Best Tennis Exercises

When clients come to me asking how they can up their performance on the tennis court, a few key exercises come to mind,” says Joshua Lafond from Healthygymhabits.com. “Since tennis requires a lot of speed and functional strength, I like to focus on practical movements.”

Modern tennis requires more than ever to be in top-performing conditions. Matt Guffey, a Certified Personal Trainer and a Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the Bay Area, is giving you the lowdown on the best tennis workouts.

Standing Rotational Toss

Tennis is a rotational sport so training the body to create power through rotation is critical. This movement teaches the athlete to transfer energy from their lower body, through the core, into the upper body, and out the arms. Benefits for a tennis player would be a more efficient and powerful racquet speed.

  1. Stand with the wall to your right/left. 
  2. Medicine ball in your hands on the outside hip. 
  3. Feet wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  4. Raise your inside foot and step toward the wall. 
  5. Rotate your hips violently and allow your upper body and arms to follow, guiding the ball into the wall as hard as you can.

    Recommended volume: 3 sets, 3-5each side.

Alternating Lateral Hurdle Hop (Continuous)

Given that tennis players have to move laterally quite a bit, training their bodies to be explosive in both directions and on one leg is IMPERATIVE. Benefits would be quicker lateral cuts and energy transfer side to side as well as injury prevention (if the progression is followed correctly, this type of training is excellent for the knee and hip stability).

  1. Stand with the hurdle to your right/left. 
  2. Place your weight on one foot. 
  3. Quickly snap down and then hop over the hurdle and, without hesitating, redirect your mass back over the hurdle in the opposite direction. 
  4. Repeat for the desired number of reps and then switch feet. The goal is to be as quick and explosive as you can!
    Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-6 each leg

10 Yard Sprints

Tennis requires explosive speed and razor-sharp quickness. No other movement you can do in the gym or even on the tennis court is as fast or requires more neuromuscular coordination than sprints. None. Every tennis player should sprint. If they do, they will become more explosive and cover more court quicker.

  1. Measure 10 yards
  2. Start in a low athletic stance, feet staggered. 
  3. Whenever ready, sprint as fast as possible the prescribed distance. 
  4. Allow your momentum to carry you forward until you’ve slowed to a walk. 
  5. Rest.

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 1 “rep” at 10 yards with a 45-60s rest in between. After about 3-4 weeks at 10 yards, bump up to 15, then 20, and so on up to 30 yards but no more than that.

Weighted Lunge Twist

One that I particularly like is the weighted lunge twist. This isolation exercise works by targeting the hamstrings and quads. By adding the twist component, you’re also engaging the abdominals while working on core strength and stability. Functional movements like these are great for simulating what goes on in your body during a tennis shot.

When learning this exercise, I usually suggest my clients start without weights. After they get a good grasp for the training and perfect their form, I’ll slowly introduce a weighted medicine ball for them to hold. This is the perfect exercise for anyone looking to improve their tennis

game and is quite simple to learn.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart; if you’re using weights, hold the medicine ball outstretched in front of you.
  2. Step forward into a basic lunging position with your left foot. Ensure your knee stays over your foot and doesn’t twist from side to side.
  3. Engage your core and glutes, then twist with your upper body towards the left. At this point, your lower body should be staying stationary.
  4. Bring your outstretched arms over about 90 degrees, then pause before returning them to the starting position.
  5. Drive your feet into the ground and return your left foot back to shoulder-width apart.
  6. Step forward with your right foot and repeat the steps for your desired number of repetitions.

Quick Word About Building Strength

When it comes to building strength in tennis players, a couple of things need to be taken into account: 

  1. They are “overhead” athletes, which means they’re more likely to develop pain or overuse injuries in the shoulders due to repetitive movements overhead. 
  2. All strength training sessions should include the following types of exercises:
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Knee dominant lower body
  • Hip dominant lower body
  • “Anti” core (I’ll explain further below)

Regarding the former (1), special care should be taken when programming upper bodywork, and I would STRONGLY recommend 2:1 if not 3:1 pull:push ratios to preserve the shoulder joint. I would also recommend a 2:1 horizontal pull:vertical pull ratio as tennis players already spend a lot of time in the overhead position. 

Regarding “push” exercises, I recommend a 1:1 “scap free” : “scap fixed” ratio in order to train the shoulder blade to move correctly during pushing movements. Too often, people get stuck bench pressing (scap fixed), and then their shoulder blades and associated muscles get weak, and shoulder injuries flare-up.

Regarding the lower body exercises, unilateral or single-leg training is KING when training tennis players for a few reasons.

Barbell back squats are out as they place unnecessary pressure on the spine. You can build crazy strong legs in safer ways.

Sports are played on one leg at a time. Think every time you shift your weight from one foot to the other while sprinting or shuffling, doesn’t matter. Sports, tennis especially, rarely if ever mimic the movement pattern of the typical bilateral or two leg exercises you see in commercial gyms (back squat, deadlift, etc.) I’m not saying don’t do bilateral exercises; I’m just telling you should be 100%, including unilateral exercises if you want the most bang for your buck.

Unilateral exercises force your body to stabilize in multiple planes of motion, which more closely resembles sport.

Weighted Pushups

Scap free means the shoulder blade and rotator cuff are free to function as intended, which is super important for tennis players. Pushups also require more from the core, glutes, and quads and therefore check many boxes that the typical bench press doesn’t.

  1. Place a weight plate on your back or wear a weighted vest. 
  2. Set up in pushup position (feet together, upper arms at a 45-degree angle, forearms perpendicular to the ground). 
  3. Squeeze your quads, glutes, and core.
  4. Press the ground away such that your head, chest, hips, and knees all rise simultaneously. 

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 6-10 reps

Top Down Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press

This again checks boxes a standard bench press cannot. First, this is a unilateral exercise that automatically requires more core stability as the weight distribution and joint angles change on one side but not the other. Second, your shoulder is forced to stabilize the dumbbell that is not moving while lowering and lifting the opposite bell. 

  1. Lay on the bench. 
  2. Bring your shoulder blades together to create a sort of “plate” on your upper back to stabilize your upper body. 
  3. Squeeze your glutes and abs. 
  4. Raise both dumbbells to the top position. 
  5. Leave one there, lower and lift one dumbbell. 
  6. Repeat on the opposite side. 
  7. Be sure to keep your upper arm at about a 45-degree angle of your ribs to keep the tension on the chest and not the shoulder.

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-8 each arm

Ball Dribbling Against a Wall

“Overuse injuries at the shoulder, especially involving the rotator cuff, are common in tennis players due to the repetitive demands of the sport” – Jordan Duncan from Silverdale Sport & Spine.

Ball Dribbling Against a Wall is a great exercise that trains the shoulder in a functional way for tennis players. Tennis is an overhead sport, and this exercise is great for overhead athletes.

  1. In this exercise, you can use a playground ball or basketball and even progress to a larger swiss ball. 
  2. Stand facing a wall that you can dribble a ball against. 
  3. With one arm, dribble the ball against the wall just above head height. 
  4. Your arm should be raised to shoulder height, and your elbow bent 90 degrees so that your hand is just above your head.

This exercise should be done for endurance, with a goal of dribbling for 30 seconds or more per set. It is essential to train both arms.

Other Useful Tennis Articles

Chinups

I program chinups for overhead athletes like tennis players because they already spend a LOT of time in what’s called “external rotation” in the shoulder. Conventional pullups place the shoulder in that funky, external rotation pattern even more, and so to avoid overuse injuries, chinups do the trick as they train the lats, rotator cuff, shoulders, and biceps all at the same time. Primary benefits would be injury prevention and a stronger backhand.

  1. Grab the bar with your palms facing you. 
  2. Begin from a dead hang (arms completely extended) with your feet off the ground. 
  3. Pull your head up over the bar. 
  4. Lower yourself slowly. 

Recommended volume: 3 sets, up to 10 reps a set, but most will need to start closer to 2-4 reps.

Feet-Elevated Weighted Inverted TRX Row

Horizontal pull movements are critical for keeping tennis players’ shoulders healthy. This trains the lats, posterior portion of the shoulder, rotator cuff, and biceps, as well as the core and glutes as you maintain your plank-like position.

  1. Place a ring or TRX system around a pullup bar. 
  2. Place a box or elevated surface 4-5 feet in front of you. 
  3. Lay flat and place the weight on your stomach, or put on a weighted vest. 
  4. Grab the handles with your palms facing out. 
  5. Squeeze your quads, glutes, and core. 
  6. Pull your head back to make a straight line from your head to your heels. 
  7. Pull yourself toward the bar allowing your hands to rotate freely. 

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-10 reps

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Safer than back squats. Knee dominant. Requires ankle, knee, and hip stability, which helps tennis players move more efficiently and avoid injury on the court. You can get CRAZY strong doing these. Our gold standard is bodyweight in external load (ex. I’m 180 lbs. so 180 lbs. in dumbbells, vests, chains, whatever) for ten reps on each leg. 

  1. Stand in front of a bench, split squat stand, box, any elevated surface at about 1 ft. high. 
  2. Grab both dumbbells. 
  3. Place one foot on the surface. 
  4. Bend your knee and hip, lowering your back knee to the pad. 
  5. Make sure your torso and front side shin angles match (slight forward lean). 
  6. Drive up to the top position.

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-10 reps each leg

Single Leg Deadlift

Safer than deadlifts. Hip dominant. Requires ankle, knee, and hip stability, which helps tennis players move more efficiently and avoid injury on the court. This is like the mac daddy of all unilateral lower body lifts. Our goal is to move half our body weight in external load (ex. I’m 180 lbs. so 90 lbs. in dumbbells, vests, chains, etc.) for 4+ reps on each leg. Do this, and you have achieved the next level of lower body strength.

  1. Stand in front of a pad or pads depending on your height/range of motion. 
  2. Place the weight in the goblet position or hold both arms tight to your chest. 
  3. Bend your knee and hip, lowering your back knee to the pad. 
  4. Make sure your torso and front side shin angles match (slight forward lean). 
  5. Drive up to the top position.

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 4-10 reps each leg

The Dead Bug

According to Dan Ferrato, one of the best exercises any tennis player could do is the Dead Bug. 

Not only is it is a great total body exercise, but it will also teach tennis players to engage their core correctly. It will also increase and improve the range of motion in the thoracic spine, which plays a pivotal role in keeping the shoulders strong and safe in overhead athletes.

The dead bug will also help the athlete understand how to utilize their core strength while simultaneously working the body’s upper and lower parts.

The best thing about the dead bug? There is no injury risk involved, so athletes can stay healthy while focusing on what they love: playing tennis!

  1. Lay flat down on your back, bringing your heels off the ground and knees up to 90 degrees.
  2. Extend your arms straight while pushing your shoulders into the ground.
  3. Tuck your rib cage down towards your belly button while simultaneously squeezing your glutes to help push your lower back into the ground.
  4. Take a deep breath and extend your right leg until your heel touches the ground.
  5. Hold the position for 1 second before slowly going back to your starting position.
  6. Repeat the movement on the opposite side.
  7. Perform 3-5 reps per side in a slow and controlled manner, making sure to keep your lower back pushed into the ground.

What About "Anti" Core Exercises?

“Anti” core work refers to anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation. Think planks (anti-extension), side planks and loaded carries (anti-lateral flexion), and anti-rotation press/hold or bear crawl three-point holds (anti-rotation).

This is the ONLY core work I would recommend. We NEVER do crunches or Russian twists as they are absolutely horrible for your lumbar spine. Anti-core training teaches our core to stabilize the trunk, which is important during collisions or more apt for tennis players when generating power from the ground up during each shot.

Without this capability, energy is inevitably lost along the way, and the racquet’s velocity and thus the ball suffers.

Standing Anti-Rotation Hold

Teaches the core to brace effectively while experiencing rotary forces often associated with various tennis shots. Without this, energy is lost, and power decreases. Train your core to brace effectively and watch your shot speed go up! 

  1. Stand with the anchor point to your right/left. 
  2. Adjust distance according to fitness level. 
  3. Grab the band or cable handle and pull it to your chest. 
  4. Set your feet about shoulder-width apart. 
  5. Squeeze the glutes and core. 
  6. Press your hands away from your chest and fully extend your arms. 
  7. Resist the pull toward the anchor.

Recommended volume: 3 sets, 15-30s each side

Building Endurance (Energy Systems Training/Conditioning)

Two things are essential to keep in mind here:

1) Energy systems training must match the demands of the sport. Rallies in tennis are typically very short, repeated short bursts of explosive speed. It is for this reason that we NEVER condition with long-distance runs or rides on the bike. So, 5-10 or more rarely 15 seconds of intense bouts of movement followed by 20 seconds or so of rest. 

Benefit: you train the heart and lungs to operate as they would in a match.

2) What we do for conditioning depends on the season (in season or off-season). In season, tennis players move laterally quite a bit, so we might use the AirDyne bike or run shuttles for energy systems training. Off-season, they probably aren’t getting as much time on the court, and so we would use a slide board to get them moving side to side. 

Benefit: you avoid overuse injuries, especially in season.

Bonus: Ladder Drills

Ladder drills provide an ideal set of exercises for tennis players. You can perform an up-and-back, hopscotch, or the Icky shuffle, just to name a few. All you need is an agility ladder, a little bit of space, and you’ll be on your way to improving your quickness, forward movement, and lateral movement.

Bonus: Cable Twists

Much of the swing in tennis comes from core rotation. One of my favorite exercises for tennis players is the cable twist. This movement engages the same muscles in the core as a swing in tennis.

  1. Using an adjustable cable machine (or resistance bands), move the pulley to the height of your abdomen.
  2. Facing sideways from the pulley, grab the handle with your inside hand and place your outside hand on top. 
  3. With your elbows extended, twist through your core and stop just before the cable touches your inside shoulder.

The 5th Set

Tennis can be a very demanding sport on your body, that is why it is crucial to properly exercise and condition your body for it. Your top priority should be to stay healthy and avoid injuries; for that, Dan Chojnacki (a fitness professional) recommends Yoga.

Tennis can be a high-impact sport given the surface of the courts and the frequent changes of direction. Yoga will be your best ally as it is a great way to prevent joint pain.

Kevin Fitzgerald
Kevin Fitzgerald
Kevin Fitzgerald is a tennis coach based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kevin was introduced to tennis by his father at the age of 3. Tennis quickly became a passion, and he started coaching at the early age of 16. Kevin now writes for several tennis related blogs and magazines.