A couple years back, I watched the end of a Davis Cup match between Richard Gasquet of France and Philip Bester of Canada. I remember this match quite vividly. Bester played well but inevitably lost in straight sets to the frenchman Gasquet.
What struck me though, was not the match itself but what Bester had to say in his post-match interview:
“Physically, it’s another level. I need to continue to work on getting stronger and fitter and hopefully one day be up and playing against these guys.”
I personally have no idea what Bester’s off-court training regimen looked like but if it’s anything similar to the tennis fitness programs I’ve seen over the past 15 years, I can tell you with almost certainty that he won’t get stronger - at least not the type of strength he’s looking for...and not the type of strength required for high performance tennis.
Lifting heavy for tennis can be a good thing
Bester’s comments echo the sentiments of most players...they want to get stronger. The truth is, many players, coaches and tennis proponents have something against strength training. Or at least the strength training I’m referring to.
I’m not talking about the leg press machine or band work, or core training or even lunges. I’m referring to the type of strength training that requires an athlete to lift some sort of appreciable amount of weight….the strength training that other athletes in other sports are using to get faster, more explosive, more resistant to injury....the strength training that the tennis world believes is bad for your knees, or your back, or your feel or [insert any comment here]….I think you get my point.
You see, most programs see players performing the regular 3 sets of 8. What I’m proposing, is something like 8 sets of 3. To get stronger, the loads used must be close to a player’s max. If we train in high rep ranges, strength isn’t the primary quality being targeted.
That’s the loading scheme that bodybuilders use to get bigger. We don’t want players to get bigger, we want their nervous system to function better. We want to activate type 2x muscle fibres. And we want to recruit those fibres quickly. Ultimately, this will improve force expression, explosiveness, body composition and more!
Strength Training for Tennis Isn’t Bodybuilding
Please don’t confuse what I’m saying here. I don't believe strength training is the be all end all. I don’t even believe that it’s an absolute requirement to do well at the pro level. Some have done well without it (or despite it...depending on how you look at it). I do however, believe that many players these days see the merits of gaining real strength.
Let's get one thing clear - strength training can come in many forms. Want to know how bodybuilders get big? They lift moderately heavy loads for high reps...exhausting the muscle. That's NOT what we're after. Limiting that 'burning feeling' is key - because that's what'll make a player big and slow!
On top of that, tennis players don't have to spend endless amounts of time in the weight room. But they should work on various forms of weight training, including explosive strength, starting strength, speed strength and maximal strength - to name a few. Strength training qualities important for all athletes, not just tennis players.
Regardless of the type of strength we’re employing, it’s a matter of intent. In other words, to gain a faster first step, we must move moderate loads quickly - this is power. To learn to absorb forces, similar to the deceleration phase when running down a tough wide ball, we must absorb a heavy load under control - this is eccentric strength.
The end product in my opinion is quite clear - if you increase a tennis player’s ability to produce force - or absorb it - you’ll probably (not a direct cause and effect) have an influence on their ability to use that force on court....when moving laterally, changing direction, bursting to the net to run down a drop shot or generating more racquet head speed on a short ball.
Some players on tour have adopted this type of strength training. On the women’s side, Stosur and Azarenka have been in the press because of their off-court training regimes. A couple years back, Azarenka even hired the former strength & conditioning coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Or how about Agassi? Remember when he started working with Gil Reyes, former strength coach for the University of Nevada’s basketball program. Agassi squatted. And benched. He was in the best shape of his life.
But what about improving other qualities important for tennis?
Tennis coaches ask me the following questions all the time. How can we improve a player’s footwork? Shouldn’t they be doing some band work to prevent shoulder injuries (side note, band work is useful for warm-up purposes...and that’s about it). Why can’t they hit harder? You know the best way to improve these qualities?….Tennis!
Practice the proper footwork on court. Improve technical deficiencies. Monitor the amount and intensity of time spent on court to prevent overuse injuries. Want to improve coordination and timing? Play with someone better than you, who hits harder than you and with more precision than you. The focus and attention that this type of training requires is exhausting, but worth it.
The most specific form of physical training for tennis is….tennis. Many of us forget this. Playing tennis is a physical activity. It targets many physical abilities. It’ll tax your cardiovascular system...it’ll work on your reactive abilities...you’ll lunge, jump, stretch, backpedal and so much more.
I’d love my players to be the strongest & fastest athletes around. But that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be the best tennis players...leave the specifics for the court.
Because a proper, formal, strength & conditioning program - one that includes various form of strength, acceleration, plyometric and flexibility training - can be a tremendous tool to help supplement what will inevitably still be the most important component of your tennis training... tennis.
Does this post have you reconsidering your training program? If so, you'll probably enjoy some of my other writings on max strength training for tennis, a new way of approaching tennis conditioning and how to use plyometrics to improve explosive on-court power.
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Today’s integrated session with @mattspoint_tennis Few things worked on: 1. Reactive ability (via hurdles) 2. Timed movement drills (respecting work:rest ratios) 3. Hip thrust on forehands (radar acts as biofeedback) 4. Work capacity (via an explosive-driven practice) It’s not enough to perform the physical work. For transfer, similar feedback & cues need to be implemented… For example, ‘reactive’ jumps need to become ‘reactive’ split-steps… For those interested, these guys did the 1 cross-court/1 down the line drill with a pyramid work: rest structure: 25s work:25s rest 20s work:25s rest 15s work:25s rest 10s work:25s rest Etc.. Along with a longer rest period after each full cycle - #tennis #tenis