Tennis Conditioning (Part 3)

Tennis Fitness Conditioning Plan

Acknowledging the difficulty of access to weight equipment, a good starting point for a tennis-specific program is to focus on bodyweight exercises and exercises utilizing (more easily attainable and affordable) resistance bands and loops, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls pull-up bars, plyometric boxes, and suspension trainers. With that in mind, I have laid out below the components of a basic program.

  1. Dynamic stretching
    Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching requires the use of continuous movement patterns that mimic the exercise or sport to be performed (in this case tennis). The purpose of dynamic stretching is to improve flexibility for a given sport or activity and to warm and activate the body in preparation for more strenuous effort. An example of dynamic stretching would be a sprinter doing long, exaggerated strides to prepare for a race. For tennis, I like to incorporate the following:
    • Small Arm Circles Fingers Up
    • Small Arm Circles Fingers Down
    • Left and Right Arm and Back Arm Swings
    • Alternating Arm Crossover Swings
    • Bow Draw Torso Twist (Transverse Plane) Rotations
    • Bow Draw Torso Twist Variation with Released Arm
    • Alternating Toe Touches
    • Jumping Jacks
    • Crossover Jacks
    • Walking Leg Kicks (Feet to Hands)
    • Walking Knees to Armpits
    • Walking High Knee Pulls (Hugs)
    • Walking Quad Pulls
    • Side Shuffles (Low Profile)
    • Walking Lunges
    • Walking Lunges with Elbow Knee Pushouts
    • Walking High Knee Hug Lunges
    • Skipping
    • High Knee Skipping
    • Carioca
    • High Knee Carioca
    • Butt Kicks
    • Butt Kick Pulls
    • Inchworms
    • Bear Crawl
  2. Planks and Push-Ups
    Begin by learning how to properly execute a low and high plank and push-up and then work on volume (multiple reps). If you can do one, you can two, if you can do two, you can do three… The proper technique for the plank is:
    • Feet and ankles dorsiflexed
    • Knees aligned with hips, ankles, and feet
    • Knees horizontally aligned
    • Ankles, knees, and shoulders aligned
    • Torso neutral and aligned with hips
    • Braced torso centered over base of support
    • Neutral lumbar spine
    • Shoulders Level and horizontally aligned
    • Neutral head position
    • Neutral scapula
    • Stable shoulders with torque generated through hands (spread floor apart with hands
    Additionally, for push-ups …
    • Maintain a neutral scapula with fluid-controlled movement against rib cage
    • Extend arms with palms directly under shoulders and arms tucked to sides in up position
    • Flex arms with upper arms parallel, or slightly below parallel to ground, tuck elbows to sides and face cubital fossa (inside of elbow) forward in down position
    There are many plank variations (such as plank jacks, spiderman planks, T planks, renegade planks, etc.) to increase difficulty, intensity and to make things fun and challenging. Similarly, there are a countless number of progressions and options for push-ups (building from the basic plank position). For the fun of it, I have compiled a list below of different push-up options.
    • Incline Push-Ups
    • Wall and Wall Bounce (Fascial) Push-Ups
    • Hands Free Push-Ups
    • Standard Push-Ups
    • Decline (Elevated Feet) Push-Ups
    • Single-Leg Push-Ups
    • Dive Bomber Push-Ups
    • Pike Push-Ups
    • Close Grip Push-Ups
    • Wide Grip Push-Ups
    • Diamond Push-Ups
    • Scapula Push-Up with Protraction and Retraction
    • Loop Band Push-Ups
    • Weighted Push-Ups
    • Plyometric Push-Up (Hands off Ground, Clap Hands)
    • Plank Jack Push-Ups
    • T Plank Push-Ups
    • Dumbbell T Plank Push-Ups
    • Spider-Man Push-Ups
    • Shoulder Tap Push-Ups
    • Dumbbell Renegade Push-Ups
    • Alligator Walk Push-Ups
    • Bear Crawl Push-Ups
    • Medicine Ball Pass (One-Arm) Push-Ups
    • Around the World Push-Ups
    • Pseudo Planche Push-Ups
    • Staggered Hand Push-Ups
    • Rotational Push-Ups
    • Star Push-Ups
    • X Push-Ups
    One of things I like to do with players is to build in challenges and push-ups and push-up variations offer a range of different options (since push-up-based challenges are easy to explain and set up, do not require special equipment, and can be conducted with limited space).
  3. Squats and squat-based exercises
    Start by learning proper execution and technique (stability, posture, and body alignment).
    • Feet neutral with no more than 12% turn-out
    • Feet flat and stable heels (driving up and down through weight of heels)
    • Knees aligned with hips.
    • Knees over feet
    • Knees push out with depth
    • Hips flexed and horizontally aligned
    • Torso and tibia are parallel (with tibia and torso as vertical as possible)
    • Lumbar spine remains neutral and centered over base of support
    • Head neutral (with eyes fixed forward)
    With success start building volume (repetitions and sets) and then work on increasing intensity and complexity. You can increase intensity by the positioning of your arms (e.g., hands behind your head, arms pointing forward at 90° shoulder flexion, arms overhead, arms overhead supporting PVC bar) and by adding weight (such as a goblet squat where you cup your hands to support a dumbbell, kettlebell or even a racquet bag at your chest). You can increase both intensity and complexity by integrating other components. One example is a squat press in which you squat down and then drive up to press a weight (e.g., dumbbell) overhead. You can support weight in each hand or preferable for tennis in only one hand (which adds an anti-rotation torsional buttressing benefit). A second example is medicine ball wall balls. You can also increase intensity by adding a plyometric element (e.g., squat jumps or squat tuck jumps).
  4. Split squats or lunges and split squat (lunge) based exercises
    Begin by establishing the proper execution of a basic lunge or split squat pattern and then work on volume (multiple reps). The proper technique (stability, posture, and body alignment) is:
    • Front foot flat and stable
    • Back foot on the ball of foot with toes flexed
    • Knees Aligned with hip and feet
    • Front knee directly over the lead ankle (some allowances depending on body structure)
    • Hips flexed and horizontally aligned
    • Torso vertical with shoulders directly above hips
    • Lumbar spine remains neutral
    • Torso remains centered over base of support
    As with all exercise patterns, the objective is to increase intensity and complexity incrementally over time. For the split squat as well as for squats, there are many different components you can add to increase difficulty. You can raise the back foot (Bulgarian squat). You can add a dynamic walking element (walking lunges). You can incorporate a lifting component (e.g., walking lunges with a dumbbell hammer curl and overhead press) or a transverse plane component (walking lunges with trunk rotations). You can also make walking lunges more tennis specific by adding a tennis swing. The objective is to challenge your system with progressive overload and muscle confusion.
  5. Shoulder and upper extremity strengthening and stabilization
    I like to work with resistance bands – single bands (free standing, anchored at one end or anchored in the middle to work with each end of the band simultaneously or independently). The focus for all shoulder and upper extremity strength exercises is to address all types of movement of the shoulder and shoulder girdle in the three different planes of motion – sagittal (forward and back movements), frontal (side to side movements) and transverse (twisting or rotational movements). This includes adduction, abduction, flexion, extension, internal rotation, external rotation, medial rotation, lateral rotation, and 360° circumduction, horizontal abduction and adduction, scapular depression, elevation, protraction, and retraction (all of which come into play in tennis). The exercises I most often use for tennis are band pull aparts, straight arm pulldowns, single arm/offset rows and presses, high rows with external rotations, diagonal D2 flexions, internal and external rotations, flies and reverse flies, trunk rotations, side, front and diagonal raises, upright rows, and shoulder shrugs. Resistance band anchor points can be raised or lowered to target different muscle groups for many of these exercises. Grips can be varied to change the emphasis. For example, band pull aparts with a pronated grip combines horizontal abductions with medial shoulder rotations and band pull aparts with a supinated grip combine horizontal abductions with lateral shoulder rotations. You can progressively increase tension by using different weighted bands and/or doubling or tripling up bands. To add complexity, you can integrate movement patterns such as squat rows and split squat rows and presses and squat diagonal D2 flexions. Finally, try to maintain constant tension with the bands by adjusting your hand positioning or body positioning in reference to the anchor point.
  6. Core training
    The function of core muscles is to:
    • Control center of gravity
    • Establish and control balance, stability, alignment, posture and center of gravity
    • Stabilize and support midsection to provide a platform of support for jumping, throwing, and changing directions rapidly
    • Transmit forces between the upper and lower body
    • Protect the spine and back
    The requirement of core training is to strengthen and stabilize the core muscles (to create torso stiffness). Best core exercises maintain a neutral spine with movement originating from the hips and not the back. Planks and pushups as well as squats and split squats contribute to building core stability and strength. There are other floor-based exercises that can be included in a workout program. I approach floor exercises from four different positions – prone (lying face down) position, supine (lying face up), quadruped or tabletop (on hands and knees) and bridge (lying face up with knees bent and hips off of floor in alignment with the torso) plus front, reverse and side plank positions as referenced before. Prone position exercises include supermans, swimmers and snow angels. Examples of supine position exercises are McGill curls, leg raises and windshield wipers. I like to have players work up to hollow holds (a more difficult supine position to master). In the hollow hold position your back is pressed into the ground and your legs, shoulders and arms are raised off the ground. Exercises include a standard hollow hold for time, hollow hold rocks and hollow hold presses, pullovers and flies with dumbbells or a medicine ball. Quadruped or tabletop exercises include leg raises, donkey kicks, bird dogs and cat/camels. Quadruped exercises can be made more difficult by raising your knees off the ground and by integrating other components (such as resistance band rows). Bridge (or glute bridge) exercises include holds, leg raises, leg marches and hip dips. You can elevate your legs to increase intensity. As with the hollow hold, I like to work with dumbbells or kettlebells to perform glute bridge dumbbell presses, flies, and pullovers. Anti-rotation exercises (particularly vertical-based anti-rotation exercises) also serve to strengthen and stabilize the core muscles. Anti-rotation exercises work to build core stability and strength by training the primary core muscles to resist force and prevent rotation and torque. Anti-rotation exercises include torsional buttressing, unilateral, unilateral loaded and force resistance moves. Examples include single-arm resistance band chest presses, rows and flies, shoulder tap/dumbbell renegade planks, kettlebell or dumbbell single-arm swings, and single-arm suitcase, rack and waiter carries.
  7. Agility, footwork, speedwork and explosive power
    Time should be dedicated to working on agility, quickness, complex coordination, tennis specific footwork patterns, dynamic balance and at a more advanced level, explosive power through plyometrics.
    • I like to incorporate sprinting drills such as A skips (high knee hopping and skipping action), B skips (A skips with a kick, snap down and negative foot strike) and C skips (A skips with hip rotations), bounds, and sprints from a crossover, high plank and mountain climber start. I work with 5 – 30 second sprints at submaximal or maximal intensity (depending on the goals) with 1:3 – 1:5 work to recovery ratios. An example would be a 10 second sprint at high intensity followed by a 30 second slow jog or walk repeated 12 times for total time of eight minutes or a 20 second sprint at high intensity followed by a one-minute slow jog or walk repeated six times for total time of eight minutes of work. To integrate patterns, one option is to do repeated medicine ball overhead throws (reverse overhead heaves, rotational side throws) and sprints to run down and retrieve the medicine ball or catch the medicine ball on the bounce (if working on a firm surface).
    • Jumping rope (with progressively more complex patterns and cadences) can be included in this segment or in the introduction as part of the dynamic warm-up.
    • There are many agility patterns using ladders, small hurdles, Bosu balls and plyometric boxes. Standard ladder drills or patterns include one in the hole, two in the hole, Ickey shuffle, hopscotch, and slalom. Almost all the patterns (using ladders, hurdles, etc.) can include hitting or shadow hitting. For example, a player can move using a crossover step up and over a Bosu ball to then hit a forehand followed by the same pattern in the opposite direction to hit a backhand. The focus is short, bursts of intense effort for 10 to 30 seconds followed by 20 to 25 seconds of recovery between efforts.
    • The lines on the court can be used for many different agility patterns such as forward and backward line hops, single leg forward and backward line hops, lateral line hops, single Leg lateral line hops, scissors, line jacks and Heisman high knees.
    • Cones are particularly effective in working on complex footwork patterns, acceleration/deceleration, dynamic balance, and multi-directional speed work. Cone-to-cone patterns include traditional pro agility, Illinois agility and letter Z, X, L and M courses. Cones can also be set up for various weave/slalom courses. As with all footwork and agility options, cone patterns can include shadow swinging or hitting of hand-fed balls.
    • Plyometrics engage the muscles through the stretch shortening cycle. The stretch-shortenings cycle is an active stretch of eccentric contraction of a muscle or muscle group followed by an immediate shortening or concentric in of the same muscle or muscle group. In this process of rapid stretch and eccentric contraction, the muscles and accompanying tendons experience an increase in their elastic energy. This elastic energy is released when the eccentric contraction is followed by an immediate concentric contraction leading to an increase in force production. It is the process that defines many plyometric moves such as the squat jump, squat tuck jump, alternating lunge jump, drop jump and bounds (all of which could be included in a tennis-specific fitness conditioning program). I also like to include box jumps and step ups.
  8. Pull-Ups
    The pull-up is a compound exercise which strengthens muscles in the upper back, shoulder, and arms. The primary muscles worked are the lats (latissimus dorsi). The secondary muscles worked are the biceps, rear deltoids, forearm flexors and rotator cuffs. The pull-up also helps build grip strength essential for tennis. The pull-up can be varied with different grips (pronated, supinated, mixed supinated and pronated and neutral), grip widths (narrow to wide) and thumb positions (over, under or no thumbs). The motion can also be varied. Generally, you want to achieve full range of motion (fully extending up and down) but this can be achieved with constant tension or with a “dead hang” in which you fully relax and pause at the bottom of the exercise. Pull-ups can also be achieved with a gymnastic hip snap to create momentum and swing (“kipping” or “butterfly” pull-ups). If unable to do pull-ups, start at chin level and hold this position for as long as you can and then after slowly dropping down continue to hang onto the bar with arms fully suspended for as long as possible. Scapular pull-ups also provide a good starting platform. Beginning from a passive, fully extended hanging position, work on depressing and retracting your shoulder blades (almost like a reverse shrug). Keep your arms extended and pull your head away from the bar as you draw your shoulder blades together. Hold for one second and then repeat. This scapular depression/retraction is the key motion necessary to initiate a complete pull-up. Just like push-ups, if you can do one pull-up, you can do two and if you can two, you can do three, etc.
  9. Stretching and flexibility
    The most common type of stretching, static stretching, is executed by extending the targeted muscle group to its maximal point and holding it for 30 seconds or more.
    There are two types of static stretches:
    • Active: Added force is applied by the individual for greater intensity
    • Passive: Added force is applied by an external force (e.g., partner or assistive device) to increase intensity.
    Using a foam roller or similar device, myofascial release relieves tension and improves flexibility in the fascia (a densely woven specialized system of connective tissue that covers and unites all the body’s compartments), and underlying muscle. Perform small, continuous back-and-forth movements over a targeted area of two to six inches for 30 to 60 seconds.
  10. How to tie everything together
    What to include and how to program? Normally the focus is to start with more complex, muti-joint compound exercises before single-joint, isolation exercises. Other options include alternating push and pull exercises and alternating lower body with upper body exercises (or focusing on lower body exercises first before upper body exercises). In sequencing the components of this largely body-weight program, I would recommend beginning with a dynamic warm-up and then in this order squats/squat-based exercises, split-squats/split squat-based exercises, planks/pushups, shoulder strength and stabilization, pull-ups, footwork, speed and agility patterns and/or plyometrics and core floor-based and anti-rotational exercises followed by stretching and myofascial release. Not everything has be included in one session. It is possible (and quite reasonable) to break out components into different days (such as separate the footwork, speed, agility and/or plyometrics into a different day).
    Repetitions, sets and time commitments – The general premise for repetitions when working with weight loads is a lower number of repetitions for more intense strength-based exercises (when working with 80 – 90% of one repetition max weight loads) and a larger number of repetitions for less intense muscular endurance-based exercises (when working with 60 – 70% of one repetition max weight loads). For this program (which utilizes mostly body weight-based exercises), I would suggest eight – 15 repetitions or repetitions to fatigue and two to three sets for squats and split squats. I normally set up a circuit for shoulder strength and stabilization (grouping exercises by the different resistance band anchor points). Descending pyramids (progressively lower number of repetitions) and ascending pyramids (progressively higher number of repetitions) work well with pull-ups and push-ups. Agility, footwork, and speed patterns should be timed based. Everything can be modified based on your time commitment. To achieve the best results, I would recommend 20 -60 minutes of purposeful exercise two to three days per week combined with time on the court hitting tennis balls.
    Rest and recovery – As per the General Adaptation System (GAS) principle, it is imperative to build in time for rest and recovery. Work to rest ratios between sets or timed sequences/circuits should range from 1:2 to 1:5 (as per the standard work to rest ratios for competitive tennis) with the intensity of your effort and the goals of your workout dictating actual times for rest and recovery. The program should have days between workouts for active recovery. Active recovery as the name suggests does not mean no activity. It could include cross training and other sporting activities and should include tennis.

This is a lot but there is a lot more that could be included in setting up a tennis-specific conditioning program. What I could have included but did not reference are kettlebell swings (particularly alternating arm kettlebell swings). Kettlebell swings and other applications using kettlebells can be extremely beneficial for tennis. Exercises using a suspension trainer can be incorporated into a tennis-specific program. Suspension trainers are portable and can be easily connected to tennis fencing. I would recommend using the components outlined above as a basis to get started and then experiment and make modifications to determine what works best for you and your goals and what you are most likely going stick with over the long term.

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