Bird's Tennis Tips: Weight Lifting

October 2, 2005

Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

<sniff> My first e-mail question. Dear readers, this is a momentous occasion!

Marli in South Africa writes:

Dear Bird,

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 decision?

Kind regards,

Marli

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 foggiest.

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 weights?

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 and such?"

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 into focus.

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 little easier.

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 actions tennis-specific.

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 of tennis.

Allistair McCaw

Allistair's expertise is illuminated on his website, TennisFit.com.

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 big.

What do you all think? Write me with your tennis questions, comments, tips, etc. If anyone needs me, I'll be at the gym.

They serve beer there, don't they?

Send your tennis questions and comments to Mike Swanberg at bird@tennis-x.com
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