11 Fitness Principles for Competitive Tennis Players
In 2011, I learned an unforgettable lesson about the importance of fitness training. The day after I took the bar exam, I played tennis and worked out as much as possible. I had slaved away for the past 4 months studying 10+ hours a day, and come hell or highwater, I was going to make up for the lost time! It proved to be a foolish move. I wasn't fit enough to workout in the morning, play tennis for 2 hours, and workout again in the evening, but I tried to anyway.
I still remember the moment I pushed up from the 9th rep of a high-bar squat during my evening workout, when I heard a crack. My knee was in pain, and when I visited the doctor, he diagnosed me with a knee condition called chondromalacia. Gulp. 🙁
I underwent several months of rehab exercises and weird knee creaking noises whenever I stood up from a seated position. It was during this time that I first understood how important it is to have an organized, goal-oriented, and sensible approach to fitness training. Without it, I wouldn't be able to play the game that I love for much longer.
Tennis players routinely ignore and underestimate fitness training with well-thought out comments, such as "fitness doesn't matter bro, work on technique." Fitness does matter, way more than the average tennis player comprehends.
This realization motivated me to become a certified Tennis Performance Trainer by the International Tennis Performance Association (iTPA). I've also interviewed some of the greatest tennis fitness experts on the planet on my podcast, like Dr. Mark Kovacs, Todd Ellenbecker, Allistair McCaw, Dean Hollingworth, and Dominic King. And I had the pleasure of attending the iTPA World Tennis Fitness Conference in July, where I met Andre Agassi's fitness coach Gil Reyes.
There are several key fitness principles I've learned which, based on speaking to many of you in my audience and reading tennis forums, are either unknown or not practiced by much of the tennis community. Your talent will never be realized if you don't put in the work to level up your fitness. Below are the 11 most important fitness principles that improved my tennis game.
1. You Need Fitness Training to Improve and Avoid Injuries
When you witness the incredible play of the top professionals, like Federer and Nadal, their amazing offensive and defensive plays would not be possible without fitness training. In particular, the top players have all developed a world-class level of tennis-specific power. Power is a combination of strength and speed. When you see a player rip a forehand or explode up and into the serve, those are power movements. All tennis players can improve their game by increasing their power output. Great technique is extremely important, but when you are satisfied with your technique on a particular stroke, the next step to improving it is by developing more power.
Another reason for fitness training is protecting yourself from injury. Why do we get injured? There are many reasons, including overuse, muscle imbalances, and a lack of strength and/or flexibility. When you increase your strength, you protect your body against injuries. The same muscle that keeps getting pounded on the tennis court or when hitting the ball will be able to withstand many more reps without breaking down when you are stronger. Think about it this way: the extra 30-45 minutes you put into fitness training a couple times a week can dramatically increase your chances of playing tennis injury-free, at a higher level, and for a lifetime. Does fitness training sound more appealing now?
Think about all the injuries that happened on the tour recently (Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Novak Djokovic, Bethany Mattek-Sands, Milos Raonic, and the list goes on). The best in the world devote a significant amount of time to their fitness to prevent injuries and improve their performance. It makes sense for us to do the same.
2. You Need a Long-Term, Goal-Oriented Workout Plan Before You Start Training
When I first started training to improve my tennis fitness, I went to the gym and did a bunch of random exercises with weights. It's a great first step, except I didn't have a long-term plan for how I wanted to improve physically. Nor did I have a clue how the way I was training would impact my game. Was my 3 sets of 10 of bench press, squats, dumbbell flys and bicep curls going to result in increased muscle gains, strength, endurance, or power? Which muscles and tennis strokes would be most affected by my workout? What was the ultimate purpose of me training in the gym, and would I reach that goal with my routine?
Answer the following questions below to help you and your coach or fitness trainer create an optimal long-term training plan:
- Self-Assessment: What are your strengths, weaknesses, and physical limitations?
- Timing: What part of the year do you need to reach your peak physical fitness levels?
- Sequence: When and in what order will you train for general fitness, strength, endurance, hypertrophy (muscle mass), and power (the ultimate goal)?
- Routine: What exercises and how many repetitions/sets will you use during your workouts, and how many days per week will you train?
- Rest: When will you designate rest periods in between your workout days and training cycles?
- Debrief: How did your game improve as a result of your training, and what will you change differently for the next training cycle?
The fittest players have specific, long-term plans organized in phases (i.e. they periodize their training) so they peak for the biggest tournaments. All too often the amateur tennis player sees a couple of exercises on Youtube and adds them to his or her routine without thinking about their effects. You can't just randomly schlep together a few exercises and expect to be the next David Ferrer on the court in a few weeks. It can take several months or longer to reach peak performance levels, but it will be worth it when you are the fittest tennis player you've ever been in your life.
Use the criteria above to help you construct an effective long-term workout plan, or you can get my free tennis fitness workout guide to help you get started.
3. Different Rep/Set/Weight Ranges Train Different Performance Goals
Another principle of fitness training that you may not realize is the effect of the number of sets, repetitions, and weight you use during training. For example, lifting 3 sets of 10 repetitions with light weights will have a different effect on your body than 4 sets of 5 repetitions with heavy weights. The amount of weight that fitness professionals suggest you lift is often based on your "one-rep max," which is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for one repetition.
I put together a simple graphic below to illustrate how many sets, reps, and the amount of weight you should use to train different areas of your fitness:
Rep range: 4-8 repetitions
Weight: 70-90% of 1-rep max
Reps: 6-12 repetitions
Weight: 60-80% of 1-rep max.
Rep range: 15-30 repetitions
Weight: 40-60% of 1-rep max
Rep range: 6 or less repetitions
Weight: 30-60% of 1-rep max
To figure out your one-rep maximum and receive free sample tennis workout routines, click here!
A note of caution: you can also develop strength using less than four repetitions with heavier (over 90% 1RM) weights, but I especially recommend that you have a spotter and learn perfect technique on the exercises in this case, or you might injure yourself. Be careful!
4. The Type of Stretching Before and After You Play Are Totally Different
Dynamic stretching is far superior to static stretching before playing matches and training. This type of stretching activates the muscles that will be used during play/training but does not involve holding the stretch at the end position like static stretching. Examples of dynamic stretching are arm circles, knee to chest walk, and lateral lunges. Before playing, I warm up my body with light jogging or the elliptical for 5 minutes or so, followed by dynamic stretching to activate my tennis muscles. The proper time to perform static stretching (i.e. lying hamstring stretch, pec stretch) is after training and/or competition.
There are numerous studies (thank you, science!) concluding that power output from athletes is substantially lower if static stretching is performed pre-competition rather than dynamic stretching. The reduced performance from static stretching has been shown to last for 60 minutes. Power is an extremely important component of tennis and the science shows that dynamic stretching will enhance athletic performance in place of static stretching.
I have committed to my dynamic and static stretching more than ever this past year with fantastic results. Here's my routine for pre and post-match preparation/recovery:
- General warm-up (i.e. jog, bike)
- Dynamic Stretching (i.e. knee to chest, lunges, arm circles)
- Play Tennis or Physical Training
- Static Stretching (i.e. shoulder stretch, quadricep stretch)
- Other Recovery Techniques (i.e. massage, foam roll, ice bath)
You can check out Episode 57 of The Tennis Files Podcast to hear me talk about my warm-up routines in more detail.
5. Weight Training Does NOT Make You Slow and Inflexible if You Implement the Right Training Program
It's not the weights that can make you slow, it's the way you train. One of the main goals of a resistance training program for tennis players is to develop maximal power output with a small amount of weight (i.e. swinging your tennis racquet). However, if your workout routine is not properly designed for developing power, then you may end up becoming slower on the court. For example, using a set/rep scheme of 4 sets of 15 reps with light weights or 5 sets of 5 reps with a very heavy weight without a power or agility/speed phase in your long-term training plan could set you back a step or two.
This is why you have to understand the different ways that training variables affect your physical abilities. See #3 above for the effect of different set/rep/weight schemes on your physical training. A properly structured long-term training plan will help you be more explosive and fitter on the court. Either you or a qualified trainer must choose the right mix of exercises and parameters that will get you quicker, faster, stronger, and fitter by the time your big tournaments or USTA league matches take place. This handy tennis fitness workout guide I created for you will help you get started.
6. Your Fitness Affects Your Technique More Than You Think
Tennis technique and a fit body and mind are intertwined. In tennis, you must perform the same technical movements over and over again with similar power outputs to play optimally on the court. Has your technique ever gone down the tubes after fatigue set in? I'm sure that just about every player on the planet has. But if you implement the right exercises and a proper rep/set/weight and work-rest ratios in your training, you can maintain and improve your technique during long matches. Good technique is about having the strength to perform a movement efficiently through the entire range of motion over and over again. If you have a shoulder injury or a tight lower back, you won't be able to perform proper technique once, let alone hundreds of times during the course of a couple sets.
Another example is the loading phase of the serve. Have you wondered why you or other players aren't able to get into an optimal loading position like the pros do? There's a good chance this is due to inflexibility, lack of strength, and/or muscle imbalances as much as it could be a lack of proper technical knowledge. Injury prevention, improved power output on the court, and the ability to perform at a high-level for a long period of time are all benefits of a proper tennis fitness regimen that can also make a huge difference in your technique. And don't make your age an excuse, because you can always improve your physical qualities with consistent effort and dedication!
7. Tennis Technique is All About Using Your Kinetic Chain Efficiently
From the moment I interviewed Dr. Kovacs on my podcast, I became a huge fan. He is one of the most knowledgeable sports performance experts on the planet, and that's no exaggeration. One of his most well-known research papers is about the 8-stage model of the tennis serve. Mark's session on the Tennis Technique Summit that I hosted several months ago was the most watched of all 30 coaches. The 8-stage model of the tennis serve explains how the optimal serve can only be achieved through a total body effort in specific phases, starting from the lower body upwards. If a link in the chain is broken (under-rotation of the hips, for example), the player will lose power and acceleration.
The kinetic chain applies to all tennis strokes. And what you see on the court every day, especially from the 2.5-4.0 levels, is players arming their strokes. Most people think about using the arms first, which makes sense. It is reasonable to assume that you swing the racquet and hit the ball with your arm. But then the rest of the body will not contribute to the stroke, as it must do to achieve full power. Dr. Kovacs's research paper breaks down the serve into the following phases: (1) Preparation (2) Release (3) Loading (4) Cocking (5) Acceleration (6) Contact (7) Deceleration (8) Finish. It is a very enlightening read, and I highly recommend you check it out. You must use your kinetic chain if you want to have efficient and effective tennis strokes.
8. Train Based on Your Style of Play and Your Strengths/Weaknesses
What's your style of play? If you grind at the baseline, but your footwork training is exclusively sprints, that's not smart training. In fact, baseliners move laterally about 70% of the time. Similarly, if you only train your chest and back in the gym, you are neglecting far more important power sources, like your core and lower body. Here's an example of training for your style of play: if you serve and volley, you should perform lunges in different directions, since lunges are a very sport-specific move for volleying. If you lack flexibility, you need to concentrate on performing an adequate amount of stretches (dynamic pre-training, static post-training). Lately, I've recognized that my left IT band tends to get tight, so I focus on stretching and foam rolling that area more frequently.
It is always important to ask yourself why you are performing an exercise or training. Gil Reyes told a group of us in Atlanta that Andre Agassi always asked Gil the simple question "Why?" when Gil told Andre to perform an exercise. Andre wanted to know the purpose of each exercise he was asked to perform and how they would help his game. You have to ask yourself the same question. Bicep curls help you look good on the beach, but how do they fit into your overall tennis fitness goals? Make your fitness program specific to your playing style.
9. Intake Enough Fluids, Sodium, and Carbohydrates Before, During, and After Matches
So you're going to play a tournament match and all you're drinking is water? You cannot be serious! It's fairly common knowledge that we all need to hydrate properly. But most people ignore the importance of sodium and carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are your main source of fuel during points, and sodium is the primary electrolyte lost in sweat.
Part of the iTPA certification course I took highlighted that we should intake 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during a match, and consume a drink with 70mg or more of sodium per 8 fluid ounces. Since I have followed these two guidelines over the past several months, I have experienced a substantial boost in energy on the court during my matches. I always pack a Cliff Bar and a Gatorade (or Pedialyte if it's really hot) along with water to help me through my matches. I also like to bring bananas, dates, and pretzels if I have them.
10. Sleep is the Most Important Aspect of Recovery
Did you know that you don't build muscles while you train, you build them while you sleep? I urge you not to fall into the trap of seeing a few celebrities or your friends boast about sleeping under 6 hours a night and think you can function optimally with the same amount of sleep deprivation. A 2011 study of the Stanford Men's Basketball team, where the players slept 10 hours a night, resulted in faster sprint times, a 9% increase in free-throw accuracy, and a 9.2% increase in three-point accuracy. In a game of razor-thin margins, this makes a huge difference.
Two of the greatest athletes of all-time don't play around with their sleep either: basketball superstar Lebron James averages 12 hours of sleep per night, and some relatively-unknown tennis legend-dude named Roger Federer gets around 10 hours of sleep per night. I have experimented with sleeping under 7 hours versus 8 or more hours after my matches, and I feel way more recovered and less sore after getting more sleep. Everyone is different, so figure out what works best for you. If you want to fully recover from your matches, get enough sleep!
11. Consistency is Key: Start Small and Work Up
The most important aspect of a fitness program is sticking to it. What's a better program: two thirty-minute lifting sessions per week that you can maintain, or four days of 1-hour lifting sessions that you only stick to for 2 weeks and then go back to eating cheetos on the couch? The answer is pretty clear. The easiest way to stick to a workout plan is to start small. If you feel pressed for time, make it a goal to workout for 20-30 minutes twice a week. This small goal is so manageable that the chances of you sticking to it is very high. Then once you get used to a consistent workout schedule, you can add another day in, and/or increase the time of your workouts as needed.
This principle reminds me of the story of the guy who hated to floss. A friend of his suggested that he try to floss just one tooth a day. While this sounds ridiculous, it was so easy to do, so the guy started flossing one tooth a day consistently. This small victory encouraged the guy to floss more teeth, until he ended up flossing all his teeth every day. Lesson learned: above all else, choose a workout you can consistently perform and scale up from there.
I hope that the 11 most important fitness principles that improved my tennis game will help you become a fitter, more improved tennis player. Pick one of the principles above that resonated with you the most, implement that concept into your fitness habits, and let me know how it works out for you.
If there is a tennis fitness principle that has helped your game that you didn't see on the list, let us know what it is by leaving a comment below. And if you have any questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To download a free sample tennis workout guide that I created to help you become fitter and avoid injuries, click here or fill out the short form below! Thanks for reading, and keep improving your tennis game!