In last month's issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine, I discussed the importance of building a sound physical base before rushing into plyometric training. This time out, rather than just offer up some generalized guidelines, I thought I'd lay out the actual progression I use with the athletes that I train. In doing so, I hope to give both coaches and players some insights into how this type of training can be used for optimal results.
When you're talking about training to develop explosive power, there really needs to be an underlying base of stability and strength in place first. Without it, not only will athletes lack the ability to absorb the tremendous impact forces generated during repeated jumps and throws, but they'll also be unable to apply any appreciable power into the movements. Besides yielding sub par results, this can dramatically increase their chances of injury. Take, for instance, an athlete with poor lower body stability, who's never engaged in any type of strength training before.
A simple analysis of their game—which, by the way, already includes tons of plyometric movements (i.e. lunging, bounding, rapidly rearing back and striking the ball, etc.)—will likely reveal numerous breakdowns in the kinetic chain. To subject him or her to additional "explosive power" training at this point would be ill-advised to say the least.
Instead, I offer the following progression for how to best integrate plyometric training into your conditioning plan. If you'd like to see these drills in action, log on to www.basesportsconditioning.com for complete pictures and descriptions.
Among my favorite drills for improving stability are the plank and unilateral lower body exercises. Unlike the overused sit-up or crunch, planks train the core in a manner much more similar to the way you'll use it on the court. With the exception of following through on a serve, there aren't many instances during a match where you'll be required to repeatedly flex your spine forward. And there will be exactly zero times when you'll be doing so lying on your back, hence the limited transfer of supine abdominal exercises. There will however be numerous occasions where your core needs to stay tightly braced, in order to provide your limbs the base of support they'll need to strike the ball.
As far as the lower body is concerned, before progressing athletes to squats, lunges or any number of other effective strengthening exercises, I like to get them used to working on one leg at a time. In addition to improving overall stability around the ankles, knees and hips, unilateral exercises also help improve dynamic balance. Considering the fact that many of the movements they'll execute on the court will take place with an uneven weight distribution, it's important that they become as stable as possible to help avoid injury. A couple of my favorite drills here include the one-legged balance, and the one-legged cone touch.
Lunges of all types are great; not just for tennis, but pretty much any ground-based sport you can imagine. Not only are they extremely applicable to the action of getting down and reaching for a ball, but in doing so require almost equal parts strength and flexibility. Also of note, besides being a great strengthening drill, lunges of any type, are in fact plyometric! Of course, you'll also want to get that core stronger as well. My top choice here would be the medicine ball woodchop drill. This challenging movement is one of the absolute best standing core exercises around and builds strength through a very large range of motion. Finally, to help strengthen the muscles of the upper back and rotator cuff, I recommend reverse flys.
Remember that proper execution is absolutely critical! Coaches should, therefore, make sure to carefully monitor the athlete's level of fatigue, and provide appropriate rest intervals to allow for optimal recovery. This usually entails at least a 4, or 5:1 rest to work ratio (i.e. if an athlete works for 10 sec. straight, he or she should rest 40-50 sec. before attempting the drill again). It's also extremely important to monitor landing mechanics on jumps … is the athlete absorbing force appropriately by flexing at the hips, knees and ankles and landing softly? Or, is the back rounding and/or knees caving in as soon as they contact the ground—the latter scenario clearly indicating a lack of readiness for the training. Top drills: Stick Jumps and Speed Skaters.
In terms of throwing exercises, make sure that you're working with the appropriate weight medicine ball. You don't want a ball so light that the drills aren't challenging, but it shouldn't be so heavy that it causes you to move too slowly. Remember, these are explosive drills that require a definite speed component! Top drills: Rotational Med Ball Throws and Slams.