Tennis is defined by quick starts and stops, frequent and rapid overhead strokes, and the engagement of multiple muscle groups during each stroke. The intensity of a match can change randomly, going from long durations of low intensity work to shorter periods of near maximal effort, and vice versa.
On average, a player has between 300 and 500 high intensity bouts per three-set match and four direction changes per point. 80% of strokes are made from just under 8 feet, and 70% of movements during a match are lateral.
Due to the intermittent explosive nature of tennis, performing med ball drills can be a powerful tool to decrease injury risk, develop agility and improve strength and power.
Here are the three critical qualities that tennis players can train with med balls that will enhance their performance on the court.
The ability to decelerate is important to change of direction in any sport. Most coaches put most of their emphasis on acceleration training but neglect deceleration/eccentric training.
In tennis, deceleration occurs in every followthrough, volley and serve. The muscles that are most heavily involved in stroke deceleration are the upper back and posterior deltoids. Most tennis injuries can be attributed to poor deceleration mechanics, especially in the upper back and shoulders. Performing drills with light medicine balls can be a great way to train eccentrically and to work on deceleration mechanics in these muscles.
Med Ball Over-the-Shoulder Pass
In a kneeling position, the athlete tosses a small medicine ball over their shoulder with their arm bent at 90 degrees at the elbow and their fingertips pointed toward the ceiling. The athlete works on catching the ball and decelerating the toss before reversing the motion to throw it back.
Med Ball Prone 90/90
The athlete lies face down on a bench holding a ball in each hand with both elbows bent at 90 degrees. While pulling the scapula back and maintaining good position, the athlete works on releasing and then catching the weighted ball in rapid succession for multiple reps.
Med Ball Prone T's
This exercise is performed in the same manner as the Prone 90/90, but instead of the elbows bent at 90 degrees, the arms are fully extended while the athlete maintains good position, rapidly letting go of and catching the ball.
Med Ball Wall Bounces
The athlete faces a wall about a foot away with elbow bent at 90 degrees and fingers pointed up. The ball is bounced between the hand and the wall while the athlete works on decelerating the ball using the anterior shoulder muscles, then throwing the ball back to the wall.
Training lateral power and footwork are crucial for tennis players at all levels, because over half of all movements in a tennis match are performed laterally. A player typically covers just a few feet per stroke, and because of this, full acceleration is rarely achieved. Due to this large skew toward lateral movement, training for tennis players heavily focuses on lateral work.
There are three basic types of lateral steps in a tennis match. The first is a jab step, where the athlete steps with the lead foot first in the direction of the oncoming ball. The second step is a pivot step, where the athlete pivots on the lead foot while turning toward the ball and taking their first step with the opposite leg. The final type of lateral step is the gravity step, where the lead foot steps inward and away from the intended movement. This small inward step moves the center of gravity outside the base of support, creating a dynamic imbalance which aids in mastering lateral movement.
Lateral footwork drills, including lateral crossovers and lateral shuffles, combined with medicine ball throws can be an effective double whammy for strength training for tennis. Emphasize the agility component of reacting to whatever direction you throw the ball.
These drills can be performed in planned and unplanned movement patterns. Keep in mind that the mechanics behind a backhand are different from a forehand stroke. Unlike other sports, it is extremely rare to switch dominant hands and hit forehands on the opposite side of the body. For this reason, you could train shuffle footwork dominantly to the forehand side, and crossover footwork dominantly to the backhand side.
Med Ball Deep Groundstroke (open or closed)
A large medicine ball is tossed above and behind the athlete, who is at the ready position. Once the throw is made, the athlete takes the first step and gets into position to receive the ball behind their starting position. The ball can be thrown either to their forehand or backhand side. After receiving the ball, the athlete loads their body similar to a stroke using a racket and launches the ball back toward the coach.
Med Ball Short Groundstroke (open or closed)
Similar to the Medicine Ball Deep Groundstroke, except the ball is thrown in front of the athlete, who needs to take a step forward to catch and return the ball.
Lateral Run + Throw (wide throw)
In this drill, the athlete starts in the ready position and the medicine ball is thrown to their left or right. The athlete shuffles or crosses over depending on which side was their forehand and which side was their backhand to catch, load and throw the ball back.
As the technology of rackets and other tennis equipment has improved, groundstrokes have gone from a closed stance to a much more open stance. This has caused the tennis groundstroke to go from a simultaneous coordination of the body to a sequential coordination of the body. This means that specific components of the tennis stroke can be trained separately and still illicit overall groundstroke improvements. Training should try to imitate the sequential coordination of each stroke.
Using a medicine ball without incorporating footwork is a way to train core strength and power without fatiguing the lower body as much as footwork medicine ball drills do. When you take away the footwork, you can increase the intensity of the workout by increasing the weight of the medicine ball or power behind each throw. Taking away the footwork also removes the agility component but allows greater focus on power and proper movement.
These drills can be performed at the beginning or end of a workout, or before playing. Make sure to train both sides of the body equally, especially in closed stance and shuffle drills. These drills can also be used as a conditioning tool thrown in during practice. The Medicine Ball Slam and Keg Toss are less tennis-specific and are total body power movements that can be used with novice athletes.
Med Ball Open Stance Side Throw
The athlete stands in an open stance with the toes of both feet pointing forward. Without using their feet, they catch a medicine ball thrown to either side of their body, decelerate the ball, load their upper body and return the ball in a powerful throw.
Med Ball Close Stance Side Throw
Performed in the same manner as the Open Stance Throw except the athlete is in a closed stance, receiving the ball on one side and throwing it back before switching stances and receiving the ball on the other side of their body.
Med Ball Slam
The Medicine Ball Slam is a versatile drill that works on total body power and coordinated effort. The ball is picked up from the floor, taken overhead and thrown back into the floor as powerfully as possible. Make sure to pick up the ball up with good form, and that the material of the ball or ground can absorb the power of the throw so the ball doesn't bounce back into the athlete's face.
Med Ball Keg Toss
The Keg Toss is another basic medicine ball drill good for developing power and strength. In this drill, the ball starts in both hands with the athlete's ankles, knees and hips flexed. A rapid triple extension is followed by an underhand toss of the medicine ball overhead and into the air. The goal of this drill should be maximal height, not maximal distance thrown backward.
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Kovacs, M. S., Roetert, E. P., & Ellenbecker, T. S. (2008). "Efficient deceleration: The forgotten factor in tennis-specific training." Strength & Conditioning Journal, 30(6), 58-69.
Roetert, E. P., Kovacs, M., Knudson, D., & Groppel, J. L. (2009). "Biomechanics of the tennis groundstrokes: Implications for strength training." Strength & Conditioning Journal, 31(4), 41-49.