Tennis requires a combination of strength, speed, agility, fast reflexes and above all, endurance. Legs provide the base of a tennis player, and they have to be strong and agile. Shoulders and arms are essential for power play, and the core should be able to hold it all together. Tennis players are amazing athletes and have to dedicate a lot of time to fitness and conditioning to reach the top of their game.
Here we share some general advice plus tips from 4 great tennis stars: Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova.
“If you really want to go deep in a major tournament then just look how hard the top guys work”. John McEnroe
Tennis is now a very physically demanding sport that requires superior fitness as well as excellent tennis ability. Many good players have failed in recent years because they did not have the stamina to allow them to stay focused for an entire match. Like any other activity, as soon as you start to become physically tired, your mental processes start to deteriorate rapidly. Tennis players have to be “fighting fit” just like solders and martial artists.
Staying fit in tennis
Interval training for tennis
Tennis involves relatively short periods of intensive exercise followed by rest. So just jogging 5 miles a day will not create a good player. Interval training is the key. If you can use a tennis court for training, then after a warm up, perform sprints along the length of the court, followed by a recovery exercise such as jogging along the base line, then do another intensive sprint. Also run backwards and sideways along the widths of the court.
The key is to learn to endure short intensive periods, and then take ‘active rest’ i.e. jogging to recover, but it is vital not to stop. On court often the fitter player will win.
Andy Murray runs 400m intervals as a part of his training, usually performing 4 laps of a running track in total. These runs are designed to ensure that he increases his power and endurance so that he can withstand long games.
Train to move like a tennis player
Fitness training on the court should mimic the moves a tennis player performs:
- Sprint forwards – starting from the tennis stance
- Side step backwards, training both side
- Sprint forward then walk back to the base line
Training these simple movements will improve performance on the court during a game. Tennis players sprint forwards to meet the ball then side step to reposition or simple walk back to the base line to get ready for the next serve.
Repeating these moves builds the specific strength in the muscles, ligaments and tendons and makes the moves come more naturally. These exercises can be used to warm up before training begins.
Circuit training for tennis
Press ups, crunches, star jumps, squat thrusts, squats and lunges are all excellent ways to prepare the body for tennis. Performing body workouts / callisthenics helps to improve muscular endurance and also strengthens supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Strength training for tennis
Tennis, as with all sports, is as much a game of strength as skill. In the last decade we have seen players become stronger on court. Games are often now dominated by the big servers – they are tall and powerful.
The core strength exercises are squats, lunges, calf raises, flyes, leg extensions and curls. All strength training should be done in moderation during competition season to ensure recovery is made before a match. Squats and lunges provide strong legs, but aim for muscular endurance rather than attempting to hit your one rep max on every training session. Learn how to build muscles for power.
- All types of bicep curls should be performed: standard curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, preacher curls and also wrist curls. You want to build athletic biceps not just big biceps.
- Flyes can be done on a bench with dumbbells or as cable flyes. These help to improve your hitting power.
- Lateral raises, done with dumbbells, can help improve back hand power too.
- Stretching all muscles well after training is essential, so always allow time for at least 10 minutes of stretching after your workout.
- Tennis requires a perfect balance between core strength, agility, flexibility and endurance.
Tennis is really like any other athletic sport. You need to take in a good balance of carbohydrate to provide fuel for the muscles and protein for muscle repair and regeneration.
One of Andy Murray’s regular meals is 2 jacket potatoes and a tin of tuna after a long session. This provides all the carbohydrates needed to recover your glycogen stores and protein for muscle repair. It is thought that 200g of carbohydrate and 50g of protein is ideal for quick recovery. This just happens to be the equivalent of 2 baked potatoes and a tin of tuna.
The key really is to ensure that you stay well hydrated and have a well balanced diet. If you do more weight training to build strength then consider increasing protein intake, but for most of your training you should focus on carbohydrates.
Tennis specific workouts
Tennis players should try to balance their workouts with sessions concentrating on muscular endurance, strength, flexibility and cardio. High intensity interval training and circuit training geared to tennis are ideal. A typical tennis workout should include:
- Weighted squats (see The Squat)
- Weighted lunges
- Shoulder press
- Pull ups / chin Ups
- Push ups / bench press
- Dumbbell flyes
- Bicep curls
- Calf raises
- Leg extensions
- Jumping jacks
- Box jumps
Let’s now look at some specific workouts and drills that famous tennis players have adopted over the years.
Andy Murray gets fit for tennis
Andy Murray is not shy when it comes to flexing his biceps to the crowd after a victory. This is not something that is traditionally seen on a tennis court, however, he has good reason to flex his biceps – he works hard on building strength and power and is proud of his physical accomplishments – he knows that it makes him a better player.
John McEnroe once suggested that Andy Murray did not have the physical fitness required to be Wimbledon champion. This really prompted Andy to change his fitness focus.
Andy Murray stands at just over 6 feet tall, so he has a naturally slim build. Andy Murray’s tennis training program is focused on developing athletic strength to improve his game as well as physical endurance.
As mentioned above, Murray makes good use of an athletics track in his fitness program. He runs 400m intervals to build up endurance and power. 400m is considered by some athletes to be the ultimate running challenge as you need both speed and endurance. Lactic acid starts to build up within a 400m run (whereas it does not build up to the same extent in the shorter sprints) so this is a good way to train. Andy Murray can run 400m in less than 50 seconds, which is an impressive time.
Murray has revealed that he has a “secret weapon“. As upper body strength and endurance is vital in tennis, especially for power serves and powerful rallies, Andy Murray concentrated his strength training on the arms and shoulders, with core training for improved balance and agility.
His main upper body exercise is the weighted chip-up, which simply involves performing a normal chin-up with a 20kg weight attached to a belt around the waist. The chip up forms one of the main exercises in the Motley Health “Core Four” Workout, the others being Clean and Press, Bench Press and Bent Over Row. These four basic compound weight training exercises form the basis of many athletic weight training routines. Also, the standard biceps curl should be added in some workouts for increased development.
Murray’s fitness training is in good hands, with fitness coaches Jez Green and Matt Little, continuing to guide him. Murray spent the winter in a training camp in Florida, ensuring that damp British weather would not hold him back from his intensive physical regime. As well as standard strength and fitness routines.
Bikram yoga and sushi!
Green and Little introduced Murray to Bikram yoga, also know as “hot yoga”, in which exercises are performed in 40C heat to help with mental strength and to prepare for matches in high temperatures.
Murray’s diet has also been carefully monitored to ensure that he continues to improve in strength and fitness. Jez Green acts as sports nutritionist, and recommends that Murray eats foods like sushi within 30 minutes of finishing long matches or training sessions.
Jez Green says that sushi is “a perfect mix of protein and carbohydrates which rebuild his muscles and provide energy for subsequent matches. As he has been physically training really hard, his diet has become more and more important, especially in increasing his body weight.”
Andy Murray may not be as powerful as Nadal but he is certainly improving his physical game.
Roger Federer’s fitness training
Roger Federer is the most successful man in Wimbledon history, now ahead of Pete Sampras’ record of 14 grand slam titles.
Federer does not go for the bulking, super strong approach that Nadal and Murray strive for now, but rather the more traditional all round fitness. Emphasis is on circuit training for muscular endurance, core stability exercises and pure cardio, i.e. running, cycling, cross trainers.
But, that is not to say he does not lift weights, as he admits to enjoying weight training too, however for Federer, weight training is about complimenting his other training, and his tennis, and for his game the focus is not being the strongest player on the court, but the fastest, most agile, most skilful player. Federer has two assistants to help with his training, Pierre Paganini provide fitness instruction and Pavel Kovac is his physiotherapist.
Lateral lunges and medicine ball throws
Two exercises which Federer does to develop a strong base and a powerful swing are the lateral lunge with a twist and the medicine ball toss.
The lunge and twist combination is very specific to tennis and aims to mimic the efforts on the body when reaching and playing a shot. It is done simple by holding and empty weight training bar on your shoulders (or a broom handle) and stepping forward into a lunge and then twisting to face the side, as if you are playing a shot.
The medicine ball toss is something seen more in martial arts and boxing gyms, and simply aims to build functional strength to punch out. As it is a plyometric exercise rather than a resistance exercise, it should improve performance on the court more than just have bigger muscles.
Maybe Andy Murray and Nadal should take some tips from Federer’s book. Maybe tennis is not all about the stronger player now, but the one with the best combination of functional strength, agility and speed.
Serena Williams tennis workout
On 4th July 2009, Serena Williams won the Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis Championships Ladies final and the Women’s Doubles final with her sister Venus. She is certainly one of the strongest woman in tennis. What is great about seeing Serena is that she is proof that tennis is a game of strength.
She is certainly not as lean or athletic looking as either her sister Venus, or any of the other slim tennis players. However, she is obviously very strong. She seems to have put on a little weight over the last year, and possibly has the largest behind of any lady in tennis at the moment, but this has not affected her game. She is still very strong, with excellent muscular definition. Tennis requires both speed, agility and endurance. Strong legs and core are essential to maintain a solid stance throughout a 2 hour plus game, and also to provide explosive take-offs and quick changes of pace and direction.
Serena suffered a bad knee injury which affected her game from 2004 to 2006, however since 2007 she has been back on good form, although her knee injury and a hamstring injury have both caused her problems. Both of these injuries have meant that she has not been able to do the intensive cardio workouts that are required to keep the body very lean. However, she has maintained her strength training and this seems to be the deciding factor in both women’s and men’s tennis at the moment.
Serena’s strength training workouts
Core strength is vital in tennis. Serena has actually admitted that she does not enjoy hitting the gym big time, so with her niggling injuries this means that she really focuses on weight training rather than pure cardio. But she does also compliment her weight training with Bikram Yoga (which Andy Murray also does) and Pilates.
Squats and lunges are the key to building strong legs like Serena Williams. Also, we can see from the physique that she works on her upper body too, as strong shoulders, arms and chest are all evident. Her knee problems may have meant that she has gone easier on some of the leg extensions recently, but squats and lunges help to strengthen all the supporting muscle around the knees, so can help aid recovery and also help to reduce the impact of a knee injury.
It looks like Serena will continue to dominate tennis for several more years to come. Until someone fitter and stronger comes along, she will keep her crown as one of the most powerful female tennis players of all time.
See our strength training section to learn more about weight training and bodybuilding for improved athletic performance as well as weight loss.
Martina Navratilova’s fitness rules
Martina was an exceptionally fit tennis player and is still in great shape. In her 2006 book Shape Your Self she explains her rules of fitness. The rules are designed to keep you on track. This is a simple fitness guide that is designed to ensure that you get the most out of your fitness regime, whether it be for tennis fitness or any other fitness and health program.
Navratilova’s tennis career
Navratilova’s tennis career was outstanding. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles (a record that she still holds), and 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. She played in the Wimbledon singles final 12 times, including 9 consecutive years from 1982 through 1990, and she also won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon 9 times, which is still a record she holds.
If you want fitness advice from a tennis player then you cannot go wrong with listening to Martina. We shall be featuring more of her fitness and nutrition advice over the next few weeks.
1. Have fun
The more fun you have when exercising the better your workouts are. This is why martial arts and dance classes are often more effective then gym sessions.
2. Do not follow a set routine
Learn to exercise in a way that suits you. Plan your workout before, ensuring that you cover all the bases, that includes cardio, bodyweight exercises, weight training and stretching. Always push yourself to work harder too.
3. Ensure good form
No matter what sort of exercise you are doing ensure that you do it with good form. This will reduce injury and you will gain more.
4. Exercise first thing in the morning
If you always workout before you do anything else, distractions and unplanned events cannot stop you from exercising in the evening.
5. Stay consistent
Do not skip workouts or take holidays. As you get older your body takes longer to get back into it again, fitness levels drop very quickly. So no holidays, keep training every week, even if it is only 30 minutes a day.
6. Variety is the key
Do as many different things as possible and you will not get bored. Do not just run or just swim. Do everything, and keep changing. It is never to late to try new activities either, whether it be a martial art, tennis, squash, weight training or cycling.
7. Stay focused when exercising
Concentrate on your posture, your breathing and your work rate. Always be aware of what your body is doing, do not switch off.
8. Breathe right
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This helps you to control the intensity of your workout and prevents you training beyond your capacity. You should also feel more refreshed. When in recovery mode try to breathe from the abdomen. These rules do not apply to swimming though.
9. Set yourself goals, challenge yourself
Getting fit is about being able to do more each week. Go faster, go further, train for longer, lift heavier. Whatever it is, progress upwards, do not get stuck in the same old routine.
10. Do something that you can become good at
If you choose an exercise that you can master, this provides greater focus and motivation in the long term and boosts your confidence.
11. Make a weekly plan
To avoid forgetting, make a plan. If you do not have time to exercise you need to reorganize your life, do not give up looking after yourself.
12. Be careful and sensible off season
If you play sports or athletics be careful what you do, and don’t do, in the off season. Do not take up dangerous sports.
The ultimate trick is to learn to love your exercise so that you look forward to it every day and relish the thought of creating a new weekly workout each week. If people put as much effort into planning their weekly exercise as they plan their television viewing there would be many more fitter and healthier people living today.