Tennis requires dynamic motion – something many of our bodies are starving for. When we do move it tends to be in linear and repetitive ways (think walking, cycling, or the elliptical). The cumulative effect is a body that is stiff and somewhat robotic.
I am a fan of racket sports because they don't just improve fitness; they also force you to move in multiple directions in response to differing stimuli – think a ball whizzing across the court. Having to react challenges the brain, improves agility and co-ordination and strengthens muscles and bones at multiple angles.
I am not suggesting you go play two hours of aggressive tennis tomorrow. Every sport puts specific demands and stressors on the body (theory of specific adaptation). Even if you work out regularly, you still need to become "tennis fit" by gradually increasing the duration and intensity of your game and adapting your strength and cardio program to reflect the specific biomechanical demands of the sport.
The tennis specific elements typically missing from traditional gym workouts are speed, agility, fluid multidirectional movements and the ability of the body to absorb and dissipate eccentric forces (i.e., the forces of the ball hitting your racket and your foot hitting the ground).
Incorporate sideways and backward running into your warm-up. Moving in multiple directions will strengthen the muscles and movement patterns needed for tennis, sharpen your nervous system and improve mobility.
In your cardio workout, include short intervals that mimic the quick bouts of speed needed for tennis. This can be done during any workout – swimming, cycling, elliptical, running, etc. After you warm up, alternate 15 seconds of hard work with 45 seconds of regular work for 10 to 15 minutes. Better yet, make the intervals more reactionary. For example, sprint for 25 strides every time you see a particular colour or when you hear a predetermined word in a song. Or, run with a friend and take turns picking random landmarks to sprint towards.
Tweak traditional gym exercises to be more fluid and athletic: Add twists, lateral (side) leaning, speed, agility and multidirectional motions.
Instead of stationary lunges, try clock lunges. Start standing in the centre of an imaginary clock. Step your right foot forward to midnight. Lunge then push yourself back to the middle of the clock. Next, step your right leg forward to one o'clock. Then lunge. Work through all of the clock numbers from 1 through 6. Then lunge with the left leg counterclockwise from 12 o'clock through 6 o'clock. For your 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock lunge, do a side lunge: For 3 o'clock, step your right foot out to the right side. Bring your right hip over your right foot. Bend into your right leg like you were doing single-leg squat keeping your left leg straight. Lunges to 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 o'clock are all done by stepping your foot backward. Lunges to 12, 1, 2, 10 and 11 o'clock are all done by stepping your foot forward.
Better yet, try reaction clock lunges. Have a friend randomly call numbers. Then, lunge to the appropriate number.
You could also try using medicine balls; they can transform almost any exercise into an athletic – not to mention fun – challenge.
Sit in "V" on your bum parallel to a wall. Lean backward, chest out and core engaged. Hold the ball straight out in front of you. Rotate away from the wall. Then rotate towards the wall and release the ball so that it bounces against the wall. Catch and repeat.
Basically, get out of your linear comfort zone.
One important caveat
Every sport overuses particular actions and muscles. The trick is to figure out what you can do on and off the court to mitigate the damages.
If you know you lead with one leg, or primarily use one arm, then do a few extra motions with your non-dominant limb.
Tennis is a high-impact activity, and requires sprinting side to side. Impact and multidirectional movements – although positive for bone density – are hard on the body, Consider cross-training with low-impact activities such as swimming, Pilates and yoga, and make sure to schedule appropriate recovery. Recovery protocols include rest, cross-training, sleep, body work such as stretching and massage, appropriate hydration and consuming a nutritionally dense diet.
When it comes to exercise, consistency is key. Don't set yourself up for failure by planning on playing tennis if you hate it or it's not convenient. Instead, find a form of exercise that has benefits similar to tennis, but that you enjoy. Try dancing – like tennis, it makes your body move in multiple planes and challenges your brain to adapt and learn new movement patterns.