The traditional goal of most strength programs for athletic performance has been focused on increasing maximum strength. Athletes typically train at 75 to 95 percent of their one repetition maximum effort, hoping to achieve greater one repletion weight scores. How does this training method transfer to improved tennis performance? Not well, because athletes lift heavy weights slowly and tennis movements are characterized by mid- to high-velocity efforts.
The goal of off-court tennis training should be the development of power which, in simple terms, is the capacity to generate force quickly. If you are familiar with fundamental physics, then you recognize the mathematical formula: Power (p)=Force (f) x Velocity (v). The highest power outputs in this formula occur in the mid-range of both variables.
Athletes who lack strength will see an initial increase in power as they increase maximum strength. Studies indicate that in less experienced athletes, increases in strength and gains in power are highly correlated. The research also indicates, however, that once strength thresholds have been reached, power improvements are gained only at the high force/slow velocity end of the power curve. For tennis, this means that once you are strong enough to manage a fast racket, more strength development will do little to help you better perform tennis movements. You develop explosive or ballistic ball striking power by training with lower forces at higher velocities.
Power developing exercises include:
►Olympic Lifts: High power, high force, full body, coordination movements.
►Plyometric Exercises: Fast movements designed to recruit fast twitch muscle fibers.
►Ballistic Weight Efforts: Body-area specific movements for gains in high rates of body system force production.
One of my personal favorite power training exercises are medicine ball throws from an athletic stance ready position, as well as a split-squat stance. These movements use light weights that can be managed at high speeds. Since the throws are mechanically and neuromuscularly similar to the rotational movements in tennis strokes, medicine ball throws are a great way to build explosive power, as well as isolate and correct mechanical movement issues. As a matter of practical application, I've often found it easier and more effective to identify and correct a stroke by cleaning up the corresponding medicine ball movement than by addressing the actual stroke.
Tennis strokes performed at the highest level strive to be "stretch-shorten cycle" movements, where an eccentric contraction precedes a concentric contraction. This concept may mean little to an athlete, but should be well-understood by trainers and coaches because the resulting power gains from mastering this technique that elasticity stores and releases power from the loading phase have tremendous potential. Recent studies indicate that a strength exercise, followed by a related mobility exercise, followed by a corresponding power movement, will result in greater and safer elastic tendon release improvements then would be achieved by doing each of these exercises separately.
Maximum strength is a pre-requisite to power in tennis. While strength is important, the ultimate goal for improvement is the development of powerful tennis movements. A comprehensive and well-organized training approach with a foundation of power development will result optimal tennis performance.
Coaches and trainers must interact clearly and comprehensively to ensure that players are safely and effectively focusing on the physical skills and abilities they need, both on and off the court.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.