How Tennis Pros Build Size and Strength Without Losing Speed

tennis strength tips
Andre Agassi's strength coach explains how he's been building bigger, stronger athletes for decades.Andrew Castellano / Getty Images

As a teen growing up in Nevada, Andre Agassi knew he had enough talent to be great. But his opponents had one advantage on him: strength. If he wanted to compete on the national stage, he knew he was going to need help getting strong.

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So he reached out to his nearest college, the University of Las Vegas. “At the time I was the strength and conditioning coach there,” says Gil Reyes, who went on to coach Agassi throughout his entire career. “I knew nothing about tennis,” he adds. But when he saw Agassi’s commitment and drive, he jumped at the chance to take him on.

“We both had a preconceived notion that if you got really strong you’d sacrifice agility,” says Rayes, about their early years working together. But then a colleague helped to dispel that notion. “He said, 'When was the last time you watched gymnastics? Those are some of the strongest and fastest athletes.' My apprehensions [about Agassi lifting heavy] were completely obliterated.”

Of course, there are limits. Anyone who has watched a muscle-bound bodybuilder shuffling along on the treadmill knows that. Here’s how to balance strength with power, speed and agility. Use this info to rule your next tennis match, or apply it to any other sport — basketball, soccer, softball — where swiftness is a virtue.

Target Every Imbalance
“A strength and conditioning coach’s job is to make every athlete the best possible athlete they can be,” says Rayes, and that means assessing total-body fitness. Tennis players (like most athletes) have muscle imbalances that can lead to injuries. Since it’s a very one-sided sport, Reyes developed a program that would strengthen both sides of Agassi and would address every area of weakness he had — even if it wasn’t apparent how those muscles related to tennis. To figure out your muscle imbalances, try to do one-sided strength moves, or ones requiring some level of balance. Usually you’ll find one side is weaker than the other. That’s where you need to work.

Focus on Your Sport’s Specific Needs
You have to do get your heart rate up if you want to keep your speed, but it pays to be smart about it. When Reyes and Agassi started working together, running was how most tennis players built aerobic fitness. However, logging endless miles doesn’t really translate to a match. “It’s all stopping and starting. So we did point-to-point running drills,” says Reyes. He’d have Agassi run zigzags across the court, stopping and starting as quickly as he could. “On the tour, time is a commodity, so we had to really focus our training,” he says. Smart workouts like running short sprints, not long miles, made the most of every moment Agassi had.

Spend Time on Explosive Movements
Reyes would often load up the bar for Agassi and make him bench or squat big numbers. But those days were always intermixed with explosive-movement days. “We wanted to build greater explosiveness in the hips and thighs,” says Reyes, since that would help Agassi launch around the court at top speed. Plyometrics were key to building this snappy strength. Some of Reyes favorite plyos include weighted rocket jumps (launch straight up into the air while holding hand weights, as soon as you land, jump again), drunken frogs (in a squat position, jump from side to side with hand weights), and having Agassi bob-and-weave like a boxer while holding weights.

Utilize Your Bench and Dumbbells
“It’s an athlete’s exercise,” says Reyes, explaining his love affair with the bench press. “It works the chest, shoulders, triceps, forearms, and wrists,” all things a tennis player needs to return a killer serve. Reyes and Agassi worked on really loading the bar for this move, eventually getting him to bench 350 pounds.

Don’t only work on bench press though, says Reyes. For shoulder work, Reyes prefers using dumbbells, “which allow you to work the weak side differently than the strong side. The shoulders take a beating in tennis, and the more balanced your anatomy, the less predisposed to injury you are.”

Never Stop Working On Your Core
Agassi was born with abnormal spacing between the vertebrae in his lower back, which meant he struggled with lower back pain. Because of this, core work was essential to keeping Agassi fit and ready to play. Reyes’ favorite moves are weighted sit-ups on an incline bench followed by twisting sit-ups on an incline. From there, he’d have Agassi get up and do weighted toe-touches. “These work the lower back and sacrum,” he says, describing the move as bending over, touching your toes slowly, then using your back to pull yourself back up.

Eat Well, But Within Reason
Reyes doesn’t understand the current fear of carbs. “You have to have your carbs. They’re referred to with such disdain, but that makes me scratch my head,” he says. Sure, if all you’re doing is trying to get huge, protein may be the way to go. But muscles feed off quick-burning carbohydrates, so in a sport like tennis or soccer, you need the fuel to stay speedy. Reyes says foods like potatoes and bananas deserve a comeback. “They’re great carbs that are high in potassium.” And yes, eat your chicken breasts and eggs too.  

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