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Strength & Conditioning: Circuit Training for Tennis

By Donald A. Chu Ph.D.

Circuit training is a method of exercising that involves “stations” where calisthenics, machines, free weights, or plyometrics can be used.  This system of training is actually a form of interval training.  The system usually relies on “timed” bouts of exercise, although traditional sets/repetitions may also be utilized.  The athlete will work at each station for a specific period of time with a measured rest or recovery period between each exercise.

Circuit weight training is extremely useful for the tennis player who has only brief periods of time to train for both strength and endurance and does not need maximal levels of either.  This type of training is also useful for the tennis player when they are in the peak of their competitive season.  It allows for acceptable gains in fitness without maximal time being spent achieving it.

Circuit weight training typically has an exercise to rest ratio of 1:1 or greater.  Placing a heart rate monitor on the athlete during the course of the circuit allows the coach to regulate intensity in a very exact way.  If the athlete is not working at a high enough intensity the coach would simply reduce the rest period.  If the recovery period is reduced to approximately 15 seconds the circuit becomes much more intense for the cardiovascular system.

Many different principles of exercise can be used during circuit training  The circuit that is presented is only one example of the various types of circuits that can be devised.

Circuit for Junior Player

Each of the following exercises is done for the prescribed number of set/reps or time intervals.  Typically, all of the exercises can be performed for set/reps combinations of 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps or time intervals of 40-45 seconds per station.  Work-rest ratio is 1:1.

(1) Seated Row (Machine) - followed by (2) Chest Press (Machine); These two exercises, when combined, form a “push-pull” combination that will work, first, the stabilizers of the scapula and the external rotators of the shoulder, and second, the anterior chest and biceps brachii that will help in strength during forehand strokes.  The third exercise, (3) Power Drop incorporates the use of a Plyo-Ball to form a “shock” exercise for the shoulders.  The purpose of this exercise is to familiarize the muscles with absorbing and reacting to impact.  This trains the muscles to respond quickly, much the way they have to when hitting tennis strokes.

The next “tri-set” includes a cable exercise, (4) Lat Pull, followed by (5) Dumbbell Pullover.  This set forms a “superset” of the latissimus dorsi muscles.  Both exercises work the same muscle group.  These two are followed by another Plyo-ball exercise, (6) Sit-Up Toss, again directed at the lat muscle group.

Dumbbell exercises are excellent for developing isolated arm muscle strength.  The first in this series is (7) Hammer Curls, done with the thumb in the “up” position.  This exercise stresses the brachioradialis muscle of the forearm.  This muscle is essential in having a strong grip and steady hold on the racket.  Compound joint movements are useful in developing functional exercises.  The (8) “Thumb-out, Thumb-in” exercise incorporates rotation of the shoulder joint as well as abduction of the shoulder.  This allows for rotator cuff development as well as large muscle development of the shoulder. 

Finally, the shoulders are taxed using a total body exercise, (9) Push Press.  This exercise is done by starting with a slight flex in the knees and using the total body to push the weight overhead.  Utilizing dumbbells again allows for the work to be isolated at each shoulder.

Trunk strength is imperative in the success of any athlete.  Tennis players are certainly aware of the need for strength and range of motion in this area.  The exercise of choice for the low back area is (10) Back Hyperextension.  The placement of the hands can change the amount of resistance applied during this movement, i.e. hands in the low back area, crossed against the chest, and finally, behind the head.  This should always be paired with some form of abdominal strengthening movement such as the (11) Crunch.  Repeating each exercise in back-to-back sets works the trunk as if it were a cylinder, and maintains muscle balance between the two areas of the body.

The final group of exercises focuses on the lower extremities.  It is designed to utilize a sub-maximal Plyometric exercise first to serve as a warm-up and to teach reactivity.  (12) Footwork Pattern, utilizes a footwork drill in which the athlete jumps to each square along the base then jumps all the way back to the starting point.  This works on lateral movement as well as reactivity in general.  This is followed by a more intense Plyometric jump drill known as a (13) Depth Jump.  This exercise requires that the athlete have an existing strength base.  However, it is an excellent drill for developing vertical drive and power which would have direct carryover to serving.  
Finally, a pure strength developer in the form of a free weight (14) Squat is used to develop hip and leg strength and stabilization.
The organization of this circuit is done by grouping exercises into mini-circuits known as “tri-sets”.  All of these exercises could be performed in a series of 14 exercises.  They all embody aspects of sound training principles, and have specific goals of isolated muscle development as well as sport specific muscle enhancement.  It is truly a testimony to the variety and functional nature of circuit training.

Once a needs analysis and testing/assessment is conducted, a program can be designed that is individual and comprehensive.  Each stage in an athlete’s development requires constant change and modification of the various modes and methods of training according to the goals and needs determined by the player, coach, and conditioning specialist.  The successful athlete will have an optimal mix of various training methods.

Editor’s note:  Since exercises (8) and (9) are performed above shoulder level, they should be avoided by players who have a history of shoulder pain or injury.

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