Tennis Forehand WRIST – Lag and Snap Explained
What is the role of the wrist in the modern ATP forehand? How do I achieve the lag position? How relaxed should my wrist be?
The short answer is it depends. Depending on your grip, where you’re trying to hit to, and a bunch of other factors, your wrist will do something different.
Wrist Anatomy 101
To start off, the wrist is a gliding joint which allows the bones to glide past one another in any direction.
The 4 main motions of the wrist are:
- Radial Deviation
- Ulnar Deviation
Then, there are 2 main motions of the forearm:
I’ll be using these terminologies throughout the video to explain the motions of the wrist and forearm. But I want to note that when you’re on the court, your focus shouldn’t be on wrist movements. Your focus should be on how you’re going to get the racket to perform a motion that achieves your desired effect on the ball.
Preparation & Backswing
Conscious Function: Stays Relaxed
When it comes to the wrist, the backswing is usually ignored and all the focus is on the “lag and snap” or the windshield wiper motion. We’ll explain the wrist in the forward swing and follow through too, but first, I feel like it’s necessary to go over the right preparation.
In the backswing phase of the forehand there are 2 vital things to keep in mind for the wrist:
1. The wrist is relaxed
This means that you have just enough grip tension required for you to keep your racket in your hand, without actively manipulating the racket with your forearm muscles. If the wrist isn’t relaxed at the start of the backswing, it most likely won’t be relaxed in later stages of the forehand. This will hinder your ability to achieve proper positions later in the swing and hitting with a tense forearm over a long period of time can lead to overuse injury. Trust me, I’ve been there.
2. The wrist must be in the proper position
In the start of the forward swing, the wrist is supposed to act as a hinge and rotate backward as a result of the racket’s centrifugal force combining with the hip and trunk rotation and the hand pulling forward.
To do this, the wrist must be in the proper position. Some coaches like to tell players to keep the racket tip above the hand as a checkpoint but I feel that this might be too broad of a statement since, on lower balls, the racket head and hand can reach the same level. So, I prefer to focus on the positioning of the wrist instead – the wrist positioning at the end of your backswing should be the same position that it was it when you completed your unit turn.
One key here is to use your non-hitting arm to keep the hitting arm wrist stable until it releases off the racket.
Conscious Function: Stays Relaxed
During the start of the forward swing, the wrist will rotate and extend backward into the glorified wrist lag position.
Again, the primary role of the wrist and forearm in the acceleration phase is to stay relaxed. Except here, the wrist will not remain static, and there will be more or less extension, ulnar deviation, and supination in this phase. This will pretty much depend on factors like your grip, backswing shape, the amount of rotational force you used.
If the forearm is tense here, you will hinder your racket head acceleration and you might injure your forearm and wrist.
And FYI, I’m guilty of this habit from time to time.
Here is the step by step process of what gets the wrist and forearm to extend and rotate back:
The forward swing is initiated by the hip and trunk rotation forward.
Depending on the player, there can be some external shoulder rotation occurring in the hitting arm and for most elite forehands, there will be horizontal adduction
Rick Macci refers to this motion as the hand pulling forward and to a degree, away from the body.
I’ve sort of modified this motion to hopefully give you a better feel for the motion.
Try to think of it as pulling your elbow toward the ball and your wrist just doing its thing.
If your wrist is in proper position and you performed a proper ATP backswing where your hitting arm hand stays on the hitting arm side of your body, and your forearm muscles are relaxed, the wrist should naturally rotate back due to the weight of your racket head.
Just because the role of the forearm here is to simply relax doesn’t make it easy though. If you hit a traditional forehand with a firm wrist and are looking to switch, having a loose grip before contact will take work to retrain.
If you have a problem like I did, I recommend that you start with an exaggeratedly loose arm without the ball and gradually increase in arm stability.
Try not let go of the racket though. Bad things can happen. Pretty bad things.
Like I stated earlier though, the wrist lag is extremely varying among different players according to their backswing shape, whether they have a bent or straight arm, their grip, and how much force their putting behind the shot.
Generally speaking, the more Eastern your grip is, the more wrist extension or lag you’ll have in your forehand
If you are using some version of the semi-western grip, the angle of your maximum extension will get smaller and smaller. This is most logically because your palm will no longer be directly behind the racket.
If you have a full western grip like Jack Sock or anything past that, your palm will be all the way under the handle, so you will have no extension in the wrist. But the lag position is still attained with this grip because of the forearm supination.
Forward Force Input
Also, depending on the shot and how much force you need to put behind the shot, you’ll have more or less wrist extension.
If the ball is short or have little time, you’ll probably not be producing as much force as would when the ball is above your shoulder.
Transition Point/Contact & Follow Through
By the time you reach the contact zone, the hand and arm have accelerated the point where you can’t observe it with the naked eye.[DC33]
Combine that with the extreme variety of forehands on the tour, and you have recipe for what is probably the most misunderstood and debated subject in the tennis forehand.[DC34]
This phase of the forward swing is what Brian Gordon coined the transition point. It’s where the wrist is in the full lag position and the racquet switches from the linear forward trajectory to a rotational trajectory.
Now, I’m gonna cover scenarios where the wrist and forearm are relaxed, then I’ll go into some scenarios where the forearm muscles are actively performing a motion instead of just being relaxed.
There are a lot of coaches and players who believe that deliberately snapping or flexing the wrist and pronating the forearm is one of the keys to power. This claim is based on the fact that elite forehanders like Federer will sometimes go from their 90-degree full wrist extension to about 45 degrees in the wrist on contact. There is also the apparent pronation occurring at the forearm. For players with a semi-western grip it’s even more visible because their release tends to happen earlier and to a greater extent.
The problem with the idea of deliberately making this happen though is that the moment from where you should be starting this release to the moment you make contact there are only a few milliseconds that should pass. And if you’re trying to time the flexion in this small-time frame, your forehand will be inconsistent, unless you’re the Flash.
So instead of this, the wrist should be relaxed and released by the force of the racket head. The racket is turned over by something called inertial force – remember how in the start of the forward swing, the hand moves slightly away from the body? This is because the arm is rotating around the shoulder joint. Right before contact, the hand reaches its furthest point away from the body and actually begins to come back in toward the body. This causes the racket’s momentum to pronate the forearm. This pronation is undoubtedly a major source of racket head speed and topspin, but the way to tap into this power source isn’t to actively pronate the wrist.
Along with this, you’ll still have some degree of forward momentum. The racket’s forward momentum should be responsible for causing any flexion in the wrist.
Speaking of the wrist flexion at contact, I want to try to solve common problem that I see in a lot of players who lack topspin. If this sounds like you, I recommend that you record yourself to see if on contact, your wrist is flexing excessively in relation to the forearm pronation and follow through. If you have this problem and have been told to fix it by restraining your release, follow these steps:
If your wrist and forearm are relaxed, put your focus away from this part of the arm.
As I said earlier, the racket’s forward momentum is what is responsible for the wrist’s flexion. So, the less forward momentum you have and the more rotational or vertical force is exerted on the racket, the less and later you will flex the wrist.
Depending on the shot, the rotational force should come mostly from bending the elbow, shoulder flexion, or internal shoulder rotation.
Base on the situation, you will have more or less of these elements, which is what makes the wrist’s movement so diverse. But as a general rule of thumb, if you find yourself slapping through the balls and wanting more topspin, start by fixing your swing path, not your wrist movement.
I personally suffered from this problem and I talk about how I fixed it in my TopspinPro review video. By retraining my swing path, the movement of my wrist and also my follow through were also corrected.
That said, while preventing the wrist flexion is not a means to fixing your snapping problem, there are circumstances where elite players like Federer will resist the forward wrist flexion. More specifically, when they are hitting down the line or inside out, they will actively resist the racket’s forward momentum, in order to angle the racket face toward their desired target.
This is more research according Brian Gordon – what his findings means is that the role of the wrist, or at least the flexion and extension movement is not essential in building racket head speed but instead is used control the direction of the ball.
So, so far, the forearm supination and pronation play the role of allowing the racket the necessary rotational force to create topspin. And now we know that the wrist flexion and extension control can control the direction of the shot.
Active Radial Deviation
Now I want to talk about the role of ulnar and radial deviation in the forehand forward swing. The ulnar and radial deviation of the wrist are not usually talked about, and it’s probably because players don’t usually have problems here if their wrist is relaxed. Usually, there is some degree of ulnar deviation in the wrist in the lag position and then it will straighten out into a neutral position in the follow through.
But there are 2 circumstances where the wrist will actively do a radial deviation in order to get more spin on the ball.
The first scenario is where you’re on the run, the ball is at waist height or lower, and you trying to get side spin on the ball. Nadal is famous for this shot and its most commonly called the banana shot. In this shot, Nadal will actively and viciously brush up the side and back of the ball, and in order to do this, he must change up his forward swing by adding in the wrist’s radial deviation. This is why the shot is considered advanced – you have to be able to execute your regular stroke but add in a completely new element in the wrist while hitting on the run
The second scenario is less glamorous but is for getting out of bad situations when the ball is at your feet. If the ball is too close to you, you will be forced to make contact in a zone where you can’t utilize the internal shoulder rotation as much for topspin. So, in order to pick the ball up, they will use their wrist’s radial deviation to brush up the back of the ball.
Control Factors of Wrist Movement
The more extreme the grip, the more total internal rotation –
Generally, the more extreme the grip, the earlier and greater the wrist release. And the more conservative grips closer the Eastern grip will have more wrist extension during the lag phase.
For those with a full western grip or anything further, the palm would be completely under the handle – as a result, there would be not extension or flexion of the wrist, only supination and pronation of the forearm.
The more topspin, the more required ISR. The more ISR, the more vertical the swing path and racket’s momentum. The more vertical the racket’s momentum, the later and less wrist release.
For angles or short balls, there is typically less wrist release
For flattening out high balls or driving the ball deep, there is typically more wrist release
Correct Wrist Function
The wrist release is caused by forces generated by the swing – virtually unavoidable if forearm is relaxed.
Wrist movement is a consequence not a cause of motion – i.e. no conscious contraction from the player. The lag is not a result of conscious muscle manipulation in the forearm, but rather a result of proper hitting arm and racket positioning at the start of the forward swing plus the forward force from the trunk and hip rotation and horizontal shoulder abduction.
The proper function of the wrist and forearm are one of the key factors in a heavy topspin forehand – more so the function of the forearm, where it supinates and pronates. Most players who suffer from a lack of topspin have stiffness in their upper arm, forearm, or at the wrist joint.
Wrist Function in ATP Forehand
If the wrist is relaxed at the top of the backswing, it will naturally lag as the racket moves down while the hitting arm externally rotates and the hand pulls forward toward the ball.
If the wrist is relaxed at the top of the backswing, the racket will move down as the arm straightens, and at the start of the forward swing, the wrist will lag (wrist extension & forearm supination) due to the external shoulder rotation and hand pulling forward toward the ball. Depending on the shot, your force output, and grip, there will be more or less wrist extension and forearm supination.
Sometimes the racket will accelerate forward to contact, causing the wrist angle to decrease slightly
This should be a passive movement. As a hinge, the wrist will naturally flex and pronate due to the force of the racket head.
Wrist position varies from 45-90 degrees depending on the stroke
Depending on the ball, the wrist is pushed back and more laid back after contact than before. Wrist and arm remain relaxed, with minimum grip pressure required to control/hold the racquet.
Position remains the same until long after contact – the bent wrist position allows the palm to drive the racket head upward and outward through the shot.
Depending on the shot, particularly when hitting inside out or down the line, players actively try to reduce or eliminate wrist flexion upon contact.
During play, your focus shouldn’t be on actively restraining the wrist to a specific degree, but rather lining the racket face up to your intended target – then the wrist will flex less to the right degree.
Internal shoulder rotation of hitting arm continues after hit, driving natural release of the wrist – which happens many milliseconds after the ball leaves the strings – light years delayed in ratio to other movements of the forehand
Film about a dozen of your forehand with a camcorder with at least _ fps. See how your wrist position is in relation to the pros. If it is off, focus on the cause – the racket’s momentum or the arm’s swing path. By focusing tweaking your ISR, shoulder rotation, and hitting arm position, your wrist will naturally perform the correct motion.
Rick Macci calls this motion the flip and teaches his students to pull and roll the hand for the forward swing. But I was pondering that this might encourage active wrist manipulation. So I was wondering if maybe a better explanation of the hitting arm’s movement in the forward swing would be to say pull and role the elbow, since this would facilitate the correct horizontal shoulder abduction and ISR, while keeping the focus away from the wrist and hands.]
Grip Tension Test
Here’s an exercise by John Craig from Performance Plus Tennis that can help you find the optimal grip tension.
First, hold your racket up right in your hitting hand
Now, try to feel the weight of the racket head
If you can’t feel it, that means you’re gripping to tightly
Gradually loosen your grip until you find the medium between where you can feel the weight of the racket head but also keep your racket upright
I want to note that different circumstances will call for different grip and forearm tension levels so the purpose of this exercise is just to get an understanding of what it means to be relaxed.
This next one here is a more modified drill to an existing exercise.
To start, hold your racket out from your body with just your fingers.
Rotate your hips and trunk lightly from side to front.
If you are doing this properly, your racket should be performing a figure 8 motion like this
After a few repetitions, hold the racket in your forehand grip and do the same motion.
Now I want you to focus on the relaxed and free motion that you are allowing your wrist joint to move in.
This is how the motion should be in the actual stroke.
Once you really feel comfortable with this, it’s time for the last progression.
Step into a neutral stance and hit a closed stance forehand doing the motion you just ingrained.
Once you follow-through, pivot back into a closed stance like this and repeat the motion.
This is basically incorporating the final elements of the stroke, including the legs, off-arm, etc.