The great tennis professionals have mastered the art of quickness, endurance and power due to the single most important aspect of their game – balance. That attribute, which helps prevent injury and allows other aspects of their game to excel, is the key to success because it underlies all movements. Balance controls coordination, center of gravity, body angles and any unstable equilibrium encountered on the court.
Although not everyone can be an Andre Agassi, you can still become a complete athlete by training like the best. So what conditioning program should you follow to push your tennis game to the next level?
Experts contend that it's vital to train movements, not muscles. The brain does not recognize individual muscles, but instead patterns of movements. Performance and function are the result of a series of integrated and coordinated movements. Therefore, movements should be trained as opposed to training isolated muscles and then hoping to transfer that strength to a functional movement. Balance and training movements are also necessary for success in soccer, basketball, golf and gymnastics, but below are some ways you can adjust your tennis conditioning to improve your game.
Improving quickness and agility
Quickness and agility allow you to dart from side-to-side, change directions and start and stop quickly. Research shows a five-second point can require as many as four directional changes. That’s about one change every second. Court drills combined with plyometric exercises – explosive movements designed to create power, such as squat jumps, side shuffle and two-leg jumps – are a great way to enhance quickness and agility.
Improving endurance and stamina
Endurance training for tennis is a little different than the cardiovascular programs designed specifically for health and weight loss. Those usually emphasize maintaining your target heart rate for at least 30 minutes. Tennis, however, requires stamina in repeated high-intensity efforts. A match may include 300 to 500 short bursts of anaerobic effort, each five to 10 seconds long. Aerobic effort is also necessary, which provides endurance to play long matches and to recover quickly between points.
Nathan Brannon, assistant tennis coach for men and women at Wright State University and a Ph.D. candidate, said their emphasis is in an anaerobic dimension as opposed to aerobic. They initially run intervals on the steps at the Nutter Center and incorporate plyometrics to establish a foundation. That foundation is then translated to more anaerobic-type exercises consistent with the demands of match play.
“My main emphasis in the anaerobic exercises is to ‘lighten’ the feet to ‘smother’ the court,” Brannon says. “This makes the court seem smaller and significantly cuts down reaction time allowing our players to more easily dictate the pace of the match.”
Some of the many anaerobic exercises he implements include jumping rope, side-to-side leaps over the doubles alley and trunk exercises for the stomach and back.
Experts also say that interval training is a great way to achieve both anaerobic and aerobic conditioning. Interval training is a type of cardiovascular/endurance exercise where you alternate between “intervals” of high-intensity and low-intensity exercise. For example, sprinting for 10 seconds followed by walking for 30 seconds and then repeating the sequence for 30-60 minutes.
Improving movement, not muscle
Traditional strength programs have failed to take into account how much strength is enough and how much is necessary. Since strength is easier to develop than other qualities, athletes have spent more time improving strength rather than developing speed, timing, balance and other skills that would put their strength to greater use in performance. Strength is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The key is the application of the strength.
Instead of copying Olympic lifters – their only purpose is to gain as much strength as possible – tennis players need to concentrate on total body conditioning to achieve effective balance and coordination. A great exercise for tennis players to achieve balance is Pilates. The Pilates method of body conditioning restores the body’s natural balance and harmony. By focusing on abdominal and back muscles, individuals can improve their posture and help relieve the stress put on the lower back caused by poor flexibility in the hamstrings and weak abdominal muscles. Pilates also improves muscle flexibility, joint mobility, adds strength without bulk and aids in injury prevention. These all translate to tennis success.
By working on balance and training movements instead of muscles, greater success on the court is guaranteed.