What exactly is strength?

During my years of experience training many young athletes, adults, and tennis coaches, I have observed that strength is often confused with other physical characteristics such as muscular endurance, power or even physical size.

Let’s just first establish what strength is. We can define strength as “the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce force against external resistance.  Put more simply, strength is  ‘an ability to exert force’.

In relation to tennis, the amount of force a player can produce by pushing against the ground will have a direct effect on how rapidly he/she can accelerate and decelerate. How quickly and efficiently a player gets to the ball and then recovers depends on strength, which takes precedence over movement.

Let’s look briefly at the mechanisms which decide how strong we are.

  • Strength greatly depends on efficiency of the nervous system. Firstly, this efficiency is heavily dependent on the number of motor units recruited in muscular contraction. For example, the higher the number of motor units involved in a muscle contraction, the greater the force the muscle is able to produce. Secondly,  efficiency of the nervous system is also highly dependent on the speed at which motor units in the muscles are activated. Thirdly, this efficiency depends on the way in which these units synchronize with each other. We can visualize all these three mechanisms working simultaneously through the image of
  • our nervous system as a Christmas Tree decorated with lights. Efficient use of your motor units through the three ways we’ve discussed is similar to allowing all the tree lights to switch on simultaneously with powerful bright light.
  • Strength is also affected by muscle type (people with more fast twitch muscle fibres tend to be naturally stronger than those who have more slow twitch muscle fibres who are better at endurance tasks) and to a certain degree, muscularity. Efficiency of motor units within the nervous system is the most important factor when it comes to strength amongst children and adolescents who are not fully physically developed. It is not the size of the their muscles, but their neuromuscular efficiency, which allows them to produce more force when needed. Moreover, while muscularity might be important in certain sports, in tennis, we want players to be agile and quick, so in fact, excessive muscles would be a disadvantage. Just take a look at the physique of most top level tennis players like Federer or Djokovic!

How do we train to gain more strength?

When it comes to strength training we should rely on multi joint, compound exercises which engage the whole body. Some of the most effective exercises include squats, deadlifts as well as Olympic weightlifting. The optimal range of weights training should involve between 3-5 sets, each with 1-5 repetitions and 3-5 minutes of rest between each set. It is important to realize that using your own body weight as resistance is not the most effective way to enhance strength. To improve strength, we need to perform fewer repetitions with greater loads than our own bodies can provide. Conversely, we should avoid bodybuilding routines which rely on a greater number of repetitions to stimulate growth within specific muscle groups. It is important to stress that any strength training should be supervised by a qualified coach and technique should never be compromised.

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