Question of the Day: Strength and Conditioning

by: Justin diFeliciantonio | October 14, 2012

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I’m a 32-year-old, 3.5 player who’s played the game for just shy of four years. When I first started, I’d take lessons a few times a week and just play with friends. But now I’m getting more serious, and am starting to compete in tournaments regularly during weekends. I want to improve my results, and know that getting fitter and stronger will help. But honestly, I don’t know where to begin, apart from going down to the local YMCA and hiring a trainer. So I have two questions. First, what are some general guidelines I should follow while training my body for tennis? Second, what strength and conditioning resources should I look to?—Hubert R.


It’s certainly important, Hubert, to prepare for competitive play with a well-thought-out strength and conditioning program—not just to enhance your performance, but to prevent injury as well. Indeed, too many people make the mistake of playing tennis in order to get in shape, when really, they should be getting in shape to play tennis. From strengthening your cardiovascular system and your core to improving your flexibility and balance—performing tennis-specific exercises is crucial to ensuring that you’re able to play the game long into the twilight years of your life.

So if you’re looking for a fitness lodestar, that’s it: Tailor your exercises to tennis.

“The number one biggest misconception is that you can train for tennis just like you train for other sports,” says Todd Ellenbecker, a licensed physiotherapist who advises the ATP World Tour and chairs the USTA Sport Science Committee. “In America, when you go down to the local gym to hire a strength and conditioning trainer, very often what you’ll find is that they’re good at training athletes for football or basketball, but not so good at training tennis players.”

One common example of this, Ellenbecker notes, is that tennis players mistakenly “use too much weight when lifting, particularly for the upper body. Tennis is an endurance sport, so you have to train for what we call local muscle endurance. Yes, you have to be explosive. And yes, you have to be strong. But doing one set of five reps for your shoulder muscles, for example, won’t help them too much for a match; [that exercise routine] won’t even last you one point, unless you've missed the ball after the first shot. As a general rule, tennis players need higher numbers of repetition, and therefore lighter weight to condition the body along the lines of the sport’s demands.”

Toward these ends, Hubert, I’d recommend that you check out the USTA’s Strength and Conditioning Program for Tennis, which can be downloaded free of charge from their website’s sport science section. The program—which comprises a series of dynamic warm-ups, as well as exercises for improving footwork and building strength—is easy to understand and requires only a few simple pieces of equipment, making it a great resource for amateur athletes.  

Of course, there’s no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to exercise. For this reason, the best course of action would be to begin working with a knowledgeable strength and conditioning coach. They’ll be able to evaluate your strengths and weakness and then tailor a plan specifically to your needs. According to the USTA, it’s important that you make sure your trainer is a certified CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) by the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), and that they’re aware of the physical demands of the game.

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