7 Key Tennis Training Principles from a Top Fitness Expert

7 Key Tennis Training Principles from a Top Fitness Expert

Tennis players tend to lack a lot of knowledge in the area of tennis-specific fitness training.  As much as we admire and fawn over the exemplary techniques of Novak Djokovic, the mental ferocity of Rafa Nadal, and the agility and grace of Roger Federer, if you asked most tennis players what fitness program a high performance tennis player should follow, they wouldn’t have a good answer.

In comes Dean Hollingworth, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a Master Tennis Performance Specialist by the International Tennis Performance Association, and the Director of fitness and sports performance at Club Sportif Cote-de-Liesse in Montréal, where he works primarily with high performance tennis players

I interviewed Dean on Episode 125 of The Tennis Files Podcast about how we can develop explosive movement, and learned several key principles along the way.  I’ve identified 7 key takeaways from the episode that can serve as your cheatsheet in case you didn’t jot down notes after listening (no gifts from Santa for you! :O) ) or haven’t checked it out yet (in which case, click the link above!).

Below are my top 7 takeaways from my interview with Dean


Assess your physical capabilities before launching into a fitness program

If you brought your car into a mechanic’s shop, would you want the mechanic to (A) randomly pick something to repair or (B) perform a diagnostic test of the car and fix what needs to be repaired?  I think we’d all pick the latter (unless you are a mechanic 😉 ), and the same principle applies to you, the tennis player, with your own unique set of physical challenges.

The advice “assess don’t guess” is a phrase Dean used in our interview, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it.  On Episode 82 I interviewed Dr. Sean Drake from Racquetfit, and soon headed to a Racquetfit seminar with Sean, Dr. Greg Rose, and Jeff Salzenstein.  I learned simple assessments that let you know what physical limitations you had in your body.

This approach is so critical because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, which means we need to be efficient and effective with what we are doing if we’d like to make the most of the time we have.  So I would highly encourage you to seek out a professional who can help you determine your physical needs or learn how to do it yourself via a Racquetfit seminar or similar mode of instruction.  That way you won’t waste months or years on a workout better suited for a bodybuilder or crossfit athlete and actually work on what you really need improving to take your game to the next level.


Even a Few Minutes of Training Consistently Can Make a Big Difference

The reason why only 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals, and most people quit within two weeks, is because of unrealistic expectations.

When you are in a warm room, sipping on eggnog, eating cookies, it is easy to create goals.  However many people’s goals are unrealistic in the sense that they start with doing too much and are unable to sustain that routine for very long.

Instead, flip the approach by making that habit so simple and easy to do that it would be ridiculous if you chose not to do it.  For example, Dean suggest that the average tennis player adopt a 10 minute speed and agility routine. It doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a month, that equates to two hours of speed and agility training, which is quite significant.  If you are working purposefully and intensely during these sessions, you will undoubtedly see improvements in your movement.

Compare this with setting a 30 minute goal 3-4x a week.  After a week or two, the average tennis player who isn’t used to this volume of training gets tired, takes a few days off, and never returns to his routine again (maybe next year).  

Start small, establish the habit, and then work your way up!  Seemingly small, positive habits compound over time, resulting in big gains.  You can listen to an excellent explanation of goal setting from Dean at around 1:11:13 of the interview.


Plyometric Training is a Fantastic Way to Develop Power and Prevent Injuries

Dean the Machine mentioned in our interview that plyometrics are great for developing power, preventing injuries, and learning how to create force and decelerate.  For those of you that aren’t familiar with plyometrics, it “involves the use of a stretch and contraction sequence of muscle fibers to generate great strength at high speed.”  Many people refer to it as jump training.

When we want explosive power, plyometrics is exactly the type of training we need.  Dean likened plyometrics to snapping your finger to your chest, using the stretch reflex for maximum power, which is a great example.  I remember as a junior, our club brought in a trainer to teach us plyometrics. I had no idea what that word meant, but I remember feeling significantly more explosive that year as a result of those sessions.

Examples of plyometric exercises are jump squats, box jumps, power skipping, and middle finger snap ups (just kidding on that last exercise 🙂 ).  But first, make sure your mobility, stability, and movement patterns are in order before you start doing plyometrics, and seek the advice of a professional when building your plyometric workout. 


Long Distance Running is Practically Worthless for Tennis Players

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a nice 3-5 mile run outside.  And I recently got into running in the frigid cold weather after learning about one of the most disciplined men in the world (David Goggins) who runs ultramarathons and went from 300lbs to a Navy Seal.  But I’m really glad I talked to Dean, because it reminded me that running long distance is a poor way to train for tennis.

I know a lot of tennis players, who have mentioned that they need to increase their cardio and that meant they were going to run outside more.  Unfortunately, and mentioned time and time again by fitness experts on the podcast, running long distance is likely to make you slower on the tennis court.  And I felt these effects when playing tennis - I was less explosive than normal after this jogging routine of mine that I did for a few weeks, and got to less balls, especially those that required lateral movement.

Another sports performance expert, Dr. Mark Kovacs, who recently became the Director of Sports Science of the Cleveland Cavaliers (huge congrats Mark!), mentioned during an interview on my last online Tennis Summit that tennis players move laterally about 70% of the time (less for serve and volleyers).  So this means that unless you have a lot of time to train and are also working on lateral and other tennis-specific movements, you are wasting your time running.

That’s not to say that a few minutes of jogging will destroy your movement, but if you are looking to use your time efficiently and effectively, it is better served with interval training and basic movement training.  And Dean pointed out that when you are performing interval training, during the recovery phase, you drop into an aerobic zone so you end up training your aerobic capacity this way.  

You don’t move at a very slow pace, only forward, and continuously for 20+ minutes during a point, so it doesn’t make much sense to train like that.


Do Not Train Your Fitness Right After Tennis Practice

If you wanted to pass the bar exam (to become an attorney), would you rather (A) start studying after a one hour break, or (B) right after you played a tennis match?  The same goes for training your fitness. Sure, you can work on your fitness after tennis practice, but how good of a quality will that fitness session be when you're tired?

In an ideal world, at least for us amateur players, we’d have several hours in between our tennis practice and fitness sessions.  However, if we have to do one after the other, and our priority is to improve our movement, speed, and agility on the court, we should do that first.

Historically, my fitness training sessions have always been tacked on to the end of long practice sessions.  Whether it was tennis camps or college practices (although we had dedicated fitness sessions in college as well), this is often the case.  However this drastically reduces the chances that we actually improve our movement skills, except for perhaps increasing our endurance capacity.  And we increase the chances of poor technique, unless we are dealing with extremely mentally strong and conditioned athletes.

I think this point doesn’t need much more explaining.  If you are serious about improving your tennis movement, either perform it before or have a break in between playing tennis to provide recovery so you can see performance gains.


Do Not Copy Every Exercise You See on Social Media

Granted, there may be certain exercises or drills you see on Instagram or Facebook that are actually appropriate to your skill level and physical capabilities.  But there are often either really complex or non-tennis appropriate exercises that you’ll see people perform and post on social media to get more likes and shares.

Social media has its positives, like being able to communicate with people from all over the world and promote positive causes.  But one of the main negatives (besides negative trolls) is that people get addicted to wanting more likes. Research shows that when someone finds out the got a “like” they also get a dopamine hit, which is the same brain response you get when you have a hit of cocaine, after exercise, or have a successful social interaction.

So naturally, most people on social media post photos or videos with the primary goal of obtaining more likes instead of wanting to educate or inform.  This is why you have to be careful with replicating exercises you see on social media platforms. Instead, figure out what YOU need to work on, start from the basics, and work up at your own pace.  You aren’t competing with others to look cool; you’re competing with your old self to become your best self.


Recovery Starts with the Fundamentals - Sleep, Nutrition and Hydration

If you’re not getting enough sleep, eating right, and hydrating properly, the ice baths, compression boots, and massages aren’t going to do you much good.  Research shows that the number one most important aspect of recovery is sleep. You actually go through phases of deeper sleep where your body repairs its muscles and restores the immune system.  Imagine short changing yourself of that natural recovery process, then trying to get that back with compression boots and coffee.  Come on, man. :O)

Basic nutrition and hydration fundamentals are critical to your success as well.  I recently posted about this on Instagram, stating in part: “Two important nutritional principles to follow are: (1) get enough complex carbohydrates in your system so that you have sustained/clean energy for your practices and matches, and (2) intake sufficient sodium and liquids so that you can hydrate your body and prevent cramping.”

In fact, during a trip to Chicago last week, I (A) did not get enough sleep, (B) did not eat enough for breakfast, and (C) did not hydrate well enough before getting too overambitious and deciding on doing a Peloton workout.  On top of that, I couldn’t exercise for a week prior because of a minor shoulder surgery I had the previous week.

After my workout, I damn near fainted and needed the hotel gym attendant to help me to a chair. As you can see from my recent mistake, sleep, nutrition, and hydration are vital if you want to stand a chance of performing your best in practices, matches, and training.

I hope you enjoyed my top seven takeaways from my podcast interview with Dean!  If you liked this article, please let me know in the comments below and I will write more of them so you can have my notes of the episodes.  

And to get a free copy of my eBook (newly revised in 2019), sign up below!

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