Should Tennis Players Lift Weights? – Tennis vs Bodybuilding Compared

by | Feb 13, 2018 | Blog, Fitness, Power, Strength | 0 comments

When you hear the word ‘bodybuilding’ in context of tennis training, most of you will have one of two reactions.
The first group is completely against the idea of bodybuilding, or possibly even against the practice of heavy resistance training in general. They say that it would lead to the building of useless muscle and thus make you slow and stiff.

The other group is all for bodybuilding, claiming that as long as a certain physique fit for tennis is maintained (flexible and not “too” big), and bodybuilding techniques are fine and effective for building muscle.

As you might have started to see by now, nothing in fitness is ever that “black and white” and most subjects require for you to take a deep dive of investigation to derive the truth.

So, in this post, I will objectively explore the differences between bodybuilding and muscle building for tennis and describe the practical applications and guidelines to learning from the bodybuilding sport.

Differences in Training

When you think about it, bodybuilding and hypertrophy training for tennis seems to have the same goal – to build the desired muscle mass as efficiently and effectively as possible.

But if you look a little closer, building muscle for sports is a completely different monster than in bodybuilding.

In one simple sentence, I would describe it as this:

Bodybuilding trains for aesthetics and tennis trains for performance… And the two goals produce completely different results.

Let’s start by going over the purpose of hypertrophy in tennis.

The main goal of building muscle for you and other tennis players should be to…

  • Increase the power output potential of primary movements on the tennis court.
  • Prevent injury from muscle imbalances or joint/ligament under-development.
  • Prepare your muscles, joints, and ligaments for the maximal strength phase.
In contrast, bodybuilding goals are to…

  • Increase overall musculature.
  • Develop maximal muscle mass.
  • Build aesthetic symmetry and balance.

So, how does training to increase the power output potential of your muscles differ from training to maximize muscle mass?

It all comes down to what type of muscle mass is being developed. An increased power output can only be achieved by developing fast-twitch muscle fibers and then training the neuromuscular system to increase the recruitment of those fast-twitch muscle fibers.

That means that tennis players will only train for muscular hypertrophy if it results in the development and recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

For this reason, the general rep range to train in is between 6-12 repetitions at maximum intensity (the rep range might become more similar to a bodybuilder’s when training to fix an imbalance or recovering from an injury).

On the other hand, bodybuilders are interested in maximizing muscle mass through any form of training manipulation possible. Even if that means using methods not focused on fast-twitch fiber development.

Such training styles may lead to the development of slow-twitch muscle fibers (some athletic trainers will throw in the resultant sarcoplasmic hypertrophy as an additional reason not to train like a bodybuilder but as I will go over soon, this speculation is effectively countered through closer examination).

Bodybuilders will use a broader rep range of 8-15 reps. As you can see, the rep ranges of hypertrophy training for tennis and bodybuilding overlap. It’s not like bodybuilder type training will not lead to the development of fast-twitch fibers.

Regardless, if you repetitively train with these rep ranges, you might develop a suboptimal slow-twitch fiber ratio. Especially when techniques such as drop sets (a method which takes the muscle ‘past failure’ by decreasing the weight during the set to perform more repetitions) are used to maximize metabolic stress and muscle damage, taking the time over tension much farther past the duration a tennis player would be training under.

Some athletic trainers will also advise against employing bodybuilding methods because it could lead to ‘sarcoplasmic hypertrophy’ which has been touted as the growth of “non-functional muscle.”

The basis behind this is that training for a longer duration will lead to adaptations that help the muscle last longer via increased glycogen stores, and more intense durations will cause the muscle to adapt to handle higher loads via the development of myofibers (the actual contractile elements of the muscle).

However, while this is true, from studies like this, this, and this, it has been revealed that the amount of growth a muscle can undergo through sarcoplasmic hypertrophy caps out at about 6-8% of your total muscle mass. In other words, no significant muscle mass can come from sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

So, in a nutshell, high repetitions should not be used because they lead to the development of slow-twitch muscle fibers. And sarcoplasmic hypertrophy does not contribute to muscle mass enough for you to worry about it making you big and slow. Increased glycogen stores in a muscle would actually be beneficial for tennis players to last longer because tennis it is an anaerobic endurance sport.

Instead, low repetitions should be used with the exception of a few circumstances, which I will explain in this next section…

Differences in the Focal Point of Muscular Growth

Bodybuilding is not just about getting as jacked as possible.

It’s important for you to keep in mind that victories do not go to whoever has the largest chest measurements, but instead whoever ‘looks’ the biggest and most aesthetically pleasing.

That’s why so many bodybuilders, even the recreational ones, are so focused on achieving a V-taper physique (broad shoulders, a wide back, a pronounced chest, and lean muscular legs).

Of course, professional bodybuilders are like sculptures so, at the highest level, it’s an inch’s game.

This post goes more in-depth about bodybuilding physique, but for the sake of keeping this post applies to you, I will move onto what tennis players focus on during their hypertrophy phase…

The other big in bodybuilding is having a balanced muscular development across all planes of the body.

Of course, many recreational lifters and even some pro bodybuilders will have imbalances from neglect or improper form, but I’m referring to bodybuilding at the highest level.

As I stated earlier, the greatest bodybuilders are competing in an inch’s game. That means having a proportionate upper and lower body development, symmetrical limb sizes, and proper development on both the front and back side of the body.

On the flip side, the sport of tennis is not nearly as focused on proper balance within the body.

Yes, there is the infamous external rotator cuff exercise that almost every decent tennis program includes, but I’m referring mostly to symmetrical balance (i.e. the right and left side of the body. Not the front and back side).

Most professional tennis players will make the effort of keeping their antagonist side (the back side) strong in their agonist-muscle-heavy sport because it is directly correlated to power exertion, injury prevention, and health.

However, even at the highest level of tennis, you’ll meet players like Troicki, Nadal, and Serena with massively large hitting arms in proportion to their non-dominant side.

Source: Brett Marlow

This is pretty normal since athletes, in general, don’t focus on the proportion/distribution of muscle as much because they are focused on immediate performance gains which may contribute to muscle imbalance.

The main focus of tennis players is on maintaining health and ultimately, increasing the amount of power they can produce on the tennis court. More specifically, the power that can be produced in key movements like hitting strokes and moving around the court.

I explain the actual muscles being used for each major movement in my post, The Perfect Tennis Body, but basically, this means that tennis players focus on training their prime muscle movers which include the calves, hamstrings, quads, gluteus maximus and medius, core, chest, shoulders, upper back, and arms.

How Available Training Time Affects Training Style

When you look at a tennis player’s hypertrophy phase, they are trying to gain whatever weight they’re trying to get in the span of a 1 or 2-month off-season.

On top of that, tennis players must go through their strength phase and power phase during the off-season.

So basically, while each phase is usually trained for anywhere from 4-8 weeks, tennis players must combine all phases in an 8-week span.

The challenge for personal trainers here is that in advanced trainees, 2 weeks of training a certain ability (whether it’s strength, power, or hypertrophy) is not a long enough time span to produce enough stimuli to cause any real improvements.

So, what is the solution?

Their hypertrophy phase and strength phase will be practically merged together, where in most cases, the intensity increases while the volume decreases in a linear fashion over the course of the few weeks tennis players have to train.

The beauty of this is that the hypertrophy phase is trained in a 6-12 rep range and the strength phase is trained in a 1-5 rep range so the intensity and repetitions can be adjusted from the hypertrophy range to the strength training range seamlessly. Additionally, a tennis player only has a few hours to train in the gym for a few (2-4) days of the week.

So basically, they have a few hours to train in a few days during a few weeks. That’s not a very generous amount of time…

As a result, exercises are programmed in a way that takes the least amount of time to get the most results.

There are two ways to do this:

  1. Decrease to exercise variation because it takes time to learn a movement properly.
  2. Use compound exercises. Compound exercises (multi-joint movements) like the squat, bench press and deadlift are the key staple of every serious lifter’s workout program because the heavier weight being lifted and more muscles being recruited equates to heighten overall muscular development, growth hormone, and testosterone levels.
Moreover, for tennis players, compound exercises are favored over isolated exercises because the former leads to neurological adaptations or prepares the tendons for when the major lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, clean) are performed in the stressful 1-5 rep range during the strength phase.

Under normal circumstances, one could theoretically train in the hypertrophy phase for longer durations along with the use of isolation exercises and then train for the recruitment of those muscles later.

But this is not possible in 1-2 months. Therefore, most tennis players will stick to their traditional compound lifts.

However, many personal trainers in the tennis community completely avoid isolated movements when training for hypertrophy because it’s ‘not functional’.

This is where they could be actually limiting their progress because as a general rule of thumb, almost anything can be used to your benefit if you use it a certain way.

Although it is commonly avoided, isolation exercises can and should be implemented in a player’s training regime.

If your workouts solely consist of compound movements, chances are that some muscles may be ignored, consequently leading to lagging body parts, referred to as sticking points, which can hinder compound lifts and increase your chances of injury.

Furthermore, combining isolated movements to achieve full muscular failure in a specific muscle or group is sometimes necessary for additional hypertrophy adaptations or increased blood flow (necessary for tendon’s health).

Some muscles, like the bicep and rotator cuff, are better grown through isolation exercises because compound movements only target them secondarily and not primarily.

So, before you or your trainer curate the next compilation of complex, full body workouts, just keep in mind the importance of moderated isolation exercise (especially when training a weaker muscle or trying to fix a muscle imbalance).

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, have time on their side. With a longer off-season, bodybuilders block out about 6-8 months for their hypertrophy phase and can spend more days and hours in the gym depending on what type of exercise they are doing. A longer time (and steroids) allows bodybuilders to do their infamous bulking and cutting transformations.

During the off-season, it is a common practice to eat in excess, which inevitably leads to higher body fat percentages, but also helps them maximize muscular hypertrophy.

In addition, if you think of a bodybuilder training, you’re probably imagining a giant performing a bicep curl or leg extension (both of which are isolated movements).

Or you might imagine them lifting a few hundred pounds during a bench-press (which is a compound movement).

Bodybuilders utilize both movement types.

Compound exercises are the primary focus of almost any effective workout routine because it leads to the most increase in overall musculature, HGH, and testosterone levels.

Isolation exercises are supplemented to maximize muscular hypertrophy. These are single-joint based exercises, like bicep curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, and leg extensions.

Isolating a muscle can develop muscles that you could not target in compound exercises (i.e. biceps, rotator cuffs).

You can also train the muscle through its full range of motion to a maximum degree. Furthermore, some bodybuilding methods (which I will describe very soon) are only possible with isolated exercises…

What Can We Learn From Bodybuilders?

First things first, I am not advocating that tennis players should train like bodybuilders. But, there are proven advantages in bodybuilder training that can be applied to tennis-specific hypertrophy training.

There are many methods of training, some of which dance along the line that separates fact from fantasy.

The following training methods are the most representative for increased muscle growth…

    1. Split Routines

    Because you want to maximize hypertrophy for all of your prime muscles movers in tennis you will often fatigue before meeting full potential for growth and recovery.

  1. The solution?
  2. Divide the total volume of work into different muscle groups and sections. For tennis, this could be applied by choosing 4 upper body exercises on day 1 & 4, and 4 lower body exercises on day 2 & 5.
    1. Forced Repetitions

    After concentric failure, have a partner assist by providing sufficient support for you to do 1-2 extra reps. This will increase the set’s duration and thus time under tension.

  1. spotting partner
    1. Rest-Pause
  2. Reach concentric failure in a set, then rest only 10-20 seconds, continue to concentric failure. (Usually 1-3 reps.) Similar to forced reps, this will increase the set’s duration. Since a tennis player’s desired goal is to maximize hypertrophy of fast twitch fibers, increased time under tension is very effective.
    1. Drop Sets

    Reach concentric failure in a set, then quickly lower load by 5-10%, continue to concentric failure. This also increases the set’s duration and hypertrophic stimulation.

    1. Negative Repetitions

    Reach concentric failure in a set, then quickly raise load by 15-20%, perform eccentric contraction until failure. (Requires a partner to assist.)

Focus on Muscle Symmetry As I stated earlier, bodybuilders possess exceptional physique, particularly in size and symmetry. Bodybuilders have a methodical way of training for muscle symmetry.
Athletes don’t focus on the proportion/distribution of muscle because they are focused on immediate performance gains which may lead to muscle imbalance.

And that’s understandable because tennis is a sport that requires asymmetrical movement.

It’s natural for tennis players to have imbalances in their dominant and non-dominant arm.

Studies on junior and pro tennis players have shown differences between muscles of dominant/non-dominant sides, especially in upper limbs.

Considering that during a training session or match, you perform many repetitions of the same motions, it’s no surprise for your serve arm to be stronger, bigger, and more flexible than your off-arm.

Having said that, your goal should be to minimize those imbalances for 2 big reasons:

  • Muscle imbalance in strength, mass, and flexibility may induce injury & limit performance on tennis players. Improper body structure and muscle structure irregularities may lead to injury, joint overloading, and progressive destruction of muscle tissue.
  • It contributes to obtaining optimal balance and coordination in your movement and strokes. Most tennis players’ movements across the court are symmetric. In fact, muscle symmetry is particularly important in player’s who frequently hit high-power shots.

Source: Yann Caradec

Preventing and fixing muscle imbalances could be considered a long-term investment for the health and longevity of your tennis career…

Now that I’ve convinced you (hopefully) of the importance of muscle symmetry, let’s cover the steps bodybuilders take to ensure identify any undeveloped body parts.

  1. Look in the Mirror

The good news is, a lot of you might already be doing this. Bodybuilders frequently check the mirror from various angles to find imbalances in their body.

Is your dominant arm noticeably bigger than your non-dominant arm?

  1. Use a Measuring Tape

The most common way of measuring your limbs and waste is via a measuring tape.

One con in this method is that it may not be the most effective way because it is impossible to measure your circumference to find your exact muscle size.

Nonetheless, it would help take regular body measurements of your main muscles.

  1. Checkpoints of Measurements

Use checkpoints as a general guideline for checking relative symmetry in your body. Set goals for your prime muscle movers in your front/back and agonist/antagonist muscles.

Perform maintenance on flexibility, strength, and size on your imbalanced muscles.

If you’re interested in learning about how bodybuilders prevent and fix their asymmetry as well as about muscle symmetry in tennis, this post will feed your brain.

Focus on Metabolic Stress

One thing bodybuilding techniques do really well is inducing maximal metabolic stress and muscle damage in a muscle.

In a usual scenario, using high repetitions like bodybuilders is advised against because it leads to the development and recruitment of slow-twitch muscle fibers.

However, studies show that blood-flow restriction leads to a hypoxic environment.

This can be achieved either through a constant contraction in the muscle or through external pressure compressing blood vessels, not allowing blood to escape the muscle (adding external pressure is done with 15-30% of one’s 1RM and is usually practiced in rehab programs for athletes).

As you may know from our Ultimate Guide to Hypertrophy, metabolic stress, which is a primary way to induce muscle growth, is often neglected in the training regime among tennis players.

One of the main challenges with maximizing metabolic stress in hypertrophy training for tennis players is the fact that metabolic stress is a result of metabolite accumulation.

This requires the muscle to undergo enough time under tension for the muscle first, undergo anaerobic glycolysis and then accumulate the lactate, phosphate, and hydrogen ions as a result of the glycolysis.

However, maximizing metabolic stress requires some sort of blood restriction because, without it, metabolites would not accumulate in the muscle and instead flow out through blood vessels.

Blood restriction does not allow the proper delivery of oxygen to muscle cells, and therefore a hypoxic (oxygen deprived) environment is created.

This is a positive because a hypoxic environment forces the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Because slow-twitch muscle fibers cannot function without the availability of oxygen. Furthermore, resistance training performed during hypoxia increase hormonal release, ROS production, and cell swelling, which all contribute to muscle growth.

Key Takeaway

There are three main differences in the goals of tennis players and bodybuilders.

A tennis player’s hypertrophy serves to increase power output potential, injury prevention, and prep players for the strength phase. A bodybuilder’s hypertrophy phase serves to increase overall musculature, build maximal muscle mass, and muscular balance/symmetry.

The differences in available time to train cause tennis players and bodybuilders to achieve drastically different results.

What other differences exist between tennis players and bodybuilders that you know about?

Be sure to leave it in the comments below!