Wayne Westcott Ph.D.  C.S.C.S.

Wayne Westcott Ph.D. C.S.C.S.

50-plus tennis players can prevent injury and improve performance through total-body strength training.

 Active older adults typically perform a variety of physical activities, but few of these provide progressive resistance exercise. For example, walking, running, cycling, swimming and other aerobic activities promote cardiovascular fitness, but they do not prevent the five-to seven- pound-per-decade muscle loss associated with the aging process.  To maintain (and regain) muscle tissue, older adults must regularly perform sensible strength training.  A recent study with 1,644 adult, (mean age 53 years) showed an average muscle gain of 3.1 lbs after 10 weeks of two or three weekly weight workouts. The same study revealed similar fates of muscle development for older, middle-aged and younger adults.

Strength-training programs that add three pounds of muscle also increase resting metabolic rate by about seven percent. Because resting metabolism generally declines at the rate of one-half percent per year, this strength-training adaptation reverses the aging process by 14 years.

Other beneficial effects of sensible strength training include:

  • Better glucose utilization, for reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Lower resting blood pressure, for reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Increased gastrointestinal transit speed for reduced risk of colon cancer.
  • Greater erector spinae strength, for reduced risk of low back pain.
  • Greater bone strength, for reduced risk of osteoporosis.
  • Improved physical capacity, for reduced risk of frailty and depression.


Erector spinae is a large back muscle that extends from the pelvic region to the base of the skull.  A thick muscle mass in the lower back, the erector spinae, divides into columns at the small of the back. These muscles work together to extend the trunk.


In addition to the health-related reasons for regular strength training, older adults involved in athletic activities should do resistance exercises to enhance performance and prevent injury. A study of senior golfers, for example, showed a six percent increase in driving power (club head speed) after eight weeks of strength-training and stretching exercise.  Just as impressive, none of the study participants reported an injury during the following golf season.

For sports that feature striking skills, such as tennis, the key to success is performance power.  In simplest terms, performance power is the product of muscle force and movement speed. Strength training is the best means for increasing muscle force and an effective means for enhancing movement speed in active older adults.  Appropriate strength-training programs can help produce more powerful serves, forehand strokes and back and strokes.

Strength exercises and training procedures

 Because the varied movement patterns and swinging act ions involved in tennis play use all major muscle groups, a total body strength-training program is recommended.  An age appropriate program to enhance tennis performance should include three groups of resistance exercises:


  • The first group should address the large leg muscles that generate power for all loco-motor movements and swinging actions (power-producing muscles).


  • The second group should target the midsection (core) muscles that transfer the power generated by the larger leg muscles to the smaller muscles of the upper body and arms (power transferring muscles).


  • The third group should work the upper body and arm muscles that impart force to the tennis racquet for powerful serves and ground strokes (power-delivering muscles).


The following resistance machine exercises are highly effective in strengthening the body’s power-producing, power transferring and power-delivering muscles.


The large muscles of the legs generate the force for powerful forehand and backhand strokes, as well as quick movements across the court. The leg press exercise works the large quadriceps (front thigh), hamstrings (rear thigh) and gluteal (hip) muscles at me same time. Equally important for shifting body weight and moving laterally are the adductor (outer thigh) and abductor (inner thigh) muscles, which are best addressed by the hip adduction and hip abduction machines. Finally, strong calf muscles produce force for and absorb shock from the repeated stop-and-go actions inherent in tennis play. Full range heel raises, performed from a standing position, are effective for strengthening the gastrocnemius and soleus (calf) muscles.


The power produced by the large leg muscles is transferred to the upper body through the core muscles of the midsection. These include the erector spinae (lower back), rectus abdominis (front midsection), and oblique (side midsection) muscles. The low back machine (trunk extension) targets the erector spinae muscles, while the abdominal machine (trunk flexion) addresses the rectus abdominis muscles. The dual action torso rotation machine (trunk rotation) strengthens the oblique muscles, which are directly involved in racquet swinging movements. Clockwise movements condition both the right internal and left external obliques, whereas counterclockwise movements condition the left internal and right external obliques .

 Upper body

The major muscles used to produce striking movements, whether for serving the ball or hitting ground strokes, are the pectoralis major (chest), latissimus dorsi (upper back), deltoids (shoulders), biceps (front arm) and triceps (rear arm). A basic combination of upper-body pushing and pulling exercises can address these muscles. For example:


1. Begin with machine chest presses (pushing movement) for the pectoralis major and triceps muscles.


2. Follow this exercise with machine seated rows (pulling movement) for the latissimus dorsi and biceps muscles.


3. Perform machine shoulder presses (pushing movement) next for (he deltoid and triceps muscles.


4. Finish with the machine pull-down for the latissimus dorsi and biceps muscles.

 Injury prevention muscles

The most common injuries incurred by tennis players are those to the shoulders, elbows and wrists. To reduce the risk of experiencing shoulder injuries, participants should do specific strengthening exercises for the shoulder rotator cuff muscles. The elastic band rotator cuff exercises strengthen both the external and internal shoulder rotator muscles. Moving the forearm backwards works the external rotators while moving it forwards involves the internal rotators. It is important that the upper arm stay against the participant’s side during the clockwise and counterclockwise movements.

To reduce the risk of elbow and wrist problems, specific actions that strengthen the forearm muscles are recommended.  The wrist roller exercise involves essentially all the forearm flexor and extensor muscles. Rolling the bar clockwise (to wind the rope and lift the weight) works the forearm flexor muscles, whereas, rolling it counter clockwise (to unwind me rope and lower the weight) works the forearm extensor muscles. All the resistance machine exercises mentioned above are described in detail, with accompanying photographs, in the sidebar in my book.


Training protocol

 The training guidelines below are recommended for older-adult tennis players, to increase muscle strength, improve performance power, and reduce injury risk. However, a health and wellness professional should ensure a strength training program meets your specific needs and abilities.

 Exercise order

Perform the exercises in sequence from larger to smaller muscle groups, as presented in the previous section. Begin with exercises for the power-producing muscles of the legs, followed by exercises for the power-transferring muscles of the midsection, then exercises for the power delivering muscles of the upper body. Finally, perform exercises for the injury prevention muscles of the shoulders and forearms.

 Exercise resistance and repetitions

Use an exercise resistance that permits 8-12 properly performed repetitions. This resistance range generally corresponds to 70-80% of maximum, and represents a safe and productive training workload.

 Exercise progression

Whenever 12 repetitions can be completed with good form, increase the resistance by approximately five percent. Progression occurs faster in some muscles than others, so don’t set an arbitrary timeline for adding resistance.

 Exercise sets

Because most research with older adults has revealed similar strength gains from single-set and multiple- set training protocol,” begin with one set of each exercise. Increase the training volume to two or three sets of each exercise, if there is the time and desire to do so.

 Exercise speed

For best results, train with moderate movement speeds, approximately 4-6 seconds per repetition. Perform lifting actions in 1.5-2 seconds, and lowering actions in 3-4 seconds. Exhale during lifting movements and inhale during lowering movements.

 Exercise range

Perform each repetition through a full range of pain-free movement; don’t force joints into uncomfortable positions, even if the movement range must be abbreviated.

 Timing and Frequency

Try to train twice a week, with workouts spaced as evenly as possible (e.g. Mondays and Thursdays). One weekly strength-training session is sufficient, but will result in slower muscle development. If possible, schedule strength workouts on non-tennis days. Otherwise, perform strength training about four hours after tennis training. For example, if tennis is played in the morning from 10 a.m. to II a.m., schedule a strength -training session after 3 p.m.

Training enhancement

 Although skill training is the most important factor in improving tennis performance, appropriate strength training can enhance tennis-playing efforts and outcomes in active older adults. The cornerstone of physical conditioning is muscular strength, and a stronger tennis player should always be a better tennis player. To ensure sufficient energy for playing and training, tennis participants must eat enough calories to fuel these combined physical activities, including adequate sources of protein and plenty of water. And to ensure sufficient tissue recovery and muscle remodeling, at least eight hours of nightly sleep are recommended.

Health and wellness professionals should encourage active older adults to pay attention to exercise, nutrition and rest as equal components of a tennis preparation program. This approach will ensure their clients enjoy the best overall results for fitness and health, as well as playing performance.

Dr. Wayne Westcott

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2 Responses to Strength Training for Better Tennis, Fitness and Health

  1. Anne Kessler says:

    Great article. I like the way he describes the progression from larger to smaller muscles in the workout. Good description of exercises and what muscles are involved and why those muscles are good for tennis, etc.

  2. […] When one point in the chain is weakened, another link should be strengthened to offset the imbalance. When it comes to elbow and wrist pain, as it relates to repetitive movement in tennis, the focus should be higher up in the arm; specifically, the rotator cuff. […]

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