Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston
University and each month he will give us a new tennis
<sniff> My first e-mail question. Dear readers, this is a
Marli in South Africa writes:
My best friend is a junior tennis player ... and
we are having this huge discussion over whether he should
train with weights, build muscle, drink protein (end
up looking like Rafael Nadal) or should he rather focus
on doing many reps with low weights?
He is still very young but has great talent and
I do not want to give him the wrong advice and hurt
his chances for the future.
Could you give me some advice - or steer me towards
a column/webpage/book that will help us make an educated
Marli, I think it's great that you want to ride your friend's
coattails to stardom. I wish I had stayed close to my old tennis
buddies who made it big.
As to your question, well, Marli, I'll tell ya... I haven't the
Just kidding. I have an idea, but the thing is, this
is somewhat a subjective thing to discuss. People will
disagree, but I am going to give my opinion and try
to show the benefits to both sides of thought. As well,
we here at Tennis-X.com asked Allistair McCaw, who as
recently as the 2005 US Open served as WTA Top 20 player
Nathalie Dechy's physical trainer until they parted
ways. We'll see if his advice meshes with mine.
Okay, to address Marli's point, let's look at weight
training in general in reference to tennis. What is
the difference between lower reps (repetitions) with
bigger (heavier) weights and higher reps with lower
Exercising with larger weights and doing fewer reps
is the way to "bulk up." This increases muscle
mass and makes them stronger. As the muscles are torn
down and rebuild themselves, they increase in mass,
allowing them to be able to handle greater loads in
the future. Higher reps with lower weights, on the other
hand, do not increase muscle mass as much, but will
tend to lengthen muscles, increase their resilience,
and make them more flexible.
In my opinion, for tennis, there is really only one reason to try
and increase muscle mass, and that is if you are just puny and need
to be bigger. Some people simply do not have the strength to make the
racquet do what they need it to. A very good friend of mine, bless
his heart, just doesn't have a lot of upper-body strength, and his
serve suffers from it. He simply cannot get the racquet arm timed
properly with the tossing arm. I think he could benefit from some
upper-body strength training. But the problem with bulking up in
tennis is that it reduces flexibility. Tennis players need to be
flexible, above all. As well, the main benefit to strength training
in tennis is to help prevent injury.
But I can hear all of you asking, "But I want
to hit the ball harder! Shouldn't I be taking steroids
and protein shakes and lifting heavy objects, like automobiles
Not at all. Hitting a tennis ball with a lot of pace
(speed and/or spin) comes from timing and proper contact,
not from strength. Sure, strength might help some, but
real power in tennis comes from generating racquet head
speed, which can be done without "muscling"
the racquet. Furthermore, there is only so much power
a tennis ball can take before it's simply going to go
out. For instance, here is a little something you can
try. Stand on the baseline and drop balls and whip the
racquet head into it to hit a very loose-wristed forehand.
You will soon see that it is easy to clear the net by
a few inches and still hit the ball deep (past the opposite
baseline). The conclusion is that the ball must be hit
properly or else it won't go in.
I am reminded of my youth when fast-serve contests were won by big
brutes who just gripped-and-ripped the ball. Eventually, the contests
changed so that any serve that was not in did not count. Suddenly,
proper technique became paramount in such endeavors.
Okay, so we're getting a little off-topic. Let's bring it back
I believe that high reps with lower weights is much more
beneficial to tennis players. This helps prevent injury, add
resilience and flexibility, and makes playing this wacky sport a
As for Marli's friend, I think the big key here is
that he's a junior player. If he is playing in the under
18s division, then he's probably 16 or 17. At this age,
I would say it's just a little too young to be bulking
up anyway. I'm no expert, but I'm sure Men's Health
magazine or some similar publication would be a good
source of information on what age is right to begin
serious strength training.
Okay, here is Allistair McCaw's response to this question:
This is probably the most frequently asked question
I get in junior tennis. Weight training: Good or Bad.
Well, after 20 years of
training with weights, Agassi swears by it and it certainly
hasn't hurt his career. Particularly in junior tennis
when you mention "weight training" straight
away the alarm bells with parents go to: "Getting
big, maximum bench press, and Arnold-like biceps."
Firstly, genetics plays
a big role in what happens to the body when undertaking
a strength program. The chances of a person with an
ectomorph body, a Daniela Hantuchova or a Max Mirnyi
for example, will very unlikely be 'bulky or stocky'
no matter how many hours they spend in the gym.
Specific weight training
for the junior tennis player, and I say "specific,"
is advisable for the player 15 years and up. In [his]
case and at this stage of his career, his focus should
be on generating relative strength and power in the
prime movers. With weights he should start slowly, focus
on good technique and aim for steady progression.
Specific strength training
for the tennis player is divided into 2 categories:
in-season and off-season strength training. There is
a difference. In season the focus is on maintaining
strength. The type of training should be high repetition,
lighter weights and staying specific to the over-used
muscles that tennis requires (rotators, shoulders, glutes,
hips etc.). 1-2 sessions every 10 days is enough, mixing
the exercises and muscle groups per session. An important
note here is that I always have the player do exercises
with a theraband or resistance tube to maintain elasticity
in the muscle(s) worked. Off-season is the only time
when the player should be using "heavier"
weights. This is the period when there are no tournaments
and the focus is on building a sound base of strength
for the season ahead. However, even during this period,
I never have the player too far away from a medicine
ball or resistance tube to keep them loose and their
On a final note and probably
the most important is that the player is under the right
guidance and taught how to train using weights. Stay
away from instructor's who promote "getting big"
and try to find someone who understands the biomechanics
Allistair's expertise is illuminated on his website,
I think his advice is excellent. I particularly like
the emphasis placed on in-season and off-season training.
As well, he seems to be saying that using "heavier"
weights does not necessarily mean using heavy weights.
So, unless you are going to switch from tennis to bodybuilding,
I don't think tennis players need to focus much on getting
What do you all think? Write me with your tennis questions,
comments, tips, etc. If anyone needs me, I'll be at
They serve beer there, don't they?
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