Category Archives: Power

The Strength Deficit as it Relates to Tennis

WeddingMy wife and I workout together in our cozy little home basement gym.  She has been crushing it for some time now and getting strong!  She normally doesn’t ask too many questions and just does what I program for her.  And I do have a method for programming workouts that involves what I am about to tell you about.

However, the other day she decided to do one of those follow-along video workouts. There was a lot of plyometric jumps involved which sparked some conversation over dinner about a little known concept called the Strength Deficit.  I am going to simplify the concept for you and if you are a tennis player it is absolutely critical to maximizing performance through off court training.

There are two kinds of strength you need to understand before we can move on to defining the strength deficit.

The first type is Absolute Strength.  This kind of strength is the absolute maximum amount of contractile force a muscle is capable of producing involuntarily.  In a laboratory setting we could stimulate your nerves with an electrical impulse causing the muscle fibers to contract.  In doing this experiment one could theoretically measure the absolute maximum contractile force your muscles are capable of producing.  Absolute strength is closely related to the size of the muscle fibers.  In other words, the larger the muscle is the greater the absolute strength potential.

The second type of strength is the Competitive Maximum.  This is the maximum amount of contractile force a muscle can produce voluntarily.  In other words this is the force you are capable of creating under your own control.  The competitive maximum is related directly to your central nervous system (CNS).  The stronger the impulse your can send through your nerves to the muscle fibers the more forcefully you can get them to contract.

So now that you understand that the absolute maximum is involuntary and the competitive maximum is voluntary we can get to the Strength Deficit.  The strength deficit is simply the difference between the two.  It should be noted that the absolute strength will always be higher than the competitive maximum because you will always be able to involuntarily contract muscle fibers to produce more strength compared to what you can do voluntarily.

Strength Deficit

What the strength deficit tells an athlete about their current state is amazingly insightful.  And if you know how to interpret the information it gives you a roadmap for how to continue making strength gains.

Here is how to interpret the strength deficit…

If the competitive maximum is close to the absolute strength you have a small strength deficit. A small deficit means that an athlete is able to send strong messages to the muscles and stimulate a strong contraction.  This is a very good sign because it means they are capable of utilizing most of their capacity for strength.  If an athlete with a small strength deficit wants to improve they need to focus their efforts on muscle hypertrophy or growth in order to raise the level of absolute strength.

If the competitive maximum is further from absolute strength you have a large strength deficit.  This means the potential for strength is there but the CNS is not capable of creating a strong enough signal to excite the muscle fibers to utilize it.  This tells an athlete they have room for strength gains without putting on more muscle.  Gains can be made by specifically designing explosive training sessions to stimulate CNS development.  Focusing on gaining more muscle mass will only increase absolute strength and the strength deficit further.

Now before I go any further the strength deficit is a fairly advanced concept and I do not want you running out and applying this to kids or beginners.  You really need to know what you are doing and this is just a overly simple blog post explaining the bigger concept.  If you want more information I recommend reading a highly complex book translated from the work of Russian Sport Scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky, Super Training.  With that being said if you are just getting started lifting weights you will see improvements in both absolute strength and competitive maximums quickly.  Beginners just have more room to make adaptations and improve.  However, if you are hitting plateaus, it is a good idea to look at your strength deficit and see if you should focus your efforts on gaining more muscle size and absolute strength potential or finding ways to stimulate the CNS and its ability to maximize muscle fiber contractibility.

Now think about a competitive tennis player’s needs…

First, tennis players need explosive and powerful muscle contractions.  They need to swing the racket with amazing accelerations and speed.  Players need to be able to sprint, change directions, and reaccelerate again.  These skills require a great deal of power without having an enormous body building style muscular frame that can slow an athlete down.  By now you should be able to guess that tennis players should have a small strength deficit.  Tennis players want to be able to maximally contract the muscle fibers they have.  That is not to say that there is never a time to build bulk and absolute strength because there is.  However, once muscle hypertrophy or mass is gained it should be followed up with a block of training to stimulate the CNS to utilize that new found strength potential fully.  Players like Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer are incredibly strong and I would bet they also have a small strength deficit.

Questions or comments leave them below and I will be happy to answer them.


Strength Training for Coordination

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.