Chapter 1: The Body of an Elite Tennis Player

No one is born as an elite athlete.  Having the ideal body type and genetics will definitely give the player an advantage, however if they want to be the best they must also put in a lot of work.   To become an elite athlete for any sport you need to train your body.  In this chapter the focus will be on muscles and their movements (specifically in tennis).   Your muscles are what allow you to perform the movements needed in the sport, so to be successful you need to have strong muscles to be efficient and to generate power.  Tennis is a sport where every muscle in the body is used to compete, and to maintain a high standard of play these muscles need to be trained properly.

Body Type

For humans there are three general body types: endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph.  People are typically not just one body type but a combination of two or more. Mesomorphs who typically have a “naturally athletic physique”, are the best when it comes to putting on muscle mass, and have a low body fat percentage As they are a mix of the endomorph and ectomorph, they have qualities of both body types For a tennis player, having a mesomorph body type is ideal as it gives the athlete the “natural muscle and athletic ability of the endomorph” and the “higher metabolism and endurance of the ectomorph” (Steve Beck, 2009). These qualities are needed for a tennis player because the athlete will need the natural muscle, athleticism and endurance.

Slow and Fast Twitch Fibres

Another aspect of the body that needs to be considered is the slow and fast twitch fibres within the muscles.  Slow twitch fibres can also be known as Type I Fibres, and they contain lots of myoglobin, mitochondria, and blood capillaries.  They’re known as slow twitch  fibres because they generate energy slowly and are very useful for athletes competing in long distance races as they are “very resistant to fatigue” .  Fast twitch fibres can be known as Type II B.  Type II B Fibres contain low amounts of myoglobin, mitochondria, and capillaries, but contain large amounts of glycogen.  With the large amounts of glycogen, energy is generated quickly, which makes fast twitch fibres essential for a sprinter, who needs a quick acceleration.  There are also the Type II A fibre types, and these fibres are the trainable ones.  An athlete with a lot Type II A fibres will be good at a lot of sports as they are able to train their bodies to suit the specific sport.

A tennis player will want to have a combination of both, as there is a constant stop and go motion on the court.  They need to have the acceleration to go from side to side to hit a ball, but they also need the endurance so they can last the whole match. (Steve Beck, 2009)  

The Role of Genetics

David Epstein wrote a book called Sports Gene and in it he talks about the role of genetics in sports.  In the book there is a section that’s about tennis specifically and the role genetics has on the success of the players.  Psychologist Wolfgang Schneider held an experiment in 1978 that consisted of analyzing a group of 106 kid tennis players to see if they could determine which of the 106 would be the most successful later on.  “Each year for the first five years, the scientists gauged the children first on tennis-specific skills and then on measures of general athleticism” (David Epstein, 2013, pg44).  Schneider expected that the kids would get better at the tennis-specific skills with more practice, and this prediction was accurate.  However, he did not expect that “the tests for general athleticism-for example, a thirty-meter sprint and start-and-stop agility drills-influenced which children would acquire the tennis-specific skills most rapidly” (David Epstein, 2013, pg45).  They noticed that the kids who “were better all-around athletes were better at acquiring tennis-specific skills” (David Epstein, 2013, pg45).  In other words, if you’re genetically gifted with athleticism such as speed, you’re going to more successful than the person who isn’t, because you can’t train speed.  You can train someone the technique and sport-specific movements, but you can’t train someone to run faster. You either have it or you don’t, and to be a successful tennis player, you need to have it.  This was proven in the group of 106.  Among the kids in the study there was Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, two phenomenal tennis players.  While they were being examined in the study, they “called Steffi Graf the perfect tennis talent.  She outperformed the others in tennis-specific skills and basic motor skills, and we also predicted from her lung capacity that she could have ended up as the European champion in the 1500-meters” (David Epstein, 2013, pg46).  She would also be the best at every test, including sprinting and agility.  This proves that she was naturally gifted with speed and endurance, which is ultimately what gave her an advantage over all of the other players.

Many of the great tennis players today are also genetically gifted.  Roger Federer is a prime example.  He has incredible foot speed and agility, which again is the athleticism he was born with.  Without the genetics he was given, Federer would not be one of the best tennis players to have ever played the game.


Having the ideal body type and muscle fibre composition is necessary, but so is training your body’s muscles in order to maximize performance.

Tennis is a very demanding sport and it puts a lot of pressure on the body. It is a sport that requires “a series of complex movements” which therefore involves many muscles (Howard, 2015). During a match, the power behind a shot “is generated through a series of body segments or links referred to as the kinetic chain,” and without the kinetic chain the action desired would not be possible (Howard, 2015). The kinetic chain consists of the first link, which are the feet, and the final link which are the hands. The first link in the chain, the feet, gain energy from a push off of the pavement or a jump, and this energy is transferred from the feet to your legs, torso, shoulders, upper arms, and then finally to the hands. (Howard, 2015)


Diagram showing each muscle group in kinetic chain used in a serve

The major muscles used in the lower half of your body are the calves, quadriceps (quads), hamstrings, and the gluteal muscle group. The major muscles in the calves are the gastrocnemius, which is the biggest and most superficial muscle, and the soleus, which “is a smaller muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius” (Howard, 2015).

The gastrocnemius is an important muscle as it “provides the propelling force in running and jumping”, which are necessities in tennis to get across the court, and to serve From the two calf muscles the energy is then transferred to the next major muscle groups, the quads and hamstrings. The quads consist of four muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and the vastus intermedialis (Ted Temertzoglou, 2015). The hamstring group consists of the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus and the semimembranosus. The quads and hamstrings are two of the four main muscle groups in the body, and they generate a lot of power (Ted Temertzoglou, 2015). From these muscle groups, the energy is transferred to the gluteal group, which contains the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus.  The gluteal group plays many roles in our everyday lives including walking, running, and the stabilization of our pelvis.  While running, it helps extend and decelerate the leg while giving us extra power.


As Roger Federer lunges to reach a ball, his lower body give him the power to push off of the ground and accelerate in the direction he wants to go in.

In general, the lower body muscles play important roles in balance, movement, and giving the athlete the strength they need to compete.  The athletes are getting bigger and stronger, making the game “more and more dominated by the long baseline rallies”.  “The hips and the legs have become subject to more and more stress”, which is why it is so important for the athletes to have strong muscles around the joints to “ensure greater stability and resilience against the high impact that is involved with hitting the ball as well as constant start and stop motions on the court”

An example of a list of workouts for the lower body is listed below:

  • Machine leg presses
  • Split squats
  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Knee extensions
  • Hamstring curl
  • Calf raises

The next muscles involved in the kinetic chain are referred to as the trunk muscles.  This includes the abdominals, obliques, latissimus dorsi, and the erector spinae group (Howard, 2015).  The abdominals and obliques are crucially important muscles in not only tennis, but other sports as well.  They give the body support and stability, which is especially important in sports where the athlete will get into contact with others .  In tennis, they are used constantly for twisting and rotating during a match, making it essential that an athlete has a strong core. In the forehand, backhand, and serve, the abs contract and flex to generate power.  During a serve the abs are needed to help create a big enough pre-stretch.  A big pre-stretch allows the athlete to generate more velocity on the ball, so without a big pre-stretch there wouldn’t be as much power generated on the serve.  In general, a strong core is needed for stability and for the athlete to get the power they need.  A weak core can also be a cause of injury as there would be more pressure on other muscles.

Examples of workouts for the core are listed below:

  • Pullover crunches
  • Crunches
  • Sit ups
  • Sitting toe touch

The latissimus dorsi and the erector spinae group are back muscles and they give the torso stability (Howard, 2015).  Having a strong back is important in general as it balances out the strength in the core, and it takes pressure off of smaller muscles.  For example, a tennis player cannot only work out their pectoral and arm muscles. If the athlete does not have a strong core and back, other muscle groups could suffer from injuries because they are not strong enough to deal with the pressure and the impact.

Examples of workouts for back muscles:

From the trunk muscles, the energy is transferred to the final part of the kinetic chain; the upper body.  The major upper body muscles consist of the chest, shoulders, upper back and arms (Howard, 2015).  The chest consists mainly of the pectoral muscles, which includes the pectoralis major and minor (Ted Temertzoglou, 2015).  These muscles are especially used in tennis because they are “predominantly used to control the movement of the arm” and the arms are used when swinging a racket (Ted Temertzoglou, 2015).  The pectoralis major pulls on the humerus which allows “lateral, vertical, or rotational movement” which is needed when hitting a ball The rhomboids and trapezius are the main muscles in the upper back.  Rhomboids are the muscles that allow the “adduction of the scapula” which makes them a group that is consistently used in a tennis match due to the motion of ground strokes and serves (Ted Temertzoglou, 2015).

The shoulder is arguably the most used muscle in tennis.  It includes the deltoid and the rotator cuff group, which consists of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and the subscapularis.  The main purpose of the rotator cuff group is to stabilize the shoulder, but they also play a role in the deceleration of arm movements (Ted Temertzoglou, 2015). The deltoid is “the principle abductor of the arm” but also “flexes and extends the humerus” (Eric Troy, 2011).   As mentioned previously, the shoulder is one of the most used muscles when it comes to tennis players.  In a groundstroke, there is the use of abduction and external rotation.  Both of these movements are used in the forehand backswing (wind up before ball is hit) and the backhand follow-through.  For the “forehand forward swing and the backhand backswing” a “combination of abduction and internal rotation” is used to complete the movements  

The serve includes a more complex series of muscle movements, using horizontal and vertical actions.  When the player throws the ball in the air and winds up for the swing (can be known as the loading phase), there is scapular retraction and depression.

During the backswing, there is horizontal abduction and external rotation.  When the racket is making contact with the ball, there is “scapular elevation, horizontal abduction, and shoulder extension” and finally, during follow through, there is “internal rotation, shoulder extension, and adduction”

Examples of workouts for upper body:

  • Bench press
  • Push ups
  • Single arm dumbbell rows
  • Using Free Weights and Resistance Bands
  • Dumbbell fly
  • Peck deck machine fly
  • Pull ups
  • Lat pull downs

The final link of the kinetic chain is the arm, which includes the upper arm and the forearm.  In the upper arm the major muscles are the bicep and tricep, and in the forearm there are flexors and extensors that connect to the hands.  Overall strong and muscular arms are required for a tennis player to increase the power of their serves and groundstrokes. (Howard, 2015)

Examples of some workouts for the arms:

  • Push ups (bring hands closer for more work with the triceps)
  • Pull ups
  • Bicep curls
  • Dips (triceps)

Below is an example of Andy Murray’s (a tennis player highly ranked worldwide) workout regime.

Warm-up: To get your muscles limber before lifting, mimic what you’re going to ask them to do, says Murray’s fitness trainer Jez Green. “For a strength session, go through all the lifts you’re going to do that day with 50% of the weight for 10 reps.”

Complex training: For Wimbledon, Murray built his athletic power with complex training. “Do 6 sets of 5 reps of each of the following exercises,” says Green. “After the lift (A exercise), go straight into the plyometric move (B exercise) for power without bulk.”

Exercise A1: Back squat

Stand under a squat rack, with a loaded barbell on your shoulders. Take the full weight of the bar. Keep your chest out, back straight and bend at the knees and hips until your quads are parallel with the floor. Then drive back up.

1Exercise B1: 1m box jump

Stand in front of a box 1m high. Bend at the knees, and drive explosively, jumping and landing on the box with your feet flat. Step down and repeat


A2: Walking lunge

Grab a heavy dumb-bell in each hand. Walk across the room, taking as large strides as possible, and bending so that your front knee is parallel with the floor at every step.


B2: Cycle split jump

Get into a split-squat position, with your back knee almost touching the floor. Now jump in the air, switching leg position before you land.


A3: Weighted pull-up

Wearing a weight belt (Murray loads his with 20kg), grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip.  Pull with both hands until your chin is level with the bar, then lower, to challenge your lats and biceps.


B3: 5kg medicine ball throw-down

Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Grab a medicine ball in both hands. Raise it above your head then explosively throw it down to the floor. Avoid your toes.


A4: Weighted dip

Wearing the same weight belt you wore for the pull-up, grab two dip bars. Push down with your hands, until your arms are straight, then lower to the start position.


B4: 5kg medicine ball chest-pass

Grab a medicine ball and stand a couple of metres from a partner. Pass it like a basketball to your partner, making sure you work as quickly and explosively as possible.


A5: Lateral side lunge

Lunge out to the left until the thigh of your left leg is parallel to the floor. Push off with your left leg in a controlled manner to return to the start. Repeat on your right leg.


B5: Max distance lateral hop
Balance on one leg. Bend at the knee, and explosively jump sideways, bending your knee again as you land to absorb the impact. Do three sets on each leg.


A6: Cable woodchop

Hold a cable handle with both hands. Pull the cable from above your right shoulder, across the front of your body, then return to the start. Alternate sides with each set.


B6: 5kg medicine ball throw

Grab a medicine ball in one hand, with a partner standing on the opposite side. Using your core rotation for explosive power, throw the ball as hard as you can to your partner. Change sides every 5 reps.


Triple extension power

To finish your session do 5 sets of 5 reps of an Olympic lifting movement. Green recommends the power clean. Bend your knees and hips and grab a loaded barbell. Drive your heels into the floor and straighten at the waist, so you pull the barbell up in front of you. Now drop under the barbell and ‘catch’ it at the top of your chest. Drive up, straightening your legs to finish.


“This builds triple extension power,” says Green. So you’ll be able to transfer power from your feet to your hips more efficiently. “It also helps with power on the serve and with first-step acceleration,” he says.

Warm-down:  Do a little light stretching after your workout, followed by 10 minutes in an ice bath at 10 degrees, if you can get to one. Two hours later, perform some heavy static stretching and go for a massage – if you can get it past your boss, that is.


See slow motion video of Andy Murray serving – notice the movements altogether

Chapter 1 Overview

The body an athlete is born with has a large impact on the type of sport they will succeed in.  A tennis player would need to have a combination of body types (so ideally mesomorph) to be able to adapt to the different aspects of the game.  They would also need to be genetically gifted in respect to speed.  Speed is not trainable, and as it was observed in Schneider’s study, the athletes gifted with athleticism are the ones that will be successful in tennis.  However, even with the ideal genetics and body type, the athlete will still need to train their body and specific muscles to maximize their performance.


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