Strength training has been around for a while and most people think its all about pumping iron to get bigger muscles. Makes sense for football players but not always so for tennis players. In fact, tennis players mistakenly fail to strength train for two main reasons, either they think because tennis is so skill-specific lifting is a waste of time and/or they are afraid to get big and bulky. The truth is strength training is extremely beneficial to sports like tennis with high coordination demands. That means a tennis player can actually benefit more from strength training than a football player. It also does not mean you’ll look like a body builder either.
Let me explain why and in the process you’ll learn a secret about how strength training really works to improve performance…
Your central nervous system (CNS), brain and spinal cord, controls your muscles. Understand that your skeletal muscles are not very smart they simply do as they are told and turn on or contract when the CNS tells them to. Your muscles are made up of tons of individual fibers called slow and fast twitch respectively. The slow twitch are the endurance fibers and the fast twitch are the power fibers. Now here is something not so well known. What people do not understand is the CNS does not activate all the fibers in a muscle at once. It is not all or none activation which is good or we wouldn’t be able to use fine motor skills to write with a pencil very effectively. For example, when you walk the CNS only contracts 10% of the muscle fibers at once and your CNS cycles through different fibers to avoid fatigue. When you jog your CNS contracts about 30% of the muscle fibers. Do something like working up to lifting a maximum weight and you are using around 50% of your muscle fibers. You see you brain is smart and never fully activates 100% of the muscle fibers because it could lead to some serious trouble liking running out of ATP but that is a little deep in science for this post.
While you were thinking through the above example you were probably imagining just activating one muscle but the truth is no movement activates just one muscle, it is coordinated symphony of contraction, stabilization, and relaxation of all the muscles in your body. Just like hitting a forehand. The coordination necessary is truly amazing if you take a moment to think about it!
So why would strength training benefit a skill-based sport like tennis so much, because it develops coordination. Strength training is a workout for the CNS as much as it is for the muscles. The CNS gets better at coordinating contractions, developing the neural network to muscle fibers, and becoming more and more efficient. In fact, when someone first starts strength training they’ll see gains in performance very quickly. Those initial gains are directly related to the CNS because it is able to more effectively and efficiently coordinate the muscular contractions necessary to meet the demands.
On a side note this is also related to why elderly people are more likely to fall and have balance issues. Think how a young person catches their toe and regains balance while an elderly person cannot. Its not so much that the muscles are deteriorating, it is because the neural connections between the brain and the muscles are deteriorating due to lack of use. So strength training is not just for athletes, it can benefit everyone!
So the bottom line is one of the biggest bangs for your buck in improving at tennis or any athletic endeavor is strength training. It will improve coordination which leads to improved athletic performances. It is the mind-body connection in every sense.