swiss ball 20s 10* 10
Back extension 20s 10* 10
Oblique rollovers 20s 10* 8LR

Moreover, these goals need to be achieved without making the player too bulky or inflexible.

Endurance

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.

‘In an ideal world, tennis players would be given constant one-on-one attention to enable continual modification and manipulation of every session’

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 

Summary

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

References

  1. 1. Br J of Sports Med; 26:5:10-13

 

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