Tennis: Serve Up Your Best Performance


Tennis is a superb sport. It requires excellent hand-eye coordination, good agility, and keen spatial awareness. A good singles match provides both good anaerobic and aerobic conditioning. Although skill is essential for top-level tennis, technique development is easier if you are fit – which is also the critical factor for staying power during the second and third sets.

Fitness comes in many forms, and conditioning is specific to the training program. For example, joint flexibility is enhanced through stretching exercises, cardiovascular endurance is improved through aerobic activity, and muscular strength is increased through resistance training. Certainly, all of these fitness components may contribute to better tennis performance. If I had to focus on one area of physical conditioning, however, it would undoubtedly be strength exercise.

General Strength Exercises

Tennis play involves a lot of musculoskeletal activity, including all kinds of movements in the legs, midsection, upper body, and arms. You should therefore train all of the major muscle groups. This ensures overall strength and balanced muscle development to enhance performance power and reduce the risk of injuries. The Nautilus exercises in Table 1 provide a solid base of conditioning from which to progress into more specific training when you are ready.

Recommended Exercises For The Major Muscle Group
 Exercise Machine

Leg Extension
Leg Curl
10 Degree Chest
Super Pullover
Lateral Raise
Low Back
Four-Way Neck
Target Muscles

Pectoralis Major
Latissimus Dorsi
Spinal Erectors
Rectus Abdominus
Neck Flexors and Extensors

The exercises are presented from the larger muscles of the legs to the smaller muscles to the neck, which is the recommended order of performance. One set of each Nautilus exercise is sufficient, as long as you train with good form to the point of muscle fatigue. Because intensity is the key to strength development, use enough resistance to fatigue the target muscle groups within about 50-70 seconds. In general, this corresponds to the heaviest weight load that you can lift for 8 to 12 controlled repetitions.

Each repetition should be completed in approximately six seconds, with two seconds for the lifting movement and four seconds for the lowering movement. The slower lowering phase emphasizes the stronger negative muscle contraction, and should make each exercise set more productive. It is also important to perform each repetition through a full range of movement. This enhances both joint integrity and flexibility.

As your muscles become stronger, it is essential to progressively increase the work effort. This is best accomplished by gradually increasing the exercise resistance. Once you complete 12 repetitions, the weight load is no longer heavy enough to produce maximum strength benefits. By increasing the resistance about 5 percent (typically 2.5 to 5 pounds), you can continue to stimulate strength development.

Depending on your activity schedule, you may train two or three days per week. Research shows that three sessions per week are more effective than two sessions, but either exercise protocol will produce excellent strength results if you follow the recommended training guidelines.

Specific Strength Exercises

After two months of basic Nautilus training, you should be ready for some additional strength exercises. These should not replace the general workout program, but should provide supplementary training relevant to tennis performance.

Begin with the powerful leg muscles that generate the force for your ground strokes, as well as your movements across the court. In addition to the quadriceps and hamstrings, the hip adductors and abductors play a major role in your weight shifts and lateral movements. These opposing muscle groups on the inner and outer thighs are best trained with the Nautilus Adductor and Abductor Machines.

Due to the stop-and-go movements that require almost continuous force production and absorption in the lower leg muscles, it is prudent to perform some calf strengthening exercises. The Nautilus Seated Calf Machine is highly effective for targeting the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calves.

The power generated by the large leg muscles is transferred to the upper body through the trunk muscles. Because swinging movements (ground strokes and serves) involve the obliques, these muscles should be strengthened for maximum force development. The dual-action Nautilus Rotary Torso Machine strengthens the internal and external oblique muscles on both sides of the midsection. The most vulnerable area of the upper body muscles is the shoulder joint. The deltoid muscles provide most of the movement force, but the rotator cuff muscles provide most of the joint control. The teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and subscapularis muscles are the keys to increased joint integrity and decreased injury risk. The best means for specifically addressing the rotary cuff muscles is the Nautilus Rotary Shoulder Machine. This dual-action training device provides important internal and external shoulder rotation exercises.

Due to the extensive wrist action required in tennis play, the forearm muscles can be overstressed, leading to injury at the elbow or wrist joints. The Nautilus Super Forearm Machine provides five separate wrist movements to condition the forearm muscles comprehensively. Few exercises are better suited to tennis players, especially for increasing grip strength and reducing injury potential.

One method for adding the auxiliary exercises without overextending your training time and energy is to perform the extra lower body exercises (hip adductor, hip abductor, seated calf) in one workout, and the extra upper body exercises (rotary torso, rotary shoulder, super forearm) in the next workout. In this manner, you should complete each training session within about 30-40 minutes.

Strength/Stamina Training

Research (Messier and Dill 1985, Westcott and Warren 1985) has shown that short-rest Nautilus training is an effective means for adding an aerobic component to your strength workout. That is, by moving quickly between machines you can maintain a relatively high heart rate response and attain some cardiovascular fitness benefits. Because short-rest Nautilus training is very demanding, you should be well-conditioned before giving it a try. However, training in this manner can reduce workout time by 15-20 minutes. It can also increase power output, as you are completing the same amount of work in considerably less time.

High-Intensity Training

Although tennis matches may involve several sets of play, your strength training program does not require multiple exercise sets. One Properly performed set of exercises is sufficient for stimulus, but you may consider some high-intensity training techniques. For example, upon completing a set of leg extensions, you may reduce the resistance and perform a few additional repetitions. This technique is known as breakdown training, because you break down the resistance to reach a deeper level of muscle fatigue. For best results, start with a resistance that fatigues the target muscle group within eight to 12 repetitions. Upon reaching muscle failure, immediately drop the weight load 10 to 20 percent, and squeeze out two to four more repetitions to a second level of muscle failure. It is important to make the breakdown set as continuous as possible.

Due to the greater effort and muscle demands associated with breakdown training, it is advisable to use this technique sparingly (once per week), and to take additional rest following high-intensity exercise sessions.

Program Design

If you play tennis three or four days per week, then it is probably best to do your strength training on two or three non-tennis days. That permits plenty of recovery time after each activity. If you practice tennis everyday, your Nautilus training should probably be performed about four hours after your tennis raining for best overall results. For example, if you play tennis every morning from 9-11, you may schedule your strength exercise around 3p.m. Two or three equally spaced strength training days are recommended.

If you prefer to combine strength exercise and aerobic activity (running, cycling, stepping, etc.), the training order is up to you. Research (Westcott 1995) indicates that strength gains are similar whether your strength exercise precedes or follows your endurance exercise. Remember that skill training is the most important factor in improving your tennis game. However, physical conditioning can certainly enhance your practice and game efforts. The cornerstone of physical conditioning is muscular strength, and a stronger athlete is almost always a better athlete.

Dr. Jim Bell

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